Tracing executive interference in National Assembly leadership selection process
Getting Obasanjo elected in 1999 was seen as a transitioning period from the military era and to proper democratic dispensation. But like a soldier, Obasanjo came to the scene with the command-and-obey mentality of the military. And so for the eight years Obasanjo presided, activities in the polity, including the presidency, federal legislature and his party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were defined by his garrison approach.
It was based on the command-and-obey style in his first four years that National Assembly paraded three Senate Presidents and two Speakers of the House of Representatives.
Although the change of baton in the Green Chamber from Salisu Buhari to Alhaji Ghali Umar Na’abba was dictated by issues regarding Buhari’s academic qualifications, in the Senate the musical chair that the Senate Presidency became could be traced to Obasanjo’s overbearing designs to remote-control the upper legislative chamber.
Shortly before the sixth NASS was proclaimed, majority of the Senators-elect showed natural preference for Dr. Chuba Okadigbo to emerge as the first among equals in the Red Chamber, but President Obasanjo insisted on having not only the last say, but also the way the Senate President was chosen.
Cycles of uncertainty
However, as Obasanjo chose to behave like the national chairman of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, is currently behaving, Enwerem did not know peace neither was he able to articulate any remarkable legislative pathway acceptable to his colleagues.
From subdued heckling to undue expletives about his true identity and constant allusions to a criminal misdemeanour to rationalize his name-change, to obvious plots for his ouster, Enwerem’s brief stint as pioneer Fourth Republic Senate President was defined by rancour. He was accused of lying about his age and academic qualifications and subsequently impeached after only five months.
When eventually Enwerem kissed the dust from the exalted position of Senate Presidency, the senior federal lawmakers gladly elected Dr. Okadigbo. But despite the overwhelming display of unanimity and goodwill among the senators, the overbearing executive, nonplussed at Okadigbo’s oratorical flourish and understanding of democratic tenets, decided to fight back.
It was for this that two bywords: ‘GhanaMustGo bags’ and ‘banana peels’ would find expression in the Senate’s lexicon during the period. Armed with his trademark horsewhip and resplendent beads and red cap to match, Oyi, as his admirers fondly called him, brought charm, wit and panache to the office of President of Senate to the chagrin of Obasanjo.
As Senate President, Okadigbo did not lose any opportunity to dramatise the wide contrast in social and academic background between him and the Nigerian leader. While Obasanjo, a former military head of state without formal university education, wants governance moderated by executive fiat, the Senate President, a former university teacher and political scientist, waved the banner of rule of law and due process against the executive.
Under his tenure, Okadigbo played up the need for separation of powers and independence of the legislature, which further exacerbated Obasanjo’s discomfort with his leadership of the upper chamber of the federal legislature.
Versed in political theories and social thought, Okadigbo insisted on reflecting Montesquieu’s ideas on his leadership of the Senate. The French philosopher had posited: “There would be and end of everything were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers: that of enacting laws, that of executing public resolutions and that of trying (interpreting) the causes of individuals…Constant experience shows that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it and to carry his authority as far as it will go.”
With his background in the military, and upholding his garrison line of attack, Obasanjo penetrated the senate and found willing turncoats through whom he engineered a cocktail of allegations bothering on “flagrant disregard of rules and personal enrichment.”
Latching on those allegations, calls were made by interested parties and hirelings, including a section of organised labour, on the Senate President to step aside for unbiased investigations. Foreseeing the ambush tactics against his continued stay in office, Okadigbo warned his colleagues against the dangers of “stampeding me out of office,” declaring, “The only way to get rid of this Senate President of the Fourth Republic is to go through the constitutional means.”
Despite his theoretical expositions and intellectual swagger, a committee which was set up to investigate the allegations came out with its report, noting among other justifications that, “all these lapses constitute an abuse of office and a serious indictment of the Senate President for which he cannot avoid personal liability.”
And in an attempt to weaken the moral stake of the Okadigbo leadership, curious resignations were stoked, particularly those of his deputy, Senator Haruna Abubakar and the majority leader, Samaila Mamman.
Consequently, on Tuesday August 8, 2000, the horsewhip lost its luster as Oyi’s head, always bedecked in red cap, was forced to bow to an impeachment that divided the senate by 61 ‘ayes’ to 41 ‘nays’ and six abstentions. Although he lasted for a mere nine months November 1999 to August 2000, Okadigbo’s stint as Senate President was eventful, exciting and educative.
Perhaps, learning some useful lessons from the fall of his two predecessors, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, a young politician with a massive build, but modest political clout, stepped into Okadigbo’s shoes and walked cautiously, refraining from stepping on Obasanjo’s big toes or on the legendary banana peels on the senate floor for the remaining two and half years of the Fourth Republic.
By the time he mounted the saddle as Senate President, Nigerians, especially public intellectuals and social commentators, had begun to condemn the musical chair, which the Senate Presidency had turned to. This outcry, no doubt, helped in large measure to avert attempts by Okadigbo’s allies to offload the bulky Senator Anyim.
