From GYANG BERE, Jos
The controversy that trailed the emergence of Hon. Peter Azi as Speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly is yet to be over. Political watchers in the state, including some of his colleagues, are in a fresh war with him over his alleged inept style of leadership and lack of political will to drive the Assembly towards initiating quality legislation that would serve the yearnings of the poor masses.
Azi, representing Jos North-West state constituency on the platform of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), is seen not to have done much to douse anger and depression among agitated members of the House who had vehemently opposed his choice as Speaker by the powers-that-be. They say he is incompetent and not fit to pilot the affairs of the 8th Assembly successfully.
Interestingly, those opposed to his choice as Speaker, particularly the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members, have been shown the way out of the House in dramatic circumstances. Their electoral victories were challenged at the State Election Petition Tribunal which nullified their election and ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct a rerun in their respective constituencies. Expectedly, the ruling APC government in the state took advantage of the development and kicked the dissenting members out of the legislature.
On June 10, 2015 when the 8th Assembly was to be constituted, it became a thug of war as the APC and PDP loyalists clashed in a protest over which party would produce the Speaker of the House. This was more so, as membership of the House was dominated by the opposition PDP which had a majority of 13 seats against APC’s 10 seats out of the 24 seats contested in the April 15, 2015 elections in the state.
It was however a different ball game at the contest for the speakership position. Despite having majority seats, the PDP failed to clinch the position amid allegations that two of its members collected bribe from the APC to pave way for the minority APC to produce the Speaker.
It was alleged that the two members who hail from the Southern Senatorial District, the constituency of the state governor, Simon Lalong, had their palms handsomely greased in addition to the offer juicy positions in the House, irrespective of party affiliations.
Having lost the governorship of the state, the PDP members were said to have succumbed to ethnic and zonal sentiments in conceding the speakership to the minority APC in the House, even as their action was rationalised in some quarters as a move to avoid unnecessary rancho that could impede development in the state if a PDP legislator had emerged Speaker.
But before the conspiracies and betrayal, the battle for the Assembly’s topmost position was between the immediate past Speaker of the House and member of the PDP, Hon. Istifanus Mwasat and the incumbent, Hon. Peter Azi of APC. Both contested for the speakership and had a tie; but after 15 minutes break for consultations and further lobby, a message was said to have been passed on to the House from Government House with a purported directive from Governor Lalong to adjourn proceedings of the House to reconvene in two days time for a fresh election.
At the rescheduled date for the election, Mwansat withdrew from the speakership contest in unclear circumstances after a rancorous session. The decision was interpreted by some observers as a move to save himself from defeat and embarrassment, as APC leadership in the state was alleged to have induced more members of his party, the PDP, against his emergence.
Mwansat, believed to be an independent minded-person, had hinged his reasons for pulling out of the contest on his desire to ensure a smooth-sailing Assembly that would work towards improving the living conditions of Plateau people through robust and quality legislation.
His backtracking paved the way for Azi to be inaugurated as Speaker for the 8th Assembly, even as stakeholders expressed concern that he mounted the saddle at a time Plateau people were in dire need of pragmatic and independent legislative arm of government that would function efficiently.
In his inaugural speech, Azi reminded the lawmakers of the daunting security challenges that had bedeviled the state and assured Plateau people of the Assembly’s preparation to make laws that would mitigate their sufferings and as well improve their welfare. He also pledged the readiness of members to work harmoniously with the executive to guarantee the safety of lives and property and advance the development of Jos Master Plan and rural communities in the state. His promises and assurances became the needed tonic for aggrieved members of the House to rally round him, cognizant of the people’s quest for the enthronement of effective and efficient House of Assembly that would enhance governance and complement the executive in providing the much-needed dividends of democracy in the state.
