By Fred Itua, Abuja
The 8th Senate, since its inauguration on the 9th of June, 2015, has been enmeshed in crisis. From the election of the two presiding officers, to the selection of the principal officers, it has been one crisis or the other. Even the selection of heads of the various standing committees of the Senate, equally sparked controversy. While a large number of lawmakers hailed the selection, others viewed it as grand ploy to shutdown core antagonists of the Senate president, Senator Bukola Saraki.
The fresh perceived onslaught against the Senate by the presidency is not new. Observers who have keenly followed the recent happenings in the Red Chamber believe there is a calculated attempt to make the Senate a rubber stamp stooge by certain aggrieved elements in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), as well as the presidency.
First, it was the trial of Saraki over his alleged under-declaration of assets when he held sway as governor of Kwara state. Next was the court case instituted against the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu by some aggrieved lawmakers, over claims that he forged the Standing Rules of the Senate. While that was yet to abate, protesters who were allegedly sponsored, stormed the National Assembly and demanded for the resignation Saraki as Senate President.
That is beside the controversy that surrounded the 2016 budget, with claims that the Senate President, Saraki wanted to frustrate its passage. Chairmen of some standing committees were also accused of conniving with top civil servants to pad the budget. While the Senate was persistently under fire, it did not however default in giving speedy considerations to requests from President Muhammadu Buhari and other members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC).
The last straw that shattered the fragile relationship between the Senate and the presidency was the fresh suit instituted by the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, on behalf of the Federal Government, against the duo of Saraki and Ekweremadu, over claims that the Senate Standing Rules used in electing them were forged.
The inside story of the forgery scandal
According to police documents, tagged “Police Investigation Report of Forgeries/Fraudulent Use of Senate Standing Rules 2015 (as amended) by the 8th Senate” and submitted to the immediate-past Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mr. Solomon Arase by a Deputy-Inspector of Police in charge of Force Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Department, Mr. Dan’Azumi Doma, there were two recommendations given.
Parts of the recommendations read: “From the findings, especially from the statement of the Clerk of the Senate who doubles as the Deputy Clerk of the National Assembly, the Senate Standing Orders 2015, which was used to inaugurate the 8th Senate on the 9th of June, 2015, was ordered by the leadership of the 7th Senate, without following Section 110 of the Senate Standing Rules 2011 as amended which requires that any amendment to the Senate Standing Rules must be debated and approved by the Senators on the floor of the Senate.
“This practice where some group of Senators amend the Rules of the Senate without following legal procedures is not only criminal, but portends danger for our growing democracy and should be discouraged. However, it is recommended that the file be sent to the AGF for vetting to determine if the conduct constitutes crime or should be treated as an internal affairs of the Senate.”
Based on the recommendations of the Police, political pundits have come up with two arguments. First, some believe that since the legislature is an independent arm of government, it should be free to resolve its issues internally without any recourse to the judiciary or undue interference from the executive arm. And this was aptly captured in the recommendations of the Police.
However, the other school of thought believes that since the issues under review are criminal in nature, it should not be resolved internally as being currently suggested. They believe that those found culpable in the alleged infractions should be prosecuted and jailed if found guilty. Pundits equally believe that leaders of the 7th Senate who allegedly played key roles in the alleged forgery should be the real culprits. But in the suit filed at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, the names of the president of the 7th Senate, David Mark is missing. Similarly, the Leader of the 7th Senate who recently defected to APC, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, is also missing from the list.
Senate’s new offensive
On Sunday, June 19, 2016, the Senate shocked Nigerians when it took a firm position and officially declared war on President Buhari and the executive. Angered by media reports, office of the Deputy Senate President, released the first punch. Media aide to Ekweremadu, Mr. Uche Anichukwu in his press release, noted that the media reports on the purported invitation by the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and the charges reportedly preferred against Ekweremadu before the FCT High Court, Abuja, in connection with the alleged forgery of the Senate Standing Orders 2011 was a fresh attempt to witch-hunt him. The media aide also noted that in July 2015, the Police spokesperson told the world that the NPF did not invite Senator Ekweremadu for questioning and that the NPF did not at any time question him over the forged Senate Standing Orders. Hear him: “We are, therefore, as surprised as other Nigerians at the current twists and turns by the same police one year after and also after they had since submitted to the Attorney General of the Federation, their investigation report, which neither indicted nor even made the slightest mention of Senator Ike Ekweremadu. Moreso that the petitioners never named Ekweremadu in their petition in the first instance.
