By Ben Agande
WHAT began as a good year for the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria sadly is ending on a rather sad note as the public rating of the upper chamber of the National Assembly is at it an all time low.
While the House of Representatives was prevaricating on what its role should be in the nation especially when there appeared to be loss of direction in government at the beginning of 2010, the senate played a vital role in stabilizing the country with its proclamation of the doctrine of Necessity.
The doctrine of necessity as promulgated by Senate President David Mark empowered then Vice president Goodluck Jonathan as the Acting president of the country in the face of the ill-health of the ailing President Umaru Yar‘Adua.
In deed, since 2007 when Senator Mark assumed leadership as the senate president, the leadership of the senate and indeed the senate has increasingly won a level of credibility in the eyes of the Nigerian people. Unlike in the past when allegations of corruption and corruption induced change of leadership were widespread, the David Mark Leadership provided a certain level of stability and even respect for the senate amongst Nigerians because of the seeming maturity they displayed while the House of Representatives was perpetually locked in scandals.
Ironically, the reverse was the case since the return to democratic rule in 1999 when the senate was the trouble spot while the House of Representatives seemed to be more matured.
For close watchers of the senate, the last three years of the leadership of Senator Mark has brought about a marked change in the perception of the senate. After two failed attempts at the review of the much vilified constitution of the federal of Nigeria and eleven years after the country returned to democratic rule, the National assembly achieved a feat as it successfully amended the 1999 constitution to take care of some of the pressing challenges of the constitution as adopted by the last military administration of the country in 1999.
Though the review of the constitution did not represent all the expectations of many Nigerians, it was a giant leap for a country that is still battling to stabilize its democracy, fifty years after Independence from Britain.
The successful amendment of the constitution came as a personal fulfillment to the President of the senate who had promised that during his tenure, the constitution would be successfully amended. For a man who had been in the senate for close to twelve years, Senator David Mark is fully aware of the challenges faced by the previous leaders of the senate in the process of constitution amendment.
When the present leadership of the National Assembly commenced another round of constitution amendment, it was justifiably received with much skepticism by many Nigerians who believed that in view of the history constitution amendment, that it was bound to be a failure.
It was this cynicism from Nigerians that perhaps propelled the senate under the leadership of Mark to go the extra mile in ensuring the success of the last exercise.
Even at that, the exercise was not without its problems. At the first retreat of the joint committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives on the review of the constitution in Minna Niger state, the inability of the members of the committee to resolve the problem of nomenclature of the leaders of the committee almost aborted the whole exercise.
But for the maturity displayed by the senate president who directed that the senate and the House committees on the review of the constitution should work separately and harmonize their position later, the insistence by the House of Representatives members that the Deputy Speaker who was the leader of its committee on the constitutional amendment should be addressed as co_chairman and not vice chairman, would have imperiled the whole exercise.
Senator David Mark’s leadership of the upper legislative chamber has scored first on several fronts. Unlike in the past when the legendary banana peels ensured that almost all the states in the south eastern part of the country where the Senate presidency was zoned to produced the president of the senate, Senator David Mark has been able to effectively manage the affairs of the senate in such a way that though Nigerians are generally wary of the national legislature, the senate under the leadership of David Mark has retained some modicum of respectability and credibility.
It is this modicum of credibility and respectability which Senator Mark has earned that ensured that even when the conference of speakers of state houses of Assembly were under immense pressure from the state governors to tow particular lines on the amendments sent by the national assembly, the state assemblies were able to balance the amendment in the overall interest of the nation.
In all, about fifty sections of the constitution were considered and amended and forwarded to the state houses of assembly by the leadership of the national assembly. Though the two_third majority required by law to effect changes in the constitution was not met in some amendments, enough progress has been made in the task of making the constitution more acceptable to more Nigerians.
For instance, unlike in the recent past when the late president’s absence from the country for more than five months without transmitting a letter to his vice almost caused a political stalemate in the country, the amendment to the constitution now empowers the National and State Houses of Assembly to empower the vice president or the deputy governor as the case maybe to assume full responsibilities of the president or the governor if the president or the governor fails to transmit a letter after twenty one days.
Similarly, unlike in the past when the Independent National Electoral Commission would go cap in hand to ask for funds from the executive arm of government, the new amendments now place INEC on the first line charge just like the judiciary and the legislature which means that preparation and conduct of elections would no longer be encumbered by the intransigence of a president who may not like the independence of the chairman of the commission.
