Take a bow as Senate’s albatross

Amidst the raging public disapproval of the manner the Senate carried out the screening of ministerial nominees of President Muhammadu Buhari, KUNLE ODEREMI examines the issues and trends in other countries.

THE take a bow and go or for short, take a bow, is among the novel phenomena that are fast becoming part of the lexicon in Nigeria’s political history. Mired in controversy, the weird idea crept into the body of the rules and norms or what some senators recently described as the tradition and convention of the parliament.

The ‘take a bow and go’ phenomenon entered the vocabulary of the Nigerian parliament in 2003. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had sent his list of ministerial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. The President of the Senate that time was the late Senator Evans Enwerem, who was quoted to have asked the late cerebral politician, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, to take a bow and go, following the impressive remarks and submission about his credentials and profile, by two other two ministerial nominees from his home state, Abia.

Between that time and now, the controversial ‘take a bow and go’ fad has been forwarded, especially with the rising number of ministerial nominees as beneficiaries. At the initial stage, the promise was that each of the 43 ministerial nominees by President Buhari would be appropriately grilled during screening. But it turned out to be a repeat of a similar promise by the leadership of the Sixth Senate that each of the then nominees would have to pass through the furnace. Out of the 43 ministerial nominees screened by the present Senate, a total of 18 of them benefited from what some of the senators described as the novel tradition and convention of ‘take a bow and go.’ The latest beneficiaries are: Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom), George Akume (Benue), Emeka Nwajuaba (Imo), Adeleke Mamora (Lagos), Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers), Tayo Alasoadura (Ondo), Mustapha Baba Shehuri (Borno), Timipre Sylva (Bayelsa), Chief Adeniyi Adebayo (Ekiti), Chris Ngige (Anambra), Muhammadu Musa Bello (Adamawa), Sa’adiya Umar Farouk (Zamfara), Sharon Ikeazor (Anambra), Ramatu Aliyu (Kogi) and Abubakar Aliyu (Yobe), who also benefitted on the grounds that his brother is not only a former lawmaker, but also a member of Senate President Ahmed Lawan’s constituency.

At the resumed session of the Seventh Senate in June 28, 2011, the then Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma Egba, had declared that there would be no application of the ‘take a bow and go’ treatment for any of the nominees. This, according to Ndoma-Egba, was because of the mood of the Senate. But the Senate under David Mark recanted, as the list of the nominees included names of 14 former ministers. They included: Emeka Wogu, Senator Bala Mohammed, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, Godsday Orubebe, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, Navy Captain Caleb Olubolade (retd), Professor Ruqayyatu Rufai, Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, Mohammed Saada, Mohammed Adoke, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, Labaran Maku, Yusuf Suleiman and Obadiah Ando.

Others were Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Zainab Maina, Professor Ita Bassey-Ewa, Mrs Stella Ogiemwonyi, Abba Moro, Dr. Samuel Ortom, Bukar Tijani, Mike Onolememen, Professor Barth Nnaji, Senator Idris Umar, Professor Viola Onwuliri, Dr Bello Haliru Mohammed, Bolaji Abdullahi, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Olusola Obada, Ms Olajumoke Akinjide, Tonye Cole, Dr Yerima Ngama, Ambassador Bashir Yuguda and Zainab Kuchi.

 

The snag

The general opinion is that the use of ‘take a bow and go’ by the Senate only makes a mockery of the fundamental aim and objectives of the screening exercise. One, it deprives the system of knowing the true profile of the nominees beyond the contents of their curriculum vitae. The exercise, it is argued, should have provided the veritable opportunity for the people to know the competence and capability of the nominees, especially against the public schism on the performance of some members of the last federal cabinet. It is also the view of many other pundits that the part of the ‘take a bow and go’ culture, which some of the senators espoused as ‘tradition and convention’ of the Senate, calls to question the stance of the Senate on the issues of transparency and integrity. This is against the background of the cases of malfeasance of number of high profile politicians pending before anti-graft agencies.

