*Chamber leaders, Saraki, 10 others play hide and seek
By JOHNBOSCO AGBAKWURU
The Senate has in the past weeks been turned into a political theatre with all sorts of drama and the principal characters being the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and the All Progressives Congress, APC.
The drama has been characterized by confusion and intrigues while the bone of contention is the passage of the 2014 Appropriation Bill and the defection of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators to the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC.
To some watchers of the political development, the intrigues in the upper chamber that have divided the senators along party lines is the beauty of democracy and at the same time the struggle for dominance and relevance by the two main political parties in the land.
Since the beginning of the purported crisis in the PDP that consumed its former National Chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, there have been threats by some aggrieved members especially in the National Assembly, to jump ship. Unlike in the House of Representatives where about 37 PDP members threatened to defect and implemented the threat, defection in the Senate has been described as the more you look, the less you see.
Initially, it was touted that 22 PDP senators had put down their names to leave the party. The number later reduced to 17. On Thursday, the national leadership of the APC announced in Lagos that 11 PDP senators had joined APC even though the purported defection seems to be controversial because there has not been any sign in the Senate that such action has been taken in view of the sitting arrangement where the ruling party occupies a wing of the chamber and the opposition party another.
Besides, there has not been any formal declaration or announcement by the Senate leadership of any cross-carpeting.
The APC statement read: “Eleven senators elected on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party this morning (Thursday) defected to the All Progressives Congress. This is only the first installment of many other senators of the Peoples Democratic Party expected to defect to the All Progressives Congress soon.”
Although information has it that 11 members of the upper chamber namely, Senators Bukola Saraki (Kwara Central), Adamu Abdulahi (Nasawa West), Shaaba Lafiagi (Kwara North), Ibrahim Gobir (Sokoto East), Aisha Al-Hassan (Taraba North), Magnus Abe (Rivers South East), Wilson Ake (Rivers West), Jibrilla Mohammed Bindowo (Adamawa North), Danjuma Goje (Gombe Central), Ali Ndume (Borno South) and Umar Dahiru (Sokoto South), wrote to the leadership of the Senate to notify it that they were no longer members of the PDP and that they have decided to join the APC, the leadership is yet to read the letter to allow the new APC ‘converts’ to take their seat in the wing of the chamber designated for the opposition members.
Even the said letter seems to have run into a hitch as one of the 11 senators, Umar Dahiru, from Sokoto, reportedly went to Senate President David Mark to remove his name from the list.
It was also gathered that the letter initially had 16 names of senators who indicated interest to leave the PDP with seven governors but, at the appointed time, Governors Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, and Sule Lamido of Jigawa decided to stay put. Six senators whose names were said to be on the list but later declined to append their signatures are Ahmed Zannah (Borno Central), Barata Ahmed (Adamawa South), Saidu Alkali (Gombe), Basheer Mohammed (Kano Central) and Ahmad Maccido (Sokoto North).
The defection letter, which the Senate President declined to read on the chamber floor, stated, “We the undersigned Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, elected under the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), wish to notify you that we have severally and jointly joined the All Progressives Congress (APC).
“This action and decision is as a result of the division and factionalisation of the PDP that sponsored our elections into the Senate. In view of the above, we write to inform you that following the division and factionalisation in the Peoples Democratic Party, we have formally joined the All Progressives Congress. This communication is made pursuant to Section 68(1)(g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) for your information, guidance and purposes.”
Curiously, none of the affected senators was ready to confirm the controversy surrounding the defection. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of them said, “I cannot tell you anything for now because our movement can only take effect after the letter has been read on the floor. Until then, let us watch and see how the Senate President handles this one”.
The defection of the PDP senators to APC would change the political equation if the opposition should get the majority number. The APC had claimed that the movement would be in batches, but, as it stands now, PDP still has the majority with 62 senators from the initial 73. APC, with the defection will have 44, while Labour Party and All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, have two and one respectively.
