By ONYEDIKA AGBEDO
THE emergence of Senator Ike Ekweremadu as the Deputy President of the 8th Senate on June 9, 2015, did not go down well with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). The Senate led by Senate President Bukola Saraki arguably found itself in a quagmire right from the very day it was inaugurated. Since then, the Red Chamber of the National Assembly has been embroiled in a cat-and-mouse skirmish with the Presidency.
At the centre of it all was the manner the country’s number three citizen, Saraki, emerged as Senate President. He was not the choice of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), for the position. The party had picked Senator Ahmed Lawan for the job after a controversial mock election conducted by its leadership, which Saraki boycotted. However, with the APC having 60 senators to the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) 49 at the time of inauguration, which meant that the ruling party didn’t (and still doesn’t) have an absolute majority in the Red Chamber, Saraki, who was until his defection to the APC a PDP senator in the 7th Senate, connived with his distinguished colleagues from the PDP and a few others from the APC to clinch the job. In doing so however, he allegedly traded off the position of Deputy Senate President to the PDP, which Ike Ekweremadu won. As if that was not enough, Saraki also went ahead to announce his loyalists except Senator Sola Adeyeye (Chief Whip) as principal officers of the Senate against his party’s wish. Since then, the Senate has not enjoyed the necessary cohesion needed to perform its duties to the nation satisfactorily. It has been divided along the following lines: Senate Unity Forum (those loyal to the APC leadership); The Like Minds (APC senators loyal to Saraki); and core PDP Senate Caucus. A further aftermath of the election is that Saraki, along with Ekweremadu, and two other persons – Salisu Maikasuwa, former clerk of the National Assembly (NASS), and Benedict Efeturi, deputy clerk of the NASS – are currently standing trial before an Abuja High Court for allegedly forging the Senate Standing Order for their election. The charges of alleged criminal conspiracy and forgery were brought against them by the Federal Government, which arraigned the quartet on June 27.
However, recent developments indicate that the continued imbroglio in the Senate is not really as a result of Saraki’s defiance to the directives of his party. At the root of it all is the Deputy Senate President, Ekweremadu, and the ruling party wants him out by all means.
In a recent interview, the National Chairman of the APC, John Odigie- Oyegun, revealed that it was difficult for the party “to accept the emergence of a PDP person” as deputy president of the Senate.
Odigie-Oyegun was quoted to have said: “I think the thing that rankled us most was the election of Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President. Saraki is a member of the APC, much as the main line of the party would have wished a different result and a different scenario. But we all find it very, very difficult to accept the emergence of a PDP person as his deputy.”
Members of the APC Governors Forum, led by Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha met with President Muhammadu Buhari at Aso Rock Villa last week and reiterated the party’s resolve to see Ekweremadu removed as Deputy Senate President. Okorocha even boasted that the objective would be achieved within the next few weeks. However, the declaration prompted the Ekweremadu camp to retort that Okorocha was on a wild goose chase.
Other APC faithful have continued to express the views of the party hierarchy on the Ekweremadu ‘headache’ which seems more like a migraine for the APC. All these suggest that until Ekweremadu vacates the position or is removed, peace might continue to elude the Senate no matter what its leadership does.
Recall that shortly before the Senate went on vacation on Thursday July 21, Saraki had begun a peace move when he reshuffled the Senate committees and appointed his critics in the Senate Unity Forum (SUF) as heads of some important committees. For instance, he appointed the spokesperson of the SUF, Senator Kabiru Marafa as Chairman of the Committee on Petroleum Resources (Downstream). Also, Senator Oluremi Tinubu was appointed the chairperson of the Committee on the Environment.
Although some APC chieftains commended Saraki’s peace moves, they were quick to point out that he should do more by finding a way to remove Ekweremadu.
