Friday, 1st December 2023

Lawmakers edgy in last minute battle for Senate leadership

By Muyiwa Adeyemi (Politics Editor), Azimazi Momoh Jimoh, Sodiq Omolaoye, Adamu Abuh, Terhemba Daka, Ernest Nzor (Abuja) and Saxone Akhaine (Kaduna)
13 June 2023   |   4:34 am
The die is cast, as members-elect of the 10th National Assembly vote for aspirants jostling for leadership positions in Nigeria’s bi-cameral legislature.

President Bola Tinubu

• Yari set to confront establishment amid Akpabio’s gale of endorsement
• Groups fault Tinubu’s interference in NASS leadership election
• My advocacy for power balancing twisted by agents of division – Shettima
• 290 Lawmakers-elect back Abbas’ aspiration, says Kumo
• Yari’s camp faults Ndume’s claim of Kalu, Izunaso stepping down

The die is cast, as members-elect of the 10th National Assembly vote for aspirants jostling for leadership positions in Nigeria’s bi-cameral legislature.

The election is expected to be held immediately after a proclamation by President Bola Tinubu, setting the tone for the choice of leadership that will define the 10th National Assembly.

As seen in preceding weeks, it is going to be a battle of wits between members in support of the zoning arrangement of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), also endorsed by President Tinubu, and those who have argued against interference by the executive arm of government in the lawmakers’ internal affairs, particularly election of its leadership. To them, the apparent interference is against the principle of separation of powers.

The National Working Committee (NWC) of the APC had zoned the Senate Presidency and Deputy Senate Presidency to the South-South and North-West and adopted Senators Godswill Obot Akpabio, representing Akwa Ibom North-West and Jibrin Barau, representing Kano North. It also zoned the Speakership and Deputy Speakership to the North-West and South-East and chose Tajudeen Abbas (Kaduna) and Ben Kalu (Imo) for the slots.

However, APC’s anointed candidates in the Senate will slug it out with the former governor of Zamfara State, Senator Abdul Aziz Yari. Senator Osita Izunaso, representing Imo West, withdrew from the race yesterday.

In the House of Representatives, the sudden withdrawal of Mukhtar Betara and Yusuf Gadgi from contesting the office of Speaker has reduced the contest to a two-horse race between Abbas and Idris Wase, outgoing Deputy Speaker.

For the election, APC has 59 Senators, PDP 36, LP 8, SDP 2, NNPP 2, APGA 1 and YPP 1. In the House of Representatives, APC has 162 seats, PDP 102, LP 34, NNPP 18, APGA 4, ADC 2, SDP 2 and YPP 1.

It was gathered that President Tinubu is not leaving any stone unturned to ensure his preferred candidates win and avoid a repeat of the 2015 upset, which saw the emergence of Olubukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara as leaders of the eight National Assembly against the dictates of the ruling party.

Senator Orji Uzor Kalu

Two leading Senate presidential aspirants, Orji Uzor Kalu and Osita Izunaso, met with APC’s anointed candidate, Akpabio and endorsed his ambition.

Similarly, President of the 9th Senate, Ahmad Lawan, also met with President Tinubu and Akpabio, where the Yobe senator was said to have promised to deliver Akpabio today.

Director-General of Akpabio Campaign Council, Mohammed Ali Ndume, told newsmen that 15 senators-elect from the Southeast met with Akpabio, where they reportedly endorsed his candidacy.

With the purported endorsement, Yari’s bid may have hit the rocks and his plans of usurping the zoning arrangements, may have failed.
Speaking further, Ndume said former governors from the North, who hitherto refused to support Akpabio, have also made a U-turn. He listed Danjuma Goje, Aliyu Wamakko, Adamu Aliero, among others.

He said Sani Musa, who had settled for the position of the Deputy President of the Senate, has also stepped down and has endorsed Jibrin Barau.
Also, Chairman of the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), and Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma, has expressed confidence in the victory of Akpabio, as the next President of the Senate.

Speaking to newsmen after a meeting with President Tinubu at the Presidential Villa, he affirmed that the committee set up by the President to resolve the leadership dispute has made significant progress in collaboration with the outgoing Senate President, Lawan.

He expressed confidence that Lawan would work for the emergence of the preferred candidates of the party.
However, the camp of Yari has dismissed as untrue claims that Kalu, Izunaso and all 15 Senators-elect in the Southeast have endorsed Akpabio’s ambition.

Godswill Akpabio

A Senator-elect in Yari’s camp, who did not want his name mentioned, explained that “Uzodinma requested a meeting with Southeast senators and he came in company of Akpabio, Ganduje and others. He begged for support and left. Another meeting was called after he left where nine out of 15 unanimously voted to continue with Yari. Yari will be declared tomorrow as no force on earth can stop God’s plan,” he said.

