A Major Showdown Averted at the Senate

0

What could have resulted in a major showdown and perhaps, leadership crisis, was ingeniously contained last week by the senate leadership in the wake of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, write Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

Tempers were high among the senators last week, when they were called back from their break via a three-paragraph statement by the Clerk of the Senate, Mr. Nelson Ayewoh. The Clerk had informed the lawmakers that the Senate would now resume plenary on Tuesday, January 29, and not the earlier adjourned date of February 19.

As soon as the legislators got the information through text messages on their phones, they started making necessary contacts over the matter and got to know that the Senate was being reconvened for an emergency session to take a position on the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, January 25.

At this time, most of the Senators especially, those seeking re-election were busy in their respective senatorial districts canvassing for votes from the electorate. Senate President Bukola Saraki, who also doubles as the Director-General of the Atiku Abubakar Campaign Organisation, was in Offa, Kwara State to campaign for his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

So, it was from his Kwara State base that Saraki convened the meeting of the leadership of the Senate at his private residence in Maitama, Abuja on Sunday, January 27 by 8pm to set the agenda for the Tuesday, January 29 plenary. Saraki had earlier condemned the suspension of the CJN in a terse statement he personally signed.

By last weekend, however, the Senators had been polarised along party lines over the CJN matter. The APC Senate caucus met and took a decision to stand by President Buhari over the suspension of Onnoghen while their PDP counterparts mobilised towards upturning the President’s stand on the issue.

While all this was playing out, Saraki quickly consulted his inner caucus and having weighed the pros and cons of reconvening the Senate, decided to seek judicial interpretation of the President’s suspension of the CJN.

He, therefore, mandated the former Attorney General of the federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Kanu Agabi (SAN) to approach the apex court of the land, the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Senate to seek its interpretation of whether President Muhammadu Buhari acted within the provisions of the constitution in his suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen.

The upper chamber of the National Assembly is also asking the court to determine whether the action of the President does amount to usurpation of the powers of the Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the constitution.

Media Adviser to the Senate President, Yusuph Olaniyonu, in a release issued in Abuja last Monday said following the filing of the case, the matter of the suspension of the CJN, which is the main issue for which the Senate had planned to reconvene last Tuesday, has become subjudiced.

“Therefore, in line with the standing rules of the Senate not to debate issues already pending before the court, the reconvening of the Senate tomorrow has been put off. The previous adjournment of the Senate till February 19, 2019 stays”, the release further said.

Senate Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, was however quick to disassociate the APC Senate Caucus from the court case. He claimed at no time was the APC Senate Caucus consulted over the matter.

Lawan’s submission was however faulted by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Biodun Olujimi, who asked her APC colleagues to stop being mischievous, saying it was within the purview of the presiding officer to take a decisive step without a recourse to plenary.

Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, also joined in the debate over the legal case, saying the Senate ought not to have instituted the case alone. He noted that the Senate does not have the legal capacity or locus to go it alone.

Citing Supreme Court (Additional original jurisdiction) Act 2002, Gbajabiamila said, “The National Assembly can only institute such an action after a resolution by both Houses so to do. I look forward to the courts’ interpretation but first we must comply with the law. In the absence of such a resolution the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction.”

Away from the Onnoghen distraction, the House of Representatives waited till last Tuesday before adjourning plenary to February 19. This was to enable the legislators to work on the national minimum wage, which has generated considerable heat between workers and the executive.

Members of the organised labour comprising the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Council (TUC) and some civil society organisations, who had been at loggerheads with the Presidency over the issue of new national minimum wage stormed the National Assembly last Monday in large number.

They came from far and near and converged on the National Assembly complex for public hearing on the national minimum wage by the House of Representatives. Their agenda was simply to drum it into the ears of the lawmakers to jerk up the proposed wage.

The federal government had presented a N27,000 national minimum wage bill to the National Assembly but labour insisted that the conclusion of the tripartite committee setup by to review the workers’ wage agreed on N30,000, thereby appealing to the lawmakers to facilitate the addition of N3,000 to the federal government proposal through legislative processes.

NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, presented the position of all workers at the public hearing. He proposed five amendments to the bill presented by the federal government but the long and short of his position was that the minimum wage should stand at what labour is demanding.

Maintaining that labour and government agreed to a N30,000 minimum wage, Wabba said Nigerian workers want some sections of the new minimum wage bill amended.

“We have four amendments that we are proposing here. Amendment one is about the figure. In the current bill, Item 1(a) provides for a minimum wage of N27, 000; we want to say and plead that the figure should be made to be N30,000,” Wabba said.

He recalled that in 1981, the House jerked the minimum wage up to N125, which was then equivalent to $200, from N100 initially proposed. He said today, the dollar is over N300.

“The next Section 2(b) where it talked about the duration. In this report, which we mutually agreed to, we agreed on a four year circle. It is there in the bill. As an addendum, labour also wants to propose an amendment because this is a public gathering, to say yes, it should be four years circle or if there is a major economic issue that will reduce or affect the value of the current minimum wage. So, whichever comes first will trigger the process of looking at the minimum wage.

“The other one is the issue of the threshold. We also have issue, which is not in contention in this report that the threshold should be removed because we said every worker must be able to earn the minimum wage. To say that those employing less than 25 workers need not pay the new minimum wage should not be the case.

