A Lawmaker’s 10-Year Odyssey as Presiding Officer

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Uche Anichukwu

“I, Senator Ike Lawrence Ekweremadu, do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria…”, the voice of the Senator representing Enugu West Senatorial District reverberated in the hallowed Chambers of the Senate in the early afternoon of June 6, 2007. The Senator, who was first elected into the Senate in 2003 being led in Oath of Office by the former Clerk to the National Assembly (CNA), Alhaji Ibrahim Arab, after his emergence as the Deputy President of the Sixth Senate.

Nominations opened at about 11:05am. Upon enquiry by Senator Nuhu Aliyu, the CNA clarified that ranking rule and Senate Standing Rule 2003 were in the past, thus clearing the way for Senator George Akume and setting the stage for an epic battle for the coveted position of the Senate President. Although it was a battle of two brothers, Senator Akume (PDP, Benue North West) and Senator David Mark (PDP, Benue South), there was no brother in the jungle of intrigues, dramas, and extreme anxieties that characterised the events surrounding the election. Mark polled 68 votes, while Akume got 39 votes. A senator abstained, while Senator Chimaroke Nnamani was absent.

Meanwhile, although Ekweremadu was already endorsed ahead of the inauguration to emerge unopposed, I am sure he knew it was never really over until the CNA closed nomination for the Office of the Deputy President of the Senate since there were no other nominations after Senator Nicholas Ugbane (PDP, Kogi East) nominated him and Senator James Manager (PDP, Delta South) seconded. Then came the applause.

Thus began Ekweremadu’s fairytale journey as a presiding officer- a journey hardly anyone, possibly even himself, expected to last this long. Not with the high turnover of presiding officers at the time. The Senate produced five Senate Presidents in eight years.
Unarguably, therefore, one of the legacies the Mark/Ekweremadu leadership bequeathed was a stable Senate. By 2011, the tempest-tossed Senate had calmed, such that both men re-emerged unopposed during the inauguration of the Seventh Senate.

However, it was a different ball game during the inauguration of the Eighth Senate on June 9, 2015. Not only did he face opposition for the coveted seat for the first time since 2007, he did so on the unfavorable platform of a minority party. It was one election that compared in horse-trading and trepidations only to that of Sixth Senate. While Senator Bukola Saraki (Kwara Central) emerged unopposed to the surprise of many, Ekweremadu slugged it out with Senator Ali Ndume (APC, Borno South). He polled 54 votes as against Ndume’s 20 votes. With PDP commanding 49 seats at the time, 54 votes meant that Ekweremadu had a bipartisan appeal.

Instructively, the Senate has, to a very great extent, fused as one and is intensively preoccupied with moving the nation forward, although Saraki and Ekweremadu continue to bear the backlash, the baptism of fire and brimstone arising from their emergence. It is topic for another day. The good thing is that even those who thought a bipartisan parliamentary leadership would never work (although they enjoyed and defended same in recent past) cannot but appreciate the synergy and progress made by this Senate.

Meanwhile, Ekweremadu has not lasted this long because there are no other equally highly competent hands to do the job, since the Red Chamber is populated by Nigerians who have made their marks in various fields of human endeavour. Ekweremadu’s political staying power, I guess, rests on the confidence reposed in him by his constituents and colleagues. He has earned their trust and respect across party lines. Many of them have often commented on his trademark humility, brainpower, progressivism, and pan-Nigerian perspectives, approaches to issues as well as the experience and stability he brings to bear on the system.

For instance, at institutional level, Mark/Ekweremadu leadership restored stability and greater accountability to the Senate. Many must have forgotten that in 2007, the Senate leadership, in an unprecedented move, returned about N7 billion unspent Senate allocation to the public treasury. I guess that was how returning unspent votes among the MDAs became a norm.

To remedy the proverbial banana peel, the leadership ensured that procurement was left entirely to the National Assembly (NASS) bureaucracy. Secondly, the Mark/Ekweremadu leadership moved the Senate away from the era of super presiding officers to that of first among equals; an era where lawmakers collectively appropriate resources available to the Senate in line with the Appropriation Act.

