As the dusts raised by the June 11 inauguration of the National Assembly and election of the presiding officers begin to settle, Ismail Omipidan, who has been following the developments, writes that immediate past Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, though fourth term unlucky leaves big shoes that would be quite tasking to fit in.
Once beaten in 2015, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), left no stone unturned to ensure it had its way in 2019 in the election of presiding officers of the Ninth Senate. It set out early by zoning the Senate President to Senator Ahmed Lawan (Yobe). Not leaving anything to chance, President Muhammadu Buhari, unlike 2015, brought the weight of his office to bear and reined in Senator Danjuma Goje (Gombe), considered by many as Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) trump card.
“In spite of all the supports I have among my colleagues in the Senate, I have decided, in deference to the loyalty I have for President Muhammadu Buhari to respect his wish. I am hereby endorsing the candidature of Senator Ahmed Lawan”, Goje told state House correspondents after a meeting with President Buhari. The meeting was facilitated by Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) withdrew from the N25 billion corruption trial of the former Gombe governor the next day.
Expectedly, on the day of the election, Senator Lawan polled a comfortable 79 votes as against 28 garnered by Senator Ali Ndume, who got PDP’s belated endorsement.
It was gathered that for the PDP, it was anybody but Senator Ovie Omo-Agege for the Deputy President of the Senate due to his alleged involvement in the armed invasion of the Senate and stealing the mace, it’s symbol of authority. PDP senators-elect were looking forward to voting Senator Francis Alimikhena (Edo).
Senator Dino Melaye’s valedictory speech left close observers of the Senate in no doubt of the feelings of the opposition towards Omo-Agege.
The Kogi West Senator said: “My day of sadness, bitterness, was the day my own colleague, Ovie Omo-Agege became the mace thief; the day, dissidents, thugs, desecrated the chambers of the Nigerian Senate. It was the day he (Agege) led criminals, to move the symbol of democracy, symbol of authority, out of the sacred chamber of the Senate”.
However, with the late withdrawal of Alimikhena, PDP Senators-elect, who did not want what they saw as collective guilt of endorsement of the mace-stealing incident, were left with no choice than to shop for one of their own as lately as early hours of that Tuesday to challenge Omo-Agege.
Although Senator Uche Ekwunife had indicated interest to run, her candidacy did not resonate with an overwhelming majority of her colleagues, who felt they needed somebody with the clout of Ekweremadu, to show their seriousness and attract votes from some APC Senators-elect. They were also said to have reasoned that Ekweremadu had been consistent with the PDP since 1998 and refused to betray the party in the Eight Senate despite alleged political persecution.
PDP tardiness, 2023 projections
Unfortunately, many believe that the party acted too late in rallying its National Assembly members-elect for its preferred choices. Unlike in 2015 when a one-day workshop was organised to ensure members-elect entered the election of presiding officers with one voice, the PDP leadership was at most ambivalent, tardy, and nonchalant. By the time it tried to rally its members-elect, many of them were already committed to the various APC line-ups.
So, the belated endorsement of Ndume and fielding of Ekweremadu could not fly. Omo-Agege polled 68 votes against Senator Ekweremadu’s 39, even when the PDP cast 44 votes.
Several interpretations have been given to PDP’s tardiness and Ekweremadu’s inability to garner all PDP votes. Some Senators-elect from the South East had their eyes on the position of Senate Minority Leader, as such would have lost out if the zone produced the Deputy Senate President. Some also believe it was a carryover of the 2019 general elections disagreements and politics of 2023. Most PDP governors will be completing their tenures in 2023 and already have their eyes on 2023 presidential contest. A Deputy President of the Senate of PDP extraction would have been the highest political office holder in the party and made the National Assembly Caucus a major power block.
A source in the Senate said: “The National Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole, all the APC governors without exception, and most of their chieftains were all right there in the chamber breathing down the necks of their senators-elect. But apart from the Governor of Bayelsa State and Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State, PDP governors and chieftains were nowhere to be found. It naturally betrayed their sentiments and level of seriousness”.
Ekweremadu: It wasn’t a win or lose contest
However, Ekweremadu, who appears unfazed by his loss, said he had made the point over the mace theft and the injustice being meted to South East by the APC in the distribution of offices.
