Theatrical Senate Screening Sessions

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The Senate in session

The Senate in compliance with provisions of the 1999 Constitution, last Wednesday, commenced the screening and confirmation exercise of the 43 ministerial nominees sent to it by President Muhammadu Buhari, Deji Elumoye reports

Unlike the situation during his first term when it took him a solid six months to form his cabinet in December, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari appeared to have hearkened to voice of reason in his second and last term as he last week made public a 43-man team nominated as ministers, two months after his inauguration as President on May 29.

Buhari had last Tuesday sent his ministerial list comprising 35 men and eight women to the Senate for confirmation in line with Section 147 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended).

Before the list was made public, many had wondered why it took the President a long time again to put his cabinet in place, having been re-elected five months back. The ministerial list eventually got to the Senate last Tuesday and was read to the hearing of all Senators by the Senate President, Dr. Ahmad Lawan.

The two-page letter with a presidential seal and addressed specifically to Senate President requested from the Senate the confirmation of the nominees drawn from the 36 states of the federation and additional seven nominees from the six geo-political zones with North West zone having additional two nominees.

President Buhari, in the letter, stressed the need for the upper chamber to treat the request with utmost despatch to enable him put a cabinet in place to assist him in carrying out his presidential duties.

With this development, the Senate which was scheduled to proceed on its annual two-month vacation last Friday had to postpone the vacation by a week to enable the upper chamber enough time to screen the ministerial nominees. The Senate also suspended its standing rules to enable it screen the ministerial nominees between last Wednesday and this week.

Chairman of the Senate Ad-hoc committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Adedayo Adeyeye, told newsmen last Tuesday that the annual vacation of the Senators initially billed to commence last Friday had been postponed by one week, while the Senate rules would also stand suspended for the period of the screening exercise “in the interest of the nation for the Senate to screen without any further delay the ministerial nominees sent to it by President Buhari”.

According to him, “We have postponed the recess till next week, end of next week. We are suspending a lot of our rules. Plenary normally does not hold on Fridays, plenary will hold on Friday this week and Monday next week in other to hasten the process, we want to do a thorough job and we want Nigerians to know that we are doing a thorough job. It is going to be a lot of sacrifice on our path.

“We are going to work in unusual hours. Normally, we sit from 10am to 2pm. That will not apply during this confirmation hearing. We are going to sit till very late, virtually every day. On Friday, we will sit till we are tired. We will go on a brief recess and proceed until 10pm. We have given ourselves enough time; we will work in unusual hours.”

He affirmed the independence of the legislative arm, saying the Senate reserves the right to reject any nominee that falls below expectation during the screening exercise.

His words: “Absolutely, the Senate is an independent body, the constitution gave us the role to either confirm or reject any of the ministerial nominees”.

The confirmation screening of the nominees commenced in earnest last Wednesday but not without some theatrics as there was uproar on the floor of the Senate as the Senate President tried to bend the Senate standing rule to allow a ministerial nominee, Hon Rotimi Amaechi, take a bow and leave the chambers without answering any question.

The confirmation screening exercise, which began on a peaceful note at 11.15 am suddenly turned dramatic, when the former Transportation Minister, Amaechi, was ushered into the red chamber at about 2.45 pm to take his turn for the screening. Lawan was quick to remind his colleagues about the convention and policy of granting automatic confirmation to nominees, who had been elected into the National and state sssemblies in the past.

“We have agreed on a policy on how we go about the screening. I just want to reiterate that policy and to say that we will extend the privilege to members of the legislature even at States level,” he said.

The Senate President’s statement was met with shouts of disapproval from Senators, each time he tried to explain the issue. At this point, former governor of Gombe State, Senator Danjuma Goje, came under order 3 of the Senate rule to say that the rule never recognised those who had served in State Houses of Assembly as part of people to be given automatic confirmation.

Responding to Goje’s point of order, Lawan, who served as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole that screened the nominees, said there is nothing wrong in granting automatic confirmation to former State lawmakers even if the Senate Rule did not allow it.

On his part, Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, while speaking on behalf of the minority, asked Lawan to permit the Senators from Rivers State to ask Amaechi some questions.