When contacted, a source among the Southeast senators described Akpabio’s claims as propaganda.
He said: “We were holding a meeting of Southeast senators at the Imo State Governor’s Lodge in Abuja when Akpabio came in. He addressed us and requested that we take a group picture with him. Little did we know that he would use the picture as a weapon of propaganda and blackmail.”

Also, Yari has accused supporters of Akpabio of celebrating a rumour that he will be arrested and whisked away from Abuja before the inauguration today. In a swift reaction, a Senator-elect in Akpabio’s camp denied the accusation, adding that only the guilty should be afraid.

The former Zamfara governor, according to a source in his camp, is enjoying massive support putting Akpabio’s camp and some influential powers on edge.

The source said: “Just last Saturday, Akpabio and his stability group convened a meeting aimed at displaying his popularity but became disappointed by the below-the average attendance recorded at the meeting. Also shocked by the poor attendance, Vice President Shettima said he would embark upon a serious campaign aimed at poaching Senators-elect from Yari’s camp.

“But as the hour of election drew closer and no Senators-elect agreed to leave the camp of Yari, desperation set in within the camp of Akpabio resulting in revelations from the camp that pressure will be mounted on security agents to do everything possible to prevent Yari and many of his key supporters from accessing the National Assembly complex on Tuesday.

“The desperation, it was learnt, is resulting in a complete breach of an existing court order which had restrained the security agents from arresting Yari.”

Meanwhile, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) has warned against the imposition of the 10th National Assembly leadership, saying that it will not advance the cause of democracy in the country.  This came as Arewa leaders in the South, led by Musa Saudi, drummed support for Yari.

Saidu said: “On behalf of the Arewa community in southern Nigeria, we are appealing to Senators to make sure there is justice on the issue of who becomes Senate President.”

NEF said that the nation has been made aware of comments made by the Vice President, Senator Kashim Shettima, in the course of strengthening the bid of APC’s preferred candidates.

NEF quoted Shettima to have said “under current dispensation, the worst, the most incompetent Southern Christian is better than the most puritanical Northern Muslim for the Presidency of the Senate.”

In a statement yesterday by NEF spokesman, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, “the body has cautioned President Tinubu on many occasions to respect the rights and privileges of elected members of the legislature to choose their leaders, and to conduct its campaign for its preferences with sensitivity and decorum.”

Baba-Ahmed explained “the suggestion that poor faith and incompetence can be preferred to piety and competence when it suits political interests sends damaging signals to a nation desperate for good leadership.”

Also, a group of Northerners, under the auspices of Northern Consensus Movement (NCM), has urged Shettima to put the interest of the North first by supporting a Northern candidate for the position of the Senate presidency. It, therefore, threw its weight behind the ambition of Yari.

Addressing journalists in Abuja, NCM President, Awwal Abdullahi Aliyu, reminded the Vice President that he was able to attain his current position due to the sacrifice made by some Northern leaders.

“The critical test of our democratic faith lies in the egalitarian expression of our choices without imposition. The impunity of imposition has come too costly for our democratic project, creating disharmony between the Legislature and Executive and proceeding to threaten our democracy in the build up to this election.”

Furthermore, the Southern Elders Forum has backed the joint ticket of Yari and Kalu. The spokesperson for the group, Banji Oyelakin, in a statement, said Yari and Kalu have sustained the struggle for the independence of the legislature, despite the gale of intimidation and oppression orchestrated by those close to the Presidency.

Making a case for the Southeast, Oyelakin said that while the organisation awaited the final decision of both men on who becomes the President and the Deputy, the organisation urged the Senators-elect to consider the Southeast geopolitical zone for a viable position.

But the Vice President has denied statement allegedly credited to him that he derided Muslim faith while canvassing support for Akpabio. In a statement by Abiola Sola, a Director of Information in the Office of the Vice President, he said Shettima statement was “stripped of context and mischievously circulated as an attempt to minimize the suitability of Muslim contestants in the race for the Senate leadership. The remarks have not only been taken out of context but also misinterpreted to suit an agenda that sabotages our collective bid for unity.

“What Senator Shettima advocated during the meeting was that, considering Nigeria’s President and Vice President are Muslims, it would not be ill-advised for the lawmakers to choose a non-Muslim contestant, even if against a more qualified Muslim option, in order to achieve balance.”
The Chairman of APC Joint Task 10th Assembly Coalition, Mr Usman Bello Kumo has said that no fewer than 290 Reps-elect will vote for Abbas.
He spoke yesterday, alongside his anointed deputy speaker candidate, Benjamin Kalu when 55 elected members from the South-South geopolitical zone endorsed him and Abbas.

