Akpabio and other southern senators at a press briefing

Senators from the southern part of the country recently came together as a body to forge a common interest. But several reasons are already being adduced to the sudden resurgence of this hitherto dead forum, writes Damilola Oyedele, who argues it may not be unconnected to the power tussle between the North and the South

Serving senators from all parts of Southern Nigeria recently came together as one group and formed the Southern Nigeria Senators Forum. While the group or rather caucus may be considered new by some, it was actually first formed during the fifth assembly under the leadership of Senate President Ken Nnamani. But it has since remained inactive, somewhat.

However, announcing the re-enactment of the forum on July 5, 2017, at a media briefing, Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio said the caucus was a response to the Northern Senators Forum, which he observed has ensured unity among the Senators from the North. He added that the caucus was borne out of a need to ensure cohesion among Senators from the South as well as enhance their unity.

“Today, we have the Northern Senators’ Forum and they have been having meeting and discussing issues connected with the North. But we have not had concerted views from the southern part of the country.

“We have not been able to ensure total unity; so that we can sit at a go with our brothers in the North; so that when they take on issues in the North, we will also take on issues in the southern Nigeria. From there, we will have a united voice and front in order to consolidate the unity of this country and bond together more.

“So, the Senate today has also decided that there is the need to birth a new caucus, which is called Southern Nigeria Senators’ Caucus, just like we have in the North. At the end of the day, whatever we discuss as South that affects us, we will also listen to our brothers from the North and bring them to the floor of the Senate for expeditious treatment,” Akpabio said.

Executive officers of the caucus are Senators Hope Uzodinma (Chairman/South-East), Lanre Tejuoso (Vice Chairman), Mathew Uroghide (Secretary General/South-East), Solomon Olamilekan (Treasurer/South-West), Ovie Omo-Agege (Financial Secretary/South-South), Mao Ohuabunwa (Publicity Secretary/South-East), Duro Faseyi (Auditor/South-West) and Stella Oduah (Welfare Officer/South-East).

Understanding Caucuses
With different nomenclature in different assemblies, this is not the first time such a caucus is established. A similar caucus was first formed in the fifth assembly (2003-2007) following pressure on the Olusegun Obansajo government to ensure the presidency was ceded to the North, at the end of his second term as civilian president.

Northern alliances against Obasanjo, spearheaded by now late Senator Idris Ibrahim Kuta (Niger East) had been formed and were active. Kuta, considered an influential Senator, at the time, seized every public opportunity to disparage Obasanjo. In response, Obasanjo allegedly pressurised Senator Ifeanyi Ararume and Senators Arthur Nzeribe to facilitate the creation of Southern Senators Forum, to balance the attack from the alliance of Northern Senators.
The Southern Senators forum emerged late in the sixth assembly (2007-2011) under the Senate leadership of Senator David Mark, and was allegedly instigated by then President Goodluck Jonathan to assist in the power tussle, which emerged following the death of President Umar Musa Yar’Adua in 2009.

Jonathan, at the time, was working to build a support base, against strong opposition from Northerners on his intention to contest the 2011 presidential polls. Most Northern groups, including elders from the region, had wanted a candidate from the north to ‘continue’ the Yar’Adua/North ‘turn’ of the presidency.

The forum was almost non-existent in the seventh assembly, even though the Northern Senators Forum had always remained.

Now, the New Postulations
While it may be almost impossible for Akpabio to have disclosed the real reasons for the re-emergence of the forum, other than to balance the force of the Northern Senators Forum, which has been considered active, THISDAY gathered that there are many other reasons beyond that which was made public.
It may not be unconnected with the current power tussle going on in the presidential villa, which is seemingly the North versus the South, as usual.

A lawmaker, who spoke off record said the health circumstances of President Muhammadu Buhari and the increasing possibility of an Osinbajo presidency may have been a major reason for the re-emergence.

“If you notice, Southern Leaders have been converging lately, making pronouncements. Not just because of the agitations in different parts of the country, but also because of the awareness that the northern cabal in the presidency is bent on frustrating the possibility of a Southern presidency.

“Whatever the reasons are, at the end of the day, it’s basically back to the need for a balance of power. If Buhari for some reasons is unable to continue, Osinbajo would need all the support to fully assume power. Yes, the Senate may be the most unlikely place to look for support, because of the constant crises, but it is not necessarily about him, it is about regional interest,” he added.

Again, the group may have been revived due to a need for the lawmakers from the South to be seen as a united front, and take collective positions on issues. But this premise remains an extension of the never ending North versus South politics.

“We would be stronger this way, collectively as the Southern lawmakers. It would balance the North versus South thing. We figured this would be better than having South-south group or South-east or South-west,” the lawmaker said.

According to him, “The very good thing about Northerners, not just among politicians, is that when something good is coming, they put aside all differences, come together to collect it. After that, they can now go back and split due to religious or other interests. But they hardly split along political lines, no matter what their affiliations are. They remain united in that regard, so we want to work towards that too,” he said.

Another lawmaker said the forum would be crucial to lobby during budgetary distribution of projects with the scarce resources at the country’s disposal.

He cited the most recent case of the 2017 budget, where he noted that the proposed allocation for the Lagos-Ibadan expressway was slashed to accommodate projects from the North.

“…including dead abandoned projects like the Baro Port, and the Dutse rail line, which has been abandoned for decades. They used their influence to ensure these budgetary cuts and reallocation. So, we cannot just close our eyes and go to sleep,” he added.