Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Less than two months into the 9th Assembly, things appear to have fallen apart in the minority caucus of the House of Representatives as two factions engaged in a titanic battle over the leadership of the caucus.
On one hand is the Kingsley Chinda group, which is supported by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), while on the other hand is the Ndudi Elumelu group, which has the backing of the House of Representatives leadership.
The House minority caucus is made up of 147 members drawn from nine political parties with 127 of them from the PDP.
Crisis broke out in the caucus on July 3, after Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila announced the member representing Oshimili/Anaocha Federal Constituency, Ndudi Elumelu, as the choice of the opposition lawmakers as their minority leader.
Everything was going on well at the plenary on that fateful until Gbajabiamila midway into the plenary announced that he has received a communication from the minority lawmakers on their choice of principal officers.
The PDP had days earlier written to the Speaker informing the House of its choice for the various principal officers in the minority caucus.
Consequently, as Gbajabiamila tried to read the communication from the opposition lawmakers, he was interrupted by the member representing Obi/Akpor Federal Constituency, Kingsley Chinda, who raised a point of order.
Citing Order 7, Rule 8, Chinda contended that the House Rules provides that it is the minority party, and not opposition lawmakers, that should send a communication to the House on those chosen to serve as leaders of the minority.
According to him, “in every parliament in the world, the political party would write to the House or the Speaker communicating its principal officers. I have an acknowledgement copy of correspondence written by my party, the PDP, with the list of all nominated members of the minority principal officers.”
However, the Rivers-born lawmaker was ruled out of order by Gbajabiamila, who said, it was not the business of a political party to choose principal officers for the minority caucus.
In no time the House became charged as members engaged themselves in fisticuffs as they struggled over the mace. Amidst the confusion, the Speaker announced Elumelu as the minority leader; Toby Okechukwu, from Enugu State, deputy minority leader; Gideon Gwani from Kaduna, minority whip; and Segun Adekoye from Ogun State as deputy minority whip.
The PDP in its letter to the Speaker had nominated Chinda as minority leader; Chukwuka Onyema, deputy minority leader; Yakubu Barde, minority whip; and Ajibola Muraina as deputy minority whip.
Addressing journalists after the fight in the chamber, Chinda accused the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) of seeking to foist a leadership on the minority caucus and vowed that the plot would not succeed.
The lawmaker said that his colleagues and his party complied with Order 7, Rule 8 in choosing him as minority leader.
According to him, “from our rules, particularly Order 7, Rule 8, member of the minority parties shall among themselves nominate the minority leader, deputy minority leader, minority whip and deputy whip. We have all met as members of minority party twice; did our nomination and we agreed that the party should go back and choose among the nominees and get back to us. The party did exactly that and we reconvened and received the report of the party and we left satisfied. Only for us to attend plenary today and see this ambush.
“It is unfortunate as this is very unparliamentary. We are not going to take it. We must do things properly. We are members of the minority party. Our leadership will not be determined by the majority party. We are aware of the scheming of the APC that the target is to decimate the minority party in parliament and that they will decide who becomes minority leader. We will not allow that to happen.”
On the flipside, Elumelu maintained that himself and other principal officers in his camp were duly nominated by the 111 opposition lawmakers. Like Chinda claimed, the lawmaker equally maintained that their nomination as principal officers was in accordance with Order 7, Rule 8 of the House standing rules.
“Graciously, God has made it that my colleagues from nine minority parties have nominated me as their minority leader.
“We are all from nine political parties. For us who are from PDP we are very loyal to PDP. We believe in PDP. And, of course, we know no other party than PDP and we have followed what has happened and have accepted our nomination based on Order 7, Rule 8. We have complied with the position of the rule of the House,” Elumelu said.
Order 7, Rule 8(1) of the House standing rules on which the two factions are hinging their emergence states: “Members of the minority parties in the House shall nominate from among them the minority leader, minority whip, deputy minority leader and deputy minority whip.”
In the aftermath of his emergence, Elumelu was at the Abuja residence of the Chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees (BoT), Senator Walid Jibrin to inform him of his emergence as minority leader in the Green Chamber. Promptly, the BoT chairman pledged his support to Elumelu, noting that the board will support him in his assignment.
Regardless, 24 hours later, Jibrin made a U-turn. He told journalists in Abuja that he was not aware that the emergence of the minority leadership was trailed by controversy.
After the fight on July 3, Chinda arrived the chamber very early on July 4 to occupy the seat designated for the minority leader. That led to tension in the House on that fateful day, as Gbajabiamila refused to allow him raise any motion or contribute to debates.
The Speaker, who issued a stern warning to Chinda not to try the resolve of the House, maintained that as long as he does not sit on his allotted seat, he would not be recognized to speak. After several hours, the PDP-backed “minority leader” left the chamber and has not been to plenary in the past two weeks.
Regardless, the PDP has continued to insist that Chinda remains the minority leader.
According to the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, “Hon. Kingsley Chinda is our minority leader and all the other positions as we have communicated to the Speaker, House of Representatives.
“You are also aware that it was with the same process that we communicated to the Senate and the Senate has done a fine job, they have announced our leadership as sent without rancour, but it is surprising that the Speaker had to generate his own list. This is against parliamentary rules or what is tenable at the parliament.”
But a member of the House Ad-hoc Committee on Media and Publicity, Julius Ihonvbere, told Sunday Sun that Gbajabiamila did nothing wrong in jettisoning the list of minority leadership from the PDP.
The lawmaker noted that the Speaker is merely keeping to his words to do things differently.
