National Assembly and the politics of vacating legislators’ seats
The President of Senate, Ahmad Lawan, recently acted with dispatch uncharacteristic of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) when he declared the seats of two Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators vacant.
Coming barely a few months after some stakeholders in Abia State urged the Senate to declare vacant the Abia North Senatorial seat occupied by the jailed Senate Chief Whip and APC chieftain, Orji Uzor Kalu, the Senate President’s action stoked fresh talks about the politics of partisan arithmetic in the National Assembly.
Watchers of developments in the federal bicameral legislature maintain that right from the contrived defections preceding the 2015 general election, which produced the change of guard at the presidency and national politics, the two main political groupings, APC and PDP, have been engaged in sundry wit games over which party occupies the majority and minority status.
Although the skewed political alliances and interests that trailed the 2015 election made it quite hard for the ruling APC to enjoy the bluster of controlling the majority seats, the outcome of the 2019 poll must have informed its resolve to not leave anything to chance.
The first challenge to the tenuous balance of numbers in the National Assembly, particularly in the Senate, happened last December when a Lagos Federal High Court sitting in Ikoyi handed a 12-year jail term to the Senate Chief Whip, who belongs to APC, for allegedly defrauding Abia State of N7.2 billion when he served the state as governor. In the face of the surprising negative development, the jailed Senator promptly filed for post-conviction bail pending the determination of his appeal against the conviction and jail term.
Despite the pending appeal, constituents of the Senate Chief Whip in Abia North Senatorial District began to mount pressures on the Senate to declare the seat vacant so that the zone would not suffer from lack of active representation, particularly given the imminence of the proposed amendment of the Constitution and the Electoral Act 2010.
Lawan then announced to the chagrin of those agitating for the declaration of Abia North Senate seat vacant that the Senate was not in a hurry to take such a precipitate action, stressing that the convicted Chief Whip had appealed against his conviction and was thereby entitled to the full expression of his legal rights.
However, reprieve seemed to have come the way of APC and its embattled Senate Whip when a member of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Dr. David Onuoha Bourdex, who contested February 23, 2019, Abia North Senatorial election, sued for caution.
While Onuoha Bourdex, who is also a member of APGA’s Board of Trustees (BoT), argued that it would be presumptuous and prejudicial to declare Abia North Senatorial seat, occupied by Senator Orji Uzor Kalu vacant, he accused “ambitious politicians of trying to undermine the electoral preferences of the electorate.” The APGA chieftain, who spoke to journalists in Abuja, noted that although the present occupant of the senate seat is facing some challenges, the wishes of the electorate that voted for him should be respected.
While citing a recent re-run election in Abia State in which APGA beat two candidates of PDP, the APGA chieftain said the outcome of the election confirmed that PDP did not win the February 28, 2019, National Assembly election.
He said: “If after the court ordered a re-run in those crucial state constituencies the PDP candidates still lost, that shows you that PDP did not actually win during last year’s general elections.
“You should also remember that APGA went into a mutual understanding with All Progressives Congress (APC), which led to the massive votes cast for President Muhammadu Buhari on March 28, 2019. So, the outcome of last Saturday’s by-election speaks volumes about voter preferences in Abia State during the main election.”
The former APGA Senatorial candidate disclosed that he reflected on those realities before congratulating the APC candidate, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, stressing that nothing would shake his belief that public service should not be do-or-die or out of desperation.
On the calls by some interest groups on the National Assembly to declare Abia North Senatorial seat vacant, Bourdex contended that since Senator Kalu had appealed against his conviction, “it is preposterous and presumptuous to make such a demand.”
He noted that after the Election Petition Tribunal and Court of Appeal ruled on the outcome of the March 28, 2019, Abia North Senatorial election, those urging the National Assembly to declare the seat vacant are manifesting symptoms of desperation and overzealousness to join the Senate through the backdoor.
“Granted that the wheel of justice grinds slowly and surely, those of us in politics should strive to follow the rule of law without doing anything to circumvent the process. We should stand for fairness, and patience is necessary to ensure that justice is done both to the state and citizens and society at large, Bourdex added.
