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Senate’s gaffe on rerun elections

A day after the Senate threatened to suspend plenary sessions if the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) failed to schedule rerun elections into vacant legislative seats in Rivers State by December 10, the commission promptly announced that rerun elections would in fact hold on the said date. A statement by its Secretary , Auguta Ogakwu, said: “After months of intensive planning and wide consultations, the Independent National Electoral Commission on Thursday approved the conduct of Lagos’ House of Representatives election on Saturday, December 3, 2016. The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) councillorship election will also hold on Saturday, December 3, 2016.” The Rivers National Assembly and state House of Assembly elections would then follow a week later, the statement added.

This was not the first time that the nation’s highest lawmaking body would urge INEC to comply with the time frame set by the election petition tribunals. But unlike its earlier intervention in September, this one was backed by a clear threat by the senators to shun work and, on the face of it, it seems to have worked. Moving the motion, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, had said that INEC’s failure to conduct the re-run elections in Rivers State within the time frame ordered by the respective election petition tribunals and courts was a total breach of the Electoral Act and Section 76 of the 1999 Constitution. The Senate had then resolved to “call on the lndependent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct all outstanding elections in Rivers State before the end of November 2016, failing which the Senate will suspend plenary till such a time the said elections are held and the people of Rivers State are represented in the respective legislative houses.”

The motion was later amended to read that the Senate resolved to “call on the lndependent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct all outstanding elections in Rivers State not later than 10th December, 2016, failing which the Senate will suspend plenary till such a time the said elections are held and the people of Rivers State are represented in the respective Legislative houses.” But is that really the way things are supposed to work, with members of the august body throwing sophomoric tantrums and threatening to throw their toys out of the pram? We think not.

Let’s be clear: the Senate is well within its rights to insist on rerun elections in Rivers State, and indeed any other part of the country where elections were inconclusive, being conducted within the time line set by the various election petition courts/tribunals. In the same vein, it is difficult to fault its argument that failure to do so would amount to denying the people“their constitutionally guaranteed rights to be represented in the legislative houses where laws affecting them are being made.”

But that is as far as it goes. It is one thing for the Senate to want to draw a line in the sand, and quite another to threaten to refuse to discharge its constitutional obligation because of a perceived slight to its authority on the part of a state institution. If the Senate’s instinctive response to every perceived slight to its office was a threat to lockout, what would it do in the event of a genuine challenge?

The majority of Nigerians are already skeptical of the value that the Senate in its current incarnation brings to the country’s democracy. Its members are widely perceived, a tad unfairly, as a bunch of loafers who are only in it for their outrageous remunerations. We are well aware of this innuendo, and we know from experience that it is only a part of the story; for the chamber indeed comprises several driven, diligent, and thoughtful individuals who take their duty as lawmakers very seriously.

The sad truth however is that the Senate does not cover itself in glory with incidents like this. On the contrary, it gives the firm and unfortunate impression that it neither knows its own powers, nor how to use its control of the government purse to good effect. Whenever rules are assailed by any governmental agency, Nigerians expect the Senate to step in. But they also expect the body to act while not threatening to break the law itself. The Senate boasts of many bright minds. It should consider putting them to work.