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Senate and its endless rumbles, drama

The Red Chamber of the Nigerian Senate has been a theatre of sort all through the past week. Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, presents the inside details of endless drama the lawmakers treated Nigerians to.

Tuesday, July 12 marked the kick-off of the second session of the eighth National Assembly. It also coincided with the commencement of what is fast becoming a drama of limitless scenes in the Red Chamber.

Though the eighth Senate has not really known peace since its inauguration on June 9, 2015, the upscale of drama in the last one week appears unprecedented. On Tuesday, the Senate kicked off from where it started in the first session, which ended on June 9, by issuing a summons on the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) and another high- ranking member of the executive cabinet, Mr Babachir Lawal, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF).

For the AGF, his case with the senators has been a carryover from the last session, when he had missed two invitations of the lawmakers. He had been summoned to appear before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Legal Matters headed by Senator David Umaru to explain his role in dragging the Senate President Senator Bukola Saraki and his Deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, to court over alleged forgery of Senate Rule Book 2015. The AGF had shunned the invitations. But on Tuesday, the Senate asked him to appear before the committee not later than Friday or risk the issuance of a warrant of arrest.

At the Tuesday’s sitting, Chairman of Judiciary Committee, Senator David Umaru, had reported that Malami had shunned the committee’s two invitations meant to investigate his decision to file charges against Senate’s presiding officers and the two clerks over alleged forgery.

The senators then resolved that the AGF should appear before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters not later than Friday or risk arrest.

In his ruling on Umaru’s report, Saraki threatened that if the AGF failed to appear before the committee the Senate would have no option but to exercise its constitutional powers by using a warrant of arrest.

He said: “We all heard the explanation of the chairman on Judiciary, and what he is trying to get across to us here is to tell us the status of the situation because what we have been reading in the papers was of great concern where the number one judicial officer of the country will be the one that will be flouting the constitution, because 89 (c) is very clear.

“But it appears from what you are saying that the attorney-general is requesting one more chance to be given to appear before you. And I think as a Senate, it is always in the progress of development. And as such we will do that and ensure that he does come this time. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to follow the constitution strictly. So, you will report back to us before the end of the week to let us know the status of that situation. And if that does not happen, we will go ahead and go in line with the constitution very clearly.”

The same day, the Senate played up another scene in the unfolding executive/legislative feud when it issued a summons on the SGF, Mr Lawal, over his comments that the constituency projects in the 2016 budget may not be implemented.

Babachi’s summons was sequel to the motion moved by Senator Mathew Urhoghide (PDP Edo South), who complained of media reports quoting Babachir as saying that constituency projects may not be implemented. Several other senators, who commented on the motion, insisted that Babachir’s comments were in bad faith and that he must be summoned to appear before the lawmakers.

The summons may be targeted at two individuals in the executive, but the message is not lost on the contending forces that both the Senate and the executive are engaged in a supremacy battle.

Thus, when the SGF appeared before the joint Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions; Appropriations and Finance to defend his comments, he made no pretenses that he was speaking for the Federal Government, even though he was not representing the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma.

He told the committee that the finances of the government have dwindled by as much as 50 per cent and as such, constituency projects could just be one of the sacrificial lambs.

According to him, oil benchmark of the Federal Government for the 2016 budget put at $38 per barrel has been drastically dislocated and grossly affected by activities of militants in the Niger Delta region, which he said had dropped oil production at a stage to about 800, 000 barrels per day.

Lawal, who was practically unrepentant at the statement credited to him, told the lawmakers: “The statement is correct. That is my statement; we cannot guarantee the implementation of constituency projects in the 2016 budget. As a government, constituency projects are championed by members of the National Assembly. Like the legislature, members of the executive are politicians who canvassed for votes.

“Lawmakers are aware that oil production has dwindled to about 800,000 barrels per day. This has led to the inability of government to finance the budget. It is the duty of government to prepare the minds of Nigerians ahead that there will be challenges in implementing the budget.

“Government based its principle on zero budgeting this year. Funds will be released to finance key projects in line with the implementation plans of the government. I will explain why it will be hard for the government to implement the budget.

“I spoke with the Minister of Budget this morning (Wednesday) and I asked him the revenue base of the government. We are now receiving about 50 to 60 earnings from what we projected.

