Fred Itua, Abuja
The ongoing face off between a junior minister, Festus Keyamo and the Senate made of 109 lawmakers, didn’t come to many as a surprise. Unlike the endless wait for the fabled ‘Godot’, it was only a matter of time before what many keen observers describe as a ‘plastic relationship’ between the National Assembly and the Executive was going to hit a cul de sac.
Keyamo, who often rates himself as a human rights activist, isn’t new to his game of daring the Senate. In 2015, when Bukola Saraki-led Senate investigated Ibrahim Lamorde, a former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), over alleged diversion of recovered assets, Keyamo accompanied him to the hearing.
Similar to his grandstanding when he appeared recently before the 9th Senate committee on Labour and Productivity, Keyamo repeatedly told the 8th Senate committee on Ethics and Public Petitions that it lacked the powers to investigate Lamorde, whom he claimed was a free citizen.
Keyamo fell short of insulting senators, who watched in shock, how the senior advocate of Nigeria, attempted to lecture them on how to exercise their powers. After weeks of unfriendly banters, the committee in 2015, failed to extract anything meaningful from that exercise.
For those familiar with the modus operandi of Keyamo, his recent exchange with a Senate committee was expected. What is not expected for now, is how the flouting of an instruction issued by the Senate will affect the working relationship between President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly.
In one of his recent outings, President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, who doubles as the biggest promoter of Legislature-Executive relationship, made some salient remarks.
He said: “A cardinal objective of the ninth National Assembly, which we declared from the outset, is to build a mutual understanding of roles, cooperation, partnership, with the other arms of government to enhance performance by government and general public service delivery.”
How far is the Lawan-led National Assembly willing to tolerate what many political pundits have termed as nuisances of President Buhari’s appointees before it stamps its foot and take its pound of flesh? Is the National Assembly populated by former governors, ministers, ambassadors and captains of industries, willing to swallow the daily dose of insults from a junior minister before it bites?
On June 30, members of the Senate Labour committee engaged in a shouting competition with Keyamo, following a disagreement in the handling of Special Public Works Programme (SPWP) involving the recruitment of 774,000 persons across the 774 local government areas in the country.
The National Assembly joint committee on Labour and Productivity, had invited Keyamo to provide an explanation on the modalities for the recruitment exercise. The atmosphere in room 231 venue of the committee meeting suddenly became charged and tumultuous following disagreement on whether or not the meeting should be held behind closed doors as suggested by the committee.
Trouble started when Keyamo insisted that the session be made open with journalists in attendance. Lawmakers had claimed that the members of the state selection committee for the project were appointed on a lopsided manner.
They accused Keyamo of having abused due process in the appointment of additional 12 members after eight had been duly appointed. The minister who was already poised to respond to the allegations became enraged when chairman of the Committee, Godiya Akwashiki, suddenly declared that the meeting should continue behind closed doors.
Keyamo rejected the call for close door meeting insisting that he had the right to respond to the allegations in the open. The lawmakers took the minister’s insistence on open session as an embarrassment pointing out that they had the right to dictate the proceedings of the meeting.
They asked Keyamo to immediately apologise to them for rejecting the closed door meeting, an order which the minister equally rejected. That was the genesis of what became a protracted face off.
Keyamo accused lawmakers of attempting to hijack and control the recruitment programme. He explained that though the National Assembly had the right to investigate the recruitment exercise, that responsibility does not give the lawmakers powers to seek to control the exercise.
He wondered what the lawmakers still wanted from the recruitment programme after about 10 to 15 percent of the jobs have been reserved for them. Keyamo said the lawmakers wanted to control the programme pointing out that only the President could ask him to leave the exercise.
“They can investigate the programme I can be coming here everyday to explain but they cannot control it. I did not apologise because I did not say anything derogatory; I only insisted that the cameras must be there,” he said.
According to Keyamo, “there is nothing to apologise for because the constitution says expose corruption, you cannot expose corruption behind the public.”
The following day, Senate spokesman, Ajibola Basiru and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu, in a joint statement, insisted that the implementation must be put on hold until modalities were explained to the National Assembly.
