Fred Itua, Abuja
Last Thursday, the 9th Senate, headed by Ahmad Lawan, celebrated its one year in office without fun fair. Unlike previous anniversaries of the inauguration of the Senate, last Thursday’s celebration was a sharp departure from the past.
No special session was held. The interview granted by the President of the Senate, Lawan, to some newspapers, didn’t get the necessary mileage. The usual media buzz associated with the annual ritual was totally missing. Sadly, no explanation was offered by the leadership of the Senate.
When Lawan came into office last year, he repeatedly promised to be on the side of the people and put Nigeria first. He also repeatedly told Nigerians that the 9th Senate would always be on the same page with President Muhammadu Buhari-led executive. One year after, Nigerians are divided on the level of performance of the Senate.
Selection of Committee Chairmen
Selection of chairmen of various standing committees is always a herculean task for the leadership of the Senate. In 2015, the then President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, was able to pacify senators when he named chairmen and deputies of committees. Saraki also tinkered with the headship of committees to accommodate some dissents.
Lawan’s style is different. When he named chairmen of committees, those who felt betrayed by his choices, were never accommodated, despite their claims that they contributed immensely to his emergence as President of the Senate.
There were also complaints that Lawan disregarded the earlier list collectively adopted by the 10 principal officers of the Senate. This claim has never been denied by Lawan, who is also being accused of recycling the same people as chairmen and members of ad-hoc committees.
Some senators, who in the past, had the freedom to operate freely, are complaining silently. Their grouse is that, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), who want a soft landing, lobby the office of the Senate to avoid serious grilling. It is not clear if the complaints will end soon.
The functions of the the Parliament vis-a-vis the National Assembly sit on a tripod – lawmaking, oversight and representation. In the last one year, however, the Senate appears to have neglected one of the components of its functions – oversight.
For the first time since the country returned to a democratic rule in 1999, the Senate ended a legislative year without over-sighting any MDAs. The 2020 budget was passed in December 2019, without carrying out a single oversight on the 2019 budget.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, no serious oversight was carried out by all the standing committees of the Senate. Contrary to Lawan’s promise that the Senate will periodically set days aside to debate outcomes of oversights by committees, nothing of such has happened in the last last year of his presidency.
In 2016, President Buhari forwarded a loan request of over $29 billion to Saraki-led Senate. The request was outrightly rejected without delay. State governments who wanted to access foreign loans, but couldn’t offer cogent reasons, had their requests rejected.
That, however, changed in 2019, when President Buhari forwarded the same request to Lawan-led Senate without altering any item. The Senate was yet to settle down when the request was sent to the upper legislative chamber. It was barely two weeks after the standing committees were constituted.
Lawan, long before the consideration of the loan by the committee on Local and Foreign Debts and its approval by the Senate, said the request will be approved. He had told reporters that any request from President Buhari was good for Nigeria.
As soon as the loan request was sent to the relevant committees, senators from the Southeast protested the exclusion of the geopolitical zone as part of the beneficiaries. Lawan, who presided at plenary when the issue was raised, ignored the outcry and sanctioned the approval of the request.
Since then, every other loan request sent to the Senate by President, got immediate approvals from the upper legislative chamber. It is also on record that the 9th Senate in a space of one year, has approved more loans for the Federal Government more than past Senates combined.
Relationship with the Executive
By design, the Senate is constitutionally empowered to oversight the Executive. This constitutional responsibility places a superiority burden on the Senate to ensure that funds appropriated are used judiciously. This often leads to a feisty relationship between the Executive and the Senate.
In the 8th Senate, the relationship between the Parliament and the Executive was not cordial. While some Nigerians hailed the checks and balances, others complained that it derailed governance. The checks and balances extensively carried out by the 8th Senate, exposed corrupt practices in the Executive.
Beside the ongoing war of words between the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio and the Senate, no other major face off has so far happened since Lawan assumed office. Critical comments against President Buhari are seldom tolerated by Lawan whenever he presides.
Barely four months after the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly, the leadership of the Senate was enmeshed in a job recruitment scandal, totalling 100 slots. The job recruitment scandal which was allegedly gifted to some key leaders in the National Assembly, didn’t go down well with some senators, who protested vehemently.
Some presiding officers got over 20 slots each, while over 100 members were shut out in the windfall. Following the scandal, Lawan’s leadership directed the Federal Character Committee to initiate moves with other MDAs to source job slots for subsequent sharing among lawmakers. As at today, every serving senator has gotten at least three slots.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees press freedom and the right of journalists to hold the government accountable. This freedom has been under serious threat since the inauguration of the 9th Senate. Journalists are regularly harassed by security agents in the National Assembly, while visitors with no legitimate business, are allowed access into the complex.
Since the 9th Senate was inaugurated, journalists have not been allowed entry into the gallery to monitor proceedings of the upper legislative chamber. The press centre allocated to newsmen has no window and it is not ventilated. The space ordinarily earmarked for less than 30 people, now accommodates over 100 members, with dilapidated ceilings and bad air conditioning systems.
Relationship between APC and PDP senators
Despite its many misgivings, members of the 9th Senate have maintained a cordial relationship. Party affiliation is seldom an issue and unlike previous Assemblies, members of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) agree on almost every issue – approval of loans, confirmation of nominees, among others.