Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja
A new page may have been opened in senate-executive relations after months of poor engagements following the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Senate leadership. For the third time in one week, President Muhammadu Buhari met with the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, a clear departure from what obtained in the past 18 months when he reportedly declined at several times to personally engage the Senate President or the senate leadership on issues of governance.
Saraki had emerged Senate President after defeating his party, All Progressives Congress’ preferred candidate, Sen. Ahmed Lawan. His party was further irked by the emergence of Senator Ike Ekweremadu, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senator, as his deputy.
Since their emergence on June 9, 2015, there had been limited engagements between President Buhari and Saraki and the senate leadership – a development that has had significant impacts on senate’s approval of presidential requests.
In the immediate past administration, the presidency was well aware that the National Assembly, particularly the Senate, needed to be properly engaged because a number of government activities such as confirmation of appointments must secure the nod of senators. But President Buhari, because of the intra-party dispute that trailed the election of the Senate leadership and partly because of the fact that he had all of his early requests granted by the Senate, took such engagement with a pinch of salt,.
Analysts believe that the erroneous assumption that the executive and the senate could carry on with their constitutional duties without serious engagement may have been fueled by Senate’s decision to clear the list of all the ministerial nominees sent to it by the president in October last year without any serious engagement with the senators.
Even in spite of the opposition from the PDP senators to the confirmation of former Governor of Rivers State, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, the APC senators still maximised the opportunity of their slim majority to outwit their PDP counterparts and ensured that Ameachi was confirmed.
Besides, Saraki also used his power of the gavel to overturn senators’ voice vote against the confirmation of Alhaji Lai Mohammed at the time as it was obvious that majority of the senators voted against his confirmation as minister. This, analysts believed might have given the president the impression that he could always have his way on any request sent to the Senate.
However, the recent rejection of the request for $29.9billion external borrowing plan was said to have jolted the president as the senators were believed to have used the rejection as a strong message that it would no longer be business as usual. Immediately after the external borrowing plan was thrown out, another presidential request for the confirmation of ambassadorial nominees would have suffered similar fate had Saraki not overturned his colleagues’ rejection by awarding the votes to the ‘ayes’.
Besides, senators have also failed to consider the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) sent to them since September 30 by the president. Instead of considering the document whose approval can pave the way for the presentation of 2017 budget, the Senate last week returned the document to Buhari, describing it as watery, shallow, empty and could not be legislated upon.
This declaration came two days after the Senate rejected the external borrowing plan as it lashed out at the executive, saying the MTEF and FSP presented to it conveyed no message, hence, could not be legislated upon.
According to the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, the degree of the document’s emptiness and inherent flaws was so unmanageable, thus prompting his decision to write a letter to the minister, pointing out the flaws and asking him to upgrade the document.
Also, despite the screening of career diplomats since July by its committee, the Senate has not confirmed them. In the same vein, despite Saraki referring the screening of the second list of ambassadorial nominees to the Committee on Foreign Affairs since November 1, it has yet to contact the nominees for screening.
These delays and rejections, may have prompted President Buhari to change strategy and properly engage Saraki and the Senate leadership on these issues. Both leaders have met three times behind closed door at the Aso Rock Villa within one week. Buhari had first met the Senate president on November 4 after Jumat prayer in Aso Rock. Five days after, he met him again after the president had met with the South-east Caucus in the Senate led by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu – a PDP senator.
Buhari and Saraki had a private meeting again last Friday at the Aso Rock Villa.
That met Ekweremadu whose emergence as deputy senate president he publicly deplored, further showed that a new chapter had been opened in Senate –Executive relations.
Although sources said the meeting with Ekweremadu and his team was at the instance of the South-east senators to appeal to the president for the release of the leader of Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, and also express their displeasure over alleged marginalisation of the South-east in political appointments, the fact that the President obliged to such meeting led by Senator Ekweremadu was viewed as part of the change of strategy.