NASS Leadership: Imperative of equity, fairness and national unity
As some senators and House of Representatives members from both ruling and opposition political parties contend for the positions of presiding officers in both chambers of the 10th National Assembly with serious lobbying, CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes that justice, equity and fairness are required in electing those that will occupy the positions to create sense of belonging in all geo-political zones by not marginalising any of them.
With the 2023 general elections conducted, Nigerians’ attention is now shifted to the legislative arm of government to see what will emerge as the leadership team of the National Assembly, specifically which geo-political zone produces which presiding officer in both chambers for the next dispensation that would take effect on May 29 this year.
Strongly needed is uncommon, pragmatic and people-oriented National Assembly leadership that will complement and provide transformative legislative oversight for the incoming executive arm of government, and special consideration, in terms of positions, for regions observed to have largely been alienated to strike a balance and ensure equity and fairness.
As the inauguration of the 10th Senate draws near, no fewer than 10 out of 109 elected senators have indicated their intention, either personally or through their supporters, to contend for the offices of presiding officers in the Red Chamber.
The jostling for the positions of presiding officers of the Senate and House of Representatives has become a ritual every four years since the country returned to democracy in 1999. Although this time, almost all the regions in the country are shoving for the seat of Senate President, some stakeholders are of the opinion that South East and South-South should be considered for the position for balance, equity and fairness.
Senators in the race, who are not listed in any particular order, include Sani Musa from Niger State (North Central); Barau Jibrin from Kano State (North-West); Abdulaziz Yari from Zamfara State (North-West); Orji Uzor Kalu from Abia State (South-East) and Osita Izunaso from Imo State (South East).
Others are Godswill Akpabio from Akwa Ibom State (South-South); David Umahi from Ebonyi State (South-East); Ali Ndume from Borno State (North East); Adams Oshiomhole from Edo State (South-South) and the incumbent President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan from Yobe State (South East).
As the politicking is in progress, the return of the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, from France has made the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to revert to serious lobbying over sharing of the key positions in the legislature, especially those of the presiding officers.
While the President-elect was away, the political permutations around zoning of the Senate Presidency and Speakership of the House of Representatives were opaque and smoky, but with the series of meetings Tinubu got involved in since he returned from France, the picture is becoming clearer.
Perhaps learning from the failure of his predecessor, President Muhammadu Buhari as president-elect in 2015, to quickly decide who gets what during the 8th Assembly, which eventually led to the emergence of Bukola Saraki as Senate President, Tinubu appears to be working round the clock to assemble his principal officers ahead of inauguration on May 29.
The feelers in town and the happenings around Tinubu indicate that the Senate presidency and Speakership of the House of Representatives have been zoned to South-South and North West.
It was gathered that Senator Godswill Akpabio (South South) is to occupy the Senate Presidency position, and the deputy will be Jibrin Barau (North West) as compensation for the role the North West region played in the victory of the party in the presidential election. It was also gathered that the speakership position has been zoned to the North Central, the deputy speakership is slated for South East, bringing to the fore the concerns about the fate of the South East geo-political zone in the sharing of key positions in the incoming administration.
Some stakeholders said irrespective of the voting pattern in the South East where Labour Party won the chunk of votes, justice, equity and fairness are required to douse the feeling of alienation and for national unity.
One of such concerned stakeholders is a northern-based Arewa Young Professionals in Politics, which had earlier urged the leadership of the APC to zone the position of the Senate President to the South East for equity and fairness.
The group, at a news conference in Kaduna State, noted that zoning the Senate Presidency to the South East, irrespective of how the region voted in the recent presidential election and National Assembly elections, would promote national unity and cohesion.
Convener of the group, Yusuf Amoke, also urged the APC leadership to zone the position of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the North West as compensation for the significant role the zone played in the victory of the party in the presidential election.
According to him, ensuring that the leadership of the National Assembly projects the nation’s religious diversity would not only foster a sense of belonging for every region and religion, but would also prevent any divisive tension that could undermine the government’s effectiveness.
Also, the Coalition of APC Support Groups (CASG), in a formal letter to the National Chairman of the party, Senator Abdullahi Adamu, had urged the ruling party to zone the Senate President’s seat to the South-East in the spirit of fairness.
In the letter allegedly signed by the CASG’s National Secretary, Peter Okoroafor, the coalition expressed optimism that zoning the prestigious office to the region ahead of the inauguration of the 10th National Assembly would douse agitation and unrest among the South East people.
The coalition’s plea came barely three days after the National Vice Chairman of the APC (North-West), Mallam Salihu Lukman, called on northern senators contesting the post to step down to balance the Muslim-Muslim ticket approach of the party.
