By Emmanuel Aziken
Only God and perhaps some of the principal actors in the crisis that rocked the National Assembly prior to last Tuesdayâ€™s presentation of the 2010 budget can confirm if the whole brouhaha was indeed a farce.
Was the war of attrition between the Senate and the House of Representatives over the venue for the presentation of the 2010 budget a ruse to prevent President Umaru Yarâ€˜Adua from suffering the physical challenge of personally presenting his governmentâ€™s budgetary proposals to the legislators?
That question came to the fore as conspiracy theorists weaved another Abuja tale of intrigues around the health of President Yarâ€˜Adua.
Remarkably as the Special Adviser to the President, Senator Mohammed Abba Aji laid the governmentâ€™s budget proposals before the National Assembly last Tuesday, the President was himself reportedly hospitalized in Saudi Arabia.
It was the first time since the commencement of the Fourth Republic in 1999 that the sitting President did not personally perform the routine duty of reading his budgetary proposals to the National Assembly. It was also the first time that the budget proposals were separately laid before the two chambers of the National Assembly.
The constitutional crisis over the venue for the presentation of the 2010 budget proposal was sparked by the decision of the President of the Senate, Senator David Mark that the budget presentation would hold in the Senate chambers.
The surprising decision of the Senate President who acted in his position as Chairman of the National Assembly was conveyed by the Senate spokesman, Senator Ayogu Eze penultimate Wednesday.
The decision was articulated to Senate correspondents just a day to the scheduled budget presentationÂ Thursday week.Â Remarkably, the House of Representatives had on the same day adopted a resolution to allow Senators, ministers and other dignitaries to enter the chambers of the House to receive the budgetÂ to be presented by the President the following day.
â€œYou are aware that the President is coming to present a budget to the joint sessionÂ and you are equally aware that it is the prerogative of the Chairman of the National Assembly to decide the venue of the joint session and this year, he has decided that the joint session will take place in the red chamber and all the relevant authorities have been duly notified – The leadership of the House of Representatives and the National Assembly leadership including the Clerk of the National Assembly and the management,â€™â€™ Eze told Senate correspondents.
â€œEvery arrangement is being put in place to ensure that the president comes and makes a hitch free presentation of the 2010 Appropriation Bill,â€™â€™ he further said.
Answering a question on the capacity of the Senate chambers to accommodate the 360 members of the House of Representatives and 109 Senators, Senator Eze said:
â€œThe red chamber is enough to accommodate everybody. We have enough seats in the chamber . And then the issue of venue is not a big deal because it is the prerogative of the chairman of the National Assembly to decide the venue. He can even decide that we go to the banquet hall of the House of Representative and his decision that the thing should hold here this year does not mean that next year it cannot go to any other venue provided that it is within the National Assembly complex.â€
Eze was also quick to deny any link between the decision and past reports of misunderstanding between the two presiding officers, Senator Mark and SpeakerÂ Bankole.
â€œThe decision to hold the joint session in the Senate Chamber has nothing to do with any frosty relationship between the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In any case, I am not even aware that there is any frosty relationship between both leadership. There is no such thing,â€ he said.
However the fact of acrimony between the two presiding officers and the two chambers was not in dispute.
The dispute between the two houses first came to light in January at the retreat of the now defunct National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitution Review (JCCR) in Minna, Niger State. The 44 member House of Representatives delegation to the JCCR had walked out of the retreat in protest at the decision of the Senators in the committee to designate the deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives as the deputy chairman of the JCCR. The House members rather wanted the deputy Speaker designated as a co-chairman of the JCCR in equality to the committee chairman, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, the deputy President of the Senate.
Senator Ekweremadu and his colleagues rebuffed the Reps who in protest walked out of the retreat.
That was the first public picture of the bickering that had shadowed relations between the two houses since the emergence of Mr. Bankole as Speaker of the House in October 2007.
Hon. Bankole and the power brokers who brought him to office, it is alleged, had a deep suspicion that their action in ousting Mrs. Patricia Etteh as Speaker of the House of Representatives was not well received by Senator Mark.
Besides, there were reports of misunderstanding between Bankole and some elements in the Senate leadership which came to the fore during one of the joint leadership meetings where some â€œoffensiveâ€ remarks were allegedly made againstÂ the Speaker by a Senator. The Senator, it was alleged, refused to withdraw his remarks as demanded by the Speaker forcing the latter to vow not to attend any such meetings.
With physical meetings cut off, sources also disclosed that telephone contacts between the two presiding officers became difficult as some sources close to the Senate President say that his telephone calls to Bankole were left unanswered.
Before the Minna episode, the Senators had also expressed outrage at the action of the House of Representatives in pulling out of an agreement reached between the two leaderships and the presidency to pass the 2009 budget before the end of December of 2008.
