It was long expected. The seeming harmony and romance between the Executive and the Senate was temporary. Beyond the façade of camaraderie were deep-seated political differences and animosity among the major gladiators currently on the driver’s seat.
Since the inception of the current political dispensation, the relationship between the executive and the legislature has been anything but cordial. They have engaged in muscle-flexing on matters that ordinarily should be taken for granted based on the unambiguous provisions in the 1999 Constitution as mended on separation of powers. The removal of subsidy on petrol, 2016 budget proposal and election of principal officers of the National Assembly were among the issues that have pitched the legislature against the executive arm of government.
As the nation was beginning to get over the serious consequences occasioned by the animosity that resulted in the delay of the passage of the 2016 budget, the disputations between the two arms over the rules that guided process for the emergence of the principal officers of the Senate has thrown spanner into the works again. The Senate leadership and the Presidency displayed amity when the 2016 federal appropriation was accented to by President Muhammadu Buhari. But now, the Senate is at daggers drawn with the Presidency for slamming charges of forgery against Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu over the Senate’s Standing Rules.
After months of suspense over the investigations of alleged forgery of the Rules, the Federal Government has officially accused the Senate President of forging the 2015 Senate Standing Rules used in electing them into office. Also charged alongside the duo are the immediate past Clerk to the National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa, and his deputy Benedict Efeturi. The charges were filed more than a year after the election and inauguration of the two principal officers on June 9, 2016.
The planned trial is the fallout of a petition by Senator Suleiman Hunkuyi (APC-Kaduna North) to the Inspector General of Police on the purported forging of the Senate Standing Rules used for the election of Senate principal officers. He accused the four officials of conspiracy, and demanded criminal investigation of the matter, hence the investigation carried out by the police, whose report was submitted to the nation’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami. The petitioner is the secretary of Unity Forum, a group of All Progressives Congress Senators that favoured Senator Ahmed Lawan becoming Senate president.
The case against Saraki and Ewkweremadu, with reference number, CR/219/16, was filed on June 10, 2015 at the Federal High Court in Abuja. It has been assigned to Justice Yusuf Haliru. It is a two-count charge, including offence of conspiracy punishable under Section 97 (1) of the Penal Code Law; and offence of forgery with “fraudulent intent” punishable under Section 364 of the Penal Code Law.
It read: “That you Salisu Abubakar Maikasuwa, Benedict Efeturi, Dr. Olubukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu on or about the 9th of June, 2015, at the National Assembly Complex, Three Arm Zone, Abuja within the Jurisdiction of this Honourable Court, conspired amongst yourselves, to forge the Senate Standing Order, 2011 (as amended) and you thereby committed the offence of Conspiracy, punishable under Section 97 (1) of the Penal Code Law; that you Salisu Abubakar Maikasuwa, Benedict Efeturi, Dr. Olubukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu on or about the 9th of June, 2015, at the National Assembly Complex, Three Arm Zone, Abuja within the Jurisdiction of this Honourable Court, with fraudulent intent forged the Senate Standing Order 2011 (as amended) causing it to be believed as the genuine Standing Order, 2015 and circulated same for use during the inauguration of the 8th Senate of the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, when you knew that the said Order was not made in compliance the procedure for amendment of the Senate Order, you thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 364 of the Penal Code Law.”
However, the Senate leadership believes the criminal charges being pressed against Saraki and Ekweremadu was part of a grand plot to destablise the Senate and castrate it. They also alleged that the action amounted to a coup against democracy in the country. Similarly, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) frowned at the development just as members of the House of Representatives have stridently condemned the unfolding event. Meanwhile, Saraki is still facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged false and anticipatory declaration of assets.
