How Senators are closing ranks after stormy leadership contest
The high level of distrust, acrimony, suspicion and intriguing dirty politics that characterised the birth of the 10th Senate has become the first issue the nation’s supreme legislative body must address.
Before it proceeded on a two weeks recess last Wednesday, lawmakers identified that a very serious obstacle on the way of the Senate in legislating for peace and good governance was the animosity and political disconnect that resulted from the three months campaign that produced the leadership of the 10th National Assembly. There is no denying the fact that Senator Godswill Akpabio’s 63 votes against Abdulaziz Yari’s 46 recorded in Tuesdays Senate leadership election could create a serious dichotomy and be a source of lasting disagreement capable of thwarting efforts by the Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration to hit the ground running.
Since 1999, no election into the number three position has been so competitive with such a very close gap in terms of votes scored.
The Senator David Mark versus George Akume’s election that resulted in 68 to 39 in favour of Mark was the only incident close to this latest election.
Without doubt, the contest touched on some of the thorny Nigerian issues of religious, regional and ethnic distrust, a development that resulted in the sending of messages to Senators-elect on the eve of the election, advising them to be wary of religious balancing in the new administration of Tinubu.
Messages were also sent drawing their attention to what is referred to as the absence of ethnic balancing in the political set up of the administration.
With a few exceptions, a close look at the voting pattern would reveal that these factors seriously played a role in the outcome of the election.
Little wonder that the Muslim/Muslim ticket of the Tinubu Presidency became a serious problem for the All Progressives Congress (APC), as the need to ensure religious balancing pushed the party into a desperate campaign to get a Christian Senate President.
As campaigns continued to grow tougher, there were insinuations that should Yari emerge as President of the Senate, it could be an all Muslims affair in the country since the President, Vice-President, Chief Justice of Nigeria were already Muslims and the party had endorsed another Muslim for the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.
But a prominent supporter of Yari, and former deputy minority leader in the House of Representatives, Sumaila Kawu, dismissed the arguments.
Kawu said: “I am a legislator; therefore, all I know is the constitution. The intent of separation of power is to have check and balance; this is the only relationship between the two arms when it comes to governance.
“In the 6th and 7th National Assembly, David Mark was the Senate President and his deputy was also a Christian. We had Patricia Eteh as Speaker, a Christian too and nobody complained. We did not remove her because she was a Christian but there was an internal problem.”
“Also, former President Goodluck Jonathan, David Mark and Ike Ekweremadu, the Deputy Senate president are Christians. The then Senate Leader, Ndoma Egba too is a Christian. Nobody complained because we believed they could deliver; and they did their best. There was no time we complained of David Mark because he is Christian; he presided.”
According to him, the argument about religion is misplaced. “It is misplaced. Why are you talking about Christianity and Islam? There is a precedent; it happened before but nobody complained at all,” he stressed.
Two days to the National Assembly leadership election, Vice President Kashim Shettima, had talked about these issues at a pre-election meeting with the supporters of Akpabio.
No feelings were hidden when Shettima targeted his message at the sensitive issue of the likely religious imbalance that could hit the country should Yari emerge as Senate President. He explained why his principal, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, picked Godswill Akpabio from South South and a Christian as favoured candidate for Senate President. He recalled the demonisation, which trailed the APC Muslim/Muslim presidential ticket, and submitted that the Akpabio-Jibrin ticket was to give Christians a sense of belonging and ultimately, promote national cohesion.
He said: “This gathering represents the Nigerian nation. Here we are with a Muslim president and Vice President in a multi ethnic country like Nigeria. Justice, equity demands that the number three person must be a Christian. We must strive for inclusivity. This is a young nation where every community would like to be given a sense of belonging.”
The Vice President added: “Politics is about perception, it is about optics. I want to appeal to you that the stability of the nation is greater than the stability of your pocket. We are talking about the sustainability of the nation. The country is at a threshold.”
Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator George Akume, applauded the Forum for acknowledging the diversity of the country.
