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Lauretta Onochie: Partisan dilemma before 9th Senate

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Lauretta Onochie

• Red Chamber Stalked By Osun Nominee’s Fate
Precedence is a powerful plea in jurisprudence. That accounts for the obvious dilemma currently confronting Nigeria’s Senate.

Last year, the Ninth Senate of the National Assembly demonstrated what many described as an uncommon courage by rejecting President Muhammadu Buhari’s nominee for the position of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) from Osun State for partisanship. Raheem Biodun Olalekan was found to be a card-carrying member of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC).

Currently, another nominee by President Buhari, Ms. Lauretta Onochie, is standing before the same Senate seeking clearance to serve as INEC National Commissioner. Like the Osun State nominee, Olalekan, Onochie is accused of being a card-carrying member of APC, and occupying the position of Special Assistant to the President on Social Media. In the course of her screening, she even admitted being part of those that stoutly campaigned for President in 2015 through the Buhari Campaign Organisation for which she was rewarded with the appointment.

Faced with this similarity, Nigerians are watching to see if the Senate can demonstrate similar patriotism and institutional courage as displayed during the screening of Raheem Olalekan, to turn down Onochie’s nomination.

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Rubberstamp Or Rule Of Law
THE leadership of the current Senate has been accused of being a mere rubberstamp in the hands of President Buhari and on matters that revolve around the governing party.

Now, stakeholders do not seem to be amused any longer by the Senate’s role this time around over the nomination of Onochie, a Presidential aide, as INEC National Commissioner, which clearly violates constitutional stipulations.   For instance, Section 1 (A) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) forbids anyone enjoying the membership of any political party from taking INEC’s job.

But, in a cavalier manner, the APC under the leadership of President Buhari seems unperturbed by the national hoopla that greeted Onochie’s nomination. It went ahead to nominate the President’s appointee to the very sensitive job and many Nigerians are apprehensive. The citizens view the 9th Senate with suspicion, saying that the lawmakers cannot be trusted based on its oft stated position to remain on the same page with the executive.

It looks as if public apprehension would be confirmed going by the screening of the controversial nominee last Thursday by the Senate Committee on INEC. Nigerians had expected that in the light of the obvious partisanship of the nominee, the lawmakers would grill Onochie thoroughly, especially against the background of her active membership of the ruling APC and being appointed as an assistant to the President on Social Media.

At the screening session on Thursday, Onochie told the Senators that she has ceased to be a member of the APC. Her doubtful claim set bewildered tongues wagging. Many wondered what manner of National Assembly will gloss over a very germane constitutional matter at this point in the nation’s history, when expectations are high about a thorough electoral reform to reorder the anomalies of past elections.

Onochie was being screened for appointment as INEC national commissioner representing Delta State. Expectedly, Senators from the opposition parties disagreed with Onochie’s denial of her membership of APC. The spontaneous uproar was deafening, despite the fact that the screening was coming nine months after President Buhari forwarded the request for the upper legislative chamber to confirm Onochie alongside five others.

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On October 12, 2020, President Buhari in his letter listed Onochie (Delta), Professor Muhammad Sani Kallah (Katsina), Professor Kunle Cornelius Ajayi (Ekiti), Saidu Babura Ahmad (Jigawa), Prof. Sani Muhammad Adam (North Central) and Dr. Baba Bila (North East) as INEC national commissioners.

Of the five nominees, Onochie’s inclusion was greeted with outrage from the opposition lawmakers and some APC and civil society groups, who argued that she was “too partisan” to be a commissioner in an important and impartial institution like INEC. Others rejected her for being a card-carrying member of ruling APC.

Nigerians, who expected the Senate to do the needful by rejecting her nomination, had hoped that the same committee, which in May last year, disqualified a Presidential nominee as INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner from Osun State, because he belonged to a political party.

Shadow Of Precedent
WHEN the Senate turned down Raheem Olalekan’s nomination last year, it boosted public confidence in the Red Chamber. In that particular case, the lawmakers had confirmed the nomination of Umar Gajiram from Borno State and Aialiibo Johnson from Bayelsa State, as that was part of the recommendations by the Senate Committee on INEC, which screened the nominees.

The committee had recommended that the confirmation of Raheem Biodun Olalekan from Osun State for Resident Electoral Commissioner be stood down for further legislative action. That was coming against the background that when the 46-year-old academic appeared before the Senate Committee on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), he informed the committee that he is a member of APC.