Genesis of crisis
The latest face-off is apparently an offshoot of the lingering suspicion and power tussle among leaders of the governing APC. The problem actually started following the criteria announced by the APC National Working Committee (NWC) on how the Senate President in the 8th Senate was to be elected shortly after the 2015 elections. A meeting between the APC leadership and senators-elect to reach possible consensus on the issue ended in a deadlock. Prior to that session, members of APC NWC had met with President Muhammadu Buhari, and come up with certain criteria the Senate President must fulfill, including the proviso that the party’s candidate for the post must come from the geopolitical zone with the second highest number of votes after the North-West during the last presidential election. He must not have any corruption charges against him and should be one of the most ranking senators in the current Fourth Republic. Therefore, the APC leadership was asked to, within three days, present the most eligible aspirant as consensus candidate based on the criteria during inauguration of the National Assembly.
With Saraki (Kwara Central) and Ahmad Lawan (Yobe North ), as the leading contenders for the position, two powerful caucuses soon emerge from the ranks of the Senators-elect: Like Minds Senators and Senate Unity Forum. While the former backed Saraki, the Unity Forum threw its wight behind the aspiration of Lawan. Whereas the Saraki camp had the support of 34 APC senators- elect, the Lawan loyalists claimed that 40 APC senators-elect had endorsed their principal as their consensus candidate. Then, the Coordinator of the Like Minds Senators-elect, Dino Melaye, had warned the APC NWC undue interference in the affairs of the Senate because the upper legislative chamber is guided by rules. Melaye said: “The NWC is there to offer advice and not to determine those who will contest leadership positions on the floor of the Senate. The Constitution of Nigeria and the Rules of the Senate are clear on how a Senate president could emerge.”
After all political intrigues, subtle threats and counter-threats, Saraki emerged the Senate President on June 9, 2015. Saraki was nominated by Sani Yerima and seconded by Dino Melaye and got elected by 57 senators present at the session, as the remaining 51 senators were at the International Conference Centre waiting for a truce meeting reportedly called by the leadership of the APC and President Buhari.
The election of Saraki as Senate President was in spite of a shadow election facilitated by APC, which nominated Ahmed Lawan, a senator from Yobe State and George Akume from Benue State, as its choices for the positions of Senate President and deputy Senate President. For the House, Honourable Yakuku Dogara and LasunYusuf came tops as Speaker and deputy Speaker, whereas the party had endorsed Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila from Lagos State for Speaker and Mohammed Munguno from Borno State as his deputy.
The election in the Senate was dramatic because, while most of the APC lawmakers and the party’s leaders were awaiting the arrival of President Buhari at the International Conference Centre for a meeting ahead of the election, other senators went ahead with the choice of Saraki as Senate President. The opposition PDP clinched the post of deputy through Senator Ike Ekweremadu.
The overall development angered APC, which in a statement by its then spokesperson, Lai Mohammed, said the exercise was “totally unacceptable” and that it was the highest level of indiscipline and treachery. Senator Bukola Saraki and Honourable Dogara are not the candidates of the APC and a majority of its National Assembly members-elect for the positions of Senate President and House Speaker,” the party said. Accordingly, APC vowed to re-establish discipline in the party and mete out the necessary sanctions on all those involved in what was nothing “but a monumental act of indiscipline and betrayal to subject the party to ridicule and create obstacles for the new administration.”
But President Buhari was reconciliatory in his reaction to the development in the National Assembly. Speaking through a statement, he said though he would have preferred that the process of electing the leaders as initiated and conducted by the APC had been followed, he was ready to work with the leadership of the new National Assembly, noting that “a constitutional process had somewhat occurred.”
But since the election of the Senate leadership, the internal challenges have lingered, leading to the allegation of forgery leveled against the Senate leadership while the trial of Sraki before the CCB continues to generate controversies among APC members in the Senate on the one hand and between the Senate and some power brokers in the corridors of power and APC, on another. Saraki’s arraignment in September 2015 at the CCB has become a sour point in the relationship between the Senate and APC. In a 13-count charge, he was accused of corruption and false asset declaration while he ruled as Kwara State governor between 2003 and 2011, but with the sEnate president alleging that his arraignment was political persecution resulting from his emergence as senate president.
