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Published On: Sun, Mar 18th, 2018

Seeking elusive truce in NASS, Presidency cold war

By OBINNA EZUGWU

On Thursday night, President Muhammadu Buhari met with Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki; speaker of the House of Reps, Hon. Yakubu Dogara as well as other principal officers of both chambers of the All Progressive Congress (APC) led National Assembly at the state house, Abuja, but members of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) stayed away.

President Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with the President of the Senate, Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki, while the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Yakubu Dogara, looks at the State House in Abuja… on Thursday, March 15, 2018.

The meeting came after weeks of uncertainty between the two arms, and already suggestions are that it could mark the beginning of an improved relationship, to end the perpetual cold war since the beginning of the administration, a war that had intensified in recent weeks over a number of issues and had contributed to the country’s economic woes.

Principal among topics discussed at the meeting, according SGF, Boss Mustapha were security issues and the need to expedite action on the 2018 budget.

“The President gave them update on security, economy, job creation, processes in the National Assembly especially with regards to the budget and the need to conclude on it,” Mustapha said while addressing state house correspondents after the meeting.

“Mr. President has given instruction that all ministers and parastatals should ensure that they appear before the National Assembly to defend their submissions so that we can get this out of the way.

“You know this is a very dynamic year and there are preparation for elections and we are having quite a lot of security challenges and so if we don’t appropriate, where will the money come from?”

Earlier on Tuesday, the Senate backed down on its decision not to screen any nominee of the president and decided in favour of confirming nominees for the CBN board to enable Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the bank which had been in abeyance on account of their inability to form a quorum, to meet on Sunday.

Positive developments, obviously in a country now riddled with crisis on many fronts, but it does appear too insignificant in the face of the enormous issues at hand, and the extent to which the stand- off has gone.

It has indeed been weeks of mutual undermining of efforts. Last week Tuesday, President Buhari vetoed a bill for the reordering of the country’s electoral sequence passed by the National Assembly on February 14 under Section 25 of the Principal Act 2010, noting that the amendment infringed on the discretion of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to “organise, undertake and supervise elections.”

His decision was widely expected. The proposed bill seeks to arrange the election sequence such that National Assembly would come first, governorship second and presidential election last. Some noted that the arrangement may not work well for his chances of reelection.

There had been debates over the thinking behind such move, with many insisting that it was targeted at the president. Perhaps, not precisely so, but the lawmakers are out to ensure that the President’s eroded goodwill does not jeopardize their own ambitions. In their thinking if the presidential election is held first, and Buhari fails to get reelected, it would rub off on them too.

When they agreed on the bill last month, some of Buhari’s loyalists in the red chamber cried blue murder. It was Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, Delta Central, who along with nine others, including Senator Abdullahi Adamu, Nasarawa West, declared that it was targeted at the president.

Others in the group included, Abu Ibrahim, Benjamin Uwajumogu, Ali Wakil, Abdullahi Gumel, Binta Masi, Yahaya Abdullahi, Andrew Uchendu and Umaru Kurfi.

But it was Omo-Agege who voiced the allegation, and soon faced the heat from other senators. He was compelled to apologize when it became obvious that his outburst would land him a suspension.

Apparently, with Buhari’s popularity fading rapidly, and a number of the lawmakers having rifts with governors of their respective states, the thinking must have been first, that a possible defeat of the president would not adversely affect their own chances. And second, that the state governors would not be in good position to interfere with their elections.

War over the sequence will surely be a clog on the wheel of any peace effort that goes beyond discussions around budget and security. Last week, both the House of Reps and the Senate began moves to override the president’s veto. It is the second vetoed bill that the lawmakers are working to override, the first being the president’s veto of the bill for the establishment of Mr. Dickson Akoh led paramilitary outfit, Peace Corps.

In the upper chamber, the move is spearheaded by the “Like Minds,” a group of senators loyal to Saraki and principally opposed to Buhari. Its most vocal member is Senator Dino Melaye, Kogi West.

The power to override the president’s veto, they do have under Section 58(5) of the 1999 Constitution, but only if they can achieve a two-third majority. And this seems quite unlikely with senators loyal to the president constituting a significant number.

The president’s loyal senators led by Senator Adamu have also begun mobilising to counter moves for the override. And indeed, in a move that came as a surprise, Federal High Court, Abuja, on Wednesday, gave an order restraining the National Assembly from proceeding with the move.

