Fred Itua and Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Immediately after the February 23 presidential and National Assembly elections, public attention automatically shifted to the National Assembly, as scheming for the control of the federal legislature commenced in earnest.
Firing the first salvo, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Oshiomhole had boasted that with the victory of the ruling party in the National Assembly, the party would not require the input of the opposition in deciding the leadership of the Ninth Assembly. Oshiomhole went on to say that the opposition lawmakers in the two chambers would not head any committee, apart from the Public Accounts Committee, prescribed for the opposition by the constitution.
Expectedly, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) fired back. Speaking through its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said that the leadership of the two chambers of the National Assembly was not the exclusive preserve of any political party.
He added that opposition lawmakers could as well contest for the position of presiding officers, if they so desired.
On Tuesday, June 11, the Clerk of the National Assembly, Mohammed Sani Omolori, through a presidential proclamation, inaugurated the Ninth Senate. The inauguration of the upper legislative chamber and the election of its two presiding officers, brought to an end, months of intense politicking, horse-trading and betrayal.
For those familiar with the workings of the National Assembly, what played out on the floor of the Senate last Tuesday was inevitable. For others who are not vast with the politics, it was a shocking experience.
The inauguration and election of presiding officers, also restored, to a large extent, the place of party supremacy in the affairs of the National Assembly, which pundits have often condemned as undemocratic.
Until last Tuesday, when Ahmad Lawan was elected president of the Senate and Ovie Omo-Agege chosen through a bipartisan voting pattern as the deputy, no ruling party has unilaterally succeeded in foisting its choice on the parliament.
While some have attributed this feat to the hard stance of the leadership of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), others believe that the choice before some lawmakers was that of the devil and the deep blue sea.
The shocking entrance of Ike Ekweremadu into the race for the position of the deputy president of the Senate, altered what many had expected. His defeat and how his own party men, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), may have sold him out, are still subjects of discussion.
As soon as winners and losers emerged in the February 23 presidential and National Assembly elections, contenders for the two positions in the Senate started positioning themselves. The new President of the Senate, Lawan, Senators Orji Uzor Kalu, Danjuma Goje, Mohammed Ali Ndume and Abdullahi Adamu, indicated their interest.
Out of the five aspirants, only three eventually declared. They were Lawan, Kalu and Ndume. Goje and Adamu didn’t declare openly. While newly elected members were yet to settle down, the leadership of APC, hurriedly endorsed the candidacy of Lawan and tactically foreclosed any possibility of any contender taking the plump job.
As soon the endorsement was made public, the same actors who worked against Lawan’s election in 2015 and narrowly made a return to the Senate hurriedly put up a campaign organisation. This early upset gave Lawan an overwhelming edge. While his co-contenders were yet to settle down, Lawan and his team were far ahead.
As the days went by, more and more senators joined the rank of Lawan. Ndume who defiantly refused to step down for Lawan, had serious difficulties wooing his colleagues to his side. Unlike Lawan, Ndume didn’t have a campaign organisation or senators-elect campaigning for him. Despite being left in the cold, he soldiered on.
Weeks before the inauguration and election of presiding officers, many APC senators had already concluded that they were going to align with the position of the party to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2015. The only fear they harboured was the possibility that the PDP could spring up a surprise and have the deciding votes on who emerges.
To salvage the situation, Lawan’s men swung into action. With Lawan’s approval and in disagreement with the position of APC, his men conceded the headship of some ‘juicy’ committees to the caucus of the PDP.
The concession, it was learnt, was part of an agreement reached with the leadership of the PDP caucus after series of meetings between them and Lawan’s campaign organisation. In 2015, immediate-past president of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, made a similar deal with the PDP senators and handed down juicy committees to them.
The move then didn’t go down well with APC members, who accused Saraki of favouring PDP members ahead of his party then.
PDP has about 44 senators. Out of the number, over half returned which automatically makes them ranking senators. Based on precedents, ranking members are usually chairmen of committees. Beside Appropriation, Media and Publicity, and Legal Matters, which are exclusive to ruling parties, other committees can be headed by members of other political parties.
In a meeting with a Southeast senator before the inauguration, Lawan was reportedly compelled to commit himself to the deal. Although the source who spoke to Sunday Sun refused to list some of the committees conceded to PDP, he, however, said that they were going to hold Lawan by his words.
He said the APC couldn’t survive independently without the support of the PDP in the chamber. He said if the deal was not adhered to, the PDP would be going to take its own pound of flesh.
He said that the PDP was also making a strong case when the selection committee to handle the headship of standing committees is constituted by Lawan.
Some senators who spoke to Sunday Sun disclosed that the belated endorsement of a candidate by the PDP aided Lawan’s victory. A PDP senator who spoke to our correspondent, but pleaded not to be named, said that the party had a tough time endorsing Ndume.
