Drama in Senate as Northern lawmakers frustrate bill for Armed Forces Service Commission

•It is the beauty of democracy ― Senator Ajibola

Ethnic suspicion took a better part of federal lawmakers on the floor of the Red Chamber on Wednesday.

A Bill for the Establishment of Armed Forces Services Commission, 2021 sponsored by Senator representing Abia South and Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe suffered a setback as it was halted from proceeding to Second Reading.

The Bill was presented for First Reading on March 3, 2020.

The Senate erupted into emotional outbursts shortly after Senator Abaribe presented his lead debate.

Presenting his lead debate, the Minority Leader said “the bill seeks to get the National Assembly to give effect to the clear provisions of section 219 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended.”

Section 219 of the 1999 Constitution cited by Senator Abaribe reads: “The National Assembly shall (a) In giving effect to the functions specified in section 217 of the 1999 and (b) with respect to the powers exercisable by the President under section 218 of the constitution; establish a body that shall comprise such members as the National Assembly may determine and which shall have the power to ensure that the composition of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects Federal Character of Nigeria in the manner prescribed by section 217 of the Constitution.”

“The establishment of this Commission is informed by the imperative to give effect to the provisions of section 217 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to ensure that the Composition/appointment of Service Chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects the said section.”

“The function and powers of the Commission shall be to:

“Have the power and authority pursuant to section 219 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) to ensure that the composition/appointment of Service Chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects Federal Character of Nigeria in the manner prescribed in section 217 (3) of the 1999 Constitution.

“Ensure that the functions specified in section 217 of the 1999 Constitution; and the powers exercise by the President in the appointment of Service Chiefs and officers Corps and other Ranks of the Armed Forces of the Federation in section 218 of the 1999 Constitution reflects the said section.

“Recommend to the President from among the best and most qualified, most educated and most experienced members of the Armed Forces of the Federation for appointment as:

(i) Chief of Defence Staff

(ii) Chief of Army Staff

(iii) Chief of Air Staff

(iv) Chief of Naval Staff

(v) Director of Military Intelligence, and Heads of other Arms-bearing Security Agencies and ensure that such appointments reflect the Federal Character of Nigeria.

“Recommend to the President the removal from office as Service Chiefs and Head of other Arm-bearing Security Agencies on the ground of misconduct, abuse of office, breach of any section of the Constitution, the Armed Forces Act or any other Act of the National Assembly.

“Approve promotion from among the best, most competent and qualified officers as Heads of Military formations/branches such as General Officers Commanding Divisions of the Nigerian Army and their equivalent in the Navy and Air Force.

“Provided that in making such recommendations the Commission shall observe the Federal Character principle and adopt an equitable template to spread the Offices of the Service Chiefs, and Other Corps and other Ranks of the Armed Forces of the Federation among the six geo-political zones of the country.”

While seeking support for the Bill, the Senator representing Abia South expressed the hope that “the enactment of this bill will help strengthen our national unity and integration where the overall interest of all sections of the Country is protected.”

Checks revealed that with the exception of Senate Majority Leader, Yahaya Abdullahi who spoke in support of the Bill, the majority of the Senators from the North faulted the timing of the presentation of the Bill as they claimed that it would politicise recruitment and promotion in the Armed Forces and undermine professionalism.

Senator Abdullahi said what the sponsor of the Bill has done was a wake-up call on the Senate to be alive to its constitutional responsibility.

He said: “I stand before this distinguished chamber to affirm that this Bill stands on very solid constitutional grounds from Sections 217, 213 and 219.

“They imposed it as a duty on this hallowed chamber to provide for the establishment of an institution to manage the armed forces.

“What the section has done is to share the management of the Armed Forces between the Executive and the Legislature.

“It gives the legislature the powers to manage the affairs of the Nigerian Armed Forces.”

Former governor of Kebbi state and Senator representing Kebbi central, Adamu Aliero, claimed the establishment of Armed Forces Service Commission, as enshrined in the Constitution would politicise the Armed Forces.

“If we go ahead, it will compromise the integrity of the Armed Forces. If we go ahead with this proposal, it will undermine the Constitutional provision. “What this bill seeks to do is to accord recognition to the six geo-political zones which aren’t recognised by the Constitution. The bill will politicise the armed forces and dampen the morale of officers of the Armed Forces.”

Former Nasarawa state governor and Senator representing Nasarawa West, Abdullahi Adamu in his contribution agreed that the Senate was “simply being invited to comply with a provision of the Constitution,” but said the timing was wrong.

He said presenting the Bill at this time when the Parliament just recently screened and confirmed new Service Chiefs was meant to blackmail the National Assembly.

“In as much as it appears to be in consonance with the provision of the Constitution, the question is, why now? “Is he ( Senator Abaribe) suggesting that all these NASS between 1999 and now has been in default in implementing this provision of the Constitution?

“Apart from the period of the Biafran War, this is the time that our Armed Forces have been overstretched. It is diversionary.

“Yes, the fact remains that the appointment of Service Chiefs stops on the President table. But there has been rumbling since the new set of Service Chiefs, this bill is meant to blackmail the NASS. Why now?”