JUST as the sentencing of APC’s Senate Chief Whip came like a bolt from the blues, the ruling party suffered another shocking blow from the judicial invalidation of its gubernatorial election victory in Bayelsa State. What APC lost in the sacking of its governor-elect, David Lyon, due inconsistencies in the certificates of the deputy governor-elect, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremieoyo, the PDP gained by the sudden enthronement of Senators Duoye Diri and Lawrence Ewhrudjakpor respectively as governor and deputy governor of Bayelsa State.
But while chieftains across party divides were trying to come to terms with the sudden change of guards, some stakeholders looked at the twin vacuums that could be created by the Senators’ switch to the state executive, wondering whether indeed former governor Henry Seriake Dickson (HSD) and the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Hon. Timipre Sylva, actually bargained for a possible move to the Senate in settling for governorship tickets.
Had Lyon/ Degi-Eremieoyo gubernatorial victory been sustained, that would have left the Bayelsa South Senatorial District open for Sylva to try his luck at a possible transition to the Senate, having served as governor previously before the unsuccessful second term attempt in 2015.
Yet, seeing a fortuitous opening for APC to maximize its numbers in the Senate, Senate President Lawan wasted no time in declaring the two seats of Bayelsa Central Senatorial District and Bayelsa West Senatorial District vacant. But while Ewhrudjakpo’s transition to the post of deputy governor shows green light for Dickson’s Senatorial ambition, the Bayelsa Central Senatorial seat might end up as a possible bargaining chip for Governor Duoye Diri in his ongoing efforts at placating APC and aggrieved PDP stakeholders that left the party after Dickson imposed him as governorship standard-bearer of the party.
Lawan did not wait for the outcome of APC’s application to the Supreme Court for a review of the judgment that upturned Lyon/Degi-Eremieoyo’s election as he did in Kalu’s case (the Supreme Court would later stand down APC’s requests for a review). Rather, the possibility of reducing PDP’s number in the Senate seemed to have informed the speedy vacation of Diri and Ewhrudjakpor’s seats.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has indicated that it would soon announce dates for the by-election to fill the vacant Bayelsa Central and West Senatorial Districts and that would permanently shut the Red Chamber’s doors permanently against the former PDP occupants. INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, who spoke shortly after a meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in Abuja recently, stated that the commission complied with the orders of the Supreme Court by presenting certificates of return for both the Imo and Bayelsa States’ governorship disputes.
While dwelling specifically in the case of Bayelsa State, where the governor and his deputy were serving senators, Yakubu declared: “The commission (Thursday) received two communications from the Senate President declaring the seats for Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West Senatorial Districts vacant. The commission will soon meet to determine the dates for by-elections in the two Senatorial Districts.”
The INEC chairman explained that the electoral umpire was still waiting for more announcements of vacant seats from the National Assembly, even as he alluded to the apex court rulings that altered the original outcomes of the governorship polls in Imo and Bayelsa States.
He stated: “The personal particulars of all the candidates nominated by political parties for the Edo and Ondo governorship elections, including their academic qualifications, will be displayed in our offices in the two states as required by law. This will enable the citizens to scrutinise them and take legal action against any candidate who provides false information to the commission.
While assuring that INEC would introduce critical changes to strengthen the commission’s processes and procedures before the Edo and Ondo gubernatorial polls, Yakubu said the commission was still studying the attendant court judgments on the conduct of recent elections.
It would be seen in the days to come how voters in Bayelsa West Senatorial District would respond to Dickson’s possible candidacy against the background of the sentiments that his senatorial ambition propelled the Diri/Ewhrudjakpor gubernatorial joint ticket. A move that not only blocked Timi Alaibe’s chances but also caused a huge upheaval in Bayelsa PDP leading to some rash defections.
Until the Senatorial by-elections are held and concluded, the echoes of the off-cycle Bayelsa State gubernatorial contest would continue to throw up concerns.
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