Wary of Obasanjo’s ambush tactics against his possible reelection to the senate, Anyim, who stood against the then president’s wily antics, temporarily withdrew from partisan politics. However, in Anyim’s absence, Senator Ken Nnamani was elected the president of the Fifth Senate.
Nnamani worked and walked in circumspection, just as he enjoyed the support of his colleagues. The constitutional amendment process, which he presided over, brought him face to face with the undying appetite of the executive to impose its designs and desires on the legislature.
Nnamani’s leadership and the entire Fifth Senate went into the good side of Nigeria’s democratic history for standing stoutly against an underhand plot by military apologists to smuggle limitless tenure, popularly styled ‘third term’ for the executive branch into the nation’s ground norm.
Ever since that outstanding show of independence by the senate, the executive has always sought ways of influencing the leadership selection process in the National Assembly, particularly the senate whose president usually chairs the bi-cameral federal legislature.
Comparatively, the lower house showed less turbulence than the upper chamber. Although Salisu Buhari was sacked for fraudulent claims on academic qualifications, Alhaji Ghali Umar Na’Abba, who succeeded him, served the greater part of the Fourth Republic and gave way to Aminu Bello Masari, whose tenure as the speaker of Fifth House of Representatives was without mandate-threatening rancour and recriminations.
The bog of turbulent tenure entered the Green Chamber during the Sixth session. The plenary had begun on a historic note of the emergence of the first female Speaker for the House of Representatives, in the person of Mrs. Patricia Olubunmi Etteh. Etteh’s tenure was short-lived because no sooner had she been elected Speaker than the issue of sharing of committee chairmanship stirred up insurrection against her as some entrenched interests who were not favoured in the distribution of juicy committees ganged up and raised allegations that led to her inexplicable removal.
In her place, the British-trained and well-spoken Dimeji Bankole was elected on October 30, 2007. Bankole brought panache to the running of the legislature, applying his fine diction and sound analytical powers to add colour to the business of the parliament.
However, as the House of Representatives witnessed the first tremor in its leadership, the emergence of Dr. David Bonaventure Alechenu Mark, ushered in a period of stability in the Red Chamber, perhaps due to the fact that a thorough-bred civilian emerged as president.
The Sixth Senate exposed the reality that the nature of the National Assembly (NASS) reflects the image and temperament of the leader of the executive, Nigeria’s president. The then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua helped to douse the usual tension in the legislature through his declaration that the rule of law would moderate government activities, especially the relationship between the executive and the legislature.
Apart from the removal of the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives on trumped up charges, the Sixth NASS witnessed some decorum and sense of direction in its activities. Senator Mark helped to imbue the Senate with similar respectability espoused by Okadigbo.
It was perhaps in recognition of his ability to stabilise the legislature that, when the Seventh NASS was proclaimed open for another session, Mark was returned as president of the senate. However, in the lower chamber, it was not so. Bankole did not get a return ticket; it opened the Green Chamber for scramble for office of Speaker.
In the attempt to retain the zoning arrangement that could have sustained Bankole’s leadership, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) zoned the position to Southwest geopolitical district. That format would have thrown up another female Speaker in the person of Hon. Mulikat Adeola-Akande.
While PDP leadership believed that it had settled for the female legislator, some ambitious members of the House of Representatives designed their own schemes. A grand political treachery was hatched across political lines, which led to the altering of PDP’s zoning format.
Former Deputy Chief Whip, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, swapped positions with his former Chief Whip, Emeka Ihedioha, to contest the positions of Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively.
Receiving the untoward intelligence, Department of State Services (DSS), acting on the orders of the presidency, sought to arrest the duo. But on getting wind of the plan to arrest them, Tambuwal and Ihedioha disguised themselves and surreptitiously crept into the NASS premises earlier to secure themselves pending the start of plenary.
That escapade did much to underscore the legendary executive cum partisan interference in NASS leadership selection. Similar theatric was to play out at the start of the 8th NASS, when against the designs of some political godfathers, Senator Bukola Saraki, hid himself in a car at the NASS complex on June 9, 2015, pending his subsequent election as President of Senate.
Attempts by the ruling APC to engineer the reversal of Saraki’s election faced continual failure as the 8th NASS cruises to its final days. Although Senator Mark won his re-election in 2015, the fact that his party, PDP, did not return majority seats in the 8th Senate made him not to put himself up for re-election as Senate President.
As the politics of 9th NASS gets into full throttle, the fact that the incumbent Senate President, Saraki, failed to win his re-election bid has opened the position in serious contention. And in keeping with the ignoble practice of interference, some leaders of the ruling party have tended to undermine the democratic maturity of the members to be of the 9th NASS to put forward potential leaders.
Party supremacy, 2023 and good governance
Experience has shown that the continuing insistence by the executive arm to impose or choral leaders of the federal legislature has been at the root of sustained bickering between the two arms.