“While not objecting to the emotional argument of geo-political consideration, it behooves on the NWC to lean on the balance of justice and equity, and insecurity challenges to concede the Senate president position to the South-East geo-political zone, where undoubtedly character and competence is remarkably in abundance,” the letter reads.
However, it was learnt that the President-elect, in the series of his meetings with the APC chieftains and senators-elect has been considering a Christian from the South-South geopolitical zone as Senate President, while the Speaker of the House of Representatives is being reserved for the North West.
The President-elect allegedly met with the senators individually and told them what he had discussed with the party hierarchy, asking them to meet with Lawan for him to champion the Akpabio/Barau Senate Presidency campaign.
Jibrin, according to a source, had arrived Tinubu’s residence early in the morning and had the opportunity of meeting with the President-elect for a second time, where he offered to be the Deputy Senate President.”
It was learnt that colleagues in the meeting with Tinubu to finalise zoning arrangements for National Assembly leadership positions endorsed Senator Opeyemi Bamidele as Senate Leader, while Senator Solomon Adeola would be Chairman of Appropriation. Senator Tokunbo Abiru was tipped as Chairman, Committee on Banking. Others present at the meeting include President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and some APC governors.
It was gathered that Tinubu had earlier put a call across to Lawan, to see him on the matter and it was reliably gathered that the Senate President told the President-elect that it would be difficult to market an Akpabio, who allegedly denigrated the 8th Senate by forcing his way to be the Minority Leader as a first timer, and also accused National Assembly members of receiving huge amounts of money from the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to approve the agency’s budget.
Meanwhile, a group of former National Assembly members rose from an emergency meeting, warning against interference by the executive arm of government in the choice of principal officers of the federal legislature.
At a one-day sensitisation parley with some state House of Assembly members-elect in Jos, the Plateau State capital, the ex-legislators called on the leadership of various political parties, president-elect and governors-elect to insist on merit in the election of principal officers of the National Assembly.
In a communique signed by former Chief Whip of the Plateau State House of Assembly and member of the 8th House of Representatives, Golu Timothy, the former legislators, including senators, House of Representatives members, state Assembly principal officers and other resource persons, contended that executive offices are different from legislative positions, hence, the National Assembly must exist as an independent body.
They advocated democratic principles of Separation of Powers, checks and balances, and underscored the need to allow members-elect exercise their franchise without interference.
The ex-lawmakers said allowing the natural course of leadership change brings better harmony and understanding, mutual respect and less politicisation, adding that the practice where the executive seeks to impose legislative leadership across the nation has caused more harm than good to the legislature, resulting in instability and inefficiency.
They said the trend should no longer be encouraged in the 21st century and, especially, in Nigeria where the election of legislators has been unprecedentedly multi-party based.
“Look at how the election of legislators went across the country in the just concluded 2023 general elections. People were voted, not according to party, but personalities involved.
“If party considerations were less a factor in the just concluded general elections, why must our political parties and their leadership zone legislative offices? Such will not bring any expected result but crisis of confidence,” the former legislators said.
“It is no longer fashionable for the executive to interfere with leadership decisions of the legislature at any level. Legislators have come of age in the country and must be allowed to do their things. When we have people, elected, and you want to decide their leadership, it is undemocratic. The experiences of the legislature are quite different from those of the executive,” they added.
The Senate is the upper chamber of Nigeria’s bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. The National Assembly, popularly referred to as NASS, is the nation’s highest legislative body and has the power to make laws as summarised in Chapter One, Section Four of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria.
The Senate consists of 109 senators. The 36 states of Nigeria are each divided into three senatorial districts, with each district electing one senator using the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) elects only one senator, also using first-past-the-post system of election.
Despite the interest shown by the contestants for the position of principal officers, the APC national leadership is yet to make an open or clear statement on zoning arrangements.
The President of International Market Association Electronics (IMAE), Ojo, Lagos, Chief Camilus Amajuoyi said the clamour for Senate President to be zoned to South East is not only germane, but also weighty and was based on national unity.
“Nigeria was founded on a tripod of North, East and West. As I speak, the president-elect is from the West, the Vice president-elect is from the North, so equity, justice, fairness and good conscience demand that the president of the 10th Senate should come from the East for balance,” he said.
According to him, there is tension in the land and many people believe that Nigeria has never been this divided because of the lopsidedness in the constitution of political offices in the country.