“This forum appreciates the value of diversity. Diversity if not well managed can lead to disaster. Society has collapsed because they can’t manage diversity. Your focus is stability of the polity,” he said.
These were the delicate circumstances that birthed the 10th Senate leadership. At its Wednesday’s meeting, the senators spoke extensively on how to avert the consequences of these issues and conduct their affairs free of rancour, suspicion and all kinds of dangerous sentiments.
A former Senate deputy majority leader, Senator Abdul Ningi (PDP, Bauchi), made some disclosures about how Senators engaged in frank discussions at the meeting.
His words: “I am very happy that the first thing that the Senate President did was to call for an executive session with very exhaustive deliberations and I am happy he has started on a very clean slate. I can see that he is ready for this job and we have assured him that once he gives us our respect, we are going to accord him our full loyalty and we will also caution him that in spite of whatever happened, the Senate is the institution that made him Senate President and the chairman of the National Assembly. Because he is a ranking senator, he understands that on behalf of the people of this country, the Senate needs to put things right.
“Over the years things have not been done so well. This time, we have another opportunity to do what we have not been able to do in the last couple of years. I want to call on the media in particular to remain steadfast in what they are doing. We don’t have any other country other than Nigeria.” He talked about Senators’ attitude towards resolving the issues that arose during the campaigns.
“I know we have challenges of tribal sentiments, religious sentiments, regional sentiments. They all interplay within the Nigerian body politics but at the end of the day we bear the consequences.
“We have tasted insecurity and it is not a respecter of anybody, from the executive to the legislature and to the common man. Even the Nigerian security forces have been confronted by this insecurity and there is the issue of poverty and anger in the polity. Therefore, we must put Nigeria first, which is easier said than done. We must make sure that this country is pushed forward; we must make sure that we add value,” he added.
But can the appointment of committee leaderships be used to reduce the tension? The Guardian learnt that many Senators canvassed the option of inclusivity in the appointment of people to serve in the over 90 committees of the Senate.
In 2016, the then President of the Senate, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, resolved very disturbing political issues by giving out committee chairmanship appointments to Senators opposed to his election as President of the Senate.
Ningi revealed that the frank discussions with Akpabio during the closed door meeting last Wednesday revolved around this issue, pointing out that, “it is always give and take.”
He added: “We are 50 members of the opposition, while the ruling party has 59; we are watching. It is also important to understand that the principal officers are also members of the Senate Committee. The intention then was for them to take care of the minority interest; you know they are limited because while they are having six and seven with the Senate President we are having four, so if there is any vote you know where it will go.
“But that is not the issue; the issue is the presiding officer. Listening to what he said about carrying people along with honesty and transparency, I think it will be good. I think it will be good. If you don’t carry me along now, that means you don’t need me and if tomorrow you need me you will be reminded and asked when did you change your mind?”
Also, in a conciliatory move last Thursday, Yari declared that he has accepted the election of Akpabio as Senate President because it is the decision of God.
He also promised to give him full cooperation to facilitate peace and harmony and strengthen the upper legislative chamber. In an interview with journalists in Abuja, Yari noted that as a Muslim, he believes that only God gives power, adding that he has no reason not to accept God’s decision.
He declared that his commitment to working with Akpabio and other senators is in line with his support for the Tinubu administration. He, however, took exception to messages that were circulated during the campaigns alleging that he would bring down Tinubu’s government if elected Senate President.
“Having worked and campaigned seriously as a leader of the APC to get Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu elected as President, how would I turn around to want to bring his government down,” Yari queried. On the alleged imposition of the leadership of the 10th National Assembly by the APC, the former Zamfara governor said he doesn’t believe in that.
According to him, the constitution gave Senators-elect the power to decide and elect a person of their choice as Senate President and they did.
“Even if anybody imposed a person on them, the votes were cast by them. So, I will give maximum cooperation to the Senate leadership and the government of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu to enhance its performance,” he said.
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