Senator representing Bauchi North, Mohammed Bulkachuwa said there was no need for the Armed Forces Service Commission since there is an existing Federal Character Commission to ensure that no ethnic group is denied recruitment into federal services and Commission.

“It is a non-issue, the Federal Character Commission is already enshrined in the Constitution and it is applied in recruitment into federal service. To hide under the cover of Section 219, 218 is just an academic exercise. I think we should advise the mover of the motion to withdraw it.”

Former Gombe state governor and Senator representing Gombe central, Danjuma Goje who equally faulted the timing of the Bill further claimed it could dampen the morale of members of the Armed Forces if passed into an Act.

“I will never go against the Constitution of Nigeria but that doesn’t mean we should take it in absolute terms. To try to politicise the armed forces is very dangerous for us. They are overstretched and they need to be motivated. It is very dangerous and more sensitive. If we can’t promote the unity of the Armed Forces today, we shouldn’t aggravate it.

“The Senate Minority Leader has been in this Senate since 2007 and he hasn’t been associated with this kind of bill. He should withdraw it.”

Senator representing Ekiti Central and Chairman Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Michael Bamidele cautioned the Senate not to throw away its Constitutionally assigned responsibility on the altar of primordial sentiment.

“Mr President, this one of those moments again whereas elective representatives of the people who swore to uphold the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, we have to make the decision as to whether or not we want to stand and uphold clear provisions of the Constitution or allow whatever primordial sentiments to make us shy away from upholding the Constitution.

“Section 219 is very clear and it is for this Senate to take a decision to the word “shall” in section 219.

What the sponsor of this bill is trying to achieve by an Act of the National Assembly to establish a body which shall comprise such members as the National Assembly may determine.

“Mr President, Yes, there is an Army Council; Yes, there is a Navy Council, let the national assembly take the decision that representatives of such councils shall also become automatic members of the Armed Forces Service Commission commission.

“We don’t need myth around who can join the armed forces, they have their regimented criteria, why are we running from having an Armed Forces Commission? As far as I’m concerned it is not about the debate as to whether we have it or not, the Constitution had provided for it, Constitution says it shall happen and it is for us to perform our duty. The fact that it has not been done up till now and it is been proposed by the sponsor, it is a wakeup call on the national assembly to do a duty imposed on it by the Constitution.”

Senator representing Delta South, James Manager spoke in a similar vein as he argued that “this bill is calling us to do what we ought to have done a long time ago.”

Two senators from the South however spoke vehemently against the bill: Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo Agege and the Senator representing Edo North, Francis Alimikhena.

The Deputy Senate President said the establishment of the Armed Forces Service Commission was not necessary as it could undermine the power of the sitting President to pick his Service Chiefs.

He said:” On the surface, it is difficult to quarrel with the content of the Bill.

“But Mr President, the ‘Devil is in the Details’. So I will not be opposed to this Bill being read for the second time so that we have the opportunity during the public hearing and when it comes before us here to look at the provisions.

“Let me say, without prejudice to what will come out from the public hearing. Under Section 219, which is the anchor for this Bill, what they are seeking to do is Act, enact a law, an act of parliament though provided for under 219 but also it would be inferior legislation to the constitutional provisions.

“Because the power to appoint the Chief of Defence Staff, the Chief of Army Staff, the Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of Air Force and other security agencies that may be presented to us but these ones are already determined by the Constitution, that power to make that appointment is already conferred on Mr President and that is a constitutional provision. That power is sacrosanct.

“We should not end up making a law which is an act of national Assembly that will derogate from the clear constitutional power already conferred on Mr President.”

Senator Alimikhena said the Bill could promote disunity in the armed forces and destroy professionalism.

“This Bill put on paper, it is going to create disunity in the operation of the armed forces. As it is presently composed the commission cannot take the function of the Chief of Army Staff or the functions of all the Service Chiefs because if you allow this Bill to materialise, the armed forces will be politicised and the professionalism will be killed.

“It is the function of the Chief of Army Staff or the Service Chiefs that know the competence of their officers that can recommend for any position. The commission cannot know who is competent.”

After exhaustive deliberations, President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan put it to a voice vote and ruled that majority of the lawmakers had rejected the Bill for Second Reading.

His judgement was however challenged by the sponsor of the bill, Senator Abaribe. Citing Order 73 of the Senate Rules, the Minority Leader demanded to vote.

The President of the Senate rather than concede to the request however dissolved the Senate into an Executive session.

A few minutes after, the Senate resumed plenary with Senator Lawan making the remarks that Senator Abaribe has agreed to step down Order 73 after appeals by his colleagues.

President of the Senate faulted the Bill as he claimed that Senator Abaribe did not consult widely with his colleagues before the presentation.

He said, “opportunity will be available for him or any distinguished senator to represent this Bill better after due consultations with colleagues.”

Speaking with journalists after plenary, Senator representing Osun Central and Chairman Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Ajibola Basiru justified Senate President insistence on voice votes as against voting canvassed by Senator Abaribe and other lawmakers in support of the Bill.

He equally justified the Executive session to resolve the stalemate.

He said: “Closed session allows for openness and frankness. Matters that can be resolved amicably, by consensus, we don’t have to choose voting which gives the impression of division. To have a consensus model promotes our democracy.”

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