By Emmanuel Aziken
It was the third annual retreat of the Senate under Senator David Markâ€™s watch as Senate President. That indeed is a feat no other Senate President has been able to accomplish since the onset of the Fourth Republic.
The two Senate retreats that held prior to Senator Markâ€™s ascendancy were so enveloped in conspiracies that the leaderships of the Senate at those times removed retreats from their agenda.
The first Senate retreat in 2001 in Calabar became encased in political turmoil after it emerged that political enemies of the Chief Pius Anyim leadership as represented by Dr Okadigbo and Abubakar Haruna tendencies converted the retreat into a coup plotting arena. After surviving the scares of Calabar Anyim proceeded to Abuja to deal with both men brutalizing them to a state of political inertia from which they never fully recovered till death.
The second Senate retreat in 2004 in Port-Harcourt was convened by the Adolphus Wabara leadership. That retreat was also characterized by political reverberations which by the second day had cascaded into rumours of a coup that forced Wabara to set aside the retreat agenda to squash the rumours of his impending removal.
The Ken Nnamani Senate was so enveloped with the politics of third term that it probably did not have time for a retreat.
The Senate did not hold a retreat again until Senator Mark emerged as Senate President in 2007.
Since then retreats have become an annual ritual for retooling Senators in their legislative duties.
Quite unlike the retreats before his era, the retreats of the David Mark Senate have been lacking in rumours or political conspiracies. What the retreats have lacked in terms of political machinations and imaginations have been balanced with distressing social behaviours which reached an apogee in Enugu last week.
As the nationâ€™s highest legislative body the Senate owes it a duty to itself and the nation to rescue the body from some of its amoral elements who see retreats as an opportunity for licentious liaison with morally untrained wild female undergraduates.
It is gratifying to note that a sizeable number of Senators at the Enugu retreat were sufficiently distressed with the brazen parade of the uncouth girls many of whom they regretted could well be their daughters or grand-daughters.
The 2009 Senate retreat had a theme â€œLegislating for an enduring electoral system in Nigeria.â€
The theme was undoubtedly in tandem with the Senateâ€™s avowal to articulate a reviewed constitution for the nation ahead of the 2011 elections. Besides the main theme, the Enugu retreat like the previous retreats under Senator Mark also found time to dwell with regional issues concerning the host state.
The Enugu retreat as such devoted sufficient energy to the problems of erosion which is about the major natural problem of the South- East zone.
President Umaru Yarâ€˜Adua has unlike his predecessor in office former president Olusegun Obasanjo, not bothered himself with visiting the retreating Senators during the annual events. Yarâ€˜Adua who has consistently been invited to declare the retreats open has consistently sent his deputy, Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to represent him.
This year some Senators if not pleased with the idea of the President ignoring them were also displeased with the idea of suspending the commencement of the opening ceremony till the arrival of the Vice-President.
The opening ceremonies scheduled to commence at 10.00 a.m. on Tuesday did not start until after Dr. GoodluckÂ Jonathan arrived the Nike Lake Hotel venue at about 11.30 a.m.
One Senator peeved by the delay expressed shock.
â€œYou have a former Vice-President of the country (Alex Ekwueme), a former Chief Justice (Mohammed Uwais), former Senate President (Ken Nnamani) and several Senators waiting, I mean this is not good for the country,â€ the Senator told Vanguard.
In his speech on behalf of President Yarâ€˜Adua, the Vice-President reiterated the administrationâ€™s commitment to partnering the National Assembly to realize a new constitutional framework for elections before the next round of general elections in 2011.
â€œI believe that if we get the issue of election right in the country, every other thing will fall in place. I say so because I know that our people are very eager to be counted in the process of governance, once we can gain their confidence, the various social ills plaguing our country today, ranging from corruption to unrest in different segments of the country will disappear.
â€œThis is precisely why coming into office, my government has spared no effort to make sure that we get this process right. Equally, it was for the same reason that we treated the report of the Justice Mohammed Uwais electoral reform committee seriously, tabling it before the Federal Executive Council and Council of State in a bid to produce a decent instrument that will command the confidence of all Nigerians,â€ the president declared.
Others present at the openingÂ ceremony included former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chibudom Nwuche, former governor of old Anambra State, Senator Jim Nwobodo and Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State.
The President of the Senate, Senator Mark was to touch a raw nerve in his address when he exonerated the person of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Maurice Iwu from the nationâ€™s electoral problems.
â€œRemoval of Iwu is not synonymous with electoral reform or review. Those calling for the removal of Iwu as the first step are trivializing a very serious national issue,â€ he said in a remark that drew the wild applause of many Senators.
Following the opening ceremonies the retreat proceeded into its first business session with the topic â€œLegislating for a sustainable electoral system in Nigeria,â€ under the chairmanship of Dr. Ekwueme. Among the discussants was Senator Jonathan Zwingina, a one time deputy leader of the Senate.
Another topic was on the â€œFunding for Nigeriaâ€™s electoral agency,â€ under the chairmanship of Senator Ken Nnamani which had among others former deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Edwin Ume Ezeoke as discussants.