Why APC wants Ekweremadu removed
The SUF had at the peak of the leadership crisis in the Senate stated reasons they were not comfortable with the election of Ekweremadu as the Deputy President of the Senate. In a letter addressed to the leaders of the party on June 21, 2015, the group had highlighted the implications of Ekweremadu’s election thus: “Although the tradition in the Nigerian Senate concedes much power to the Senate President, it is indeed the Deputy Senate President that directly interacts and controls the day-to-day activities of the Senate. Some of the functions of the office include: regularly presiding over the plenary session of Senate especially during those times the Senate President may be away attending to other functions. This could afford him and his party the opportunity to frustrate the good intentions of our government; the Deputy Senate President is chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, which conducts the exercise of carrying out fundamental changes in our Supreme Law. This position may give him and his party, the PDP, the opportunity to frustrate necessary and vital constitutional amendments in the course of this administration; by legislative convention, the Deputy Senate President collects and supervises the final budget documents in the preparation of the Appropriation Bill. This is the most important piece of legislation in the realisation of our party’s manifesto which must not be left in the hands of the opposition party; the Deputy Senate President is statutorily the chairman of the Governing Council of the National Institute of Legislative Studies (NILS). This institution is charged with the responsibility of building capacity for our legislators and their supporting staff; the Deputy Senate President also represents the Nigerian Legislature at the ECOWAS Parliament as Speaker. It is certainly a misnomer for a government to be represented at the international level by someone outside our party, and many other functions that might be assigned him by the President of the Senate.”
Besides the above reasons, it is the convention in our democracy for the Presidency to meet with the leadership of the ruling party and National Assembly from time to time to strategise on issues of governance. Ekweremadu is by virtue of his position entitled to attend that meeting. Sunday Sun investigations showed that this meeting had not been holding primarily because Ekweremadu must be traditionally invited.
But the ruling party has a very hard nut to crack in seeking the removal of Ekweremadu. This is because the party does not enjoy an absolute majority in the Senate that would have given it the leverage to actualise its wish. Added to this is the fact that even within the APC caucus, The Like Minds senators are still very loyal to Saraki and are unlikely to go with the party’s leadership on this matter. In fact, one of them, Senator Dino Melaye, recently said the APC should be grateful to the PDP for not taking the position of Senate President instead of grumbling endlessly over Ekweremadu’s position. Meanwhile, even if the APC leadership succeeds in getting its senators to close ranks for the purpose of removing Ekweremadu, it is still an uphill task because whereas it takes a simple majority to elect the Senate President and his deputy, it takes two-thirds majority to remove them. And from every indication, the ruling party has not been able to poach any senator from the PDP caucus that has remained solidly united from day one.
PDP, Ekweremadu react
Expectedly, the PDP has told the APC to forget the idea of removing Ekweremadu from his position and concentrate on delivering on its campaign promises to Nigerians. In a statement issued by the party in reaction to Odigie-Oyegun’s revelation that the party was still rankled by Ekweremadu’s emergence as Deputy Senate President, the spokesperson of the PDP National Caretaker Committee, Prince Dayo Adeyeye, had noted that Odigie- Oyegun’s statement confirmed the rumpus in the Senate, including the unrelenting harassment of Senate leadership and the recent arraignment of its presiding officers on phantom criminal charges of conspiracy and forgery.
In the statement, the party said: “We, however, want to make it clear that the APC has no constitutional or moral grounds to be displeased with Ekweremadu’s emergence or to go this ridiculous length to harass, intimidate, embarrass, and malign him and the institution of the Senate on account of a position to which his colleagues, cutting across party lines, elected him in a transparent and televised election in line with Section 50 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
“Even the APC as a party and through its chieftains, including President Muhammadu Buhari (before his election), had variously and robustly defended the constitutionality and imperativeness of bi-partisan legislative leadership during the defection of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Aminu Tambuwal to its fold while in opposition without relinquishing his position.”
While reacting to APC’s insistence on his removal just a few days after Saraki reshuffled the Senate Committees, Ekweremadu had declared that he wouldn’t be forced out of his position. In a statement released through his media aide, Ismail Omipidan, Ekweremadu had maintained that his election followed due process and was backed by law.
“The call for Ekweremadu’s resignation also exposes the hypocrisy of some APC stalwarts. You will recall that when Tambuwal defected (from the PDP) to the APC, all the notable leaders of the party, including Lai Mohammed who was the National Publicity Secretary of the APC, stated clearly that there was nowhere in the constitution where it was stated that the Speaker (of the House of Representatives) must be produced by the majority party; that was their argument. (The current Majority Leader of the House) Femi Gbajabiamila also said so.
“What has now changed? The constitution has not been rewritten; it is the same constitution. And it is very clear that ‘the senators shall elect the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President from amongst themselves,” the statement added.
What Nigerians say
Nigerians who spoke with Sunday Sun on the matter urged the APC-led Federal Government to focus on issues of governance and address the many socio-economic challenges confronting the country instead of waging an endless war with the Senate leadership.