“We wish to state that we read the reports of the so-called police invitation and charges allegedly preferred against Senator Ekweremadu; the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki; and others on the pages of the newspapers like other Nigerian.
“Even as we try to reconcile the reports of the simultaneous police invitation and court processes, nobody has, till date, served the Deputy President of the Senate any letter of invitation by the police or court summons. The Office or person of the Deputy President of the Senate is not in the moon. The concerned authorities know how and where to reach Senator Ekweremadu if they want to. But, so far, everything remains in the realms of the usual propaganda onslaught to malign, bully, intimidate, and divert attention from the real challenges presently confronting the nation. However, when the bird jerks in the air, we can fathom where it would perch. In the meantime, we want to assure our teeming supporters, well meaning Nigerians, and youths from across Nigeria and beyond, who have continued to throng Senator Ekweremadu’s residence and inundate him with calls, mails, and text messages to make inquiries, express their displeasure, and show solidarity over this daylight persecution, that there is no cause for alarm.
“The hands of Senator Ike Ekweremadu are clean because he has no business whatsoever with the production of Senate Standing Orders.
“This latest attempt to try and convict him in the court of public opinion notwithstanding, we do not want to mount a public defence. We would rather meet them in court if they so wish.
“While we plead with our supporters across the nation to maintain the peace and go about their normal businesses unperturbed by this latest act of harassment and impunity, we want to reassure them that no form of intimidation and onslaught to rubbish him will make the Deputy President of the Senate shy away from diligently carrying out the constitutional duties, which his constituency and Distinguished Senators representing every part of Nigeria, lawfully elected him on June 9, 2015 to perform for the good governance and development of Nigeria. Ekweremadu will not legislate in fear, and he will certainly not fear to legislate.
“If an attempt on his life on November 17, 2015 (which there are no facts or information to show that the police investigated an incident of such magnitude duly reported to them) did not deter him, certainly not even a purported police invitation, lawsuit, propaganda, and intimidation would cow him because Nigeria belongs to all of us, irrespective of our different political, ethnic, and religious leanings.”
While the shot fired by Ekweremadu was yet to sink in, the spokesman of the Senate, Senator Abdullahi Sabi released another punch, which officially signaled that all was not well between the presidency and the Senate. Senator Sabi described the move t charge the two presiding officers of the Senate as unconstitutional and a violation of the principles of separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution.
He also raised the alarm that Nigeria’s democracy was in danger and further alleged that the executive was making desperate attempts to muzzle the legislature and criminalize legislative process in order to cause leadership change in the National Assembly. He had further alleged that the presidency was desperate to return to the era of impunity and lack of respect for due process which he said they we all fought to abolish.
“This latest plot is directed at forcing a change of leadership in the Senate or, in the extreme case, ground the Red Chamber of the National Assembly. Or how do one interpret a move in which the two presiding officers are being set up to be remanded in Kuje Prison or incapacitated from sitting at plenary through a day-to-day trial on a matter that is purely an internal affair of the Senate. This obviously is a dangerous case of violation of the independence of the legislature, undue and unnecessary interference in the internal affairs of the Senate and blatant abuse of the judicial process. The matter now being criminalised was brought to the plenary of the Senate in session, over a year ago. And because it had no support, it was overruled and roundly defeated in chambers.
“To now take a matter that was resolved on the floor of the Senate to the police and then make it form the subject of a criminal prosecution of freely elected legislators beats all imagination of free thinking men all over the world. The implication is that any matter that fails on the floor of the National Assembly will now be taken to the Police, thereby endangering every Senator and House member.
“This current move clearly runs contrary to the Doctrine of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances which are fundamental to the successful operation of the Presidential System of government. It runs counter to the principle outlined by the Supreme Court in the Adesanya Vs Senate case where it was held that nobody should seek to use the courts to achieve what he or she has failed to push through on the floor of the National Assembly.
“This present efforts, therefore, is clearly a coup against the legislature with the ignoble aim to undermine its independence and subject the law making institution to the whims and caprices of the executive. It is a plan to return Nigeria to the dictatorial era which we have, as a nation, voted to reject.
