By Ochereome Nnanna
SENATE President, David Mark and Speaker of the House of Reps, Aminu Tambuwal, are riding fierce storms to keep their seats and defend the interests of their political parties. On the surface of it, Mark and Tambuwal belong to the same People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But below the surface where the real action is, Tambuwal has his heart fully in the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC).
For a long time, Tambuwal has openly frolicked with the opposition party, which is a generous beneficiary of the rift in the ruling party. In fact, his position as Speaker is the handiwork of the opposition, particularly the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which used him to torpedo the zoning formula of the PDP in the House of Representatives. The Sokoto State-born parliamentarian is also being touted as the favourite of Chief Bola Tinubu (the main leader of the APC) for the presidential slot of the party. He continues to attend events organised by the APC and its acolytes.
It will be recalled that when the 37 members of the PDP brought their letter of defection to the APC, Tambuwal read it, without hesitation or question, on the floor of the House. When the eleven PDP senators also defected to the APC and brought their letter to the President of the Senate, David Mark, they did not meet the same enthusiastic reception. They were rebuffed. One of them, Senator Danjuma Goje, complained that since the same constitution drives activities in the two chambers, why would the Reps have it so smooth while the Senators were met with a brick wall?
The answer to that question is not necessarily in the constitution. It should be, but Mark and Tambuwal are putting their respective political interests first, especially as the court cases surrounding the issue permit them the loophole to do so.
Between the two heads of the bicameral National Assembly, Tambuwal is walking a more slippery terrain. His state governor, Magatakarda Wamakko, had defected to the APC with most of the state’s legislators. But only last week, the Speaker came out to announce that he was still very much in the PDP. My understanding of his situation is that if Tambuwal defects to the APC, he risks losing his coveted seat. He would have lost his seat had he gone with the 37 members since it came out a few days later that PDP still maintains a slim majority, apart from its allies in the Labour Party (LP), All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and the Accord Party (AP).
The defection game is an ongoing one, and no one can be sure what will happen in the next couple of months. The only time the matter will be settled once and for all is when the courts decide whether to invoke Section 68(1) (g) of the constitution, which says defecting legislators must lose their seats unless there are factions within their parties. Until that case is decided, Tambuwal will hang on with the PDP. If he loses his position he may lose ground in the race to 2015 either as presidential or governorship candidate or even legislator.
Mark, on the other hand, is staying put in the PDP. Not only that, he is protecting both hs is party and his defecting colleagues from the consequences of a detrimental legal backlash. Mark’s position is, on the face of it, not under threat. Out of the 22 senators who were billed to defect, only eleven have gone, and the ruling party still has a commanding hold of 59 senators. His refusal to read the letter of the defectors is understandable. His hands are tied by a number of legal limitations.
Ordinarily, defectors ought to forfeit their seats in line with Section 68(1) (g) of the Constitution. But, to protect themselves, the defectors had on November 28th 2013 gone to an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice AR Abubakar to obtain an interlocutory injunction preventing their seats from being declared vacant until the Motion on Notice is decided.
The court also ordered all the parties, especially the Speaker and President of the Senate, to maintain the status quo on declaration of seats vacant. There is also a separate court injunction preventing the change of principal officers until another issue related thereto is decided. In addition, the October 18th, 2013 verdict by an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice Elvis Chukwu, that there is no division in PDP strengthens Mark’s hands in refusing to let the defectors go free.
The truth of the matter is that once a politician’s mind is made up to move to another platform, it is best to let the person go. But the constitutional hurdles must be surmounted. Many of these defectors know they are on solid ground in their respective political theatres. This applies to many of them from the far northern zones whose governors have equally defected.
Even if you call for new elections, people in this category will have little trouble coming back. But Tambuwal cannot afford to play cards with his seat. His road to the presidential ticket of the APC or its gubernatorial ticket depends to a large extent on his ability to stay in office till the appropriate time. So, for now, he has to continue to play the double agent’s game.
But for some of those parliamentarians who come from unsure grounds such as Rivers, a court verdict declaring seats vacant might prove politically fatal to their 2015 ambitions. This is why many who would have liked to go with the defected senators and HOR members are hanging back and possibly reshuffling their options.
While we wait for the courts to show us the way to go, the defectors will sleep with only one eye open. The way the courts deal with this matter will determine, in very large measure, the true position of political parties in our democracy. It will either concur the Supreme Court verdict that said the political parties are the holders of the mandates given to political contestants, or render it irrelevant.