However, it did not take long before the marriage of convenience between some members and the Speaker went sour, amid allegations of reneging on his promises and hobnobbing with the Governor, a situation which was said to have gradually reduced the House to a rubber stamp where communications from the executive received accelerated treatment without passing through normal scrutiny by members. A member of the Assembly who pleaded anonymity, remarked: “The leadership style of Hon. Azi shows his incompetence and inability to drive intelligent members of the House, who at the onset had the premonition that he was not going to excel in leading the legislative arm to the promised land. These, among other issues, have sustained the opposition that trailed his emergence as Speaker of the House.”
A source close to the House hinted of a plot by some aggrieved members to impeach the Speaker on the basis of his alleged incompetence, though the move had not been made public.
Unwilling to be caught napping, the Speaker has reportedly has been tacitly scuttling routine sittings, an action described by some dissident members as merely postponing the evil day.
Findings revealed that the grievances of the agitating members were legion. Besides lack of payment of salaries and other welfare packages, the House was on the verge of being grounded as nothing seemed to be working.
But the Speaker is said not to be impressing on the Governor the need to address urgent needs of the House to enable it function as expected. “The House of Assembly is on the verge of collapse; nothing is working in favour of members who are being owed salaries of about three months, and the Speaker is not making any effort to address these issues that affect the House; he is always around the Governor, but nothing is working”, one of the lawmakers lamented last Tuesday.
Speaking on the speculated plot to impeach the Speaker, he said: “we have considered the removal of the Speaker because he is not representing the House and the people of Plateau State very well. Everybody knows his weakness; he lacks the charisma to pilot the affairs of the House, but we reluctantly accepted him because he was imposed on members. We are shopping for a better candidate that can confront the Governor on relevant matters, but we have not found one; the person we had considered is also not living up to expectation. But we are giving him (Speaker) time to adjust and where he refuses, we will have no option than to impeach him soonest.”
He added: “for now, most of the members are afraid of the party leadership, which is the architect of his emergence as Speaker. Most members have the ambition of returning to the House in 2019 and do not want to find their names in the black book of the party leadership. That is why everybody is treading with caution.”
A sizable number of lawmakers in the Assembly are unwavering in their conviction that the Speaker does not have a full grasp of legislative functions, which they said, manifested in his handling of a communication from the Governor requesting the confirmation of management committee chairmen for the 17 Local Government Areas in the state, shortly after the dissolution of elected council chairmen who had been in office for over two years. The process adopted by the Speaker on receipt of the governor’s request was resisted by aggrieved PDP members who were in majority at that time, but they were later shocked to their bone marrows when the Speaker hit the gavel on his desk in the chamber to signal approval of the list of nominees even though no scrutiny and resolution took place. His action generated ripples on the floor of the House, with PDP members staging a walk-out in protest. Since then, Azi has been having it rough with members of the House, just as some APC lawmakers eyeing his position have aligned with their PDP counterparts in a thickening plot to ease him out. They say the Speaker presides over plenary more in the breach especially with regards to communications from the Governor requesting confirmation of the House.
And as if in tandem with the position of poking holes on the Speaker’s performance, the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN), Plateau State Chapter, had not long ago put the Assembly complex under lock and key in protest against the failure of the state government to pay its members the new salary scale approved by Governor Lalong.
Yet, another incident believed as the Speaker’s albatross was a letter reportedly sent by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to withdraw the Certificate of Return issued three members whose elections were quashed by State Election Petition Tribunal, which ordered fresh polls in the respective constituencies.
The INEC letter directed the affected members to stay off the House proceedings until fresh elections were conducted as ordered by the tribunal, but some members sympathetic to the affected persons accused the Speaker of masterminding the letter to weaken the strength of PDP in the Assembly.
In this league were the immediate past Speaker and member representing Pankshin South, Mwansat; Mrs Alice Asaije Dimlong, APC, Pankshin North and Vincent Bulus, PDP Langtan South, among others.
INEC had justified its directive and invalidation of the Certificates of Return presented to the affected lawmakers in the controversial letter on the basis of a judgment of the Jos Judicial Division of the Court of Appeal which nullified their elections on December 5, 2015.