In pulling out of the agreement, House officials asserted their determination to do a thorough work in the budget not the type of hurried job done by the Senate.
In effect, Senators complained that they were made to look foolish and unserious while their counterparts in the House of Representatives made themselves to be perceived in the eyes of the public as the more serious chamber.
It was as such not surprising when on the tenth anniversary of the Fourth Republic last May that the Senate pulled out of a joint celebration with the House of Representatives. The House went on to celebrate â€œdemocracy dividendsâ€ while the Senate scaled down celebrations in the mood of the nation.
So given the background of mutual suspicions and resentment it was not surprising that the Senate President would invoke his powers as chairman of the National Assembly to insist that the joint session with the House of Representatives should hold in the Senate chambers.
His action according to Senator Eze was in accordance with sections 81 and 53 of the constitution.
The reaction of the House was swift. Speaker Bankole speaking through Mr. Eseme Eyiboh, chairman of the House Committee on Media cited tradition and convenience as reason why the joint session should hold in the chambers of the House.
Noting the fact that all the joint sessions since the commencement of the Fourth Republic have been held in the House of Representatives, he said:
â€œIs it possible that 360 Members and 109 Senators would sit in a place meant for 150 people? Or is there any alternative space to accommodate presidential aides? For the purpose of the subject matter it cannot take place outside this environment. Already the aisle for presidential exit and entrance has already being prepared.
â€œWeâ€™re talking about the issue of logistics, the issue of convenience of the two chambers and the visitor and also the issue of understanding. There is no where it is being said that a joint session must take place either here or there, Iâ€™ve not come across that. But if weâ€™re to follow parliamentary precedence and the issue of convenience it has always been in the Houseâ€.
Remarkably House members and Senators were firm in lining up behind their respective presiding officers on the issue.
It was as such not surprising that penultimate Thursday when the President was scheduled to give his joint address that there was much anxiety as to what would happen.
Among the dignitaries that came that morning for the budget presentation was Prince Vincent Ogbulafor, the national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The army band which normally gives the salutation during such presidential outings was conveniently positioned in the two chambers. It was suggested that the bands were positioned in the two chambers in the event that the President delivered his presentation in any of the two chambers.
As the waiting for the President continued, the determination of the Senators not to shift ground was reinforced at a closed door session of the Senate that Thursday morning.
Senator Mark according to sources in the session briefed his colleagues on his efforts to speak with Speaker Bankole but that the later was not forthcoming.
But Senators who commented on the matter at the end of the session expressed outrage on the perceived disrespect accorded them by the House members saying that it was the practice in other parliaments for members of the lower chamber of a bicameral legislature to go to the chamber of the upper House for joint sittings.
â€œIf they are saying that there is not enough seat, let those who cannot find seats stand,â€™â€™ one Senator said saying the culture of disrespect flowing from the rivalry for co-chairmanship of the committees of the National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitution Review (JCCR) had gone too far.
Senators who spoke in the session according to one source gave the Senate President their full support and pledged their support for the Senate leadership in the face-off.
Remarkably as the closed session was ongoing, the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Senator Dalhatu Tafida was at that time one of the guests seated in the House of Lords in London waiting for the arrival of Her Majesty, the Queen of England who was scheduled to deliver the governmentâ€™s legislative proposal for the parliamentary year.
Incidentally, one of the Senators at the session established telephone contact with the Nigerian ambassador who told him that the joint session was holding in the House of Lords.
The sight of some members of the House of Commons standing in the chamber of the House of Lords created an impression that was imprinted in the Senators.
Senators also delighted themselves with the tale of how a joint National Assembly delegation to Canada comprising elements of the leadership including the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives was shocked with the procedure for joint sessions in that country.
The delegation Vanguard learnt was told that joint sessions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords of Canada hold in the chamber of the House of Lords.
When asked how members from the two chambers were able to manage the limited seats in the chamber, the Nigerian delegation was told that those lawmakers from the House of Commons who do not find seat are compelled to stand.
Such insights emboldened the Senators to stick to their position against the joint session.
In the end, Yarâ€˜Adua disappointed them and did not turn up for the budget presentation. Senator Abba Aji cited what he claimed as the difference between the two chambers for the Presidentâ€™s absence.
SenatorÂ Aji was though, very diplomatic as he sought to play a mediatory role between the two chambers.
He also dismissed conspiracy theories that the deferment was orchestrated on account of the Presidentâ€™s alleged ill-health or the presidencyâ€™s lack of readiness with the budget.
Apparently referring to the face off between the two chambers he said:
â€œWell it is not holding because we have a policy of non interference with respect to separation of power and you all know that there is a little house keeping left to be concludedÂ between the two chambers, so we are allowing them time to put their house together.”