Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
In the nine weeks since Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila was elected the Speaker of the House of Representatives, if the saying that morning defines the day is anything to go by, Nigerians by now would have known what to expect from the Ninth House under Gbajabiamila.
In the 45 days that the Green Chamber was in session, before it commenced its annual recess, Gbajabiamila one way or another has shown the kind of House he intends to run, especially as it concerns his relationship with the opposition and perceived opponent, as well as in addressing pressing national issues.
From the appointment of principal officers to the appointment of chairmen and deputy chairmen of standing committees, everything that happened in the House within the 45 days, has some bearing with the politics that preceded the inauguration of the Ninth House on June 11.
So far, Gbajabiamila has employed various strategies in managing the affairs of the House. These include a combination of carrot and stick, conciliatory, divide and rule approaches, especially as it concerns relationship with the opposition, amongst others.
Prior to the inauguration of the Ninth House, there was intense contest for the speakership of the House, with a total of 11 lawmakers indicating interest in the coveted seat.
They included Hons. Mukhar Betara, Abdulrasak Namdas, Khadijah Bukar Ibrahim, John Dygeh, Segun Odebunmi and Umar Bago.
Others were Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, Tahir Monguno, Nkeiruka Onyejocha, Olajide Olatubosun, as well as Gbajabiamila himself.
However, the leadership of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) later adopted Gbajabiamila as its preferred candidate for the speakership contest. The endorsement changed the dynamics of the speakership position.
Armed with the endorsement of the ruling party, Gbajabiamila launched a spirited campaign for the leadership of the Green Chamber.
Following the withdrawal of most of the contestants, the speakership contest became a straight fight between Gbajabiamila and Bago, who was backed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
It was more or less, a proxy war between the APC and the major opposition party.
For Gbajabiamila, it was a case of once beaten, twice shy. Despite being endorsed by the ruling party in 2015, he had narrowly lost the speakership of the House in the Eighth Assembly to Hon. Yakubu Dogara, who was backed by the PDP.
Therefore, in the run-up to June 11, Gbajabiamila reportedly struck various deals, as well as made concessions to individual lawmakers and power blocs, especially the new members and opposition lawmakers.
For instance, few days to the inaugural sitting, former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations and Director General of the Gbajabiamila/Wase Campaign Organisation, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin, told journalists that Gbajabiamila has offered 60 committee chairmanship and deputy chairmanship position to the PDP lawmakers, if they support him to emerge Speaker.
After a tension-soaked contest, Gbajabiamila defeated Bago to emerge Speaker on June 11. He polled a total of 281 votes against Bago’s 76 votes.
Majority leadership crisis
But the House ran into a storm on July 3, when the Speaker announced the leadership of the minority caucus in the House, naming member representing Anaocha/ Oshimili Federal Constituency of Delta State, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu, as minority leader, amidst protestations by some members of the PDP. He also named Toby Okechukwu from Enugu, deputy minority leader; Gideon Gwani from Kaduna, minority whip and Segun Adekoye from Ogun State as deputy minority whip.
The PDP in his letter to the Speaker had nominated Kingsley Chinda as minority leader; Chukwuka Onyema, deputy minority leader; Yakubu Barde, minority whip; and Ajibola Muraina as deputy minority whip.
The announcement of minority principal officers had snowballed into a scuffle in the chamber, causing the House to adjourn abruptly on that fateful day.
Efforts by Chinda and his supporters to raise the issue of the minority leadership the next legislative day was stalled by Gbajabiamila.
The Speaker later gave a stern warning to Chinda, who had arrived the chamber, very early on that fateful day to occupy the seat designated for the minority leader, not to test the resolve of the House or he would regret it.
Though the dust raised by the minority leadership crisis seem to have settled, things are yet to return to normal among the opposition lawmakers.
With the minority caucus sharply divided, the Speaker has fully embraced the Elumelu group, while key PDP members, who are on the other side has been sidelined in the scheme of things, especially in the headship of standing committees.
Pundits say Gbajabiamila cashed in on the division within the minority caucus, especially amongst PDP lawmakers as to who become minority leader, to ensure that those who supported him during the speakership contest emerged as leaders of the opposition in the House.
Analysts say the situation will make it impossible for the opposition to speak with one voice in the Ninth House.
Regardless, apparently in a bid to pacify some of his known opponents and douse tension in the House, Gbajabiamila has been in conciliatory dealings with some of the PDP lawmakers opposed to him.
Recently, the Speaker blocked a motion seeking to refer a PDP member from Benue State, Hon. Mark Gbilah to the Ethics and Privilege Committee.
Speaking under matters of privilege, Hon. Patrick Asadu, had alleged that a media interview by Gbillah on the election of the Speaker, breached his privilege and that of other members of the House from Enugu and Ebonyi states.
But Gbajabiamila appealed to Asadu to let go, noting that though Gbillah had launched a vitriolic attack in the media against the House leadership, he should be forgiven.
Addressing the lawmaker, he said: “Hon. Mark Gbilah, of late you’ve been making several unsavory comments both in prints and on TV, many of which touched me, my personal integrity.
“You’ve made these comments without recourse to the rights of the people you talk about to protect their privacy.”
Nevertheless, the Speaker added: “Honourable colleagues, I want us to let this lie in the spirit of reconciliation so that Hon. Mark Gbillah would take stocks of what he’s said and how they affect the integrity of colleagues and the House in general.”