Lawan, again, rejected Abaribe’s request as he insisted that the policy and convention of granting automatic confirmation to nominees with legislative background at the state level subsists.

While trying to persuade Senators to allow Amaechi to ‘bow and go’ without going through the rigour of screening, more Senators shouted No! No!! No!!!

Abaribe later informed the plenary that all the Senators from the Minority Caucus including those from Rivers State had asked him to convey some messages to Amaechi.

Abaribe listed the issues contained in the messages from Rivers Senators to Amaechi to include the issue of the reported neglect of the Eastern axis in the nation’s railway project. He also reiterated that Nigerians were not happy that while some parts of the country were suffering from infrastructural decay, the federal government was busy extending projects like railway line construction to foreign countries.

“I want to make a comment on my good friend, who is another donation from the PDP having been eight years Speaker of Rivers House of Assembly under PDP, eight years Governor of PDP and Chairman of Governors Forum under PDP. So now, we know that he has his DNA in PDP.

“I only want to state that I have spoken to the Rivers State caucus and they have asked me to pass this message to you, that they expect that you will be Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which Rivers State is part of, which also means that whatever you can do as Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in making sure that peace is sustained and maintained in Rivers State, that you should please do. Let us also expect from you that the Nigeria railway would be done within Nigeria before extending to other countries.”

However, before the confirmation screening proper commenced, Senate Minority Whip and Senator representing the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Senator Philip Aduda and his counterpart from Kogi West, Senator Dino Melaye, protested the exclusion of Abuja indigene from the list of ministerial nominees sent to the Senate by President Muhammadu Buhari.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Senators, therefore, urged President Buhari to appoint a minister among the FCT indigenes to fulfill a constitutional requirement, which says the FCT shall be treated as one of the states of the federation.

Aduda had raised Order 43 of the Senate Standing Rules to cite Section 299 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), which stipulated for the recognition and treatment of the FCT as one of the states of the Federation.

He urged the Senate President to draw the attention of President Buhari to the problem and ensure that a minister was appointed from the FCT, to guarantee that justice, equity and fare-play were meted to all the sections of the country in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution on federal character principle.

The Senator lamented that the FCT had been marginalised for a long time on the issue of ministerial appointment, saying it was a very long time that one Bagudu from Abuja was appointed as a minister, urging the Senate to intervene in the problem.

“Section 299 of the Constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria says Abuja shall be treated as if it were one of the states of the Federation. Section 147 goes ahead to say that there shall be offices of minister of the government of the Federation as may be established by Mr. President.

“And Sub-section 3 says any appointment by Mr. President shall be in conformity with Section 14(3) of the Constitution, which talks about federal character. Mr. President, the list for ministers was submitted yesterday, and out of the 43 of them, to the surprise of my constituents and myself, we did not find any nominee from the FCT.

“And my constituents have asked me to come with a loud voice to say that this National Assembly is the State House of Assembly for the FCT, and as such, they are depending on the National Assembly to help and ensure that there is equity for the people of the FCT.”

Senate President, in his remarks, noted that the issue of appointment is purely an executive responsibility, expressing optimism that President Buhari would take proper and prompt action on the matter.

“This is an Executive function and you have made the point very loudly, to borrow your word, and I am sure the Executive will take the appropriate action as quickly as possible,” he said.

A total of 10 out of the 43 ministerial nominees were screened on the first day. Those subjected to rigorous screening last Wednesday by the Senate included Dr. Uchechukwu Ogah (Abia); former Science and Technology Minister, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu (Ebonyi); former Education Minister, Adamu Adamu and Mr Olamilekan Adegbite (Ogun).

Five other nominees, who were asked to ‘take a bow’ without being asked any question by virtue of being former and serving members of both the National and state Assemblies included Senator George Akume (Benue); Senator Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom); Hon Emeka Nwajuaba (Imo); Hon Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers) while Mrs. Sharon Ikeazor (Anambra) was spared any question by virtue of being the first woman to appear for screening.

On day two, out of the 14 screened nominees, only four were subjected to thorough screening as questions were put to them while the remaining 10 including two women were asked to take a bow and go.