“On the issue of the minority leadership, our standing order is very clear. The minority parties, their members in the House shall elect their leadership amongst them. And if one party sat down and draws up a list because it is the strongest, it is a wrong approach. Yes, this may have been done in the past, but people don’t like to read.
“Let them go back and read Gbajabiamila inaugural speech, he said this is a House of reforms. We hold office in trust for the people. And we are going to shake the table just a little bit. If they understand the meaning of shake the table, it means we are going to rearrange things.”
Analysts say the crisis over the minority leadership is traceable to the politics that preceded the emergence of Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House.
Prior to the inauguration of Ninth Assembly, PDP members were divided on the choice of the Speaker.
While one group pitched its tent with Umar Bago, who was endorsed for the speakership seat by the leadership of the opposition party, another group of PDP lawmakers openly canvassed support for Gbajabiamila in defiance of their party’s position.
It is the same group of PDP lawmakers that worked against the party’s interest in the election of Speaker that are queuing behind Elumelu in the tussle for the minority leadership.
Pundits say the Speaker had probably decided to pay back the major opposition party for its role in the speakership contest by recognizing a minority leadership not supported by the party.
Prior to the inauguration of the House, the Director General of the Gbajabiamila Campaign Organization, Abdulmumin Jibrin had appealed to the PDP to respect the choice of the APC as concerns the speakership of the Green Chamber.
Jibrin went on to caution that the minority caucus would not be happy if the ruling party determines its leadership.
Besides, a school of thought sees the crisis in the minority caucus as a proxy war between some governors elected on the platform of the PDP.
Exasperated by the development, the PDP National Working Committee (NWC) penultimate Friday slammed a one-month suspension on Elumelu, Okechukwu, Gwani and Adekoya for their role in the crisis in the minority caucus. Also suspended in relation to the leadership crisis were Wole Oke, Lynda Ikpeazu and Anayo Edwin.
The seven lawmakers, who were suspended after they failed to appear before the opposition party’s NWC, have been referred to the PDP Disciplinary Committee for further disciplinary actions.
On its part, the PDP BoT has raised a Committee to mediate in the crisis. The committee is chaired by former Senate President, Iyorchia Ayu as chairman. Other members of committee are David Mark, Ibrahim Mantu, Adolphus Wabara and Austin Opara, who is to serve as secretary.
Already, Elumelu and other principal officers in the minority caucus on his side have appeared before the committee, just as some lawmakers have appealed to the leadership of the opposition party to lift the suspension on them.
The sanction against him notwithstanding, Gbajabiamila has continued to recognize Elumelu as the minority leader. Backed by the Speaker, Elumelu has moved into the minority leader’s office, and has continued to function in that capacity.
While on the other hand, the Chinda group said that they are awaiting the final position of the PDP on the controversy.
However, a PDP lawmaker, Livinus Makwe told Sunday Sun that the PDP has a large chunk of blame in the crisis rocking the opposition caucus in the House.
He said that the party failed to engage and consult extensively with its members in the House before coming up with the list of minority principal officers.
“I think that what brought this problem in the first place is that the party kept a distance from the people that are representing them in the National Assembly. They didn’t call them to interact with them frequently.
“Yes, there was a meeting they called at Wadata Plaza, we all went there. The issue of minority leader was actually discussed. Some people made suggestions of who they wanted and gave reasons. The understanding was that we should go and talk among ourselves, select people and meet with the party again.
“This never happened until a day or two when the announcement was to be made. At that time almost all the members in the PDP and the other minority party have taken sides,” Makwe, who represents Ohaozara/ Onicha/ Ivo Federal Constituency, stated.
But the PDP spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan disagreed with him. Ologbondiyan in an interview with our correspondent noted that “the party wrote the names of the minority leaders as agreed with the members of the House of Representatives at a meeting at the national secretariat of the party and was also taken to other minority parties, where there was no objection.
“Consequent upon that, the party wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, just as it did to the President of the Senate. And the Speaker said he will not take any communication from the PDP; and sat within the confines of his office and wrote a list that has no bearing with the party and presented it as the minority leadership.”
The opposition spokesman told Sunday Sun on Thursday night, that the PDP leadership was still insisting on Chinda as the minority leader.
“As far as the party is concerned, none of its position (on the minority crisis) has changed,” he said.
At the moment, all eyes are on the PDP probe panel set up to probe why its members in the National Assembly went against the directive of the party during the election of presiding officers of the National Assembly, as the current minority leadership crisis in the House is traceable to that “rebellion.”
The committee, which is headed by former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, is expected to turn in its report in two weeks.
Pundits say the report of the Wabara committee, as well as that of Iyorchia Ayu committee would to a great extent determine the shape of things in the House minority caucus and the PDP at large in the days to come.
The Ayorchia Ayu committee set by the BoT to resolve the crisis was supposed to submit its report last week.
However, the report was yet to be made public as at press time. While repeated efforts to speak to Ayu was unsuccessful as he did answer calls placed to his mobile line.
However, Makwe is optimistic that the minority leadership crisis would be resolved in no time.
“I believe there would still be a resolution. Let us see what happened at the expiration of that one-month suspension. They have stated their own side of the story. People elected as minority officers are already functioning fully in the House.
“The caucus is intact. I think the main problem is with the party to talk to those people that they have nominated to accept what has happened as act of God and let us work together as one family,” he said.
However, political pundits say no matter how the issue is resolved, things are likely not to remain the same in the House minority caucus in the Ninth Assembly, as the leadership crisis has generated bad blood among lawmakers and PDP leaders.