Justice Ahmed Mohammed who gave the order asked the lawmakers to maintain the status quo pending a March 20 hearing date. He gave the order while delivering ruling on an oral application by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), lawyer to the plaintiff, Accord Party.

But it is unlikely that the last of the case has been heard. The Senate on Thursday, charged the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, to caution judicial officers against granting court orders capable of truncating parliamentary operations.

The lawmakers had also faulted the president’s grounds for the veto in a submission by a legal team of both chambers led by Senator Ike Ekweremadu.

“The correct legal position, however, is that by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 First Alteration Act 2010, Act No. 1, specifically, Section 5 provides that Section 76 of the Principal Act is altered thus (a) subsection (1) in line 2, by inserting immediately after the word ‘commission’ ‘the words’ in accordance with the Electoral Act,” they noted.

“From the above amendment, it is crystal clear that the power to regulate the principal elements of all federal electoral processes were by the above amendment removed from the Independent National Electoral Commission and vested in the Assembly, which has the power to make laws for peace, order and good governance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

It has been weeks of accusations and counter accusations between senators on both sides of the divide. Senator Adamu had alleged for instance, that the Senate was taking steps to deliberately sabotage the workings of the Executive, an allegation that was severely rebutted by them.

Few days ago, Senator Obinna Ogba, Ebonyi Central alleged, with “evidences” of phone conversations between Mr. Adamu and some other people that they were planning to remove Saraki and other members of the senate leadership.

There has never been a day of harmony since the 8th National Assembly came into effect with the APC at the helm. But it was to be expected judging by the ruling party’s pedigree.

In 2013, the party was birthed when prominent politicians from different backgrounds came together, united by the one goal of ousting former president, Goodluck Jonathan. They did, but ever since, they have hardly agreed on anything else.

Nigeria’s ex-President Goodluck Jonathan

It was a big irony that a party promoted as progressive, chose a core conservative as presidential candidate. And once he emerged, he threw the much hyped progressive leaning manifesto over board.

The consequence of which is what has remained visible in the cat and dog relationship between the executive and the legislature. Once in power, and with Jonathan out, things began to unravel in the party. It all started with the election of principal officers of the legislature.

Backed by the opposition PDP, Saraki and Hon. Dogara emerged as president of the Senate and Speaker of the House respectively, against the wishes of acclaimed APC national leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The former Lagos governor had wanted Senator Ahmed Lawan and Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila in that order.

A divided house, APC could not hold its foot down and take charge. Buhari, obviously was not keen on letting Tinubu have his way with regard to influencing the outcome of national assembly leadership election, he stood aloof, allowing Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu to emerge in spite of himself.

The president would later declare that Ekweremadu’s emergence as deputy senate president was “not acceptable” to him.

The seat soon became hot for the duo as they were accused, alongside others, of forging the Senate standing orders and consequently arraigned before an Abuja High Court in June 2016; a charge for which they maintained their innocence and excoriated the executive for using the apparatus of the state to intimidate them.

They were granted bail under terms spelt out by the court. The case has remained pending. But a battle line had been drawn. Within the ruling party, senators broke into two factions: the Like Minds who were pro-Saraki and had the sympathy of PDP senators, and the Unity Forum led by Senator Lawan.

Meanwhile, Saraki who in the aftermath, was already standing trial at Code of Conduct Tribunal over false asset declaration, vowed to rather go to jail than surrender the leadership of the Senate to the “nefarious agenda of a few individuals.”

In March last year, Ekweremadu raised an alarm that an insider in the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) informed him of a “grand plan from the cabal in the Presidency, using (the) EFCC as an anti-graft agency to indict and remove him from office.” The presidency would deny the allegation as baseless.

But things only got to a head when Buhari submitted Ibrahim Magu’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantial chairman of the EFCC and the lawmakers, citing a petition by the DSS which allegedly accused him of engaging in unlawful enrichment among others, turned down the confirmation.

Buhari, however, insisted that Magu would continue as the agency’s head, and in response, the Senate vowed not to confirm any appointee going forward. It had not until last week when it decided to confirm CBN board members so that the MPC meeting could hold. A welcome truce, but not by any chance an end to the bad blood.

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