By Yusuph Olaniyonu
Let me do a little review about the history of the nation’s upper legislative chamber, the Senate. It has so far had 13 Presidents. Of these 13, three of them, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Dennis Osadebey and Chief Nwafor Orizu, presided when the nation was operating the parliamentary system of government and the Senate was in the mode of the British House of Lords with members appointed while the House of Representatives was the elective legislative chamber. The seat of the parliament then was at the Race Course, in Lagos.
Dr. Joseph Wayas, the fourth Senate President was the first to head the chamber in a presidential system, like we have today. He is also the second longest serving presiding officer of the Senate as he served for four years, three months, which is the total period the Second Republic lasted before a military junta led by Major General Muhammadu Buhari toppled the elected government and imposed military rule on the country. The Wayas-led Senate also sat in the Senate chambers located in Race Course, Lagos.
Two other presiding officers, Dr. Iorchia Ayu and Sen. Ameh Ebutte presided in the 17 months that the country experimented with what looked like a diarchal system with a military government which had both its executive and law making bodies and the elected legislature by the side at the federal level. Incidentally, Ayu and Ebutte were the first to preside in the present Senate chamber in Abuja. Like the Second Republic, the emerging Third Republic was also overthrown and the National Assembly disbanded by the military led by General Sani Abacha.
In the current political dispensation which commenced in 1999, Sen. Evan Enwerem from Imo State was the 7th Senate President. He was the first to preside over the fourth Senate in another full presidential system similar to that of the Second Republic and the United States. He spent just six months in the office and in the four-year tenure of that Senate, two other presidents, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and Sen. Anyim Pius Anyim held sway as the eighth and ninth Senate Presidents.
The fifth Senate was led by two Senators, Sen. Adolphus Wabara and Sen. Ken. Nnamani who became the 10th and 11th Senate Presidents. However, the man with the record is Sen. David Mark, a retired army one-star General who was the 12th Senate President presiding over the sixth and seventh senate spanning eight uninterrupted years. Senator Mark also remains the longest serving senator in the history of the country, as he is now in his 20th year in the red chamber.
Now, let us go into current affairs. Today, the Senate has its 13th Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki who, though with six months still remaining before the end of the four-year tenure of the Eighth Senate, is already the third longest serving Senate President. Saraki is 56 today and this is a tribute to the man who among the lot has the longest and most relevant political experience and necessary preparation before assuming that office as the Number Three man in the country’s hierarchy.
As a former aide to an elected president, a two-term Governor of a State, Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) and second term senator, Saraki appeared to have the best democratic credentials for the post. Also, as in the Second Republic, he emerged with the support of members from his political party and the main opposition party.
The unique manner of his emergence was such that a four-man cabal within the All Progressives Congress (APC) appropriated the constitutional right of the 109 Senators to elect their leadership. The cabal decided to unilaterally decide who became what in the Eighth National Assembly. The revolt against the dictation from outside led to the situation in which Saraki emerged unopposed as Senate President at a time the APC cabal and their acolytes were ensconced in a futile, ill-advised and unusual meeting, far away from the chambers at the time of the election. The Senators in the chamber then chose to exercise their constitutional right and power to decide who constitute the leadership, devoid of any interference from outside.
After the frequent removal of Senate Presidents by the Presidency experienced between 1999 and 2005, the emergence of Sen. Ken Nnamani was perhaps the first time the Senate President was solely elected by the Senators. And that was why at the critical time of the Third-term agenda in 2006/2007, the then Senate President led his colleagues to take a decision in favour of the country instead of in favour of the then Presidency.
In the same manner, what the Saraki leadership in the Eighth Senate has presented to Nigeria is a Nigerian Senate not the Presidency’s or cabal-led Senate. That was why the road to today for the present Senate has been bumpy. The combination of the pseudo-military politicians and other democratic pretenders cannot understand why the legislature should be independent of executive control or dictates from an external clique.
Thus, the first task Saraki had to embark upon was to reconcile his colleagues and rally them behind a legislative agenda which aimed at strengthening the economy, creating more opportunities for Nigerians to become key participants in the economy, liberalize the political space and create credible, free and fair electoral process.
There was serious but challenging reconciliation process which led to the juggling of committee seats and more inclusiveness in the activities of the Senate such that senators who initially were opposed to the Saraki leadership like Sen. Suleiman Hunkuyi, Sen. Kabir Marafa, Sen. Ahmed Lawan, Sen. George Akume and others had a change of mind. The Eighth Senate became a close knit group.
The unity led to the unprecedented legislative achievements like passage of 257 bills in 40 months, double what the fifth Senate which previously had the record as the one with the highest number of bills passed, 159. Yet, the eight Senate still has six months before the end of its tenure. The eight Senate has equally successfully treated over 200 petitions from members of the public whereas no past Senate treated up to 10 petitions in their respective four years.
