By JOSEPH ERUNKE
Upon resumption in 2013, shortly after the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the Senate did not pretend that it was out to redouble its level of representation to the people.
Within a week of getting back from the holidays, the upper legislative chamber appeared to most watchers that it was an institution with a listening ear when, following the hue and cry over some sordid developments in the labour market, it mandated its Committees on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs and Employment, Labour and Productivity to begin full-scale investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption in the employment processes in the Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, in particular and ministries, departments and other agencies of government in general, with a view to bringing those involved to book.
During the committees’ assignment, startling revelations were heard. Some senators including Ali Ndume, PDP, Borno South, were blunt to reveal that they were at one point or the other compelled to cough out money for relatives and constituents to get jobs.
While Nigerians were busy following developments in the committees’ public hearing, another committee, the Senator Aloysius Etok led Senate Joint Committee on Public Service and Establishment and State and Local Government Administration, came smoking.
Its beef was that the then Chairman of Pension Reform Task Team, PRTT, Abdulrasheed Maina, had failed consistently to honour its invitation to respond to the allegation of mismanagement of over N195 billion pension funds leveled against him.
All eyes shifted to the committee, especially when the accused fired back, explaining that his action was borne out of his belief that he would not get fair hearing from the committee given his own allegation that some committee members were determined to extort him.
But several attempts by the Senate President to get him appear to clarify issues proved abortive. Frustrated over this, Mark asked President Jonathan not to only dismiss Maina, but issued a Warrant of Arrest on him. He was not arrested even while he remained conspicuous in the eyes of the media.
The development got to a head when anger and emotion became high in the Senate after a well debated motion on Maina’s attitude and the inability of the police to act appropriately. The debate ended with a threat against the president, as the Senate asked him to choose between Maina and the Senate.
The Senate which had appeared united in dealing with Maina’s issue, suddenly became polarised along regional lines, when debates on the contentions Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, cropped up not long after.
The three-day debate saw senators from the North oppose proposed powers for the Petroleum minister in the bill and provisions for host communities. They were poised to frustrate the bill from progressing but were forced to abandon their course when in his contribution, Senator Ita Enang, PDP, Akwa Ibom North East, called for the revocation of all oil blocs.
He alleged that 80 percent of oil blocs in the country were owned by northerners leaving southerners with the remaining 20 percent.
Meanwhile the bill has remained stuck despite passing through two public hearings. Another division was manifested in the Senate on the day it debated the State of the Nation Address Bill. But this time, the division was not on regional basis. Rather, it was on party loyalty.
The bill seeks to compel the president to, in July every year, appear before the joint session of the National Assembly to address it on issues of national concern.
But this development became a window of opportunity for the then Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN senators to prove their existence in the chamber, as all the senators on the party’s platform who spoke, insisted that time had come for the legislature to prove that it possess the power to pass any bill into law irrespective of the president’s action. The day broke the orderliness that had been characteristic of the David Mark Senate.
President Jonathan had, in a letter dated June 10 and read at Senate plenary by the Senate President, explained that he would not sign the bill into law because according to him, it was a duplication of Section 67 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) just as he protested the use of coercive powers in the event of non-compliance.
Most senators considered his observation as belated given that the bill had already been passed by the two chambers. Senators Kabiru Marafa, ANPP, Zamfara Central and Paulinus Igwe, PDP, Ebonyi Central, almost exchanged blows over the issue.
The Senate in the year under review considered the report of its Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, headed by the Deputy Senate President, Chief Ike Ekweremadu and voted for and against 31 amendments proposed in the report.
It rejected the proposal for a six single year tenure for the president and 36 state governors, just as it refused a proposal to grant the Federal Capital Territory, FCT a mayoral status.
The Senate incurred the wrath of Nigerians, especially women groups when it refused to delete sub-section 4(b) which was seen to be discriminatory in nature.
The section tagged a woman to be of age if married. Section 29 deals with the right of citizens to renounce their citizenship while sub-section 4 defines the age at which a citizen could do so. Senator Ahmed Yerima, APC, Zamfara West, brought the infamy to the legislative body when he successfully stirred passions to move the Senate to insist that any woman once married was an adult regardless of age.
It was seen by the public as an endorsement of child marriage by the Senate. In a swift move to assuage the public, the Senate President, David Mark assured that the Red Chamber would revisit the clause.
On May 14, 2013, the president proclaimed a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States, three of the volatile states of the north rocked by the scourge of insecurity.
Before the declaration, President Goodluck Jonathan had reportedly met with the PDP senate leaders where the issue was raised. The legislators had raised issues on the sustenance or otherwise of democratic structures in the states, a development that made the president to allow the governors remain in office against the practice witnessed during similar proclamations in the Olusegun Obasanjo’s era.
The alleged extra judicial killing of seven commercial tricycle operators on Friday September 20, in Apo area of the FCT, by the combined team of SSS and the military and the attendant public outcry got the attention of the Senate as it mandated its Committees on National Intelligence and Security and Judiciary and Legal Matters to carry out investigation of the matter.
While submitting the report, the joint committees headed by Senator Mohammed Magoro, PDP, Kebbi South, ruled out any case of extra judicial killing.
The crash of Associated Airlines on October 3, 2013 and the alleged N255 million armoured cars scandal involving Aviation Minister, Stella Odua, prompted a probe.
But as it has treated previous cases, the upper chamber referred the cases to its standing committee on aviation. Odua was scheduled to appear before the Senate at plenary but the Senate later rescinded its decision. After two previous failed appointments, Oduah finally made herself available before the committee but the Senators shockingly failed to ask any question on the alleged 225 million bulletproof cars.
The intra party crisis in the ruling PDP which surfaced at the party’s national convention at Eagle Square, in August when five governors, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and some party faithful walked out to form a factional group christened New PDP, played out in the Senate, as 22 senators quickly identified with the new group.
The senators who are said to belong to the opposition All Progressives Congress now, cannot make an open announcement on defection to the party for fear that the Senate leadership could declare their seats vacant.
Unlike last year when the president submitted the 2013 budget proposals early enough in September, this year, the president waited until almost the end of legislative proceedings to present the 2014 budget proposals.
Even more remarkable was the failure of the president to come in person as he mandated the Minister of Finance Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lay the proposals in the two chambers on his behalf.
His excuse was the differential between the Senate and the House of Representatives on the benchmark for oil revenue which was finally resolved at the end of the year at $77.5 per barrel.