From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
In the last few weeks, major activities in the House of Representatives have been trailed by controversies. Prior to the adjournment of the House for its annual recess two weeks ago, the green chamber was tension-soaked as the lawmakers squared up against one another.
The period was one of intrigues and endless controversies from the Electoral Act amendment bill, to the adoption of the 3 percent equity for host communities in the Petroleum Industry Bill( PIB).
Recent defections of members elected on platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress( APC) also generated controversy as it pitched the House leadership against the minority caucus.
There was also the intervention of the House in the suspension of micro-blogging and networking site, Twitter. However, three controversies stand out.
Dogfight over defections
Prior to the adjournment of the House, the leadership and the minority caucus crossed swords over the endless defections of opposition lawmakers to the APC. The trigger was the defection of the member representing Gusau/ Tsafe federal Constituency of Zamfara State, Kabiru Amadu to the ruling party.
Amadu is among the six members of the House from Zamfara State, who announced their defections to the ruling party, two weeks ago, alongside the state governor, Bello Matawalle.
Recently, the defection of opposition lawmakers to the APC has become a regular affair, to the chagrin of the minority caucus leadership.
At the last count, no fewer than 27 members of the House of Representatives elected on the platform of the PDP and other opposition parties have defected to the APC in the last two years.
After each defection, the minority caucus would cry foul, while the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila gloats over the depletion of the opposition lawmakers.
Apart from the PDP, other political parties whose members have defected to the APC include the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Action Alliance( AA) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
The minority caucus, apparently frustrated by the latest defection, which has reduced the number of members of opposition parties in the House to 130, against the APC’s 228 members, recently took on the speaker.
The deputy minority, Toby Okechukwu, while reacting to the latest defection, accused the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila of alleged disobedience to the 1999 Constitution (as amended), especially as it affects defections.
Section 68(1) (g) of the Constitution makes it illegal for lawmakers to defect from the party, on whose platform they were elected into the House and still keep their seats, except the defection is as a result of a division in their former party.
Okechukwu said: “We observe with dismay the continued disobedience of our Constitution by the speaker who continues to ignore the provisions of the Constitution.”
However, Gbajabiamila, who cut him short, cautioned him to be mindful of his choice of words.
The speaker said: “that you are given the privilege to speak does not mean you can address the chair in any language that you so wish. It is actually against our rules. I am not here to interpret the constitution. That is the function of the judiciary. Your point of order is overruled”.
Regardless, the minority leader, Ndudi Elumelu insisted that there is no basis for the former PDP members to defect and still retain their seats in parliament.
“Mr. Speaker, there is no crisis in the PDP in Zamfara State. Section 68 of the Constitution and the House rules require that any member who defects to another party should lose his job. But we are challenging this in court and I do hope that when the court rules on it, you will accept the decision of the court.”
Macabre dance over electoral act amendment law
However, the controversy that attracted more attention was the stand-off between the House leadership and the minority caucus during the clause-by-clause consideration of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.
Trouble started in the House during the consideration of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, after a controversial ruling by the deputy speaker, Idris Wase, on a motion for an amendment to Section 52(2) of the proposed electoral law.
The deputy minority leader, Toby Okechukwu had proposed an amendment to 52(2) of the proposed electoral law to the effect that transmission of election results should be by electronic.
However, Wase before subjecting the motion to vote said only 20 percent of his constituency has broadband coverage
According to him,” Today, in Nigeria I don’t know the coverage of the broadband. Have we been able to cover all parts of the federation that we now want to put it. I don’t know. But I make bold to say, you can go and verify. In my constituency, we don’t have more than 20 percent coverage.”
When the proposal was subjected to a voice vote, majority voted in support. However, the deputy speaker gave it to the “nays”. After the controversial ruling, the House erupted in crisis. And in no time, members were engaged in fisticuffs.
In a bid to resolve the stand-off, Abiodun Faleke proposed that transmission of election results should be manual or electronic.
However, the leader of the PDP caucus, Kingsley Chinda called for a division to determine between the proponents and opponents of electronic transmission of results.
However, Gbajabiamila, in his intervention, said all possibilities must be explored to resole the issue, as it is fundamental.
“We have to explore all possibility. Hon Chinda got it wrong when he said you have ruled on this matter. Let me say it clearly that you have not ruled on this matter. The amendment by Hon Faleke is for electronic and manual. Which is a different issue. By our procedure, that question must be put,” he said.
Nevertheless, the House leader objected vehemently, noting that the contentious issue had been resolved.
Ado-Doguwa said: “Mr Speaker, you remain the leader of the House but on this observation you made here Mr Speaker, I stand here under moral commitment to say that when a matter is raised, a voice vote is taken and the gavel is hit. It is a concluded matter. And we can only reverse that by recision.”