“It is a dangerous trend with grave implications for the survival of our democracy and the integrity of the component institutions. This rule of men as against the rule of law is also the reason why the War Against Corruption, one of the cardinal objectives of the present administration, is losing credibility because people perceive it to be selective and, in most cases, aimed at settling political or partisan scores.
“The Rules of the Senate and how the institution elects its leadership are internal affairs. The Rules of a new Senate are provided by the National Assembly bureaucracy. It has always been so since 1999. After the inauguration of the Senate, if Senators have objections to any part of the Rules, they can follow the procedure for changing it. Senators of the Eighth Senate have no control on the rules applied in the elections of June 9, 2015 because until after their inauguration, they were only Senators-elect, and therefore mere bystanders in the affairs of the Senate.
“We therefore urge all Nigerians and the International Community to rise up and condemn this blatant attempt to subject the legislature to the control, whims and caprices of the executive. If the Legislative branch falls, democracy fails as there will be no other institution empowered by the Constitution to check and balance the enormous powers of the Executive branch. We also call on the judiciary as the last hope to save our constitutional democracy and stand up for the rule of law, by doing that which is right in this case.”
On Tuesday, June 21, 2016, the Senate extended the fresh onslaught against Buhari when it tagged him “an autocrat”.
The angry lawmakers warned that its good relationship with the executive arm of government should not be taken for weakness. During Tuesday’s plenary, Senator Dino Melaye (APC, Kogi West), led the offensive.
Melaye had fired: “ The Nigerian Senate observes the ongoing systematic degradation and abuse of the office of the leadership of the National Assembly by the executive arm of government through intimidation and harassment. This Senate notes regrettably that the executive arm of government as presently constituted is still to come to terms with the constitutional tenets of separation of powers and the independence of the legislative arm of government.
“My respected colleagues, this very noble Senate observes further notwithstanding the maturity and nationalistic commitment of the National Assembly to ensure the survival of our democracy and the enthronement of order and national development through bipartisan initiatives and support for the executive, there remains a grand design not only to distract the National assembly, but to also intimidate it into silence and enthrone a one man rule.
“My colleagues, Mr. President, this Senate notes also the lack of respect for judicial decisions and the resolutions of the National Assembly by the executive which is beginning to arrogate itself, powers of the federation. The Senate notes that the current attempt to arraign the leadership of the Senate over an internal matter of the Senate and claims spuriously a forgery that does not exist is a smoke screen for an impending attempt to overthrow the legislative arm.
“This Senate notes further that the judiciary had through several rulings in a recent case suit no AFC/ABJ/CS/646/2015 on the same issue, warned the executive arm from treading on the path of criminalising or interfering in the running of the internal affairs of the Senate.
“This Senate therefore acknowledges the grave implications of this emerging trend poses to the security, continued existence, unity and survival of our dear country. This Senate is aware that the legislature is empowered by the constitution to regulate its own procedures as explicitly stated in section 60 of the Nigeria Consitution which we have all sworn to uphold.
“Mr. President, my colleagues, the Senate is disturbed that instead of applying itself to the myriads of problems confronting the nation, including the escalating cost of living, upsurge environment extremism, worsening insecurity, rising ethnic divisions, skyrocketing unemployment, declining national productivity and a nose diving economy into recession, the executive continues to be hell bent on chasing rats while the federation burns.
“Mr. President, my colleagues, disturbed by all this problems, what is the paramount concern of the executive is to neutralize the independence of the parliament and create effigies of fear to shut down the demands for accountability, by whipping up sentiments trying to create crimes where non exist and divert attention.”
Senator Melaye had further noted: “I want to bring to the memory of this Senate and remind the executive arm of government that anything that is fake must have original. We therefore begin to ask ourselves where is the original of this counterfeit as suggested by this illegal persecution because what is being done is not prosecution but persecution.
“I want to remind the executive again that we all served in this chamber on the 9th of June, 2015. Two days before our resumption, I can speak for myself. We were invited to come to the National Assembly for documentation and when I came for my documentation, I was given a copy of the constitution and the rules of the Senate. And this two documents were given to me 48hrs before my inauguration as a Senator. This documents are the same documents we have used in this Senate to receive the budget of Mr. President. If the rule is fake, then the budget we have received is also fake and illegal. I want to also remind the executive that this same rule is what we quoted when we responded to a communication from Mr. President to have a joint session with the President of South Africa.