APC national chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, sparked controversy by announcing that the party had zoned the office of Senate President in the forthcoming 9th NASS to the Northeast geopolitical zone. He was later to disclose that the party had also zoned the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives to the Southwest.
Two candidates, Majority Leaders of Senate and House of Representatives, Senator Ahmed Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila, have announced their intention to vie for the posts of Senate President and Speaker in that order.
The polity is already charged with the latest attempt to programme the leadership selection process in the legislature in such a manner that trashes the democratic rights of the lawmakers to choose who best fit their idea of ideal leaders, particularly those to be first among equals.
In the House of Representatives, most members-elect have frowned at the attempt to force their hands in a particular direction, saying that it would amount to vote buying by other means, since according to them the idea of selecting floor functionaries is for members to assert their democratic rights and not for the party or executive to annex the legislature.
Similarly, some stakeholders have called for the election of a female Speaker for the 9th House of Representatives, stressing that it would serve, as restitution for the cavalier way the first female Speaker was removed as well as address the alleged poor inclusion of women in the scheme of things by the ruling party.
A group, Conference of APC State Publicity Secretaries (CAPS) from the Southeast has urged the Gbajabiamila to bury his ambition to be Speaker and rather return to his post as House Majority Leader, pointing out that the emergent 9th “House must be built on equity.”
In statement signed by the spokesmen, including Okelo Madukaife (Coordinator), Kate Offor (Enugu), Nwoba Chika Nwoba (Ebonyi) and Benedict Godson (Abia), they contend that if the Southwest geopolitical zone takes the office of vice president and Speaker, the Northeast, Senate Presidency and Secretary to the Federal Government, the Southeast goes home ‘whipping’ and weeping.
They stated: “We think that Gbajabiamila should be part of this solution, sacrificially. We expect a rework of what has been passed to the public domain as ‘APC zoning’, which the national chairman of our great party gladly says has not been concluded, going by his recent interview on national television.
“We wish to be advised on which leaders of APC from the Southeast that were part of the process that chose who will be what in the National Assembly, regardless of whether the party can pick individuals or simply zone geopolitically and let democratic process prevail.
“It is needless to restate that with over 40 per cent upping of statistics on won National Assembly seats, the Southeast is the most improved zone, by comparative performance of 2015 and 2019. It therefore stands to reason that a presiding-officer position in the National Assembly will set the balancing tone for inclusiveness.”
Yet, some stakeholders from the north are gathering against the attempt to have a few individuals zone the leadership of the federal legislature to individuals in preparation of the 2023 election. It is yet to be ascertained how far APC’s decision on the NASS leadership issue could go to receive the endorsement of the lawmakers.
The Senate Majority Leader, Lawan, who formally announced his ambition to be senate president, told journalists that the 9th Senate would not repeat the mistakes of 8th Senate, stressing that the next Senate “would be guided by cooperation, collaboration, consultation, synergy and focus.”
Perhaps wishing to humour the presidency, Lawan added that there is nothing like total independence for any of the arms of government, since according to him that would amount to isolation. He maintained that his party, APC and President Muhammadu Buhari, have set the necessary agenda for Senators and Senators-elect, stressing that he is a firm believer in party supremacy.
Some of the members of ‘Lawan for Senate President Campaign Organisation’ that accompanied the Senate Leader to the parley included Senators Oluremi Tinubu, Solomon Olamilekun Adeola (Yayi), Francis Alimekhena, Teslim Folarin and Aliyu Shabi among others. There were also some Senators-elect, notably Opeyemi Bamidele and Ifeanyi Ubah.
While reacting to insinuations that his perceived extreme views might rob him of the collective support of other senators for the post of Senate President, the Senate Leader remarked that over the years he has insisted on sticking to his commitments and facing the consequences of his actions. However, speculations of an understanding between Lawan and APC national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to pair up with his wife, Remi, is said to be setting the stage for another cycle of recriminations in the forthcoming Senate.
While the plot to introduce Tinubu’s wife, which some stakeholders said was necessary to integrate women into the leadership of the legislature, is roiling APC, Southeast stakeholders of the party are propping Nkeiruka Onyejeocha as Speaker of House of Representatives for the same reason of gender inclusion and balance in NASS.
In all the calculations for the emergence of floor functionaries, not much attention has been devoted to the imperatives of good governance and proper legislative agenda to mainstream the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerian electorate. Politics of who gets what seems to have taken over. The danger in the scheming could be located in the unfinished projects of Okadigbo and Saraki for independence of the legislature, according to the prescriptions of Montesquieu.
It is imperative that should the executive succeed in enthroning a pliant legislature, the cause of good governance, notably accountability, would be lost. If the leadership of the ruling party does not repose enough confidence in the lawmakers elected on its platform to elect its leaders, it means that democracy holds no genuine meaning for the party.
The past four years exposed how far sustainable development could be endangered by needless schisms over who presides over an arm of government.
The imperatives of national interest rather than comfort of elected persons should guide the selection of leaders of the National Assembly.
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