“Lastly, when you look at item 4(b) that is the body that will be charged with the responsibility of making the next review, I want to emphatically say also that what is being proposed here is different from what was recommended by the tripartite committee, where we said any future review that will be done will be done by a tripartite committee as we have done because that was what was done in 2011,” the labour leader stated.

He also told the lawmakers to “Amend Section 5(a) where it was also recommended that the penalty should not exceed N5,000. We thought that this is a very serious matter and therefore the penalty of N5,000 is too minimal and therefore we want to recommend and submit that 10(b) (viii) to read: a fine not exceeding N75, 000.”

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, however, argued that the tripartite committee agreed to review the minimum wage to what the government can sustain, which he said was N27, 000.

“The federal government had earlier offered N24,000 while state governments offered N22,000. However, after several consultations and with the meeting held, the National Council approved minimum wage for all workers of the federation at N27, 000 and not N30, 000.

“I would like to clear some misunderstanding and misconceptions about this whole minimum wage thing, because there is no need for semantics. Therefore, what has been proposed as national minimum wage does not preclude those who are willing to pay above the threshold. As it stands even though the government is paying 18,000 as minimum wage, states like Edo, Lagos, Akwa Ibom and Rivers are paying above the threshold.

“Let me also put it on record that we didn’t approve dual minimum wage. I want this committee to note that what we have done is in consonance with section 34 of the second schedule of 1999 constitution as amended. However, I want to bring to the fore the angle of the tripartite national committee on minimum wage.

Recommendation is not cast in stone, so for people to call it an agreement is a misnomer.”

On her part, the Minister of Finance, Hajia Zainab Ahmed, wanted workers to be more pragmatic in their demands for increment in the national minimum wage on the basis of government’s ability to pay.

She said: “You will recall that the 2018 budget that was passed by the National Assembly had the total expenditure size of N9.12tn. The approved revenue for that budget was 7.17tn. The total cost of the salaries paid during the months of January to December 2018 was a total of N2.618tn. This represents 72.66 per cent of the actual revenue that was generated between January and December to the tune of N3.603tn.”

The Chairman, Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State, said when the matter of the minimum wage came before them as governors, they made so many efforts to review the current problem and that the problem is simply about revenue sharing formula.

Recalling that when the wage was to be raised to N18, 000, Yari said the governors had raised the need for a review of the revenue sharing formula, which he said the workers were aware of, adding that while the parties in the negotiation agreed on N18,000, it was also agreed the revenue sharing formula was overdue for a review but “that has not been done.”

Stressing that former President Olusegun Obasanjo attempted to do it, he said the administration then did inconclusive work on the matter. He therefore pleaded with workers to understand the situation of President Buhari in the present circumstance, saying “I want you to look at Nigeria as our own country.”

In his presentation, Speaker Yakubu Dogara of the House of Representatives, argued that the N30,000 minimum wage being canvassed can barely feed a small family unit, stressing that it is only when workers are dignified with wages that can provide them minimum comfort that their productivity level will increase, adding that corruption can never be effectively tackled when workers receive paltry pay.

Dogara, in his argument to buttress the position of workers, said the most effective way to combat poverty and corruption in Nigeria is by ensuring that workers are well remunerated.

“There are obvious reasons, why the House has to give accelerated hearing to this bill,” Dogara said, adding that one of such is because “it is a bill that is long overdue.”

Also highlighting the delicate period in which Nigeria is, vis-à-vis the upcoming election and the fact that lawmakers are about to embark on recess for electoral campaign purposes, he urged that participants at the hearing should ensure that the outcome of their deliberations are presented to the House Tuesday for further legislative considerations.

So, with the tone already set by Wabba, Dogara and other lawmakers, no one was taken aback when on Tuesday the House of Representatives adopted the report of its ad-hoc committee, which recommended N30,000 as benchmark for national minimum wage.

The lawmakers were unanimous in adopting the recommendation of its committee and the bill has already been passed for the third reading.

The House however altered two of the 17 clauses contained in the bill. These include clause 3(1) of the bill which provided that, “As from the commencement of this bill, every employer, except as provided for under the bill, shall pay a wage not less than a national minimum wage of N27, 000 per month to every worker under his establishment.

Also, clause 10(2)(a), which provided that “Any employer, who fails to comply with the provisions of sub-clause (1) of this clause commits an offence and is liable to (a) a fine not exceeding N5,000 (b) an additional penalty not exceeding N10,000 for each day the offence continues,” was amended.

Rather than the N5,000 fine recommended by the presidency in the bill, the committee recommended “a fine not exceeding N75, 000 while the (b) part was retained.

Chairman of the House ad hoc committee and deputy Speaker, Hon. Yusuf Lasun, underscored a fundamental issue relating to existing tax law during the plenary. He said increasing workers’ wage will consequently make some workers earning N30,000 come under the tax net which may defeat the purpose for the increment.

Lasun said, “A question was asked yesterday which the Minister of Finance appropriately answered. Now that the minimum wage is N30,000, and because of that the person who is earning the minimum wage will now be earning more than N200,000 per annum.

Is it taxable? And the Minister of Finance answered in the affirmative; that the tax law says that if you earn about N200, 000, then you will be taxed.

“Nigerian public should know this, because from the past, when it was just N18,000 those at that level were not taxed. But once this one is assented to, that means everybody will now be taxed. That now depends on the tax authorities, maybe to come forward with some sort of amendments in their tax law, to see if we can provide succor for the people at that level.”