Rebuilding Bridges of Trust

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Ahmad Lawan

Obi Onyeaso

The ravages of the noble chamber

Under the Fourth Republic, the office of the Senate President has suffered more pugilist-inflicted vicissitudes than any other high office in Nigeria. Under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, it did appear for a time as if the Senate was a recalcitrant extension of the executive arm, whose leader had to be forced to dance to the puppet-master’s bidding.

Those who resisted were roundly taught a lesson in good canine behaviour. At other times, the Senate presidency became the embodiment of raw personal ambition in its purest form. These two competing tendencies have shaped the general public perception that the Senate President either serves the President or himself in the narrowest of understandings. In all this, the idea of the Senate serving the public interest was nowhere to be found.

This time it’s different

With the 2019 national elections over, Nigerians braced themselves for another round of jostling-as-usual for the exalted office for what has come to be known as first among equals. This appellation persists despite the country jettisoning the Westminster parliamentary model over five decades ago.

It being understood that the office had been zoned to the Northeast, three ranking senators of the All Progressives Congress (APC) threw their hats into the ring: Senators Danjuma Goje (Gombe Central), Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan (Yobe North) and Ali Ndume (Borno South). Each of them enjoyed wide support among their peers lending credence to the credibility of the process.

It’s not in the bag until it’s in the bag

While it was loudly whispered that Lawan enjoyed the tacit support of President Muhammadu Buhari and the party grandees including Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who most regard as the Machiavellian kingmaker in the party, he left no stone unturned in his active solicitation for cross-party support and consensus building.

He did not take his presumed anointing by the Holy Trinity of Aso Rock, the Party National Secretariat and Bourdillon Road, a street in the highbrow Ikoyi area where Tinubu lives, as a shoo-in to office.

Lawan would not make the same mistake of 2015 when a complacent party leadership was outsmarted by renegades in the party. The lawmaker conducted a vigorous outreach to convince the other 108 senators on his qualification for the job as President of the 9th Senate.

Cross-carpet handshake

It is telling that one of the first open declarations in support of his candidacy came from Senator Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP: Delta North).

Nwaoboshi who gave his support to Senator Bukola Saraki, the “Anti-Candidate” in 2015, came out to say that this time Lawan would have his vote because he “found in him competence, intelligence and he appreciates the views of others and he listens to better arguments.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by others in the Senate who frequently ascribed the qualities “bridge builder”, “silent achiever”, and “team player” to Lawan.

It speaks volumes about the solidity of his support base that party bigwigs who backed his candidacy for the Senate Presidency in 2015 all lined up to push his name forward again with greater determination in 2019.

Misplaced fears and misgivings

But some had expressed misgivings that Lawan would be a rubber stamp Senate President given the Presidency’s backing for his candidacy. This group conflated a readiness for mature, productive engagement as betrayal of legislative independence.

Others stoked the bogeyman that he would use the coveted position to further the alleged 2023 presidential maneuverings of Tinubu. This carried little water because it remains till today in the realm of speculation. Tinubu himself has come out to douse the rumours as presumptive, while restating his commitment to give President Buhari his unalloyed support.

Yet another group argued that since he had been in the National Assembly since 1999 – eight years in the House of Representatives and twelve years in the Senate – Lawan represented everything stale and stodgy that needed to change in that system. This band felt that having spent two decades in the legislature, he should be automatically disqualified from leadership aspirations and pretensions to serving as an apostle of renewal. Obviously, this group misunderstood the difference between paying one’s dues and selling one’s soul to the devil.

If anything, Lawan’s vintage at the National Assembly was adequate proof that he would come adequately prepared for the office, having learnt from the successes and failures of his predecessors.

Collaboration built on proper process

After a lot of horse-trading and a nationwide campaign hinged on his experience, record, values and character, the academic turned politician carried the day with a convincing majority. Very quickly, he dispelled the myth that he was anyone’s lapdog.

In the space of a few months, Senator Lawan has demonstrated that the Senate under his leadership is committed to serving the commonwealth and not a personal agenda be it at Aso Rock or in the Green Chamber.

Being of the same party with President Buhari, he has taken to heart the perception damage that in-fighting can do to the ruling party.

Under the 8th Senate, the literal cat-and-mouse game between the then Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, and Buhari nearly achieved a mutually assured destruction (MAD) of the two.

