By Henry Umoru
From the time President Muhammadu Buhari submitted the name of a former governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, to the Senate as a ministerial nominee alongside 36 others, it was one issue after another, up till the time his nomination was confirmed by the upper chambre, last Thursday..
It was like the Senate building was going to fall and Nigeria will break. From politicians to academicians, commentators, critics, everybody appeared interested.
To the former governor’s political opponents from his home state or those in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in Rivers, the party on whose platform he was elected the state’s chief helmsmen and Speaker for eight years, and subsequently defected to the APC, it was time to exact their pound of flesh.
The Senate became the locale for the pro and anti-Amaechi forces to flex muscles. The Anti-Amaechi forces filed a petition, written by one Livingstone Wechie on behalf of group called Integrity Group and presented to the upper legislative chambre by Senator George Sekibo and the other two senators from Rivers State, alleging cases of fraud against the former governor.
Senate President Bukola Saraki, relying on Order 41(3) of the Senate Standing Orders 2015 , as amended, referred the petition to the Senator Samuel Anyanwu-led Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions.
The committee invited Amaechi who appeared before it, and where he was told it was subjudice to handle the petition since a case on the petition was in court.
Other members of the committee are Senators Bala Ibn-Na’ Allah; Omotayo D. Alasoadura; Binta M. Garba; Olaka J. Nwogu; Muhammad U. Shitu; Dino Melaye; Peter O. Nwaoboshi; Jeremiah T. Useni; Ogba J. Obinna and Omogunwa O. Yele.
According to Anyanwu, PDP, Imo East, it was not proper for the committee to look at the petition as the issues raised there were already in court, adding that, in line with the Senate Standing Orders, senators will not attend to it.
Anyanwu stressed that the Senate will not want to run foul of the law. On that note, the committee brought the sitting to a close on the day Amaechi appeared.
Section 41(7) of the Senate Standing Orders 2015, as amended, reads, “ The Senate shall not receive any petition on any matter for which there is a judicial remedy”.
The day the committee report was slated for consideration at the Senate plenary was the day the former governor was scheduled for screening according to the Order Paper. But, curiously, Amaechi’s name disappeared in another Order Paper released later as one of the ministerial nominees to be screened that Wednesday. Meanwhile, with assurances from Anyanwu that the report will be ready, hopes were high, even as PDP senators took a combative position that the nominee will not be cleared.
Interestingly, the report of the Ethnics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee was signed by members from the APC and PDP. The signatories from the APC are Na’Allah, Melaye and Alasoadura.
On the PDP side were Anyanwu, Yola, Nwaoboshi, Useni and Ogba. Those who did not sign were Garba, APC; Shitu, APC, and Nwogu, PDP.
The reports said, “Following from the discovery that the matter before the Senate is actually before a competent court of law, the committee accordingly recommends as follows: That since the ministerial nominee had gone to the Court of Appeal, to challenge the content of the petition and the white paper of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry, the Senate is unable to recommend the consideration of his confirmation. That the Senate should consider and adopt the recommendation as proposed by the committee.”
In its observations and findings, the committee said, “ As investigation of the matter progressed, additional important documents, which viewed the case from various positions, were also tendered before the committee, and these were also taken into consideration in drawing the recommendations of the committee. The documents include: A letter from the Office of the Attorney- General and Commissioner for Justice of Rivers State forwarding the report (White Paper) of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the administration of Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi on the sale of valued assets of Rivers State and other related matters under the chairmanship of Honourable Justice George Otakpo Omereji, dated October 8, 2015; the ruling/judgment dated 20th August, 2015 of the Rivers State High Court by Honourable Justice S.C. Amadi(Judge) which rejected the relief sought( to declare that the Judicial Commission of Inquiry lacks the powers to investigate and make findings known, and therefore dismissed suit; three different letters from Edward and William( a firm of legal practitioners) on behalf of the ministerial nominee as follows:
“ A letter that the ministerial nominee, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, could not appear at the committee hearing because of the constraint that the matter was in court, since whatever he might say at the committee hearing would be seen as prejudicial to court judgment. The letter was dated 8th October, 2015; a letter to counter the contents of the petition by Mr. Livingstone Wechie, dated 9th October, 2015; notice of summons from the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory submitted to the committee on the 20th of October, 2015, summoning the Senate President and the Senate of the National Assembly to appear before it. The suit seeks to clarify the position of the law as to whether the Senate can screen, consider, ratify, accept, approve or confirm an indicted ministerial nominee”.