The adoption, which took place at the residence of one of the longest serving members of the House, Nicholas Mutu, (PDP Delta) has now brought the number of lawmakers backing the ticket to over 290.

The event was witnessed by all members of the Caucus except two, with the caucus made up of elected legislators from Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo and Rivers respectively.

Addressing Abbas and Kalu at the meeting, one of the leaders of the Caucuses from the zone, Unyime Idem from Akwa Ibom stated that the zone has come to a point where it must key into the vision and agendas of the Abbas/Kalu ticket, vigorously promoted by the Joint Task – 10th Assembly Coalition.

Idem, who is also a zonal coordinator of the Joint Task, a coalition of eight political parties that won seats in the 10th Assembly, expressed gratitude to his colleagues from the South South for trusting him with the task of conveying their decision to the Joint Task.

He said: “I consider it a great privilege welcoming our incoming Speaker and Deputy by the grace of God. As a coordinator of the Joint Task it gives me pleasure to announce to your Excellencies that we have 55 out 55 members of the South South Caucus, who have penned their signatures in support of the joint ticket.

“I therefore want to assure you that we will have the whole 55 as they are going to appear in the chamber on Tuesday to give you 55 votes from the South South geopolitical zone,” Idem said.

In response to the announcement, Kumo (APC, Gombe), thanked Idem for his leadership so far in the course of the campaign.

“This 55-over-55 is something we are not surprised, given the level of support we have enjoyed from key members of the Caucus including yourself who have been with us in this journey right from the start.

“As I stand before you, raised by destiny and privilege to steer this ship, I have my elder brothers with me particularly from the South-South such as Hon Kingsley Chinda. I want to say that the zone has paid its due and what’s remaining now is for Abbas and Kalu to reciprocate at the end of the day. And I want to assure you that by the character of the incoming Speaker and his Deputy, you will not be disappointed.” Kumo said.

Kalu expressed gratitude to the zonal Caucus for believing in their struggle to institutionalise a legislature anchored on the principles of equity and inclusiveness, adding that, “what we started like a mustard seed has germinated and grown to this level of acceptance and support from our brothers and sisters across the regions of the country.

“I stand here also as part of the South and I said to myself that getting the South East and South West to endorse us, wasn’t going to be complete for me without having the South South, and thank God the South South has completed the circle by adopting us and we are so very grateful.

“I want to appreciate you for coming in your numbers and you have also invested in this project, invested money-wise even when some people didn’t believe in us then.

Meanwhile, the Oodua People’s Frontier (OPF) and the Yoruba Patriots Alliance (YPA), on Monday, frowned at the interference of the Bola Tinubu-led government in the election of principal officers of the National Assembly.

The groups stated categorically that such action is not only undemocratic, but also threatens the very foundations of our democracy.
The groups in a statement issued Monday by the Convener of OPF, Moses Odewale and National President of YPA, Anuoluwabamise Adetutu, said it was disheartening to witness the relentless attempts by the government to utilise security agencies as tools of intimidation, coercing aspiring candidates into submission.

The groups also expressed dissatisfaction and concern over the flagrant disregard for democratic principles demonstrated by this administration.They pointed out that it was shameful that the current government, barely at the outset of its tenure, was already exhibiting dictatorial tendencies.

They said: “Nigeria is not an ‘agberocracy’; we are a nation founded on democratic principles, where the separation of powers and the independence of the legislative and judicial arms are paramount.

“We vehemently repudiate any misguided parallel drawn between Nigeria and the confined realm of Lagos State, where agberos and touts reign supreme. We assert that Nigeria, as a whole, transcends the narrow scope of a single state and operates on an entirely different scale of governance.”

They noted that using court orders to impede eligible candidates from exercising their fundamental rights to contest for principal offices in the Senate was not only an affront to the country’s democracy but also a blatant violation of the principles of justice and fairness.

The groups added: “The Oodua People’s Frontier (OPF) and the Yoruba Patriots Alliance (YPA), stand firmly against any attempt by this administration to undermine our democratic systems.

“We refuse to be silent spectators as our democracy is eroded by the very government entrusted to uphold it. We will resist every encroachment on our democratic institutions with unwavering determination.

They added that the people of Nigeria deserve leaders who respect the tenets of democracy and uphold the principles of good governance.
“We demand that the Bola Ahmed Tinubu-led government refrain from further interference in the electoral process and respect the rights of eligible candidates to contest for principal offices in the National Assembly.”