In other words, the Senate is seen as having turned a blind eye to the obvious breach of public trust by a number of hitherto top government officials. More importantly, the ‘take a bow and go’ syndrome is at variance with one of the cardinal responsibility of the Senate. It seems to have relinquished its oversight function to other arms of government and agencies. Those who belong to such school of thought contend that it is a pointer to it that the place of checks and balances in the emerging political dispensation seems to hang in the balance.

 

Experience from other lands

The process of screening of nominees for the 15-member federal cabinet in the United States is predicated on secretary. Under the US Constitution, all the members, apart from the White House Chief of Staff, are required to be confirmed by the Senate. The list includes the secretaries of agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, homeland,  housing and urban development, interior, labour, state, transportation, treasury, and veterans affairs, as well as the attorney-general, director of the office of management and budget, administrator of the environmental protection agency, US trade representative, ambassador to the United Nations, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and administrator of the Small Business Administration. Emphasis is placed on competence, integrity, capability and pedigree of the nominees during the process of screening by the Senate. Each of the nominees is required to submit his credentials and grilled by agents of both the White House and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), especially on issues relating to financial disclosure reports, security issues and criminal records.

Part of the process before confirmation has to pass through four other conditions that include that a nomination be passed to the relevant Senate committee; that the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, handles the attorney-general nomination.

Thereafter, a committee will then hold hearings, vote to move the nomination straight to the Senate floor for a vote or not move on it at all (in which case, the committee effectually kills the nomination). After hearings, the committee votes to report a nomination to the full Senate, requiring a simple majority. It may vote to report the nomination favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. If a committee sits on an appointment, the full Senate may vote to invoke cloture and move the nomination along. The last phase requires that if a nomination has been cleared by a committee, it will then move to the Senate floor for a simple majority vote, which sometime in the past led to rejection of ministerial nominee by the Senate.

The senators usually rise above narrow party interests to do the needful. Statistics indicate that the US Senate has rejected only nine of a president’s cabinet nominations.

 

South Africa

The situation is slightly different in South Africa, where the president is fully empowered to constitute his 28-member cabinet without recourse to the parliament. In Chapter 6 under the NATIONAL EXECUTIVE (ss. 75-95), the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa stipulates the condition for the appointment of ministers. Part of the provision reads: (1) The Cabinet shall consist of the President, the Executive Deputy Presidents and not more than 27 ministers appointed by the President in accordance with this section; (2) A party holding at least 20 seats in the National Assembly and which has decided to participate in the government of national unity shall be entitled to be allocated one or more of the Cabinet portfolios in proportion to the number of seats held by it in the National Assembly relative to the number of seats held by the other participating parties.”

 

Justification of bow and go

The screening exercise is in conformity with Section 147 (2) of 1999 Constitution. Like in the past, the exercise drew flak from many quarters this time, necessitating frantic efforts by some senators to shed light on their action on the matter. For instance, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti Central) claimed misrepresentation of the screening and confirmation proceedings of ministerial nominees, particularly Amaechi. Bamidele further insisted that the process of ministerial screening was misconstrued as confirmation by the general public. He said: “It is important we explain to members of the public that the only reason they are asked to take a bow and go is because, we could have been asking them to clarify certain things that we already know. The Constitution of Nigeria is very clear as to qualification to appointment as a minister. You must be qualified to serve as a member of the House of Representatives. All of us are aware of the qualifications. If people have been through this and they have had the opportunity to serve in the House of Assembly, it is taken for granted.

“However, that does not prevent the Senate from still scrutinising the document that they have submitted like all other nominees. I just felt members of the public should be made aware as we commence the exercise of the day.”

On his part, president of the Senate, Lawan, justified the action of the senate, but with a caveat that a nominee could still be disqualified.