Chief Udo Udeogaranya, a 2019 PDP presidential hopeful, warned the APC against continued animosity toward the Senate leadership.
Udeogaranya said: “Firstly, there are three arms of government – the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. For any government to thrive, the three arms must work in unison. Now, when you have your President saying that the judiciary is his problem, it is a sign of division. Also, when you hear the ruling party saying that they will not accept the Senate leadership because the Deputy Senate President is from the PDP, it negates the democratic tenet that allows a winner to emerge in an election through the highest number of votes. The same way that President Muhammadu Buhari came into power was the same way that Ekweremadu came into that seat. So, I expect the party to put an end to politics and go into governance. They are already in their second year in office and they are still in the woods playing politics; they should face governance.
“If Ekweremadu has emerged as Deputy Senate President, allow him and work with him. If his colleagues say he should stay there, let him stay. If his colleagues say he should vacate, then let him vacate. Their reason may not be that he is of a different political party, it could be some other reasons.”
He added: “Ekweremadu is the most experienced senator in terms of ranking since David Mark is no longer holding any position. So, they need to tap from his experience. I think they should be wooing him to join their party rather than trying to use him as a base to fight. It is all chaos when they continue to play politics at a time they should be thinking about delivering dividends of democracy to Nigerians. My earnest view is that politics is over; it is now time for governance.”
Frank Agbedo, a lawyer and President, Global Centre for the Defence of Human Rights, Lagos, in his remarks, warned the ruling party against removing the Deputy Senate President from office through illegal means.
He said: “The Senate has rules for electing and removing principal officers. Under the Senate rules, it requires a simple majority to elect the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President. But it is more difficult to remove them from office because it requires a two-thirds majority of the upper house. So, any attempt to truncate those rules in order to please the bureaucracy will even deepen the high animosity and crisis of confidence between the ruling party and the opposition party in the country.
“So my honest advice is that the government should face the business of governance and leave politics for now until the next election. This unending war of attrition between the Presidency and the upper legislative house must come to an end. For how long will the masses of this country who welcomed the change mantra of the APC by voting massively for President Muhammadu Buhari continue to bear the brunt of this needless power play between the two arms of government?
“It bears repeating, even for the umpteenth time, that the primary purpose of government is to cater for the welfare and security of the citizens and not to engage in a battle for supremacy at the detriment of fulfilling their mandate to the people. It smacks of extreme insensitivity that instead of addressing the problems of spiraling poverty, insecurity of lives and property, biting hardship and economic depression that are confronting the country, the government is busy fighting the opposition. I believe that this is the time for all true lovers of democracy to speak up.”
Comrade Ibuchukwu Ohabuenyi Ezike, the Executive Director of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), also re-echoed the views that the ruling party should allow the Senate to conduct its affairs and concentrate on governance.
Ezike said: “I think that the APC is just barking. Except the senators decide to sack any of its officers, including Ekweremadu, or all the APC senators agree to come together as a block against Ekwerremadu which, again, looks impossible because of interest, it is a hard nut to crack. APC cannot execute that threat. After all, if it were possible for the party or even the Presidency to achieve his sack, why has Ekweremadu and his principal lasted in that office for over a year despite these permutations.
“The margin between APC and PDP in the Senate, you will recall, is not wide as it was during the time PDP was in power at the centre. And who knows if PDP will not strike a deal with another group of APC senators even if Saraki and his group decide to dissolve their marriage with the PDP?
“So, it is going be a huge task for APC to achieve. I think one will advise APC and the Presidency to forget this wild goose chase and face the realities confronting Nigerians with which they would be scored in 2019.”
Ezike warned that the insistence of the APC on the removal of Ekweremadu would have dire implications for Nigeria.
“If the chase continues without catching the goose, one, not much would be done for the people. Two, the Senate may see the actions of the party as meddlesome interloping in its affairs and may go all out to confront the Presidency in which case Nigeria and Nigerians will suffer.
“Remember that we have just had only one budget under the APC government and there are three outstanding ones in future. So, if the Senate decides to block executive bills as they did to former President Jonathan during the Mbu saga in Rivers State, it would mean that it will be difficult for things to work out well. Therefore, Nigeria will be the victim of the quarrel if it comes to that. Neither the legislature nor the Presidency will settle down to work as would be required by Nigerians. The way forward is for the APC to let the Senate be. After all, the choice of NASS leadership is entirely an in-house affair,” he advised.