By Sufuyan Ojeifo
The race for the position of President of the Nigerian Senate is daily assuming dimensions that evidently exemplify and validate its primacy in the balancing of political powers in Nigeria. At the innermost of the concentric power circles, position occupation is hinged on, or linked to the headships of the trinity of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Whereas, the president is the head of the executive arm of government, the senate president, as the chairman of the National Assembly, is the head of the legislative arm, while the Chief Justice of Nigeria is the head of the judiciary at the national level.
Power satellites around forces who feel entitled to the senate presidency are staking their claims in determined bids that have raised the political temperature and tilted the barometer in the routinised enterprise to define and redefine the mix of the atmospherics and the nuances that have underscored the contestation for the senate plum position.
Although, the trajectory has remained somewhat tentative, there are projections and prognoses, based on precedents, that favour the southern region. From 1999 to 2007, both the president and the five senate presidents that the southeast zone produced came from the southern region; from 2007 to May 2010, when he died, President Umaru Yar’Adua and the Senate President at that intersection, David Mark, were both from the northern region. The only exception to the arrangement was foisted on the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) by an act of God. The party did not bother to tinker with the “President-Senate President” collocation in the same region from 2010 to 2015 when Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded the late Yar’Adua, was in the saddle.
From 2015 until now, President Muhammadu Buhari and the two senate presidents – Bukola Saraki and Ahmad Lawan-emerged – as it were, from the northern region. This settles the calculation that contemplates ceding of the senate president position to the southern region, the same regional ecosystem with the incoming president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, whose position had been settled based on the INEC-validated outcome of the February 25 presidential poll.
Rationally, both the South-South and South-East zones are on the same footing to jostle for the position and that is exactly what is being done. But all indicators favour the South-South over and above the southeast in consideration for the senate presidency. I had interrogated the indicators in my recent piece entitled: “Senate Presidency: South-South zone lo kan,” in which I argued that it was the turn of the zone to produce the senate president.
The leitmotif of this editorial intervention focuses on the choice of candidate to make from the zone. It is my proposition that the zone should present its best candidate for the position taking into consideration horizontal equity that places all senators-elect from the zone on an equal footing. The justness of this equity under-girds the position of the senate president only as primus inter pares (first among equals) and not as inter stellas luna minores (a moon among lesser stars). The equality of members of the Senate (and the same thing applies to members of the House of Representatives) finds anchorage in Section 50 (1a & b), which states inter alia (i) “There shall be (a) a President and Deputy President of the Senate who shall be elected by members of that House from among themselves; and (b) a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker of the House f Representatives who shall be elected by members of that House from among themselves.”
The signification of this constitutional clarity evidently discounts the rule of ranking, which is a post-hoc arrangement or resolution by both chambers of the National Assembly to circumscribe and/ or streamline the jostle for, or participation in the race for the leadership of the legislature. But then, the arrangement has always faltered in the face of the constitution because it has been seen as a parochial convention that aids the selfishness of some legislators-elect who are privileged to have been in the legislature previously at the intersection of inauguration of a new assembly and election of presiding officers.
Whereas, it is conventionally convenient for old members of the legislature who had been elected to be members of the 10th National Assembly to promote this requirement in aid of their leadership ambition, it is constitutionally malapropos to validate it in support of their proclivity to “horizontal equity” that tends to recognize them as stellas luna minores in contradistinction to the pristine nature of the legislature as the conclave of equals.
The legislature cannot afford to sustain the episodic predilection to approbate and reprobate on the equality of membership during inauguration and election of presiding officers, which is why I posit that the provision of ranking in the Senate Standing Orders 2022 as amended and as expressly captured in Order 2 with respect to the election of presiding and other officers should kowtow to the provisions of Section 50 (1a and b) of our grundnorm – the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria quoted supra in aid of constitutional due process.
To be sure, Order 2 of the Senate Standing Orders 2022 as amended provides: “Nomination of senators to serve as Presiding officers and appointments of Principal Officers and other Officers of the Senate or on any Parliamentary delegations shall be in accordance with the ranking of Senators. In determining ranking, the following Order shall apply- (i) Senators returning based on number of times re-elected; (ii) Senators who had been members of the House of Representatives; (iii) Senators elected as senators for the First time; (iv) The appointment of Senators as Chairmen and Members of Committee shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the six geo-political zones of the country and there shall be no predominance of Senators from a few geo-political zones.” This rule is like that of the House of Representative, which emphasizes cognate experience. The rule is egregious. It has the potential to subjugate a new member to the background for four years even if he or she is more competent than, clearheaded and result-oriented than a ranking member. A progressive government cannot afford to ride on the wheel of this retrogressive rule.