Aside declaring his loyal commitment to APC, Olalekan also confirmed a petition against his nomination by one Oyebade Adebisi Abideen alleging that he has openly supported a particular political party, which negates constitutional criteria for INEC Commissionership.

Member of the Senate screening panel, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti Central), had pointed out that the committee cannot be seen to be endorsing a violation of the Nigerian constitution, which clearly provides that occupant of the office of the INEC Commissioner must be apolitical.

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Olalekan, who was taken off-guard by the petition against his nomination, failed repeatedly to respond favourably to questions that may have offered him some respite. The Senators repeatedly sought to make him explain his membership of the party, but he failed to distance himself from the commitment to APC. Senator Ibrahim Shekarau (Kano Central) had sought to know if the nominee was a former member of APC and when he last appeared at its function.

While responding to questions from the Senate panel, the nominee faltered severally as he tried to extricate himself from the allegation.  He claimed that he  left politics in 2013 to return to school and study psychology at advance level. But, when confronted with pictures of his campaign in 2017 in support of a particular governorship aspirant, he struggled to explain that the group named “tiwa tiwa” was a band of members of multi-political leanings, adding that he was favourably disposed to the candidature of its financier, who belonged to a political party.

He had stated: “I am a member of APC. I am a member of APC and I contested for local government chairmanship in 2013. In 2015, I left politics and moved on to the university of Ibadan to go and study psychology.

“I had the card then when I had the intention of contesting for election. On the question if I was a DG of a contestant, Yes I was DG of a contestant in 2017.”

Panel members could not reconcile Olalekan’s claim that he left politics in 2013, but led the campaign of a candidate in 2017.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya, asked him what the term “DG” stands for and if he was part of the campaign, he responded thus: “Director General, Yes, I was part of the campaign.”

Despite efforts of the committee members to help him with leading questions on his membership being old and not being in possession of party membership card, the nominee still maintained his loyalty to APC.

Chairman of the committee, Senator Kabiru Gaya was later to announce that while there was no petition against Mr. Johnson Siriken and Alhaji Aminu Guram, “there was petition against Alhaji Raheem Olalekan from Osun State based on constitutional provision of the Act, which said the President should nominate present Commissioners of INEC of people of integrity and good character and they should not be card carrying member of any political party.

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“For Mr. Olalekan there was a petition against him that he is a member of a political party and that he has ran through campaigns and that he has registered as a member of a political party.”

While presenting his report on the floor of the senate, Gaya had no option than to tell the Senate the bitter truth about their findings, which led them to stand down his nomination.  Nonetheless, Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege would not accept that affront on the President, whom he said, nominated those he wanted to work with.

Responding, Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe observed: “I very well see the job that the Deputy President of the Senate is trying to do, but I believe that the chairman and members of this committee were only being very tactful.

“In the course of the interaction with the nominee, he admitted himself that he was a card carrying member and it was reported in all the newspapers in this country. So, if we see somebody who has self admitted, turning around to now say oh, the petitioner did not come or anything, and we did not even know from the chairman whether the petitioner was invited to come and prove.

“I believe really that there are a lot of people in Osun State rather than getting us involved in the murky details of whether somebody belong to something or not that we should take the recommendations of the committee as done.

“What the committee simply did is we stood it down so that we can do further investigations, which is like technical language telling the President to do some other nomination.”

An APC Senator, Ibn Na’Allah, contributed that the spirit of the 9th Senate has always been to do whatever is practically possible to assist the President to govern this country very well, adding: “When the framers of our constitution gave powers to the President and refer to the Senate, it was on the understanding that 109 heads would be better than one that the recommendation was made.

“Distinguished Senator Gaya is a very ranking member of the Senate and he chairs the committee on INEC. Other distinguished senators that constitute this committee I am sure were acting in the spirit of the 9th senate to ensure that whatever is practically possible is done to assist the President to be on course for the governance of this country.

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“There are constitutional requirements for the appointment of members of this commission and those constitutional requirements are what each and every one of us here took an oath of office to uphold, protect and defend the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the law and the rules of the senate.”

