President Buhari and Saraki...it is time to work as a team

Events of the last few days have exposed a failing executive, legislative relationship and the signs are foreboding for the ruling All Progressives Congress. Damilola Oyedele writes

Last week was particularly an interesting one in the Senate. From the appearance of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the internal ethics committee, to the refusal by the lawmakers to screen and confirm 27  persons nominated as Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), with a similar delay likely to be extended to the two ministerial nominees to fill the Kogi and Gombe slots in the cabinet, and the suspension of the former Majority Senate Leader, Senator Ali Ndume, for six months, the senate was definitely a beehive of activities.

But how much impact this is set to have on the polity, institutions of government and the social democratic agenda of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is yet to be seen as events continue to unfold in the days ahead.  

 

A Failing Partnership

In the last three weeks, the relationship between the Executive and Senate has degenerated to a new low, worsened by the new disposition of the legislature to many of President Muhammadu Buhari’s appointees. 

First, it was the aloof-looking Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd) and his retrospective and rather oppressive vehicle customs duty verification policy, which generated public opprobrium. In a dismissive approach, the agency had issued deadlines and guidelines for the policy, following the directive by the Senate that it be suspended for consultations.

This led the Senate to summon Ali to appear in the agency uniform, and the drama that followed compelled the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, to advise the Senate to stay action on the issue, as the matter had been taken to Court. The Senate accused the AGF of interference, citing the doctrine of separation of powers, which forbids an arm of government from interfering in the works of another. 

It is worthy of mention that while the policy has been suspended by the service, it is yet to be cancelled, outright. 

Next was the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir David Lawal, who also preferred to go to Court, rather than honour an invitation extended to him by the ad hoc committee investigating the mounting humanitarian crises in the North East, for fair hearing over his management of the funds of the Presidential Initiative on North East (PINE). Curiously though, Lawal and the committee have chosen to remain mum on the court process, when he sent another letter requesting for a new date to appear before the committee. 

Following this was the rejection of the nomination of Magu by the Senate, for a record second time based on his indictment by a report from the Department of State Services (DSS) for alleged criminal and unprofessional conduct. This, of course, had led to allegations by the Senate of a push back by Magu. The lawmakers believed Magu may have been emboldened by President Buhari’s seeming indifference on the matter.

Another presidential appointee, Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay, joined the fray, when he said Magu could continue in acting capacity, as the Senate ‘merely’ confirms. The senate has since asked him to appear before it, an order Sagay has vowed not to honour, forgetting that he is no longer a private citizen but an agent of the state, answerable to institutions of the state.

 

Politics of the RECs Confirmation

The lawmakers, on Tuesday, banking on the no interference demeanor of Buhari, especially on the issue of Magu and Sagay, voted to defer the commencement of the processes for the consideration and confirmation of the 27 nominees for Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), forwarded by the president.

The presidency, in a letter to Senate President Saraki, dated February 27, 2017 and signed by then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, requested for the screening and subsequent confirmation of the RECs, eight of whom are for reappointments.

But this has been deferred for two weeks to allow the Senate President convey the feelings of the lawmakers to the president. Their grouse was that since the rejection of executive nominees by the Senate did not appear to stop them from continuing in acting capacity, there may be no point screening any nominees, going forward.

Senator Peter Nwaoboshi (Delta North) set the pace for the debate, when he recalled that the Senate recently dealt with the issue of confirmation, but the rejection of the nominee was dismissed by Sagay, who said the Senate merely confirms. He lamented that such misleading statements implying that the legislature had no powers came from a Professor of Law, who had lectured constitutional law at the university, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Chairman of such an important body.

“Here are we again today, now being given a list to confirm and we merely confirm. Eight of them, out of 27 are for reappointment which means they are acting already; they are already working and they are still in position. Prof. Sagay will start again citing Section 171, subsection d of the constitution even if we do not confirm them, he would say continue to fight. 

“But when you denigrate such an institution that has the power to confirm, and used the word ‘merely’, we could have ignored it but for somebody of that status. My position on this matter is that since our confirmation is ‘merely’, let us suspend it until we now know whether we have the power, as given to us by the constitution, to look into confirmation matters or any other status,” Nwaoboshi argued.  

Senator Francis Alimikhena (Edo North) accused the acting EFCC boss of being behind the negative reports against the Senate in the media, as payback for his non-confirmation. 

“Among the reports that are agog in the papers, he is behind it. Magu is terrorising us because we disqualified him and we cannot hide it. We disqualified Magu and he is terrorising our people because we disqualified him, and he is still acting and they are still bringing in nominees for us to confirm. If they know they can do it alone, let them do it,” Alimikhen said. 

Most of the lawmakers argued and insisted that the consideration be adjourned sine die. But Saraki, the Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu and Deputy Senate Leader, Ibn Bala N’Allah persuaded their colleagues and reached a consensus for two weeks suspension.

Before plenary on Tuesday, the lawmakers, at a closed door session had deliberated on the matter, which they considered a slight, and had resolved to take action. Saraki too said they have resolved to defend the integrity of the legislature, against ‘attacks’ and would do nothing to the contrary.

“The Senate in a closed session reflected on the various attacks on the National Assembly, especially on the Senate, for performing its constitutional duties. And the Senate resolved to defend the integrity of the Senate against such attacks and will not be intimidated from carrying out our constitutional duties at all times,” he said.  