In the joint statement, the two spokesmen said: “The National Assembly is concerned about the proper and effective implementation of the engagement of 774,000 Public Works Workers and wishes to restate its commitment to its success.
“Accordingly, the National Assembly reminds members of the public that the Legislature was part of the conception of the programme, approved it and appropriated funds for its implementation as part of the COVID 19 response strategy.
“The National Assembly, in line with its constitutional oversight function, has mandated its Committees on Labour and Productivity to immediately invite the Hon. Minister for Labour and Productivity and any other relevant officials of the Ministry to appear before the joint committee to brief it on the modality for the implementation of the engagement of 774,000 persons for public works.
“In accordance with the constitutional imperative of oversight, the Legislature being important stakeholders in the democratic process, and elected representatives of the people, needed to be appraised of modalities for implementation for effective feedback to our constituents and in ensuring that our constituents optimally participate in and benefit from the process.
“In view of the foregoing, the implementation of the programme shall be on hold pending proper briefing of the National Assembly by the Minister of Labour and Productivity.”
Ignoring the order from the National Assembly, Keyamo issued a counter and insisted that the exercise was going to be conducted. He said beside President Buhari, no other person, including members of the National Assembly, could halt the recruitment.
In a counter punch, Lawan said only the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) and not the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity, should handle the planned recruitment of 774,000 Nigerians in the ongoing Special Public Works project.
Lawan said there was no going back on the position of the upper legislative chamber. Instead, he added that the Ministry will not be allowed to handle the exercise since the N52 billion approved by the National Assembly was for NDE.
In a face saving move, Minister of Labour, Productivity and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige apologised to the leadership of the National Assembly and the joint Senate and House Committees on Labour, Productivity and Employment.
Ngige said: “Having visited your domain to the Joint Committee on Labour, Productivity and Employment over some issues of the Special Public Works Programme of the Federal Government, a programme that was designed by the Executive with the legislature, if the Executive makes a proposal and it is not funded, then that proposal will be dead on the table.
“We deeply regret the incident that happened, the altercation that followed it, between my Minister of State and members of the Joint Committee.”
Few minutes after the meeting, where Ngige issued the apology, Keyamo, again, fired another shot. He said he was not in support of the truce, insisting that the project was going to be executed despite the firm position of the Senate.
While the exchange of words lasted, President Buhari kept a loud silence. Though observers believed that Keyamo was acting with a tactical support from the President, no one could firmly hold on to that argument since Buhari didn’t speak publicly.
The National Assembly was still recovering from its wounds inflicted on it by Keyamo, when President Buhari gave an order that the exercise should be kicked off.
Shamed by the development, the Senate held a long closed door session last Wednesday, where it resolved to take the matter to the President. On Thursday, Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila met with Buhari.
According to a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, the President asked ministers and all heads of departments and agencies to, at all times, conduct themselves in ways that will not undermine the National Assembly as an institution, its leadership and members.
The statement read: “President Muhammadu Buhari received in audience the distinguished Senate President, Senator Ahmed Ibrahim Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila at the State House, Aso Villa.
“The meeting, which lasted for almost an hour, was characterised by an engaging discussion on a range of key issues of national importance, particularly the role of the Legislature as a critical component in supporting their common goal and commitment towards improving the lives of the people of Nigeria.
“In the course of their conversation, recent events at the National Assembly were highlighted and the President re-emphasised his utmost respect for the National Assembly, adding that any disrespect to the institution by any member of the executive branch will not be accepted.
“Ministers and all heads of departments and agencies should at all times conduct themselves in ways that will not undermine the National Assembly as an institution, its leadership and members.”
In the midst of the crisis, Minority Leader of the Senate, Enyinnaya Abaribe, said the senators were expecting the Senate president, to brief them on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting of the presiding officers of the National Assembly with President Buhari on the issue.
He said: “The Senate will take an official position on the issue next Tuesday after listening to the outcome of the meeting between the presiding officers and the President over the matter.
“We asked our presiding officers to meet with President Buhari on the issue and we have not had plenary since they returned. The Senate President will brief us on Tuesday at plenary and we will make a decision on it.”
It is believed that this week’s decision by the National Assembly, will signal a new dawn or otherwise of the relationship between President Buhari and the Parliament.