Meanwhile, in line with Senator Saraki’s inaugural promise on Open NASS, the Saraki/Ekweremadu leadership has moved transparency a notch higher by throwing the NASS budget open for public scrutiny.

Ekweremadu’s 10 years as a presiding officer will also be remembered for the progress in the area of constitution amendment and electoral reforms. All previous initiatives by the executive and the legislature in this regard failed, such that by the time Ekweremadu took over as the Chairman of the Constitution Review Committee in 2007, Nigerians did not give NASS a chance. But, with tenacity and patriotism, the jinx was broken in 2010. In fact, the Sixth NASS successfully carried out the First, Second, and Third Alterations, with Ekweremadu Committee adopting a piecemeal approach.

Institution building was paramount in those amendments. The NASS gained financial autonomy to end the aberration where the parliament was at the mercy of the same executive it is to be a watchdog over on behalf of the people.
To avoid the crisis the nation almost plunged into during the illness of late President Musa Yar’Adua, Sections 145 and 190 of the Constitution were amended to make it mandatory for the President and Governor, respectively, to transmit power to their deputies when proceeding on a long vacation or temporarily unable to discharge the duties of the offices. Failing to do so, the Vice President or Deputy Governor automatically assumes power in acting capacity after 21 days.

Following the landmark Supreme Court judgment that former Governor Peter Obi’s term started from the date he was sworn-in (that is, excludes the period spent pursuing his mandate in the judiciary), Governors whose elections were annulled, but who still won the reruns sought to reap from it. Sections 135 and 180 were amended to clarify that when a sitting President/Governor wins a rerun, the period already spent in office shall be taken into account.
The progress made by our electoral system was made possible by the broad electoral reforms by the Sixth National Assembly. To make the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) truly independent, Section 81, 84, and 160 were amended. In addition to financial autonomy that placed INEC on First Line Charge, the Constitution now provides that INEC’s “powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval of the President”.

Sections 66(h), 137(i), and 182(i) of the Constitution were amended to end the disqualification of candidates based on verdicts of Administrative Panels, as its abuse nearly scuttled the 2007 elections. The Supreme Court judgement, which quashed Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s disqualification from the presidential contest based on the findings of an Administrative Panel, came just about four days to the election. It was a miracle that INEC was able to print fresh presidential ballots to accommodate him.
Again, the amendments to Section 285 (5)-(8) set time limit for the adjudication of electoral petitions from filing to appeal. The list is long.

However, it has not been all rosy with the amendments. Ekweremadu has severally expressed deep disappointment over the intrigues that ruined the Fourth Alteration Bill in the Seventh Senate due to denial/withdrawal of presidential assent. This is understandable, given the time, human and material resources that went into it.
Most disturbing are its far-reaching implications for the nation’s democracy and development. The Bill included removal of presidential assent to constitution amendments (upheld by the United States Supreme Court Hollingsworth v. Virginia in 1798); and 30-day grace for the president to sign ordinary Bills or indicate refusal of assent. Otherwise, the Bill becomes law. The U.S Constitution allows two weeks.

Also, it separated the Office of the Minister of Justice from Office of Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF). The same was done for the States. New Sections 174A-174H and 211A-211H were created to provide for qualifications, improved powers, and autonomy (including financial autonomy and security of office) for Office of the AGF.
Furthermore, it sought financial autonomy for State Assemblies as well as minor restructuring by the inclusion of agriculture, arbitration, environment, railways, etc. in the concurrent list. As the Senator has often said, it was never about Ekweremadu. It was about Nigeria. Today, everyone, including those who masterminded the indiscretion that killed the Fourth Alteration is paying for it. Therefore, the current constitution amendment process presents the nation another opportunity to rescue some nuts from the fire.

As Nigerians reflect on Ekweremadu’s decade-long odyssey as a presiding officer, many would agree that he deserves 10 garlands as a man who has continued to live up to his billings as a nation-builder, democrat, patriot, and, as Senator Zainab Kure once put it, “a lawmaker’s lawmaker”.