How Far Can Buhari’s Charm Offensive Go?

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Will the recent rapprochement between the Executive and the Legislature as brokered by President Muhammadu Buhari change the tide of discontents between the two arms of government? Damilola  Oyedele asks

The conflict between the Executive and Legislature dates back to the beginning of the eighth National Assembly, where Senator Bukola Saraki had gone against the wish of the leadership in the All Progressives Congress (APC) to emerge the President of the Senate. Perhaps his cardinal sin was the alleged negotiations with the Senators of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to give them the Deputy Senate Presidency slot, leading to the emergence of Senator Ike Ekweremadu.

Following this perceived slight, Saraki has remained in the bad books of a certain section of the leadership of the party, which also forced the presidency to read the equation its own way, thus compounding the political reading around Saraki. But the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, had pulled off a similar coup, wriggled his way into the good books of the president and other leaders of the party, by conceding early to their whims. Saraki remained on the other side. 

Worsened by the trial of Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, and other persecutions, the Senators were miffed that they were being punished for choosing their own leaders in a democratic government, rather than allow a party to foist leaders on them. The acrimony resulted in the Executive and Senate regarding each other as opposition. For a while, Saraki became personae non grata at the presidential villa, an unusual development even in the nation’s democracy.

President’s Buhari’s ‘body language’  with the Senate and its leadership is also believed to have emboldened his appointees to be quick to throw verbal jibes at the Senate or dismiss its summons, as they seemed to be trying to outdo each other in the quest.

From the ministers, who shunned invitations from Senate Committees, to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, who said the Senators were speaking ‘balderdash’ after a report of an investigation indicted him for fraud, the no-love-lost between them had festered considerably but not irreconcilably.

The relations however descended to an all-time low in recent times following the disrespectful disposition of the Customs Comptroller General, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), to a simple resolution that he should appear before the Senate in uniform over his retrospective policy on vehicle customs duties payment.

He had first gone on television to grandstand on how the senators’ business should be whether he was doing his job well, rather than compel him to wear uniform. He also wrote to the Senators indicating that he would be unable to honor their summons until he was prevailed on by the presidency to oblige. He however failed to appear in uniform, at plenary, citing a suit filed in court to determine whether any law requires him to wear uniform. 

The Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, who at several times had shunned summons of both the Senate and the House, had joined the fray when he ‘advised’ the Senate to stay action on the matter, leading the lawmakers to accusing him of interfering in their duties, in contravention of the doctrine of separation of powers. 

President Buhari’s inaction on the matters of the acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu, following the refusal by the Senate to confirm him as substantive Chairman, also contributed to the face-off.

Unfortunately, some other appointees of Buhari, like the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay criticised the Senators for the rejection, discounting the fact that Magu was rejected based on an indictment by the Department of State Services (DSS) domiciled in the same presidency. 

The Senate further reacted to sheer disrespect for the institution by deferring action on the consideration of 27 nominees by Buhari as Resident Electoral Commissioners, and two other ministerial replacements until it receives clarity on its powers to confirm, following the president’s inaction on Magu.

Sagay, however, worsened the face-off when he described the Senators as “childish, irresponsible and people with questionable characters”. He again said the Senators have no powers to summon him over the verbal assaults even though he is an appointee of the government, whose office spends appropriated funds belonging to the Nigerian people. 

 

Is Detente in the offing?

Even though President Buhari has never publicly cautioned his appointees to desist from insulting the Senate or any other arm of government, he has appointed Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to head a reconciliatory committee to smoothen relations between the warring parties. It remains unclear what exactly the terms of reference of the committee are, but THISDAY gathered that it held a meeting last Wednesday night. 

The senate welcomed the development and pledged to work with the committee to sort out all grey areas. The party, the APC, also waded into the matter, and held a meeting, which turned out to be explosive, with its Senate caucus.

At the meeting, which was the first ever between the National Working Committee (NWC) headed by the party Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, and the caucus, where the Senators bared their minds on the wrongful treatment of the legislature by the Buhari government. The APC also issued a statement, through its spokesman, Mr. Bolaji Abdullahi, cautioning all parties against inciting statements capable of truncating the peace process. 

 

The Lawmakers Speak

Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, responding to questions from THISDAY, said the face-off should not be considered as crises in the sense of the word. He added that there is no genuine democracy in any part of the world, without disagreements, and attributed the issues to lack of communication between the Executive and the Senate and by extension, the National Assembly. 

“I think it is more of a communication gap. In previous administrations, the presidency and the leadership of the National Assembly met fortnightly to rub minds together. It enabled them to share perspectives on where the administration was headed and to iron out any issues. But when people decide to just do their things, there could be confusion and lack of cohesion,” he said. 