Politics is a game of numbers and the class prefect of the 109 class members is aware of that. He is not just a politician but a retired military general schooled in strategy and also aware of the nitty-gritty of coup plotting. The APC has, with the defection of the 11 members, 44 senators and, if the statement credited to the party that the defection is in batches is anything to go by, it then means that the composition of the leadership of the Senate will definitely change.
Obvious of the consequences of the defection to the PDP and the Senate, nothing is expected to be left to chance. It will be recalled that at the beginning of the unfolding defection drama in the chamber, the Chairman of Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Ita Enang, told the senators the action that the leadership would take should they decamp to the APC.
In clear terms and in what seemed to be the mind of the Senate leadership, Enang said that any senator that defects automatically loses his seat because the ticket for the position belongs to the party and not to individuals, although the leadership, through its spokesman, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, later disowned Enang, saying that the opinion expressed was personal and did not reflect that of the chamber.
But events last week suggested that the inability of the Senate President to read the letter with him was deliberate. Though Mark did not preside over the plenary on Thursday, it was expected that he should have given brief to his deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who presided, to read the defection letter.
This development threw the Thursday plenary into a rowdy session as the defecting senators queried why their letter to the Senate leadership conveying their defection was not read on the floor during announcement session.
The presiding officer, Ekweremadu, explained that the decision to shift the announcement to Tuesday was due to the absence of the Senate President who was said to be away to Jigawa State at the instance of the state government.
The defected senators, led by Senator Bukola Saraki, wondered why, since the defection letter was submitted, Mark had refused to read it and insisted that it be read on the floor of the Senate.
Saraki raised a point of order, under the Senate Standing Order 15, which states that “a matter of privilege shall be given urgent attention by the Senate.”
He said it was important for the letter to be read on the floor to formally inform the chamber of their defection to the opposition party.
“A notice by a letter was communicated yesterday (Wednesday) to your Chair on notification of the change of political party by myself and 10 other senators from the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress, APC”, the senator said.
“So, I felt that it was necessary for me to bring to your attention that the letter has not yet been read.”
But his explanations could not convince Ekweremadu who insisted that since his boss was out of town, it would be unfair to treat a letter no other person except him (Mark) knows something about.
Although he admitted that the Senate President informed him about it, he explained that Mark hinted that a meeting to discuss the issue had already been slated for Monday with the defecting senators.
“The Senate President has travelled and, before he travelled, he told me you had a discussion with him and agreed to have a meeting on Monday. Unfortunately, this is my own understanding of your dialogue with him and he is not here. So I believe that we would stand down any issue relating to that until he comes back,” the Deputy Senate President said.
But the aggrieved senators were not ready to listen to his explanation. Saraki, in particular, insisted that the issue of the letter had nothing to do with the Senate President’s planned meeting with the defecting senators.
This resulted in hot verbal arguments between APC senators and their sympathizers on one hand and the PDP senators on the other hand, leading to a rowdy session.
While this was going on, Senator Goje rose to say the leadership of the upper chamber should read the letter conveying their movement to the APC.
“Myself and 10 others presented a letter to the Senate President formally asking him to inform the chamber that we have defected from the PDP to the APC. We thought the letter would have been read yesterday (Wednesday) but it was not and we feel that it should be read today (Thursday). I feel it is our right and privilege for that letter to be read. So, I demand that that letter be read,” he said.
But this also could not move Ekweremadu who insisted that the letter could not be treated, saying the decision to defer the matter had already been taken. He was not even in possession of the letter.
However, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator George Akume, said it would be unconstitutional for the Senate not to treat the letter conveying the senators’ defection, explaining that a similar thing had taken place in the House of Representatives already.
Akume said: “Mr President, I speak on behalf of those of us who have sworn to protect the Constitution of this country. This country has only one Constitution that guides the country. Therefore, what is constitutional in the House of Representatives cannot be unconstitutional in the Senate.”