In the aftermath of the election of presiding officers of the House, Gbillah had accused Gbajabiamila of vote-buying during the election. The lawmaker, who is the spokesman of the G-70, a group of lawmakers opposed to the Speaker, had said the group might go to court to challenge Gbajabiamila’s election as Speaker.
Few days later, the Speaker saved another PDP member, Hon. Gogo Bright from suspension, after the Ad-hoc Committee on Ethics and Privileges recommended his suspension for attempting to snatch the mace during the scuffle over the minority leadership crisis on July 3.
The Ad hoc committee headed by the Deputy House Leader, Peter Akpatson had in its report recommended that Bright should be suspended for 30 legislative days for alleged misconduct.
However, after the embattled lawmaker publicly appealed for leniency, the Speaker said: “ I want to plead with our colleagues, that we deal with this matter as a first time offender. I suggest we expunge this report, that is to give him a clean slate”. Consequently, Bright was left off the hook.
Politics of committees’ composition
After his emergence as Speaker, Gbajabiamila increased the number of standing committees from 96 to 106, so as to accommodate more of his loyalists in the headship of committees.
The sharing of the committees chairmanship and deputy chairmanship, which was announced before the House commenced its annual recess, indicated that it was more or less “the winner takes it all”, with most of the “juicy” committees going to Gbajabiamila’s men from Lagos, and Kano states. In line with his pre-election promise, all the former speakership contenders, with the exception of Olatubosun, were given Committee chairmanship positions; with Betera emerging as chairman, Appropriations Committee; Namdas, Army; Bukar Ibrahim, Northeast Development Commission (NEDC); Dygeh, Human Rights; Odebunmi, Information and Bago, Cooperation and Integration in Africa.
Doguwa, Monguno and Onyejocha had earlier emerged House Leader, Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip respectively.
A breakdown of the list indicates that the All Progressives Congress (APC) got a total of 80 committee chairmanship positions and 63 deputy chairmanship, the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), 20 chairmen and 30 deputy chairmen, while the remaining chairmanship and deputy chairmanship positions were shared by the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Action Alliance( AA) and Allied Peoples Movement (APM).
In all, the opposition lawmakers got a total of 58 committee chairmanship and deputy chairmanship positions.
In the past, the sharing of committee positions has always triggered unrest in the House, as those felt aggrieved either because they were not named as committee chair or deputy usually draw battle line with the leadership.
However, those who lost out this time around seem to have decided to rue their lose quietly, probably waiting for an opportunity to get even with the speaker, as none of them have spoken publicly about their disappointment.
Apart from the PDP members, there are equally APC lawmakers, who worked for the Speaker, but did not get any committee headship.
Besides, there are also lawmakers, who are aggrieved that that they got less than they deserved in the leadership of committees.
It is yet unknown if this group of aggrieved lawmakers will form an alliance to battle the leadership by the time the House resumes in September.
Prior to the announcement of the committee heads, the chairman, House Committee on Basic Education, Prof Julius Ihonvbere had told our correspondent, that there is no way every member of the House can be committee chairman or deputy.
Ihonbvere said that even if Gbajabiamila made promises to lawmakers regarding the headship of committees, before his emergence as Speaker, he would find a way of explaining this to those who will get committee chairmanship or deputy.
“There are 360 of us. We don’t have 360 committee chairmen available. We have chairman, we have deputy, we have members. You cannot go to court, because you were not given a committee (chairmanship).
“I have full confidence that he (Gbajabiamila) will do the right thing. And he has the capacity to speak, if at all he made promises to people and based on what he now knows, and what he now sees, he cannot fulfill it, he has the capacity to talk to the person, and say based on what I said, it is not working and this is the best I can do for you,” Ihonvbere stated.
Similarly, the member representing Aguata Federal Constituency of Anambra State, Chukwuma Umeoji told Sunday Sun that the issue of who becomes a committee chairman or deputy chairman is the prerogative of the Speaker.
The lawmaker, who is a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) noted that a lot of factors influenced the appointment of heads of the committees. According to him, “the issue of who becomes a chairman or deputy chairman is at the discretion of the Speaker. Sometimes, there might be internal politics, to determine who becomes what. Maybe, he will look at the people who gave him support and use it as a parameter.
“So, it doesn’t mean that if you are not a chairman or deputy, you are not good. It means, you are not in his calculation. That is the way I look at it. It is not an easy decision for him.”
Umeoji, who incidentally, is one of those who lost out in the chairmanship, said that he does not anticipate any problem in the House on account of the allocation of headship of standing committees.
“The conditions on ground in the House, I don’t think is viable for any problem to arise,because, one, he (speaker) came in through a bipartisan support. His support base cuts across the political parties. Even some people that did not get chairmanship or deputy, are still in support of the man. He is somebody that has been in House for long. And he has made friends.
“I don’t see any crack yet. But the House is always filled with banana peels. And I think he knows how to meander and manouvre these things. I think he will do well as Speaker,” the opposition lawmaker stated.
Bills, motions and expectations from the Ninth House
From the inauguration of the National Assembly on June 11 to July 25, when the House commenced its annual recess, the Green Chamber has passed a total of 287 bills for first reading and adopted 63 motions on several national issues.
The chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Benjamin Kalu says the Ninth House would accord priority to legislative reforms and champion legislations that will address the economic and security challenges confronting the country.
He added that that the House would also give priority attention to good governance and the war against corruption.
According to him, “the priority of the 9th House of Representatives will be to reform legislative functions by making them more proactive and in tune with global best practices. This House will prioritize the economy, insecurity, good governance and the fight against corruption over the next four years, using a system of accountability and transparency.”