He revealed that the PDP had expected the formal entrance of Goje into the race. Goje was favoured by both APC and PDP members. He further revealed that some PDP senators were already aware of that arrangement, but moved against the party when it failed to give a clear direction on who to vote for less than three weeks to the inauguration.
The senator said that as soon as Goje withdrew from the race, the PDP senators decided to take their destinies in their hands. He said an attempt by the PDP governors to prevail on them to vote overwhelmingly for a candidate didn’t work.
He said: “The delay in giving a clear direction by the PDP is partly responsible for the emergence of Lawan. Since there was a vacuum and the PDP caucus in the Senate didn’t have a strong leader, meetings were not held. We decided on our own to align with candidates of our choice.
“APC knew we had the number and they were scared that we could swing the vote. But the various organs of our party kept quiet. That meeting they had with PDP lawmakers on the eve of inauguration was a face-saving one. We had already taken positions and had been promised different things by the two contenders. The endorsement of Ndume was an exercise in futility.”
Regarding the defeat of Ekweremadu by Omo-Agege, Sunday Sun gathered that the PDP played into their hands. It was gathered from multiple sources in the APC that the PDP had plotted to take an advantage of the crack in the ruling party by fielding a candidate for the position of the deputy president of the Senate.
One of the sources, said the endorsement of Ovie Omo-Agege by the National Working Committee (NWC) of APC was seen as a miscalculation and that PDP had wrongly calculated that it would hurt the party during Tuesday’s election.
The source said: “I am aware that the PDP concluded plans on Monday night to field its own candidate. They miscalculated that the two major contenders, Kalu and Kabiru Gaya, were going to be nominated on the floor. Imagine if APC had fielded three candidates, the only thing the PDP would have done was have its full squad of 44 senators.
“But they goofed. APC was able to convince its people to step down and that gave the party an edge. APC has its 62 senators intact. And some people who had personal scores to settle with Ekweremadu betrayed him by voting for Omo-Agege who was not popular.
“Many PDP senators believed that Ekweremadu didn’t work for the party during the last general elections. They felt he didn’t deserve to be elected for a fourth term as Senate president. He was misled and I feel bad about that.”
House of Representatives
In the House of Representatives, the leadership battle was not any different. In succeeding weeks before the inauguration, it was intrigues and serious horse-trading as the leadership contenders schemed to gain advantage over one another.
On the morning of June 11, when the National Assembly was inaugurated, it became clear that the election of presiding officers of the House, just like in the Senate, was a proxy war between the APC and the PDP.
While the APC endorsed the former House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila as its preferred candidate for the speakership and the former Deputy Leader, Idris Wase as deputy speaker; the PDP announced Hon Umar Bago, an APC member from Niger State, as its preferred choice for the speakership seat.
The calculation within the opposition was that with 128 of its members in the Green Chamber, all Bago needed was to muster 53 votes from the APC to get the minimum of 181 votes required to become Speaker.
But alas! At the end of day, the contest for the speakership was more or less a walkover for Gbajabiamila as he polled a total of 281 votes, to defeat Bago, who scored a paltry 76 votes.
There is no doubt, that the outcome of the speakership is a function of what the gladiators did or failed to do.
In the aftermath of the 2019 general elections, the leadership of the APC had endorsed Gbajabiamila as its preferred candidate for the speakership of the House.
The party leadership in ceding the position to the House leader said the North-central would produce the deputy speaker.
Apart from Gbajabiamila, other lawmakers, who have indicated interest in the speakership seat were Bago, Hon. John Dyegh, Hon. Abdulrasak Namdas, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, Hon. Chike Okafor, as well as Wase.
Others were Hon. Tahir Monguno, Hon. Idris Wase, Hon. Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, Hon. Yusuf Yakub.
However, following the endorsement, most of the aspirants withdrew from the contest in deference to the party.
Apart from Bago and Dyegh, who disagreed with the party on the grounds of the decision to zone the speakership to the Southwest, all other candidates rallied Gbajabiamila, which strengthen his hands in the contest.
Gbajabiamila’s deft political moves
For Gbajabiamila, it was a case of once bitten, twice shy. Apparently, humbled by his loss in 2015, when he first contested for the speakership, he decided to do things differently.
Prior to the inauguration of the 8th Assembly in 2015, the Lagos-born lawmaker had secured the endorsement of the ruling patty for the speakership of the Green Chambers. The endorsement, not withstanding, Gbajabiamila was to later lose the speakership to the immediate past Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara with a very slim margin.
Consequently, in the run-up to the inauguration of the Ninth Assembly, the new Speaker with the benefit of hindsight, adopted new approach in his campaign for the leadership position.