The sharp division in the APC over the issue becomes glaring, given the views of APC deputy national publicity secretary, Timi Frank, on the trial. He described Saraki’s trial a major source of APC crisis. According to him, “The issue of the senate president is still lingering; nobody is saying anything at the national level, but I tell you, any Nigerian that knows will tell you very clearly that with the body language of our party as of today, if we are not careful, we are going to lose our popularity. However, the national secretary of the party, Mai Mala Buni, faulted insinuations about a crack in APC leadership, as he declared: “The APC national leadership remains united and solidly committed to the task of bringing cohesion to the party at all levels.”
Many observers have been warning the governing party to avoid committing some of the blunders that resulted in the PDP losing its dominace of political power for 16 years. A former Chief Whip of the Senate and a chieftain of PDP, Rowland Owei is among such eminent persons that once gave such a warning. In an interview not too long ago, he reportedly advised the APC leadership to embrace the leaders of the National Assembly to give President Buhari the right atmosphere to fulfil his promises to the people.
Asked to speak on the leadership crisis in the National Assembly, he said: “I would not have commented because I will be telling the APC what to do. But, as a major stakeholder in the Nigerian project, I am particularly a Catholic Knight that has obligation to say the truth both in private and public, I wish to advise the leadership of the APC to steer clear of what is happening in the National Assembly so that the country can move forward and so that the party can have peace. This is because when a party in power does not have peace, the government that it produced will not be able to perform.
“In 1979-83 when I was in the House of Representatives, the NPN, though in power, had 34 per cent of the membership of the National Assembly, while the other parties had the remaining percentage. And as soon NPN and NPP got into an alliance in the National Assembly, principal offices were shared. Joe Wayas became the then President Senate President while Ume Ezeoke of the NPP became the Speaker of the House, and the principal officers were chosen. And for those four years, there was stability in the National Assembly and Shagari budget never stayed more than three weeks in the National Assembly.”
Allegation of forgery
A lot of people are divided on the issue of forgery leveled against Saraki and Ekweremadu over Senate Standing Rules. Some contend that it was within the prerogative of the Senate to decide on its Rules and any matter concern it should end in the Senate. According to them, it is not business of any external interest to determine how those Rules are made since they are meant to serve the Senate. It is their conviction that it will amount to undue interference for any force or forces outside the Senate to show more than a passing interest in the Rules meant to guide the affairs of the upper chamber of the National Assembly.
Conversely, other observers argue that since the grund norm of the country remains the 1999 Constitution as amended, the Senate Rules can only subsist. Some of them claim that the issue at stake goes beyond the Rules. They are of the belief that the allegation was weighty to deserve legal scrutiny and intervention. In their opinion, the allegation of forgery should not be overlooked. As one observer said, the current twist raises some salient posers: “How do Saraki’s supporters in the APC respond to this matter? What becomes of the relationship between the Senate and the Presidency? Again, could this trial serve as effective punishment for Saraki’s violation of his party’s claim to supremacy?
Speaking on the crisis, the Publicity Secretary of the Yoruba Unity Forum (YUF) and Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly, Dr Kunle Olajide, Publicity Secretary of YUF, called for caution regarding the claim by the Senate that the Presidency was behind the latest travails of the two most senior officers of the Senate. He noted that the crisis over the proposed arraignment of Saraki and Ekweremadu can be laid at the doorstep of the Senate itself. He noted even if the anti-Saraki senators who reported the case of alleged forgery to the police in the first place were influenced by the Executive, the fact that they had remained mute on the crisis in the past few weeks suggested that they were still intent, though clandestinely, on changing the Saraki/Ekweremadu leadership in the Upper Chamber.
He said: “I think we have to be really careful here. Some members of the Senate reported the matter to the police. So, it was the senators themselves that externalised their problem. I have been waiting to hear those senators reversing themselves but they haven’t spoken, which to me still suggests that they still want to change that leadership. They may have been prodded by the executive but it was a group of, in fact, APC senators, not even PDP senators now, that reported the matter to the police.