“Some Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) might find it impossible to implement projects appropriated in their budgets. We have to re-prioritise. I like us to understand that this is the background upon which I made that statement.”

Lawal had run into troubled waters with the lawmakers immediately he arrived at the hearing room as the hostile senators objected to his initial remarks. The SGF had complained that the notice extended to him was too short and that it carried an element of threat. But before he could finish his comments, two lawmakers interjected and practically accused him of acting in bad faith.

He said: “I only saw this letter this morning. I thought it was going to be Wednesday next week. I wanted my permanent secretary to write to request for another date, knowing that Wednesdays are for Federal Executive Council meetings. You gave me a very short time to prepare.

“Taking together the lateness of the letter and the threat at the bottom of it shows that it was not done in good faith. We should respect each other and give each other the time to appear.”

But the Chairman, Senate Committee Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Senator Samuel Anyanwu immediately countered him.

Senator Anyanwu said: “This is a joint committee meeting. Our committee days are usually Wednesdays. The Senate is expected to go on recess next week Wednesday and because of the urgency of the issue, we had to send the letter. We want the aspect of that your statement withdrawn.”

Anyanwu was further backed by Senator John Enoh, who demanded a retraction from Lawal. “We take exception to the word ‘bad faith’. The comments imply that the Senate committee, in extending an invitation to you, acted in bad faith. If we sent the letter to you in bad faith, it means you are also here in bad faith,” Enoh stated.

But the SGF had to drop another tone of protest, even while withdrawing his statement. He said: “The freedom of expression is a right. While I excuse your position, but I want you to note the threat in your letter. I want to put it on record that you forced me to withdraw my statement.”

There was more drama as the AGF appeared before the Committee on Judiciary and Legal Matters also on Wednesday.

Malami, in his submission, said that the forgery suit instituted against Saraki, Ekweremadu and officials of the National Assembly was in public interest.

He told the committee that the fact that he had earlier served as counsel to one of the litigants in the three suits did not amount to conflict of interest, adding that the decision of his office was informed by the report of police investigation into the matter.

According to him, the provisions of Section 60 of the 1999 Constitution empower him to file the criminal charges against the presiding officers.

But Malami did not answer why he included Saraki, and his deputy, Ekweremadu in the suit, in spite of the fact that their names were not mentioned in the police report.

To him, giving any reason at the moment for their involvement would be subjudice because the proof of evidence was already before the court.

He said: “The proof of evidence is before the court.  I am a party in the suit being the prosecutor. I can’t comment on the question you asked because doing so would be subjudice.

“I was invited to appear before the committee based on a letter which reads “Imminent threat to Nigeria democracy.” I have a clear obligation to do whatever should be done within the context of the constitution to sustain the democratic process.

“The issue that constitutes the basis of this invitation is a criminal case instituted against certain members of the Senate. It is an act that predates my appointment. There are series of suits.

“I was appointed on the 12th of November, 2015. That is four months after the investigation was concluded by the police. I have an obligation in the sustenance of democracy to institute a legal action from an investigation that has been concluded. It was based on this that I took the action.

“The action was not taken to truncate any democratic process, but was taken to protect the democracy. There are now two pending cases in court. One is a civil case instituted by some Senators. The other is a criminal case instituted by the office of the AGF.

“The initiation behind the forgery case was taken in the interest of the public and in the interest of democracy. I want to state clearly that my decision was based on public interest and the aim to prevent abuse of public offices.

“The National Assembly has the powers to regulate its own procedure. But the basis for filing my case was that the position taken was not that of the Senate. The Senate Standing Rules allegedly amended in 2015 did not follow the traditional way of amendment.

“It can, therefore, not be the position of the Senate. That is where my quarrel comes in. If there are certain persons that did not allow the process of amending the Senate Standing Rules go through the constitutional process, we have a responsibility to act by way of initiating a criminal proceeding against those involved.”

Malami told the sitting that he had met privately with members of the committee to apologise over his failure to honour previous invitations but stated that his action was in public interest.