“If there is anything that disqualifies a nominee, the fact that the nominee passed through the National Assembly chambers does not protect that nominee from being disqualified. So far, this tradition of the Senate is maintained. I sustain your point of order,” he said.

A former Senate Leader, Senator Teslim Folarin, also offered explanation for the action of the Senate on the ‘take a bow and go’ controversy.

“We have our traditions. If you are a former member of the National Assembly, it is our tradition to allow you to bow and go. Nigerians may not like it, but that is the way it is. If you had been a governor of a state before you came to the National Assembly for clearance, we must respect you because you had been entrusted with a huge responsibility before. Again, in some cases, once they talk for like five minutes, you would know what they have in stock. You don’t have to keep people for like one hour before you screen them. If you screen somebody for five minutes, you would know if the person is sound or not,” Folarin said.

However, the senator representing Kogi West, Dino Melaye, was averse to the practice, saying the screening was a mere smokescreen.

He said: “The process has been more of adoption than screening, but we are talking to ourselves. I am not a principal officer. I don’t know whether it is a rubber stamp. But I want to assure you that as long as some of us are there, we shall do our best.”

He blamed part of the problems on the refusal of the president to indicate the portfolio of the nominees.

Another legal practitioner described the practice as an unconstitutional arrangement made to honour former serving senator, adding that it is not good for democracy.

Mr. James Agbo, a retired permanent secretary in the Nasarawa State civil service, said this in an interview with Sunday Tribune.

“The issue of bow and take a leave is not provided by any law. But I think the Senate has developed that and incorporated it in the rules guiding the conduct of the chamber. The tradition was basically established for the purpose of honouring their colleagues; persons who were once members of the chamber.

“So, anybody who is one-time member and is appearing before them, as far as they are concerned, is a person of integrity. They would not subject such person to rigorous questioning. Such a person is fit and proper, as far as the Senate is concerned, because it is viewed that his integrity is the same as that of those who are screening him. And for that alone, he might take a bow and go.

“But then, in doing that, the Senate may be allowing so much filthy water pass through unchecked to the detriment of the people that voted them. And of course, that is not good for our democracy.

“I believe the National Assembly already has the profile and curriculum vitae of each nominee before they even appeared for the screening. Moreover, there is no laid-down guideline for the process.

“Ideally, before you are nominated to appear in the Senate, the president is supposed to know every detail about you. I don’t know whether the ministerial nominees have declared their assets before their names were forwarded. But what I know and what the law says is that as soon as you are appointed, within a period of two to three months, you should declare your assets by filling the code of conduct form.

“I will like to advise that whenever Mr. President is forwarding names for nomination, he should also specify the portfolios or office they will be posted to so that every question will be related to the office he or she would occupy. But then, the president is hiding that from to the public. It makes no sense, because we all know that democracy is about transparency and accountability.

“So, the nominees are not going to work for Buhari, but for Nigerians. Therefore, Nigerian will want to know their capabilities in the office they will be assigned to be in charge.”

An Associate Professor of Sociology at the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, Obatunde Bright Adetola, said screening done for the ministerial nominees at the National Assembly was far from screening as obtained all over the world.

He said; “screening is the evaluation or investigation of something as part of a methodical survey, to assess suitability for a particular role or purpose. Going by this definition, what happened at Nigeria’s Senate cannot be named screening. And what we all saw and witnessed during the so-called screening cannot be a universal practice.

“This is not healthy for a nation that is desirous of progress in the right direction. The issues of integrity and competence could not be seen because what we saw did not show nor point to integrity or competence. If anything, it was a show and a celebration of mediocrity.

“However, it was transparent, because we all had the opportunity to see another type of screening as against what we all know before now. The implication is grievous, because it shows what to expect from this government in this next level. Nothing serious will come out of this type of arrangement. It looks like what Fela Anikulapo-Kuti called ‘Army Arrangement,’ which can never be in favour of the people.”

 

  • Additional reports by Godwin Enna and Olayinka Olukoya
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