Recall that in the case of Langtang South constituency, the Appeal Court nullified the results of the constituency and ruled that “the decision of the lower tribunal to the effect that the Appellant’s ( Vincent Bulus) conviction and sentence for the offence of cheating contrary to Section 324 of the Penal Code, disqualified him from contesting the election under the 1999 Constitution”, while in the case of Pankshin North and South, the Appeal Court ruled that fresh election be conducted in Nyelleng and Pyabor polling units of the two constituencies.
INEC’s contentious letter dated December 14, 2015 and signed by Mr. Godwin Kwanga, then state Resident Electoral Commissioner in Plateau, stressed that “the effect of these judgments is that the Certificates of Return issued to the members representing these constituencies are no longer valid. We discovered that they have been performing their legislative duties despite their sack by the Court of Appeal which is the highest court in their own case. Some of them even participated in the recent screening and confirmation of commissioner nominees sent to the House by Governor Simon Lalong.
This is wrong because the law does not recognise interim representation under any guise and that is why we have to write the Speaker to take note of genuine members of the House pending when the Commission conducts elections to fill the vacant constituencies in line with the provisions of the law”.
The supplementary polls were fixed and held on February 20, 2016. The election was a show of political strength between the PDP and the APC which swept all the seats except in Langtang South constituency, which is still pending till date. It’s seemingly temporary slip from the APC’s grip followed an injunction obtained by PDP to stop the election over perceived anomalies.
INEC had excluded PDP from the polls sequel to a judgment of the Governorship and State Assembly Appeal Tribunal which had declared the candidate as a convict on an offence of cheating, but the PDP insisted that the party should be given opportunity to substitute the candidate in a case awaiting adjudication.
At present, APC has majority members in the House with the numerical strength of the PDP dipping as the party lost the member representing Quanpan North, Godfery Dashe, who died after a brief sickness in August, 2016. The APC won in a by-election conducted for his replacement.
The PDP recorded a progressive decline of membership in the House as it further lost two seats in a supplementary election which reduced the party’s strength from 13 to 10, while the APC now the majority with 13 members.
This development led to a reshuffling of principal officers of the House, propelling a former majority leader, Daniel Dem, to swap positions with his minority counterpart, Henry Yunkwap, who is now the majority leader of the House.
Meantime, only two lawmakers in the 7th Assembly retained their seats in the 24-member chamber, while the remaining seats are occupied by first timers except the Speaker who was a member of the 6th Assembly.
Remarkably, the 8th Assembly had shortly after its inauguration approved a loan of N4.5 billion for the executive to settle a backlog of salaries inherited from the immediate past administration and as well fast-track development of the state.
Since its inauguration in June, last year, the House has passed into law several bills and resolutions, remarkably, a bill for the establishment of the Plateau State Peace Building Agency co-sponsored by Hon. Daniel Dem, (Riyom Constituency) and Hon. Baba Hassan, member representing Jos North-North constituency, to engage warring communities in the state to embrace dialogue in finding a lasting solution to recurring violence in the area. So far, it has recorded success in this regard.
A committee headed by the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Yusuf Gagdi, went round the troubled spots across the state and dialogued with stakeholders on the need for sustainable peace in the state. It completed the assignment and presented a report on the floor of the House for onward delivery to the Governor for implementation.
Evidently, the search for peace is yielding fruit as most of the issues recommended for actions have been adopted in resolving the perennial security challenges confronting the state. Training workshops organised for lawmakers to acquaint them with the business of lawmaking has in recent times boosted their performance.
Regular public hearings on vital issues affecting the generality of the people and effective oversight functions are what respondents to our correspondent’s inquiries in the state, said they most desire momentarily.
Meanwhile, the hammer dangles over Azi as members angling for his ouster perfect last minute trategies to actualise the plot. What will happen in the days ahead is buried in the womb of time.