Senator Anthony Adeniyi, APC, Ekiti Central, raising a point of order under Order 39 (5) of the Senate Standing Rule, rose in support of the 11 senators, urging the Deputy Senate President to read the letter, since, according to him, the Senate can function with the Deputy Senate President presiding in the absence of the Senate President.
He was supported by Senator Oluremi Tinubu, APC, Lagos Central, who raised a point of order under Order 14 (b), which says: “Whenever a matter of privilege arises, it shall be taken up immediately”.
She urged the Senate to consider the issue at stake as a matter of urgency and treat it based on its merit but she was overruled by the Deputy Senate President, who, again, said, as far as the issue was concerned, he had ruled that it be deferred to Tuesday and called on other senators to suspend the issue so as to continue debate on the 2014 Budget.
It will be recalled that Senator Abaribe, the Senate spokesman, had, while briefing journalists, stated that defection could not be done jointly but on individual basis.
Abaribe had said, “And I have had cause to say this before that the process for anybody to move from one party to the other is very well stated in the Constitution and the process is open, clear and cannot in any way be misunderstood.
”Don’t forget that every senator did an election on his own. There wasn’t a joint election. So, senators cannot write a joint letter to the Senate President about defection.
”It must be by individuals and every person who has to leave, for whatever reason, will have to state his reason and also do it personally. And, until we see that, we assume that nobody is yet to go anywhere”.
Another factor that could stall the reading of the defection letter on the floor of the Senate is a pending matter in court. The PDP leadership had approached the Federal High Court to stop its senators from defecting and the matter has not been disposed of.
It was gathered that the Senate President cannot read the letter to avoid being accused of subjudice because of the pending suit and the Order 53 (5) of the Senate Standing Orders (2011, as amended) states: “Reference shall not be made to any matter on which a judicial decision is pending, in such a way as might, in the opinion of the President of the Senate, prejudice the interest of parties thereto.”
Besides, Section 68 (1) (g) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, states the condition upon which a member can lose his or her seat as a member.
It states that one can vacate his seat, “being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected.”
Section 65 (2b) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, also states the condition upon which one is qualified to be elected to the National Assembly. It stated that a person shall be qualified for election if “he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by the party.”
As the intrigues and arm twisting continue, the polity is tense and whichever way the pendulum swings to, Nigerians are watching.
Fury over 2014 Budget
The supremacy battle over which political party controls the soul of Nigeria in the 2015 general elections is also taking its toll on the 2014 Budget in the National Assembly. The battle is between the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress.
The Appropriation Bill started having hiccups right from the time of determining what should be the oil benchmark for the budget. The Presidency had put the benchmark at $74 per barrel while the Senate and House of Representatives put it at $76.5 and $79 per barrel respectively. After the bickering and disagreement between the two chambers, the benchmark was put at $77.5.
However, following the directive by the leadership of the APC to block all executive bills over the alleged Federal Government involvement in the crisis in Rivers State, the stage was set for a showdown between the two dominant political parties.
When the budget was introduced by the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, on Tuesday, senators from the APC sought its rejection and re-working, saying that it was anti-people while the PDP, senators pressed for its quick passage.
The arrow head of the opposition was Senator Akume, Minority Leader of the Senate, who argued that any budget passed into law and properly implemented normally served as the engine of growth and development.
He called for suspension of debate on the budget because relevant documents that would guide senators in making contributions as required by Fiscal Responsibility Act were not presented to them, adding that not all the senators are experts on budgetary issues.
Some of the documents, he stated, included the underline revenues and expenditure profile of government, the revenue framework broken down on monthly and sector by sector and the documents that explain the performance of the 2013 Budget.
The former governor of Benue State took a swipe at what the Federal Government was doing with the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme, SURE-P, funds, saying that the funds had become an omnibus allocation that takes care of virtually every aspect of life.
He advised that the Senate should not be in a hurry to consider the budget as there was the need for line by line consideration where the chamber would thoroughly scrutinize it to bring out areas that are of waste.
