By Ray Ekpu
The battle lines were sharply drawn from Day One. Bukola Saraki wanted to be Senate President. President Muhammadu Buhari and APC chairman, John Oyegun did not want him. A date was named for the inauguration of the Senate and election of its presiding officers. Belatedly, Buhari decided to meet APC legislators on the Election Day at the International Conference Centre. Some of the legislators attended the meeting. The others headed to the National Assembly for the inauguration. This clash of date and time worked seamlessly for Saraki and disastrously for Buhari.
WARNING: Long texts ahead.
Saraki, a consummate arranger of things, took advantage of the scheduling quagmire and with a little help from PDP, he got crowned as the Senate President. A PDP man, Ike Ekweremadu, became his deputy. The APC chairman, a muscular preacher of party supremacy, had a list of his favourite officers in his agbada pocket. The list rotted away in his pocket. Saraki would not touch any of them with a 10-foot pole. He was preaching the gospel of Senate autonomy.
This incident showed APC as a party in disarray, one that did not know how to maximise the spoils of victory. The selection of leaders for the National Assembly should have been no headache at all for a party that had a majority in both houses. Here you had an abnormality. A member of the opposition party became the Deputy Senate President because of the internecine war within the ruling party.
President Buhari and Oyegun could not take the snub. Before Saraki could sit well on the chair, the Police had started an investigation of what can be called the Zinoview version of the Senate rules, how the rules were allegedly doctored to facilitate Saraki’s victory. The case was taken to court and then withdrawn. Saraki’s wife, Toyin, was pulled in by the EFCC for questioning and released. Then the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) which was sitting silently like a dormant volcano suddenly came alive when a 13-count charge was filed against Saraki for alleged false and improper declaration of assets when he was the Governor of Kwara State. He refused to appear before the Tribunal, headed for the High Court and Court of Appeal and lost. The Code of Conduct Tribunal issued two bench warrants before he showed up. They put him in the box labelled, “Accused Box.”
But Saraki is not a pantomime dragon. He is a dab hand at machine politics and political infighting. He dusted his opponents including his own father, Olusola, when he was in charge of Kwara State. When he fights he pulls no punches. At the Senate he organised the selection of the committees to achieve maximum advantage, to woo his friends and wound his enemies. He chose the juiciest committees for his friends and associates. Anyone who did not behave well he ensured that he went hungry or he sent him into the wilderness where wolves abound.
In the matter of his trial at CCT, he adopted a multi-pronged approach. He invited the Judge to appear at the Senate. It didn’t work. He tried to edit the CCT Act. The public shot it down. He hired a battalion of high profile Senior Advocates to pursue his defence. He probably also had some hirelings in the media doing for him what hirelings do. In October 2015, he got 83 senators out of 109 to pass a vote of confidence on him. Assuming that all the 49 PDP senators voted for him it means that Saraki also got 34 votes from the 59 APC senators. It means that only 25 APC senators were not with him. Now most of them are.
When Buhari was in the United States late 2015, he was asked about the Saraki trial. He responded: “what has the President got to do with it as a person? The case is in court. Do Nigerians expect me to tell the Chief Justice to tell whichever court that they should not try the Senate President?” Wearing the toga of the defender of senatorial sanctity Saraki retorted: “As a senator of the Federal Republic and as Senate President I owe it to this senate to stand strong in the face of relentless persecution. I invite all of you to stand with me to defend this senate and preserve its sanctity.”
Saraki was growing in strength while the APC leadership spent time in sweet idleness. I knew the defining moment would come. In the Source magazine of October 12, 2015 I had written: “Buhari is in a Catch 22 situation. If he orders the CCT to halt the case against Saraki he would have dug a giant hole in his credibility as an anti-corruption crusader. If the case goes on and the 83 senators remain in Saraki’s corner, the Buhari government will have a fight on its hands, a fight that may affect his ability to govern.” That fight has come. The chickens have come home to roost.
The Senate is pussy-footing on the 2017 budget; it has put on hold the confirmation hearing for 27 Resident Electoral Commissioners; it has rejected Buhari’s anti-corruption czar, Ibrahim Magu, twice and asked that he ceases to be recognised as the acting chairman of the EFCC. The government has now recognised that there is fire on the mountain. The President has come down from his Sinai and set up a trouble-shooting committee headed by Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.
The Executive-Senate relationship has been a cat and mouse affair. Some of the government’s appointees have shown a lack of respect in words and actions to the Senate. This is unacceptable. One of the appointees, Itse Sagay, told the press that the senate is “childish” and “irresponsible” simply by inviting him to appear before it. That is over the top. The APC has cautioned him to watch his tongue.