Expectedly, the ranking rule or the rule of cognate experience is what some legislators-elect have been harping on to selfishly narrow the race and/or consideration for the position of presiding officers of the National Assembly. I posit that it will be against the natural rule of fairness to exclude new senators from exercising their right of aspiring to be presiding officers of the legislature. This also places a burden of responsibility on the leadership of the ruling party in the Senate, for the purpose of this intervention, to ensure that consideration is given to all in recognition of merit, competence, records of achievements in public office, political pedigree, commitment to national interest and fidelity to the party.
In fact, the choice of who becomes the senate president, in June this year, has been clearly located in and predicated on Section 50 (1a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The leadership of the ruling party (that will be guided by the President) is protected and strengthened to move in a surefooted manner to determine who can work independently and interdependently with the executive arm in aid of executive-legislature harmony with eyes on synergy for national interest as against personal partisan interest.
The ruling party must be intentional about what it wants and who can deliver on its mandate(s). Once that person is known and chosen, the leadership should set machinery in motion to push the candidate through in a process that is seamless. Again, in doing so, the fundamental consideration must be compliance with the provisions of the constitution over and above other extant rules. The ranking rule is liable to be challenged for its inconsistency with the constitutional provision for electing presiding officers. There are precedents: in 2007, Senator George Akume, fresh from his eight-year governorship voyage in Benue, made his bid for the senate presidency, challenging as it were, a ranking Senator David Mark. That was despite spirited moves to ensure that Akume was not nominated on the floor of the Senate. For a senator to be considered for the race (the same thing applies to the Speaker and their deputies), he must be nominated and the nomination must be seconded. Once that is done, it does not matter whether the senator is ranking or not, he becomes a candidate in the election of the presiding officer. It would now be left to senators-elect, under the guidance of the Clerk to the National Assembly, to decide who to saddle with the responsibility of presiding over the affairs of the Senate.
Another precedent: in 2015, Godswill Akpabio, who was then fresh from his eight-year governorship of Akwa Ibom state happened in the Senate and landed the position of Senate Minority Leader-without legislative experience, over and above ranking PDP senators. Akume and Akpabio acted within the contemplation and protection of the Nigerian Constitution.
At the risk of being described as devil’s advocate, I ask: whereas, Akpabio is qualified to be senate president and is jostling for it, who says, for instance, that a former President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), former governor of Edo State and former national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole, is not eminently qualified to be senate president? The magnitude of his track records as NLC president, his achievements as Edo governor and his contribution as national chairman to the development of the APC – in somewhat moving to devolve the structure of the party to the people in the states, promoting party supremacy and fostering business unusual while in the saddle of national chair, some of the reasons his leadership was upended by opposition elements within acting in concert with forces outside the party—is writ large.
Oshiomhole’s commitment to the APC – its progressive ideology that dates to the Action Congress (AC) years, on which platform he upstaged the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Edo governorship poll in 2007 (a result that the Appeal Court validated on November 12, 2008), through the party’s transformation into Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) to the birth and sustenance of the legacy APC – cannot be discounted. While some others enjoyed the best of the PDP before gravitating to the APC, Oshiomhole and the community of leaders in the AC held the ramparts in resistance of the PDP’s onslaught to neutralize the fulcrum of the progressive movement. This is a most opportune time for consolidation of shared values, principles and faith in Nigeria by the APC leadership in government.
In rounding off, I am not saying that Akpabio is not qualified to be senate president. Not at all. He is one of the best from the South-South zone. What I am saying is that, sans ranking rule which basis is tenuous in the face of the constitution, and in light of other factors adumbrated supra (which I will elucidate when it becomes necessary to do so in furtherance of my proposition), Oshiomhole looks the best for the position of senate president looking at the emerging shape, texture, content and temperament of the President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s administration. What are the ruling party apparatchiks thinking? Or, let me put it more pointedly: what is on the mind of Tinubu?
Mr Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja via email@example.com