Apart from his endorsement by the APC, basically, two other factors were responsible for Gbajabiamila’s emergence as Speaker. The first was his ability to quickly get the support of the over 200 lawmakers, coming to the House for the first time.
In his determined bid to push his ambition, Gbajabiamila subtlely distanced himself from the position of Oshiomhole on the distribution of committee seats and opened negotiations with the opposition lawmakers, capitalizing on the seeming division in their ranks.
Besides, he also took his campaign beyond the PDP lawmakers and reached out directly to their respective governors; while at the same keeping a firm grip on the new members, many of whom are from the ruling party.
Speaking with journalists in Abuja few days to the inauguration, the Director General of Gbajabiamila Campaign Organization, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin said that they have already offered 60 committee chairmanship and deputy positions to the PDP lawmakers to secure their support.
According to him, “as it is today, the reality of the matter is that the PDP has been split into two factions. We have been open in negotiating with both factions. We have sealed a deal with one of the factions and we are still talking with the other faction.
“We are only doing that as a safety net. We do not need the whole of the PDP members to win the election. In fact, we may not even need a vote from the PDP because we are guiding our 223 votes religiously.
“But as a safety net, we have already over 60 members of the PDP working with us. There is nothing you can do to change the minds of these PDP members because their support is based on their conviction that Gbajabiamila and Wase are the best to occupy those positions at this time.
“On the aspect of responsibility in the parliament, we are always reluctant mentioning this, but it is the reality, sharing of committees and the rest. We have offered 60 positions.
“If not that the party has been broken into two factions, it is what we would have offered to all of them, but since we have concluded with one faction, we have given them that offer and they have accepted it.
“We have 60 of them and they are going to have 60 offices. It means that every one of them will have a particular position to hold in the next House.”
PDP’s failed bid to enthrone Bago
On the morning of the inauguration, the PDP made a spirited attempt to mobilise support for Bago. After series of meeting, the night before, the National Secretary, Senator Umaru Tsauri in a statement said: “After very extensive consultations with critical stakeholders, we resolved to support Senator Ali Ndume and Hon. Umar Mohammed Bago for Senate President and Speaker of House of Representatives respectively, ahead of National Assembly inauguration on Tuesday.
“The final resolution on Senator Ndume and Hon. Bago was reached at the end of a decisive meeting of members of the National Working Committee, party leaders, state governors as well as senators and members-elect on the platform of the PDP.
“This decision is in the best interest of the nation, in line with our party’s determination to deepen democracy, ensure a strong and independent legislature, strict compliance with the principle of separation of powers as well as constitutional checks and balances in the polity. All senators and members-elect on the platform of the PDP are to be guided accordingly.”
Ironically, the opposition caucus in the House had few days earlier, directed the lawmakers to vote for candidates of their choice.
The immediate past Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor had noted in a statement that “while we further our unflinching commitment to the principles and ethos of democracy, the PDP House Caucus has endorsed its members’ decision to work with Speakership aspirants from the ruling party, thereby allowing all who feel thus inclined, the freedom to attend all meetings, participate in campaigns, strategy sessions and other activities of any Speakership aspirant of their choice.
“While the PDP House Caucus has taken the decision with clear focus on the national interest as well as the future strategic goals of our party, we are not unaware that a few may unfortunately feel inclined to go overboard, nibbling dangerously at carrots dangled before them without adequately heeding appropriate guidelines.”
However, as the result of the election proved, the PDP lawmakers spurned the directive of the party, as some of them openly identified with Gbajabiamila.
Sunday Sun reliably gathered that the inability of the opposition lawmakers to speak in one voice was traceable to a number of factors.
Analysts pointed to the delay by the PDP leadership in giving a clear-cut direction to its members on the speakership contest as its greatest undoing.
In the absence of a clear direction from the party, a lot of the PDP members started looking up to the immediate past Speaker, Dogara to guide them.
Like the PDP, Dogara was equally not forthcoming.
A ranking member of the opposition party told Sunday Sun that after waiting for the party and the speaker to say where the party was headed in the leadership contest, several lawmakers exasperated with the development decided to open up direct negotiations with the Gbajabiamila’s camp.
He said this because members were angry that Dogara, who at that point was speculated to be weigh his options on whether or not to contest for the speakership, wanted to jeopardize the interest of the minority caucus.
Besides, there were some aggrieved PDP lawmakers, who felt shortchanged by the immediate past leadership in the allocation of committee chairmanship and deputy chairmanship and saw the speakership elections as an opportunity to get even with Dogara.
Consequently, by the time the PDP leadership moved to enthrone Bago, banking on its numbers in the Green Chamber, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The result was the trouncing the Niger-born lawmaker got during the speakership election.