Though the committee members failed to interrogate Malami’s submissions further, it was apparent that the AGF was working in link with members of the Senate Unity Forum (SUF), the group that opposed the emergence of Saraki as the Senate President. Prior to June 9, 2015 the Senate had been divided among the SUF, loyal to the hierarchy of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Like Minds Senators (LMS) loyal to Saraki and the non-Aligned Senators, who are largely ranking senators.

The SUF was endorsed by the APC to produce the Senate President and other Principal Officers, but Saraki worked behind the scenes to clinch the top job.

The AGF’s arguments are those already canvassed by the leaders of the SUF in their opposition to Saraki.

Sources in the Senate have, however, insisted that the bureaucracy of the National Assembly is as well empowered to bring the rules of the chamber up to date with realities on the global political scene by proposing amendments where a chamber is not in session and that such amendments could be adopted through the votes and proceedings when the chamber resumes plenary.

Chairman of the Committee, Senator David Umaru, explained that the essence of summoning the AGF was to find out from him whether his action did not amount to conflict of interest, since he was a counsel in one of the alleged forgery cases before his appointment.

Umaru said: “I like to state that the purpose of our inquiry is not to look at the criminal case of forgery, neither are we looking at the civil matter which was filed and is pending in a Federal High Court.

“Our concern is different from that. We are not interested in that. The court should handle that. We are looking at Section 174 of the 1999 Constitution. By the powers conferred on this committee by Section 88 and 89 of the Constitution and Order 97, Rule 37, read together with Section 62.

“Section 60 gives the Senate the powers to make rules to govern its own proceedings.

However, Senator Babajide Omoworare, added to the drama when he openly disagreed with his colleagues at the committee sitting. He said that the AGF should not have been invited because the matter involved is before a competent court of law.

To him, both the constitution of the country and the Senate rule book forbid the senators from interfering on any issue that is pending in court. He said, “My admonition is that the matter is subjudice and we should not be here wasting our time over a matter that is pending in court.”

The picture of a divided Senate painted by Omoworare would, however, not go away as another drama premiered by Chairman Senate Committee on the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Senator Dino Melaye and the chairperson would confirm.

It all happened on July 12 but because it took place behind the closed doors, only snippets of it were available immediately.

It emerged as Senators held a closed session that day that Melaye, who represents Kogi West, had engaged Senator Oluremi Tinubu in near fisticuffs and had exchanged hot words with the wife of a leader of his party.

As sources in the Senate would have it, Melaye was quoted as saying that he would beat up Senator Tinubu and that nothing would happen.

The Senate had called the closed session, to resolve issues relating to the ongoing forgery suit brought against Saraki and Ekweremadu.

At the sitting, it was confirmed that Senator Melaye moved that the senators who filed petitions to the police to allege forgery of Senate rules be suspended.

His position was, however, stoutly opposed by Senator Tinubu. The chairman Senate Women Affairs Committee was quoted as saying that senators should not behave like small boys and that the Senate should rather close ranks and seek solutions to the forgery saga instead of compounding the problem.

Sources in the Senate said that Senator Melaye immediately flared up and started calling Tinubu unprintable names.

A source said that Melaye told Senator Tinubu that she was too skinny for him to befriend and that he would have preferred to befriend women like Senator Stella Oduah. He was also quoted as saying that he could beat up the woman and that “nothing would happen.”

The altercation was said to have thrown the closed-door session into temporary disarray as senators were said to have taken time to calm the feuding duo.

As reports of that encounter blew open in the media, both Senators Melaye and Tinubu are being taken to task. But women activists have called Melaye names for threatening to “beat up and impregnate Tinubu and nothing would happen.”

While Mrs. Tinubu did not respond to attempts to have an interview with her as of press time, Melaye spoke to newsmen in the National Assembly on Thursday to further clarify his position.

Senator Dino Melaye in his explanation to newsmen said that he was only responding to verbal assaults unleashed on him by Senator Tinubu .

He stated that he did not mention the name of Senator Tinubu in his submissions during the closed session but was shocked to see Tinubu called him “dog and a thug…”

“Unfortunately I did not have the anointing to be quite when you are being insulted. I replied accordingly. I repeat there is no reaction without an action. If she did not call me a dog or a thug there is no way I would have responded. I responded I have no regrets for responding and defending my person and if tomorrow or in the next one hour, Senator Tinubu again called me any name I shall equally respond accordingly.”