“ If they did not, the police would not interfere in the matter. And since the same senators are yet to say they have resolved the matter and withdrawn the matter from the police, then we have a problem. Until they write officially to the police to say they have backed down on their complaint, I think it would be wrong to blame the executive for interference.”
On his part, the Publicity Secretary of the Yoruba socio-cultural movement, Afenifere, Mr Yinka Odumakin, called for caution on the path of the Presidency and the Senate, saying their actions were already having a negative toll on the polity. While noting that stability was badly needed in the polity, he called on the strategists on both parts to put their disagreements within the larger frame of the national interest and focus on tackling pressing national issues.
His words: “I think the executive and the judiciary should know that you don’t fight all the time and that not all matters that they have to fight over. There is already tension all over the streets. We are still having Boko Haram killings and the government needs some stability to be able to function and deal with these matters. When the government is not settled and you have crisis between the executive and the legislature, there will not be time for the government to face all these challenges. The strategists of the government need to sit down and realise that they need to be able to stabilize the polity, and that you don’t fight too many battles at the same time. So, they should review what they are doing.
The consequence of the latest twist to face-off is the decision of the PDP to withdraw its support for the administration of President Buhari henceforth. It means the PDP members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives may from now oppose most matters that will require necessary mandatory two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to scale through. But this will depend on a number of factors. One of them is if it is able to vote enbloc during very critical issues on the floor of the legislature. It will also depend on its ability to ensure that the lingering crisis in the PDP does not impact on the unity among the lawmakers elected on PDP platform into the National Assembly. Another factor is the seeming cold war in the APC which has seen a number of its leaders working across purposes such the situation that led to opposition PDP determining the final election of principal officers of the Senate and the house of Representatives.
In the meantime, the action of the Senate to stand down on the screening of prospective ambassadors could be indicative of what Nigerians could expect in the senate in coming weeks. The list, which was forwarded by President Buhari recent to the Senate, could be the acid test for the ongoing face-off between the Executive and the Senate, though the latter claimed it stood down the list because of the need for further information. Some lawmakers had raised an eyebrow over the list when it was received by the Senate with lawmakers from Bayelsa alleging that the state was not represented in spite of having qualified career officers from the state in the federal civil service. The Senate, on Wednesday, extended an invitation to the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyema and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, ostensibly to clarify contentious issues on the list. In a related development, the Senate president has said he knew nothing about the said forgery.
Recently, Senator Peter Nwaboshi (PDP) representing Delta North District, said he and colleagues in the opposition party remained united behind Saraki over his travails, especially his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. He queried: “The prosecutor has the duty to prove his case, before the onus will shift to him to defend. If the prosecutor doesn’t have a case, then what is he defending? I want you to mark what I’m saying; I was the first to address the press in Port Harcourt and I told them that Saraki was going to win the Senate Presidency and I gave them my reasons.
“Then, nobody ever thought that Saraki was going to win. People were saying that APC had decided. But it was clear to me that he was going to win and I had to address the press. I said Saraki was going to win and that he was going to get my vote. Eventually, we went there, he won. If, but God forbid, because we don’t see it coming, by chance Saraki is removed; I can tell you that PDP will produce the next Senate President.” On the claim that PDP does not have the necessary numbers to take over the Senate Presidency, he said: “What numbers? We only need three and we have it. The calculation is very clear to me. The calculation is very clear for PDP. We know what it will take us. When I told them that Saraki was going to win, I did a lot of mathematical calculations based on the facts on the ground and it is even clearer to me now that the PDP will win it. We will win it.
“If anybody is thinking that a PDP man is going to vote against a PDP candidate, he is telling you a lie. We have people and we know how to get the people from APC. We will win and that will be very interesting. What is happening in America is going to happen in Nigeria. America has a Republican Senate but the executive is led by Democrats. So, it’s happening in different parts of the world.”
No doubt, the latest development is bound to affect Senate activities. Already, the senators have invited the Minister of Justice and attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami to appear before them next week on the planned arraignment of Saraki and others.