Ekweremadu disclosed that “I vied for the office again to preserve the hallowedness and honour of the Senate and uphold equity as a priceless ingredient for building a Nigeria of our dreams. I have made my point and my colleagues have made their choice”.
Giving further insight, he added, “We needed to exonerate ourselves (of the mace theft). It was not a contest to win or lose; I wanted to make a statement.
“I believed there must be a referendum. Look at what happened on a day I was presiding and the chamber was invaded. It is embarrassing that someone, who led that operation, will just take a bow and get (unanimously) endorsed and we all walk home like it doesn’t matter”.
Despite losing the seat he occupied for 12 straight years, the longest by any presiding officer in Nigeria’s history, Ekweremadu remains an oracle and institution as far as the National Assembly is concerned. He has left a big shoe in terms of leadership qualities, intellectualism, and longevity in office that will not be easy to fill.
A fifth term Senator, three term Deputy President of the Senate, former Speaker of ECOWAS Parliament, author, teacher, Doctor of Philosophy in Constitutional Law, Professor and Mentoring Scholar of E-Governance and Strategic Government Studies, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, Ekweremadu commands the respect of his colleagues for his experience, intellectual power, consistency, and principled politics. He brought clout and import to bear on the office.
“Senator Ike Ekweremadu has been a very loyal and committed Deputy President of the Senate. He has excelled in filling gaps. Whenever there was need for him to come in and preside, all of us in sixth and seventh Senate, and in fact his current Senate, had to look for our helmets because, definitely skills and speed will come into play”, the newly elected President of the Senate, Lawan had said about Ekweremadu in birthday tribute in 2018.
Ekweremadu’s stint as Deputy President of the Senate will be best remembered for the breaking of jinx of the amendment of the 1999 Constitution. Attempts to amend the constitution failed until he came on board as the Chairman of the Committee on Constitution Amendment in 2007.
The lawmaker, who describes himself, as a federalist is a staunch proponent of restructuring. Although his constitution amendment initiatives to devolve aviation, power, railway, etc. to the Concurrent List was voted out, he introduced the piecemeal approach to constitution amendment, which helped in no small measure to facilitate key amendments and electoral reforms.
“Our constitution contradicts, in several respects, the basic principles of democracy such as the separation of powers, checks and balances. It compromises the independence of the critical institutions of democracy and contradicts fundamental principles of federalism in several respects.
“Therefore, starting from 2010, we successfully altered the constitution to strengthen the principles of separation of powers and checks and balance by placing the National Assembly, INEC, and most recently, the State Houses of Assembly and Judiciary on first line charge”, he told a conference on the Implementation of autonomy of state Legislature and state Judiciary in Abuja last month.
He is a diehard proponent of decentralised policing as the answer to the nation’s security challenges and has sponsored a Bill for the Establishment of state Police in the Eight Senate. But it could not undergo legislative processes before the expiration of that Senate.
His other bills such as the state of the Nation Address Bill and Presidential Inauguration Bill are also considered as landmark.
As presiding officer, Ekweremadu has garnered admiration for his jealous protection of the principle of separation of powers and independence of the legislature. He surprised many when he refused to adjourn the Senate upon its invasion and stealing of its mace. Instead, he called for another mace, insisting that “we will defend the independence and institution of the legislature”.
He has also attracted respect by his politics of principle. Not many thought he would last beyond a few months as Deputy Senate President in the Eight Senate without defecting to the APC. Between 2015 and 2018, Ekweremadu survived two alleged assassination attempts, was arraigned alongside the former President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, on what many saw as phantom forgery of Senate Standing Rule, which was eventually withdrawn by the Federal Government. His official guest house was raided by a Police special squad, although nothing incriminating was found. His home and that of Dr. Saraki were besieged by a detachment of security agents in July 2018, while men of the Department of State Security (DSS) also besieged the National Assembly complex in move many interpreted as an attempt to forcefully remove them from office. But he served out his term as a presiding officer on the PDP platform and played major roles in the political masterstrokes that saw to the defection of many APC lawmakers to the PDP as well as the return of erstwhile PDP bigwigs to re-launch the party as a formidable opposition.
As Ninth Senate gets underway, many believe Ekweremadu would unleash his legislative experience and provide leadership in the backroom of the Senate.