Ekweremadu also harped on the need for adequate consultations before certain steps and decisions are taken. 

“As Bowles put it and it is often used in the United States, the Presidency’s single most important political relationship is that with the Congress. We know that the key to any healthy relationship is communication. In fact, the more consultations, the better. It doesn’t make the presidency or the legislature less important. It rather builds the needed mutual trust and respect, which culminates in smooth and good governance,” he added.

The Deputy Senate President said the decision to appoint Osinbajo to head the reconciliation committee was a good one, as the vice-president is a highly experienced, respected and fine gentleman with humble dispositions, who would succeed once there is sincerity of purpose. 

“So, for me, going forward, true and sincere executive-legislature harmony means more communication, more consultation, more consensus-building, mutual respect, and very importantly, constitutionality and deep respect for the rule of law. Every arm of government has constitutional roles carved out for it.

“If any encroaches on or disrespects the other, then there could be problems and unnecessary heating up of the polity. Imagine a situation, where legislative aides and committee Clerks begin to call the President, vice-president, ministers, and other presidential appointees names? It won’t look nice.

 “If democracy is such that the executive must have its way, then there would have been no need for the legislature to create checks and balance. The Constitution would not also have subjected some of its decisions to legislative approval. There would also have been no need for the judiciary to interpret the actions of the executive in the eyes of the law. But, both arms are there because no one man or institution is so good that it should be entrusted with unlimited powers,” Ekweremadu added. 

Senator Wakili Ali (Bauchi South) of the APC said the face-off should be considered as a means to strengthen democracy, entrenching the rule of law, and the principle of separation of powers.

“Yes, the vice-president can play a great role in bringing about understanding between the various arms of government. His level headedness, his intellect, his suave, and non-indulgence into controversies as a Senior Advocate, unlike others, are great assets that place him in a position to see how all sides are placated,” he said in an interview. 

He however cautioned that the APC must be proactive ahead of 2019 to strengthen its chances of remaining in power. 

“The APC must be proactive so as to ensure that the fallout of the emergence of the VP as the running mate, resistance of some prominent members of the party against Muslim-Muslim ticket in 2015, and possible permutations for 2019, do not become its albatross,” Wakili added. 

He stated that there would be sincere truce when both sides commit to the principles of the separation of powers, when appointees stop grandstanding, making nasty comments, spreading insurrection and campaigns of calumny, inciting the public and demonising other arms of government. These, he said, would lead to continuous engagement, greater understanding, and ensure that possible areas of friction are nipped in the bud.

Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe (Abia South) of the PDP, also spoke with THISDAY and said while the relationship between the executive and the legislature is supposed to be adversarial, it should not be hateful or confrontational

“I think the best way is what is happening now, where each side comes to the realisation that they do not have the absolute powers to subdue each other. Once that is accepted, then, it would be possible for the Osinbajo committee to do the difficult task of bringing everybody together to work in the interest of the public. Once there is sincerity of purpose in the effort to make peace, they should be able to broker peace,” he said.

He attributed the friction between the two bodies to the leadership challenge at the inauguration of the assembly.

“I also feel that with time, they have also gotten to understand that sometimes in politics, you don’t win, what you want to win, you have to live with the consequences of decisions that other people make. I think they are coming to that understanding now, and that is why we are seeing these efforts.

“In any case, we have also come to the middle of the tenure, and therefore you must be able to provide to Nigerians, evidence that promises you made coming into office, you have been able to deliver on them. In an effort to want to deliver, they have to put away distractions,” he said. 

According to him, true harmony would translate to a better working relationship between the Executive and the Senate, less attack on the legislature from the employees of the President, and a softening of the hard stance that the legislature is taking against the Executive. It would also translate to quicker passage of bills and other matters that are brought to the attention of the Senate from the Executive, he added. 

An APC Senator, who preferred to speak off-the-record, said the choice of Osinbajo to broker truce could be considered an indication of some sincerity.

“In this government, it has become obvious that when the President is serious about resolving an issue, he puts the vice-president in charge. Look at the manner we were able to reduce militancy in the Niger Delta. Osinbajo went round the states, despite security reports that had kept the president away from there.

“He engaged the stakeholders, and his language was precise and clear: ‘You have our ears, tell us exactly what you want, what the issues are. We are willing to soothe the pains, but you have to stop the militancy, and give us a chance.’ That was his message, loud and clear. So in putting Osinbajo in charge, we expect the discussions to go smoothly, and possible have some truce, pursue harmonious relationship in the interest of Nigeria,” he said. 

The Senate has indicated that it was open to a rapprochement. It is however incumbent on both parties to ensure that they are able to work out a harmonious relationship in the interest of Nigeria and its citizenry.