Extending the Sanctions

Less than 24 hours after the Senate deferred the screening processes of the 27 RECs, the president sent in the names of two nominees to replace the slots for Kogi and Gombe States in the cabinet. 

Prof. Steven Ikani Ocheni from Kogi State is intended to replace Mr. James Ocholi, who died in a car accident with his wife and son in March, 2016, on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, while Mr. Suleiman Zarma Hassan from Gombe State, would replace Mrs. Amina Mohammed, who resigned from the cabinet in January this year, to take up an appointment as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.

By Thursday, the president again sent in three nominations to replace some of the initial nominees rejected to serve on the board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). The nominees are Mr. Lucky Orimiso (Ondo), Mr. Chuka Anwawa (Imo) and Mr. Nwogu Nwogu (Abia). THISDAY however has it on good authority that the consideration of all executive requests would be suspended just as the RECs until the matter of Magu is sorted out.

 

Wielding the Big Stick

Irked by some of the unsavoury developments, the Senate during the week, further wielded the big stick and suspended its former Majority Leader, Senator Ali Mohammed Ndume, from Borno South, for a period of six months, for his failure to conduct due diligence before filing what it described as a frivolous petition against Senate President Saraki and Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West), thus dragging the institution of the Senate into disrepute. This was after it adopted the recommendations of the report of the Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions.

Ndume had last week raised a point of order, noting that the integrity of the Senate was being questioned following reports that the lawmakers were on a vengeance mission against Ali due to the seizure of a bullet proof Range Rover Sport Utility Vehicle ( SUV) allegedly owned by Saraki. 

Ndume also cited reports which claimed that Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West) does not have a first degree from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), and urged the Senate to investigate the allegations.

To prove his innocence, the Senate President appeared before the committee to defend himself. 

The car importer, Mr. Tokunbo Akindele, and the dealer, Mr. Olanrewaju Shittu, had explained the circumstances of how the car was imported by Oando Nigeria PLC, and later sold to the National Assembly, absolving Saraki of any involvement.

The Vice Chancellor of ABU, Prof. Ibrahim Garba, also appeared before the committee and confirmed that Melaye graduated from the institution with a third class degree from the Department of Geography, in the third semester of 1998/99 session. 

Ndume, however, emphasised that he did not petition the committee, but had simply raised an order of privilege, which is normal in the circumstances, to draw attention to the allegations in order to ensure that the integrity of the Senate is protected.

“I did not know the issue would generate interest like this. They said Dino does not have a certificate, he should show the certificate, simple. It is not personal. As a leader, if there is anything that affects the Senate, we should raise it. The whole public is saying Dino does not have certificate, and now it clears public perception,” he said.

His defence did not stifle the committee from recommending his suspension, for 181 legislative days, until it was reduced after intervention by some senators. It was gathered that while the new senators wanted a one-year suspension, the old senators pleaded on his behalf before it was brought down to six months.

“That having failed to cross-check facts before presentation at plenary he could not be said to be a patriotic representative of the Senate, and should be penalised to serve as deterrent to others. 

That the Senate do suspend Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume for bringing Senator Dino Melaye, his colleague, and the institution of the Senate to unbearable disrepute at this time of our national life when caution, patriotism, careful consideration and due diligence should be our watchwords,” the committee said.

Senator Nwaoboshi proffered more explanations into why such a severe sanction was meted out to the former leader, whom he accused of impinging the Senate on several occasions. He disclosed that as Senate Leader, Ndume had prevailed on the lawmakers to send Magu ‘back to the president’ after the report of the Department of State Services was read, without screening. 

“I want to make this point that Senator Ndume is not just a first offender, we took a decision on the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), but he went outside and maligned the Senate. We took the first decision on Magu, when we came here in our executive session and I want the records to be put straight. When the report of the DSS was read, he rose here and started begging all of us, that please we should send Magu back to the president for the president to take a decision on him.

“He was begging everybody here and out of respect for him as a leader at that time, this Senate obliged him. After that, he went out to malign the Senate, but he did not tell the public that he was the person, who begged us, and he even went further and said we should invite him (Magu) and tell him why we could not. He is moving as a saint,” Nwaoboshi added.

 

Going Forward

The news that the president had set up a committee to mediate and resolve the face-off between the two arms of government is generally seen as a step in the right direction, especially when the import of such a hostile rivalry is not lost on anyone.

Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, has also assured that the impasse would be resolved. 

“We appreciate the Senate; we do not quarrel with them. We have listened to them, we have taken the points they have made and we will always listen to them and work with them because they are an arm of government. They are an institution, they are not a parastatal; we respect that. So, I will be communicating that.

“The REC nominees reported for normal documentation and we are glad that the Senate did not reject that. They simply deferred it and we respect them, we appreciate them because this is the best thing they can do. This is good for us because they did not reject, they simply said ‘we are deferring the consideration’. We will not allow anything that causes heat between the executive and the legislature,” Enang added. 

 While some conflicts between the two arms of government can help to provide checks and balances to a certain degree, a sustained and reoccurring one would only be to the detriment of national development. 

The impression that the senate is the problem must be jettisoned because the institution is a critical one and must not be denigrated on the altar of politics or a platform to settle personal scores.  It is therefore hoped that the impasse would be resolved soon and allowed to pave the way for the kind of synergy needed for sustainable growth and development.