Walking the tightrope

Perhaps, this was best illustrated in his response to a recent request by Professor Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACAC), that the Senate should speedily confirm the appointment of Ibrahim Magu as the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The last time the Senate debated the appointment was in March 2017, when it was rejected.

To accentuate his awareness of the need to support the president’s fight against corruption, while following the laid down process for such reviews, Lawan cautioned that:

“This is a new Senate and therefore, until there is a request to this Senate, there is nothing the Senate can do. And I want to assure you that any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place in terms of appointments or legislation. You have talked about passage of anti-corruption bills, you have come to the right place but you will also do your work. This is a new Senate. Going by our rules and I believe that goes for the House of Representatives too, any issue that was not concluded in the last National Assembly, will have to start all over again. So, as far as we are concerned, those bills will have to come again and start to go through the process from the very beginning.”

This shows that he is a good student of history. He must have memorized the oft-quoted comment on the restored Bourbons by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the French diplomat who served under Louis XVI, Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe, that they had “learned nothing, forgotten nothing” from the French Revolution.

Obviously, Lawan, being both a student and man of history, has learned a lot and forgotten nothing. This is a good thing.

The first Senate President from the northeast understands the acrobatic demands of balancing political interests against the institutional traditions of legislative procedure.

Power is a tool not an end

Robert Caro, the award-winning historian of the magistral multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, said of power that while it may not always corrupt as Lord Acton once wrote, it certainly reveals the true character of its wielder.

“When a leader gets enough power, when he doesn’t need anybody anymore—when he’s president of the United States or CEO of a major corporation—then we can see how he always wanted to treat people, and we can also see—by watching what he does with his power—what he wanted to accomplish all along.”

He used this quote to enunciate how Johnson’s rise to the office of president after the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963, revealed the hitherto hidden socially conscious side of a man many had dismissed as another wheeler-dealer backroom Texan politician.

Applying his immense knowledge of the US Congress and deep networks built over decades, President Johnson successfully won support for civil rights legislation and the War on Poverty.

Similarly, Lawan stands on the cusp of history to reshape the social contract between the federal government and ordinary citizens, millions of who feel shoved out of the Nigerian Dream. He has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transition from a successful politician to a transformational statesman.

Even with the support of all 108 Senators he would still fall short of achieving that noble goal if he antagonizes the executive.

Without the support of the executive arm to drive a socially conscious, fiscally responsible agenda such dreams would be dead on arrival.

To restore the dignity of the Senate

It is fitting in concluding this piece to justify its academic-inspired title.

Most schools have a teacher who fills a gender-indifferent role as Master of Assembly. This person’s job is to ensure that boisterous students are well behaved, correctly lined up, sing the anthem on cue, remain attentive, and exit in an orderly manner during the regular reviews by the head of school.

A good Master of Assembly does not need to carry a cane or raise his voice to enforce discipline and achieve purpose. His mere presence inspecting the class lines up and down the separate columns indicates to the schoolchildren that decorum must be observed on the assembly ground.

Senator Lawan is achieving this. The 9th Senate has sidestepped the rancour of past ones in their teething days.

Two major beneficiaries will be the economy and employment. The Senate President has given assurances that the 2020 budget will be reviewed and passed in record time.

During his speech to welcome President Buhari when he came to present the 2020 budget estimates to a Joint Session of the National Assembly, Senator Lawan reassured the august visitor that the “9th National Assembly has shown capacity, commitment and willingness to treat legislative matters that will impact on the lives of our citizens with dispatch and every sense of urgency. This was clearly demonstrated we received, processed and expeditiously passed the request of Mr. President on the 2020-2022 Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper (MTEF/FSP) in record time.”

If this is what traducers mean by accusing him of being in the presidency’s pocket, then one daresay all for the good. Rather there than in the docket as an incapacitated Senate notable only for an adversarial relationship with the president. Whatever puts the welfare of the ordinary Nigerian first is deserving of commendation.

As Senator Lawan himself best put it in his June acceptance speech, “together, we can reinvent a vibrant, robust, and result-oriented Senate.” Anyone who has followed the works of the Senate under his leadership will agree that the reinvention is on course.

*The writer, Obi Onyeaso is a public affairs expert based in Lagos.