Justice Uwais who was apparently invited on the basis of his experiences as chairman of the Federal Government inspired Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) presented a paper on the time limit for election cases on Wednesday. Like the majority of Senators Uwais agreed that the present practice of allowing election petition cases to drag on without a time limit was unfeasible.
His suggestion of a six month time limit was openly disputed by some Senators who affirmed that six months was too long with many of them led by Senator Ike Ekweremadu saying that three months was more feasible. In affirming that three months would not be enough for the judiciary to settle what he envisaged would be the large number of election petition cases after elections, Uwais said:
â€œThe provisions of Section 149 of the Electoral Act 2006 have generated public condemnation in that it was found that the provisions have led to foot-dragging by respondents to petitions or their lawyers and the delays encountered in disposal of election petitions.
â€œThey also account for the spate of appeals by lawyers that attend to the judgments of election tribunals.Â Prior to the enactment of Section 149 of the 2006 Act, the practice was to conclude litigation on election disputes before elected persons got sworn in and subsequently assume office.
â€œTherefore, the ERC recommended that Section 149 of the Electoral Act should be repealed and (that) no person returned as elected should assume office until the election petition against him or her in the Election Tribunal or Court is disposed of.â€
â€œAlthough Section 148 of the Electoral Act, 2006 has provided that an election petition and an appeal arising there from shall be given accelerated hearing and shall have precedence over all other cases or matters before the courts, many stakeholders have expressed to the ERC the view that the provisions have not in practice been effective.
â€œTo this end, the ERC recommended thus: the speedy and transparent resolution of electoral disputes is necessary for the peaceful resolution of disputes arising from elections.Â This procedure needs to be speedy, efficient and transparent in order to win the confidence of the generality of the people.
â€œThe 1999 Constitution should be amended to provide: an Election Tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 120 days (4 months) from date of the election; an appeal from a decision of Election Tribunal shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days (2 months)Â from the date of giving judgment by the Election Tribunal; and, in all appeals, the Courts shall adopt the practice of first pronouncing their verdict and then reserving the reasons for the verdict to a later date.â€
â€œIn that case the question whether a provision of the constitution is unconstitutional and therefore null and void cannot arise. This is the wisdom in the recommendation by the ERC.â€
Besides, Ekweremadu, Senator Osita Izunaso also openly proclaimed his inclination for a three month limit for the consideration of the election petition cases.
Also that Wednesday, the governors of the South-East region presented to the Senators the erosion situation in the zone.
Governors Sullivan Chime of Enugu, Peter Obi of Anambra, Ikedi Ohakim of Imo and Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State made the regionâ€™s quest for emergency intervention in the environmental degradation of the zone.
Governor Obi shocked the gathering with his revelation of how the Federal Government awarded rehabilitation contracts for sixteen non existing erosion sites in Anambra State.
While calling for massive forestation programmes to ensure long term sustenance of ecological rehabilitation projects, the governors also drew the attention of the Senators to what they bemoaned as the extensive infrastructural problems in the zone. Noting the ravage of gully erosion in the zone, Governor Chime who identified 317 erosion sites in Enugu State in his remarks to the Senators pleaded for federal intervention.
â€œThe South-East is perching precariously on the mercy of gully erosion. Individual governments in the zone have taken many bold steps to prevent it but our dwindling finances could not match the enormous funds needed to fight the menace.â€™â€™
In his own address to the Senators, Governor Ohakim who revealed the existence of 460 erosion sites in Imo State called for the erosion problems of the South- East to be given the type of national attention accorded some other national problems.
â€œThe trend must not be allowed to impoverish our people,â€™â€™ the Imo governor said as he disclosed that his administration had awarded contracts for the rehabilitation of eleven erosion sites and planted one million trees to help check the problem.
He said that 460 erosion sites had been identified in the state, adding that the state government had awarded contracts for 11 sites and planted one million trees as a temporary measure to alleviate the problem.
In his own address, Governor Obi while lamenting the impact of corruption in the Federal Government erosion control projects in his State disclosed that the Federal Government had awarded contracts for sixteen non existing erosion sites in Anambra State.
â€œVillages are being washed away while lives are being lost due to the menace of erosion. The entire water system in Onitsha have also been washed away leading to scarcity of water in the area,â€™â€™ the governor remarked.
Governor Orji of Abia State who was represented by his deputy, Chief Chris Akomas on his part lamented the loss of lives on account of erosion in the State.
â€œThe Senate should do something very fast to save the state from the impending disaster which will attract global attention when it happens,â€™â€™ he said.
On the third day of the retreat the Senators fanned out in groups to the other four States in the zone for an on the spot assessment of the ecological and infrastructure challenges in the States.
The Senate President, Senator Mark led Senators to Imo State, his deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu led the group to Ebonyi, the Deputy Majority Whip Senator Mohammed Mana led the group to Anambra State while Senator Thomson Sekibo was chosen to lead the group to Abia State.