Those grilled were Maj-Gen Bashir Magashi (Rtd) (Kano); Ambassador Zubairu Dada (Niger); Mohammed Abdullahi (Nasarawa) and Sunday Dare (Oyo).

Those asked to take a bow and go after introducing themselves were former Senator Tayo Alasoadura (Ondo); former deputy governor of Yobe State, Abubakar Aliyu; Mustapha Shehuri (Borno); former governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva; Ramatu Aliyu (Kogi) and former governor of Ekiti State, Otunba Niyi Adebayo.

Others included Muhammadu Bello (Adamawa); former Senator Chris Ngige (Anambra); former Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed (Kaduna) and Sa’adiya Farouk (Zamfara).

The Senate had in the course of the screening exercise, expressed concern that the 12 year-old controversial Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) was yet to see the light of the day. It lamented failure of several attempts made separately by the National Assembly and the Presidency on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), upgraded to Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) in the Eighth Senate.

Lamentation over the PIGB came to the fore in the Senate during the screening of Alasoadura. Alasoadura, in a brief remarks before enjoying the privilege of taking a bow and go in his capacity as a former Senator, said what he would want the Ninth Senate and by extension, the Ninth National Assembly to do is to repackage the PIGB passed by the Eighth National Assembly, which was not assented to by President Buhari.

Alasoadura, who was accompanied to the screening exercise by his state governor, Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, emphasised that the Eighth Senate and by extension Eighth National Assembly as a way of making the bill workable, split it into four different segments with the most important one, being the Governance Bill.

He, however, added that “unfortunately, after all the legislative inputs put into the consideration and passage of the all important bill, it wasn’t assented to but as a Parliament, there is the need to revisit it and re-forward it to the President for assent.

“This appeal is being made because it is the passage of the PIGB bill that will drive the required reforms in the Petroleum Industry, which is very critical to the nation’s economy,” he had submitted.

But before being asked to take a bow and go, the Senate President said though the appeal made by Alasoadura was a very welcome one, new approach will have to be adopted in getting the bill passed and assented to by the President.

Tracing the history of the bill from 2007 to date, Lawan stated that the bill was separately being pushed forward for consideration and passage either by the executive or legislature without the required collaboration between them.

“In 2007, the bill was sent for consideration and passage by the National Assembly by the Executive, which was characterised with so many versions and invariably accounted for its failure in terms of passage.

“In 2011 during the 7th Senate, the bill also came from the executive but required legislative considerations were not concluded on it. In 2015 during the 8th Senate, the bill emanated from the Senate and by extension, the National Assembly, considered and passed but not assented to by the executive.

“Strategic lesson to be learnt from the foregoing is that in reconsidering the bill, the executive will have to be carried along since all the previous solo efforts made either by the executive or legislature failed.

“What is on ground now is for both arms of government to come together and work the bill into fruition. On our part here, our related committees on Petroleum, when reconstituted, will swing into action in getting the very important assignment done. All we require is to have the synergy with the executive arm of government and break the jinx holding back the petroleum industry,” he said.

Another ministerial nominee and former military governor of Sokoto State, Maj-Gen (Rtd) Bashir Salihi Magashi (Kano) lambasted the heads of the military formations in the country for the seeming lack of cohesion in their operational strategies.

Magashi, who made the submission in response to question asked on how he would coordinate the operations of the military if made the Minister of Defence, alluded to the fact that co-operation among the Service Chiefs is not cordial and invariably hampering their operations.

The nominee, who is also a former ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) Field Commander, posited that “the military as an institution is supposed to be strictly coordinated through a monolithic command structure, where whoever is at the top, is supposed to be its face unlike now that you see the Army coming out separately to claim this or that and the Air force, doing likewise.

“Where the echelon is weak, the downward will also be weak, the echelon if I’m appointed as the Minister of Defence, will be made strong and effectively in charge,” he said.

The upper legislative chamber will tomorrow conclude the confirmation screening of the ministerial nominees after which the names of cleared candidates would be subjected to voice vote by the Senate President for confirmation.