The Senate President, Lawan, as chairman of the committee of the whole, said: “Having considered the report of the committee on INEC on the screening of President’s nominees for appointments as Resident Electoral Commissioners of the INEC, the committee approved the nomination of one Umar Mukar Gajiram as commissioner Borno State and Aialiibo Senikan Johnson as commissioner from Bayelsa State as REC of INEC.  The Senate stood down the approval of the nomination of Raheem Olalekan for further legislative action.”

Contrast
IN contrast, last Thursday, when Onochie’s partisan status became a subject of intense controversy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu (PDP, Enugu), in the course of the screening, read a letter the nominee wrote to the Committee chairman, which suggested her membership of APC.

Ekweremadu pointed out: “In Paragraph five, line three, you said, ‘a register was opened and we all put down our names as members of Buhari Support Organization and APC.”

Similarly, Senator Istifanus Gyang presented an affidavit Onochie sworn to at the FCT High Court, in which she clearly stated her membership of APC. Paragraph three of the affidavit reads, “I (Onochie) am also a member of the All Progressives Congress and a volunteer at the Buhari Support Organisation (BSO).”

In her response, the Presidential Aide said she stopped being a member of any political party since 2019, adding, “I have learned over the years to stand with the constitution and due process, but not on partisanship or sentiments.

“Since 2019, I have not had anything to do with any political organisation, including Buhari support groups. When APC was doing re-validation of party members, I did not take part in that exercise. As I’m sitting down here, I’m not a member of any political party in this country.”

On the affidavit, she said, “The affidavit was at the earlier stage of my return to Nigeria and working with Mr President, when someone libelled me. As at that time, yes. But, from 2019 after the President was elected, my duty in politics was stopped.”

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The session became rowdy, when Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele (APC, Ekiti) suggested that Onochie be placed on oath to repeat what she said, whether or not she is a member of a political party. He was backed by Senators Ifeanyi Ubah (YPP) and Lawal Gumau (APC, Bauchi).

“Placing her on oath was to reaffirm what she said earlier that she is not a member of any political party,” Gumau repeated.

However, Senators Ekweremadu and Seriake Dickson (PDP, Bayelsa), opposed the suggestion, saying putting her on oath was against the Senate rule.

Senator Bamidele, however, insisted that the nominee be placed on oath “because part of what we are doing here now has become an investigative hearing.”

“Before she leaves, I will like that she be placed on oath in answering that question,” the lawmaker said, pointing to Onochie with the same question, “are you a member of a political party?”

Chairman of Senate Committee on Rules and Business explained that there was no provision in the Red Chamber’s rule that stipulates that a nominee be put on oath during screening. With that and apparently overwhelmed, Senate Bamidele withdrew his oath-taking suggestion, but insisted that Onochie responded to the question one more time.

“Are you a member of a political party?” The panel chairman, Senator Kabiru Gaya, also repeated the question after Bamidele posed it.

“I’m not (a member of any political party),” Onochie declared.
However, despite claiming to quit politics in 2019, evidence abound showing that the Presidential aide, promoted and campaigned for APC in August 2020 contrary to her claims last Thursday.

Onochie had told the Senators: “I have seen the petitions against me, but I stand for justice and fairness. Thus nobody has anything to fear. I am madam ‘Due Process’ and this is the reason behind attacks on me, because I follow the law and due process.

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“Since Buhari was elected as President for the second term, I have removed myself from everything about politics. Since 2019, I don’t have anything to do with politics. As I am sitting down here, I am not a member of any political party in this country.”

Checks showed that Onochie’s claim is false. For instance, on June 24, 2020, Onochie said the APC was going through a growth process. “There is DEFINITELY an APC e-NEC meeting TOMORROW. We are going through a growth process. Thank you everyone,” she tweeted.

At the time, the party’s National Working Committee (NWC) led by Adams Oshiomhole, former national chairman, was dissolved by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The President’s Assistant on New Media made the tweet a day before the Oshiomhole-led NWC was disbanded.

Reacting to her denial of being a member of the party, a popular lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome said: “It’s a national embarrassment that inspite of the national hoopla and Onochie’s obvious membership of the APC, the Senate is trying very hard to confirm her appointment as an INEC National Commissioner.

“What are we waiting for? Let them better bring in the APC interim chairman, secretary, publicity secretary, some ministers and other personal aides of President Buhari for Senate’s confirmation. There was a country! There was a Senate!!!”

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