Akume frowned at a situation where about N700 million was budgeted for VIPs (Very Important Personalities) in the Presidency for the entertainment of visitors while about N300 million was allocated to State House Clinic which is restricted to ordinary Nigerians, describing such as a waste of resources and irrelevant.
Senator Ahmed Lawan, who represents Yobe North on the platform of APC, described the budget as the worst Appropriation Bill in the history of the country and the worst for the masses.
He further argued that the Senate should not discuss the 2014 Budget without first discussing the implementation and success of the 2013 Budget.
Lawan pointed out that the recurrent expenditure in the 2013 Budget was implemented even beyond the budgetary allocation, while the capital expenditure was less than 40 percent implemented, stressing that the nation’s resources were being spent on public and civil servants and things that were of less importance to the country.
According to him, the recurrent expenditure for 2014 Budget was about 74 percent which was for less than five million of the entire population leaving about 160 million population with 24 percent, even as he noted with regret that the government was for the rich where N1.4 trillion was given by government as concession and waivers instead of protecting the masses
He blamed the dwindling fortune of the economy on the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who he advised should resign from office for allegedly failing the country.
“According to Okonjo-Iweala, the recurrent in 2014 budget proposal is 74 per cent. 74 per cent is what was provided in 2011 when this administration came in . Subsequently, recurrent went down to 71 per cent, now we are back to 74 per cent. How many people are going to enjoy the recurrent? Less than five million Nigerians. 74 per cent of the annual budget is going to less than five million Nigerians. 26 per cent is earmarked for the capital for over 165 million Nigerians.
“How do you create jobs? How do you alleviate poverty, where are the social safety nets? The people must be at the centre of the concept, application and implementation of the budget not some civil servants, public servants, politicians and so on. We cannot have peace so long as we spend much of our funds on ourselves. We should spend the bulk of our funds on the people so that everybody can have something to do and everybody would be safe.”
Senator Alkali Jajere, APC, Yobe South, claimed that the North which, he said, represents a section of the people of Nigeria was not catered for in the budget and that the budget went on head-on-collision with the Fiscal Responsibility Act.
According to him, there was zero allocation to the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, which, he noted, was supposed to end by the end of 2014.
He said that the budget neglected important aspects of the sector that were the cardinal priority in the MDGs such as poverty alleviation and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Senator Christopher Babajide Omowarare , APC, Osun East, accused the Senate of having surrendered its powers in Sections 80 and 81 of the Nigerian Constitution to the executive, reminding the chamber that good governance was a responsibility that it should show to the people.
In his own contribution, Senator Abubakar Sadiq Yar’Adua, said that the budget had nothing for the common man even as he accused the Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala, of doing the bidding of the World Bank which he said was drastically affecting the nation.
But Abaribe, said he was impressed by the contribution of Lawan and he believed that what the APC government in Rivers State did on the Appropriation Bill was okay. “Two weeks ago, the APC government in Rivers State passed the budget in one hour, let us copy the APC”, the Senate spokesman, representing PDP Abia South, said.
Earlier, the Senate President, David Mark had advised senators “to use a national magnifying glass to look at the budget,” urging them to consider the interest of the country instead of personal or party interest.
Introducing the Appropriation Bill, the Senate Leader, Ndoma-Egba, stated that all the proposal in the budget were laudable and tailored to meet the critical needs of the country so as to deliver the dividends of democracy to the people.
“I thereby urge you all to support the second reading of this bill and committal to the committees for detailed consideration.”
He said that the 2014 Budget, predicated on $77.5 per barrel oil bench mark, projected oil production of 2,3883 million barrels per day, an average exchange rate of N160 per US$ and also a projected growth rate of 6.75 percent up from 6.5 percent in 2013.
According to the budget, of N4,642,960 trillion, N399,687,801,891billion was for statutory transfer, N712 billion was for Debt Service, N2,430,665,361,597 trillion was for recurrent, while N1,100,606,836,512 trillion was for capital expenditure.