“Some people are aggrieved that they were left behind in appointments into political offices and this has led to different kinds of agitations. I feel that if there would be equity, justice and fairness in the sharing of political offices, it would calm the nerves of those making demands or agitating for one thing or the other. One important thing I know is that zoning the presidency of the 10th Senate to the South East would help in dousing the tension in the country.
“It would help to begin the healing process that we need in the country. It is a fact that without justice, there cannot be peace and without peace, there would not be development. You can also agree with me that for some years now, Nigeria has been at a standstill. Nothing is moving.
“In fact, what we are doing in Nigeria is motion without movement or if you like, one step forward and four steps backward. The reason is because there is no peace and since there is no peace, there cannot be development. Mind you, another name for democracy is development. But go around the country and check the rate of development after 24 years of uninterrupted democracy. You would be highly disappointed,” Amajuoyi said.
Also, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) advised that the office of the Senate President be zoned to the South East for justice and fairness.
Addressing journalists in Abuja, the National Coordinator of the Civil Rights Advocacy Group, Emmanuel Onwubiko said the group’s suggestion was hinged on the fact that the region constitutes one of the legs of major ethnic groups.
“First, I want to state that we are an organisation that is non-partisan. We are totally indifferent to politics, but not in matters that have to do with good governance in Nigeria. Good governance means we are supposed to have institutions that function optimally and benefit citizens of the country.
“Hence, we need a grounded Senate President and a Speaker to offer checks and balances to head of the executive arm of government. We want to warn that the next National Assembly shouldn’t be the kind that we have now, where leaders of National Assembly behave as if they are appendages of the executive arm of government.
“So, we need to check the qualities of those individuals, who have shown interest for the office. We’ve seen a lot of senators from the North that are campaigning for office of the Senate President. We want to state that it is not the right thing to do; they are overheating the polity. Nigeria doesn’t belong to one ethnic group.”
Just recently, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriation, Barau Jibrin, representing Kano Central Senatorial District, declared his ambition for the position of the Senate President, saying that he was the most ranking and experienced among those contesting.
“Legislature is a distinct arm of government that doesn’t work based on sentiments, it works on your ability to get the job done. It’s the tradition all over the world and it is also stated in our rule and the rules are drafted from our constitutions.
“It is stated in our standing rules that aspirations of elections for the seat of the Senate Presidency shall be in accordance with ranking. The issue is that of competence. You need to be grounded in the residue of the legislature before you become the Senate President.
“The National Assembly has the latitude to regulate its own procedures as a distinct arm of government. That’s why we have our standing rules. It is clear in the Senate Standing Rule that aspiration or election for the Office of the Senate President shall be in accordance with ranking and most experienced,” he claimed.
On the contrary, the Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Ebonyi State, Orji Uchenna Orji, said ranking in the Senate does not prevent any first time senator from being elected as the Senate President, noting that ranking isn’t a requirement for being elected as the Senate President.
According to him, this ranking sentiment has shrunk the thoughts of legal minds and suppressed the pre-eminence and considerations of the rule of the Constitution on who qualifies as President of Nigeria’s Senate.
“Under the Constitution, the eligibility for being a Senate President is clear. By Section 50 of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), every member of the Senate, who has taken oath of membership is eligible to be voted for as Senate President,” he said.
To Orji, ranking is not given any iota of pre-eminence, and by such it’s expected that in electing a Senate President, emphasis should be on nation building, capability and character to lead the Senate to achieve the aspirations of the Nigerian people.
According to him, the members of the Red Chamber are known to be distinguished representatives of the people who must emphasise the virtue of mental and moral character (not ranking) as a yardstick for who is to be elected the President of the Senate.
“Order 3 of the Senate Standing Orders 2015 (as Amended) has three categories of people that could be elected as Senate President. A first timer is clearly empowered by Order 3 to contest for Senate Presidency alongside ranking members and those who came from the House of Representatives,” he said.
Essentially, what determines the pendulum, the Commissioner noted, is the mindset of the party in majority. In this case, the APC, the interest of the majority of the Senators and the prominence of power play between the ranking Senators and the first timers.
“The first timers are greater in number under the 10th Senate. No rule says that ranking members would determine who is elected as President of the Senate. All the inaugurated senators have equal voting rights. The ranking senators have no extra influence or right of first refusal in who becomes the Senate President,” he said.
Orji stressed that Nigerians want a Senate President that would be vibrant to balance the national political equilibrium and geopolitical tripod in the 10th Senate, insisting that South East deserves the fullest consideration in this regard.
While some contestants claim that they are the longest serving senators, others claim that the post of Senate President does not have anything to do with the longest serving senator, rather senators with the right leadership skills and quality.