Before him there was a spat between the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir David Lawal, on the issue of contract awards in the war-weary North Eastern Nigeria. In disagreement with the Senate Lawal said magisterially that they were talking “balderdash.” When I heard the word I cringed. The synonyms for balderdash, according to my Thesaurus, are “silliness, foolishness, absurdity, poppycock, folly, rot, twaddle, drivel, blather, prattle, moonshine, monkeyshines, hooey, baloney, bunk, applesauce, crock, crap, malarkey, hogwash.” It also means garbage, trash, junk, or gimcrackery. None of those words of abuse is appropriate to be used by any government official or anybody at all on an eminent even if imperfect institution such as the Senate. For a Senate that is uncertain of the level of public respect it has, such words can get easily into its thin skin.
But Mr. Lawal is not a first offender in mud-slinging matters. He it was who said that he was too busy to pay attention to the contents of the 2014 National Conference reports because after all that conference was just “job for the boys.” The Vice Chairman of that conference, the very brilliant, Professor of Political Science, Bolaji Akinyemi, in a short rebuttal laid bare the folly of his unwarranted assault on the integrity of the eminent traditional rulers, professors, retired judges, senior advocates, former ministers, doctors, engineers, journalists, former permanent secretaries, former speakers, retired generals, former Inspectors General of Police and former governors who made the reports of that conference a diamond mine. A wiser administrator could easily be stealing ideas from that report to enrich his work without condemning what he admitted he hadn’t read. Apparently, he has more faith in the beaten path, in the banal routinisation of government business than in combing the field, finding new paths to our destination. Wouldn’t that be the real spelling of change? But apparently he did not know that by disparaging about 500 eminent opinion leaders in all the 36 states of the Federation he was rendering no help to his government in relationship building.
Another government official, the Comptroller General of Customs, Mr. Hameed Ali, had a running battle with the Senate. Ali, a retired army officer, was invited by the Senate with respect to some controversial motor import duty issue. The Senators asked him to appear before them in his CGC uniform. He did not. His response was: “My not wearing a uniform does not breach any law.” But there is also no law that requires him not to wear a uniform. The Customs is a uniformed service run with rules, regulations and traditions established over the ages. No Comptroller General of the Customs (CGC) has ever refused to wear a uniform. But Mr. Ali is a retired army officer. I am told that army officers, aware of the nobility of their life-and-death calling, feel that the army uniform is the ultimate measure of man’s macho-ness. No other uniform comes near. If that is so, then the CGC uniform is inferior, second class. By that logic isn’t the mufti that Ali, and bloody civilians wear, not a third class outfit? Why would he reject an outfit that will make him a second class citizen in preference for mufti that puts him in the same class as bloody civilians: third class. In any case, Mr. Ali knew that the rules of the service prescribe uniforms. It even states that junior officers will receive free uniforms while senior officers will pay for their uniforms. Mr. Ali knew these before accepting the job. The uniform comes with the territory. He has no authority to bend, in his favour, a tradition that has been held sacrosanct for ages. As Africans normally say “if you don’t like the smell of onions don’t get into the kitchen.”
Some analysts believe that the main problem straining the Executive’s relationship with the Senate is Ibrahim Magu. They say that there are about 10 senators being investigated or being tried for corruption on charges brought against them by the EFCC. The Magu confirmation matter was surprisingly handled by the government with unparalleled tardiness. It doesn’t matter whether or not the senators were ready to shoot him down in an ambush. How did anybody expect Magu to be confirmed in the light of the damming report from a government agency, the Department of State Service (DSS) on him? What it means is that in this matter the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. Awful!
As things are now, Magu who appeared to have sent a chill into the spines of the treasury looters is gone. He did not make any serious effort at the hearing to defend his integrity. He simply said he did not want an inter-service disharmony. But his reputation and his career were at stake. I expected a robust defence of both. It didn’t come. The President need not send his name to the Senate for the third time. Doing so would be disrespectful to both the Senate and the Executive. Buhari should search for a gutsy but fair minded someone to replace Magu. And when he chooses one he must get directly involved: adopt a bipartisan approach, phone senators of the two leading parties, hold lunches, promise amenities in their constituencies and appointments for them to fill with their preferred candidates. The presidency has limitless offers to make in exchange for support in difficult times. All presidents do it. That is lobbying. Buhari’s present imperial aloofness is not helping him. Rather it is hindering him.
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