What perhaps stands out the senate during the last one year is the pragmatic way the upper house handled the complications arising from the long absence of former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as a result of ill health which eventually claimed his life.
Due to the ambiguity of the constitutional provision on how long the President would spend outside his office without officially transmitting presidential powers to his deputy, the long absence of the president created a power vacuum since the then Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan was not constitutionally empowered to assume executive powers. This led to a dangerous drift in government and the fear or a possible intervention of the military to save the ship of state was very palpable.
To compound a rather bad matter, the country and indeed the senate was divided into two camps: those in favour of the status quo and those who believed that a solution had to be found around the issue by transmitting executive powers to the Vice president to act as the president.
In the confusion that reigned and the possible threat to the very existence of the country, the leadership of the senate came up with the Doctrine of Necessity to wriggle out of a bad, potentially dangerous situation.
Justifying the decision of the senate, the President of the Senate, David mark opined then that “A rigid and inflexible interpretation will not only stifle the spirit and intendment of the Constitution, but will also affront the doctrine of necessity. The doctrine of necessity requires that we do what is necessary when faced with a situation that was not contemplated by the Constitution.
And that is precisely what we have done today. In doing so, we have as well maintained the sanctity of our Constitution as the ultimate law of the land. The BBC interview granted by the president is as good as the letter envisaged in the constitution because if you go onto the Internet, you will see a copy of what he said,” the Senate president David Mark said.
Apart from its statutory duties of confirming ministerial nominees and other nominees of statutory agencies, the senate also provided a the legal framework as well as the necessary financial clout for the independent national Electoral Commission to conduct the registration of voters as well as the 2011 elections proper.
However, as the senate was savouring the joy of its successes, the attempt by the national assembly to make their members automatic members of the National Executive Council of the political parties sparked outrage in the polity. After a total rejection in no clear terms from a cross section of Nigerians including state governors, the senate beat a hasty retreat and expunged the clause from the Electoral Act amendment bill. Even though the action was late in coming, it gives a modicum of impression that perhaps, the senators are not as insensitive to public opinion as they have been portrayed by many Nigerians.
Despite a seemingly lofty session, the senate, nay the National Assembly was embroiled in very negative image following the allegation by the Governor of the Central bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi that 25% of Recurrent Expenditure of the country’s budget is spent by the National Assembly.
In a lecture at the University of Benin, the governor of the Central Bank alleged that ‘the situation whereby 25% of the country’s revenue spending yearly goes to the national assembly is unhealthy for the country and its economy.
Coming at a time that the national perception was that the National Assembly collects huge sum from the public treasury with little to show for it, Sanusi’s allegation sparked outrage both in the nation and the legislature. While many Nigerians were outraged that what they had been hearing but secretly wished that was not true had been confirmed by those in government who should know, the legislature saw in the remark by the CBN governor a deliberate attempt by an official of the executive arm of government to instigate the populace against the legislature.
Outraged by the remarks of the bank of the Central Bank, the Senate summoned Mallam Sanusi to provide evidence to substantiate his allegations. There were expectations that Sanusi like several other government officials in similar circumstance would recant his allegation and offer apologies. But when the bespectacled CBN governor walked into the Hearing Room venue of the public hearing organized by the senate to give him a ‘dressing down’, he did not leave anybody in doubt that he did not come before the senate committee with a tail in between his legs.
Defiant and even adjudged cocky by some senators at the hearing, Sanusi told his hosts, majority of whom displayed open antagonism towards him that the figure he used to arrive at the conclusion that the national assembly is responsible for 25% expenditure of the over head spending of the federal government was from the Budget Office as such he does not have any reason to retract the statement accredited to him in the media.
“By my upbringing, if I’m wrong, I don’t need to be told to come and say I’m wrong and I would apologise. By my nature, if I am not convinced that I’m wrong, I do not apologise and this is really where the point is” he said defiantly.
Sanusi Lamido sanusi’s appearance before the senate provided the final nail on the coffin of public hatred for the senators. Though the senate in the year under review made some major and vital interventions that went a long way in stabilizing the country, the hoopla engendered by the allegations made by the CBN governor in no small way significantly paled out the noble achievements of the upper legislative house.
Perhaps the announcement by the president of the Senate, David Mark that the National Assembly would drastically reduce the budgetary allocations to it in the 2011 fiscal year would help in assuaging the feeling of Nigerians that the National assembly is only interested in self enrichment and not the interest of the Nigerian people.