“This same rule is what we used in the screening of all the ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, including the AGF. This same rule if it is fake, the position of AGF as the Minister of Justice is also illegal. I also want to say Mr. president, this same rule is what we used in the screening of Service Chiefs on the floor of this chamber. This same rule is what we used in the screening of the FIRS chairman.
“This same rule is what we used in screening the executive vice chairman of NCC. This same rule is what we used in screening the INEC chairman. This same rule is what we used in screening the MD of AMCON. This same rule is what we used in screening the 2016 Appropriation Act by Mr. President. This same rule is what we used in passing that same budget that is now an Act of this parliament.
“If this rule put together, we have considered it in receiving Mr. president on two different occasions and Mr. President responded accordingly, can this fake rule give birth to illegality of all we have done with it? But I want to say we have no fake rule and I want to say that without fear or favour that what we used on the 9th of June, 2015 was regulated on the 10th, June 2016.
“This is to correct the very parochial and myopic and porous perception of those who want to divide this Senate. This senate will remain committed to the ideals of democracy. This Senate without fear or favour will continue to do only those things that will promote unity and prosperity of this country and we should not be cowed. May we never see that day when the legislature will become an appendage or department of the executive.”
A Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Senator and Chairman Senate committee on Gas, Bassey Akpan, while backing Melaye’s position, said he was handed over a copy of the Constitution and 2015 Standing Orders during accreditation. He expressed concern that the leadership of the senate was accused of forging it when they had not been elected as presiding officers as at then.
“When I came for accreditation, I was given a copy of the constitution and this standing rule to guide my conduct in the chamber. This constitution recognizes the doctrine of separation of powers and this is the first time that we are having a national assembly of this nature. An assembly where there is no clear cut majority and that is built on simple understanding and consensus. What makes democracy what it is today the existence of the National Assembly and as such should not be truncated. We owe this country a duty to reflect the content of this oath. I second this motion and challenge every member of this chamber to speak their mind. It is time that we rise and speak and defend democracy because if democracy is under threat then the existence of this country is under threat,’’ he said.
Supporting the motion, Chairman Senate Committee on Niger Delta Commission (NDDC), Senator Peter Nwoboshi, said there was laid down procedure for correcting anything in the Senate Order.
“If anyone has anything against any section of the rule, what to do is to apply the amendment clause and it is done among the lawmakers not with interference from outside. You don’t amend what you are not part of. We should rise and tell ourselves the truth and tell the world that there is an attempt to strangulate the legislature and we must not allow it,’’ he said.
Senator Isah Misau (APC, Bauchi Central), described the current development as injustice been done to the judiciary. He insisted that it was on the basis of the standing orders that he was given the privilege by the Senate to ask the Malami to take a bow and go when he came to Senate for confirmation as minister.
He said: “The interference is a deliberate attempt to bring down the integrity of the President of the Senate. We are the hope of the ordinary people. We must stand for justice and fairness.’’
The Chairman Senate Committee on Services, Senator Ibrahim Gobir said he was completely in support of the motion. According to him, the standing orders is authentic and should not be used as a move to distabilise the senate.
Gobir said: “There are three arms of government and they are totally independent. So, nobody can change anything without changing the constitution. It is our responsibility to choose our leaders and that is what we did. There is nothing wrong with the rules and for somebody to go there and say it has been forged is surprising.’’
In his remarks, the Deputy President of the Senate, Ekweremadu, said: “I don’t intend to say much because I am involved. Those that use their position today to intimidate others must realize that no condition is permanent.’’
Similarly, Senators elected on the platform of the PDP, may have withdrawn their support for President Buhari. The import of this means that, letters sent to the Senate seeking approval or names sent for confirmation, will be rejected by the PDP Senators. And since the party maintains a formidable number of lawmakers, it may spell doom for President Buhari.
With the declaration of an open war on Buhari and the appearance of Saraki and Ekweremadu in court next Monday, it is uncertain if the executive will soft-pedal and embrace dialogue rather than its current grandstanding. Observers who have been commenting have opined that the ongoing war is a mere distraction by the APC-led government to shift attention away from the biting economic hardship in the country.