The development forced Gbajabiamila to adjourn the consideration of the committee report on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill to the next day. The speaker before the motion for adjournment invited the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) to address the House on the contentious issue.
At the resumption of plenary the following day, while the NCC was present, the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, was conspicuously absent. The speaker explained that the leadership withdrew the invitation to Yakubu, because they think the electoral body should not be part of the discourse.
Nevertheless, the NCC Executive Commissioner, Technical Service, Maska Ubale, who represented the commission, said only 50.3 percent of the 19,0000 polling units in the country are covered by 2G and 3G network.
Wase at the resumption of the consideration of the bill clause-by-clause, started from clause 54.
In protest, Okechuckwu raised a point of order. The deputy minority leader noted that clause 52, which deals with transmission of results, has not been fully addressed.
According to him, there was a motion on Thursday, calling for a division over the clause 52. He added that the motion has not being addressed.
Wase retorted: “Nobody moved a motion here yesterday for division. So, you are trying to mislead the House. Don’t mislead the House. I insist there wasn’t a motion for division. I don’t want you to repeat it again. Nobody has asked for division.” He said Section 52(2) could only be revisited through a motion for recision.
The announcement did not go down well with proponents of electronic transmission of election results. Consequently, another stand-off ensued.
After a few minutes, the speaker said the House could continue with other clauses and come back to Section 52(2), later.
However, midway into the consideration, the members of the minority caucus walked out of the chamber, in protest. Elumelu said the opposition lawmakers cannot continue with a process that will not allow the votes of Nigerians count.
According to him “we have no other choice than to say that we cannot be part of that fake process where they’re depriving Nigerians of their right for their results to be counted accurately.
“Because e-transmission will guard against rigging and votes can count. But what they have done is to discountenance our agitations that let their be transparency in the next conduct of our elections,” he stated.
Immediately the opposition lawmakers left the chamber, the members of the APC sat back and completed the clause-by-clause consideration of the electoral bill and thereafter passed the bill.
Gbajabiamila, while reporting progress, after the House reverted to plenary said:
“We all want electronic transmission… That is what we seek to do. When we have full coverage, we can come back and amend the law. We don’t want to disenfranchise anybody. We have said it for years that every vote must count,” he said.
Pundits say although the House has passed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, the controversy trailing the legislation will linger for a long time, especially with the call by the PDP caucus for the prosecution of NCC for lying under oath.
The caucus, in a statement by its leader said: “it was a show of shame on the floor of the House of Representatives on Friday, July 17, 2020 during the consideration of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.
“The comedy of errors started by the House stopping INEC from appearing before the House to prevent the nation from learning the truth and allowing only NCC to appear to discuss issues on the ability or otherwise of INEC to handle electronic transmission of votes.”
He added: “we call on the prosecuting authorities to immediately arrest the officials of the NCC, under Prof Danbatta and all those who procured Ubale Maska and other officials to lie under oath to be criminally investigated and where found culpable, be brought to justice by standing criminal trial.”
Twitter ban controversy
Weeks earlier, the decision of the Federal Government to suspend the activities of social networking and micro-blogging site, Twitter had equally sparked off a controversy in the House. APC lawmaker had squared up against their PDP counterparts over government’s decision.
The controversy reached a climax during the consideration of the report of the House joint committee that investigated Twitter’s suspension, as Gbajabiamila, for the first time, disagreed publicly with the deputy speaker.
Prior to the consideration of the report, Wase, who presides over the Committee of the Whole had picked holes in the committee’s report.
Wase, who stated that the report was not exhaustive, had advised that the report consideration be deferred, so that the committee can do a thorough job.
“ I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt that truly, they need to have exhausted more avenues. I noted one point. It borders on security.
“And for the fact that it borders on security, that the content said invite the Minister, it does not preclude them from inviting the National Security Adviser. Hearing from the minister ( of information), who may just have a tip of information cannot be the basis of writing recommendation that Nigerian government has taken based on security.
“I still want to say that they needed to have gone further. It has shown even from the report that the chairman National Security was not even active participant in it. It has rendered the work, as far as I am concerned to some extent, not thoroughly done.”
Okechukwu concurred. According to him,”the committee had not done a prudent work, because they have not asked parliament to take a resolution on this matter. So it speaks to no issue. I will say that this report should not be considered,” the deputy minority leader stated.
But Gbajabiamila said the committee discharged his mandate effectively, noting that it was “uncharitable” for anyone to criticize the work.
According to him, “ I think it is uncharitable. Almost disingenuous to come and try and lampoon the work done by the committee. Whatever side of the divide we are on, the committee has discharged it’s responsibility objectively.”
After the speaker’s submission, Wase, apparently in deference to him, proceeded with the consideration of the report. But the import of Gbajabiamila’s stance was not lost on members.