The intervention of the Senate in the areas of drug abuse, illegal human trafficking, national security, developments in the North-east zone, anti-corruption, constitution amendment and strengthening of the budgeting and electoral processes, have come in innovative manners. For example, the present Senate have perfected the idea of hosting Town Hall meetings and public hearings in different parts of the country, outside the confines of the National Assembly complex. This has given more stakeholders the opportunity to make input into legislations, motions and parliamentary advocacy.
It is under this Senate that the idea of public hearing on the yearly appropriation law started. Among the top bills passed by the current Senate to reform the economy are the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill which President Buhari has surprisingly denied assent, Nigerian Ports and Harbour Authority Act (Amendment) Bill, 2016, Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme (EST. Etc) Bill, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill, 2015, Credit Bureau Reporting Bill, 2015, Secured Transaction in Movable Act, 2017, Public Procurement (Amendment) Bill 2016, Companies and Allied Matters Act (amendment) Bill 2018 as well as various reforming constitution amendment bills.
It should however be noted that the eight Senate would have achieved a lot more than it has done if not for the external clog usually thrown into its wheels. For example, the Senate President spent the first 30 months of the tenure between answering trumped up charges of false asset declaration and forgery of Senate rules in different courts. Yet, the courts ended up establishing his innocence on all the charges.
When Saraki’s traduces could not use the court to remove him, they resorted to destabilizing the Senate and undermining the unity of purpose that he instituted. First, they created a shadowy group of Senators called the Parliamentary Support Group for Buhari (PSGB) led by Sen. Abdullahi Adamu from Nasarawa State. The PSGB became the force for causing disaffection against Saraki and generating constant tension, with a view to removing the Senate President. Following a script written by some anarchists who pretend to be democrats, a group of thugs who were alleged to have followed a senator into the chamber during plenary, unleashed violence on legislative security and administrative staff and seized the mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, in the full glare of television cameras. It took the concerted efforts of the other Senators and members of the House of Representatives to thwart that move. Till today, no single person has been tried by the security agencies for the offence, despite the arrests made. It was a grave assault on the parliament that enjoyed official support at the highest level in and outside the executive.
Then came the attempt to rope the Senate President into a case of robbery as a result of which the police laid a siege on his house and that of his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, to prevent both men from appearing in the chamber for the day’s session. Saraki escaped the ambush and appeared unruffled in the Senate while presiding over the day’s session. That particular day, some senators from the ruling party defected into two of the opposition parties, PDP and ADC. Up till today, the Attorney General of the Federation through his Director of Public Prosecution has maintained that the Senate President has no case to answer in the Offa robbery incident as no fact has been adduced to link him to the dastardly attack on innocent people by a group of robbers.
Eventually in their desperation, the anti-Saraki elements procured hooded agents of the State Security Services to stage an invasion of the National Assembly with a view to forcefully enthrone a new Senate President. The move also ended as a failed coup against democracy. At every point, this 56 year old has always been a step ahead of his opponents. The talk around town now is that by crooked, violent and out rightly unconstitutional means, some political forces are bent on seizing control of Kwara State from Saraki. The information around town is that those bent on doing this have vowed that they do not care what means are adopted in the process, Kwara State must be taken.
There is no doubt that Saraki is now believed by many Nigerians to be the real Defender of our Democracy in the last three and a half years. Yet, he is not about to go away. He has remained unbowed, unrelenting and irrepressible in the struggle to ensure that Nigeria does not have a dictatorship in the guise of democracy. He has fought against the cabal who constitute a ‘government within the government’ and exercise powers without constitutional responsibility at the federal level. He has spoken out where the oligarchs now in control of the lever of government feel they have successfully procured everybody’s silence.
He has withstood pressure, endured tribulations and remained unshaken in the face of vicious media attacks by people who will not forgive his patriotic interventions to achieve geo-political and religious balance in the APC presidential ticket in 2015. Political rules and etiquette have been thrown to the dogs by those who are afraid that Saraki has ambition and must be cut to size. He has also had to contend with other politicians who cannot live with the fact that for the first time in their game, the man beat them to the number three positions with little effort. Yet, he is constantly and ceaselessly being attacked by some power mongers who are envious of his background as the first Senator who is one of three senators produced by his nuclear family. His father was Second Republic Senate Leader while his younger sister had been a two-time senator. Only the Adelekes whose father, late Ayoola, his first son, Isiaka and the serving younger son, Ademola, have equaled the record.
There are other political operatives who did not seem to like Abubakar Bukola Saraki’s handsome face, methodical approach, strategic calculations and silent mien even at the midst of unsettling political battles. However, as he turned 56 today, his friends, family, foes, and distant observers cannot but agree with the comment by President Buhari during Saraki’s 55th Birthday last year, that he is today one of the most influential figures in our nation’s politics.
On that note, I say happy birthday to the 13th Senate President who presides over the eight Senate as he turns 56.
Olaniyonu is Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to Senate President