The committee went on: “ Neither the Senate nor the presenter knew that the matter being presented on the floor of the Senate was already a subject of litigation in an Appeal Court in Port- Harcourt.
“Since the matter is already a subject of litigation in a competent court of law, and since the Senate could not work contrary to its own rules (Order 41(7), it is constrained in taking any further action.”
Amaechi appeared at the Senate floor for screening, the following day, Thursday, October, 22, the day Anyanwu laid the report on the table. But PDP senators refused to ask the nominee questions. The Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, spoke the minds of his party members. On hand in a show of solidarity for Amaechi was the APC National Chairman, Chief John Odigie Oyegun, who was at the chamber with other members of the ruling party’s National Working Committee, NWC.
The climax of the Amaechi screening came last Thursday when he was listed as one of the 18 ministerial nominees to be confirmed. Confirmed before him, because his name was last on the Order Paper, were Adebayo Shittu, Khadijah Abba Ibrahim, Heineken Lokpobiri, Cladius Omoleye Daramola, Baba Shehuri Mustapha, Ocholi E. James and Adewole Isaac Folorunso.
Others were Bawa Bwari, Geoffrey Onyeama, Zainab S. Ahmed, Mansur Mohammed Dan Ali, Usani Usani Uguru, Okechukwu Enyinma Enelamah, Anwukah Anthony Gozie, Mohammed Musa Bello, Adamu Adamu and Aisha Abubakar.
Signs of what was to come that day began to show shortly after the Senate plenary started when senators of the PDP told the Senate President Saraki that the exercise could only be carried out if the report of the Anyanwu Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions on Amaechi was considered.
Speaking through the Deputy Minority Leader, Senator Biodun Olujimi, PDP, Ekiti South, the PDP senators said it was necessary that the Senate considered the Anyanwu report before going into the confirmation of the nominees.
Olujimi, who raised a point of order, under Order 43 of the Senate Standing Rule, told the Senate President to suspend all the processes leading to the confirmation of the ministerial nominees until the consideration of the report on Amaechi was carried out by the senators in line with the Standing Rules.
But she was ruled out of order by Saraki who noted that the Senate would first screen those appointed as National Commissioners of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
Saraki said the issue raised by Olujimi would be handled when the red chamber went into ministerial confirmation.
At this point, the Senate Leader,Ali Ndume, introduced the first item in the Senate Order Paper, which was the screening and confirmation of Professor Mahmood Yakubu as Chairman and others as National Commissioners of INEC.
Soon after the confirmation of the INEC officials, the Senate President called for a closed-door meeting. Ahead of the confirmation of the screened nominees, senators had entered into caucus meetings of the APC and PDP, just as they also went into an executive session apparently to cool frayed nerves. But this appeared not to have produced a positive result as the issue of Amaechi sharply divided the lawmakers along party lines.
After the closed-door session, which lasted almost two hours and during which issues on how best to approach the nomination of the Rivers former governor as minister was discussed, the report of the Anyanwu committee, which recommended that the Senate should not consider the nomination, was presented.
The committee had recommended that since the ministerial nominee had gone to the Court of Appeal to challenge the petition and the White Paper of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Rivers State affairs under his headship, the Senate should not proceed with his confirmation.
That was a real test for Saraki whose frantic efforts to prevail on his colleagues from both camps to allow peace to reign as they pushed their cases for or against the nomination of Amaechi at the closed- door session failed.
A source told Sunday Vanguard that, at the executive session, the Senate President had tried to bend backwards to allow a fresh debate on the matter of the Amaechi nomination even after the screening had been concluded.
According to the source, senators opposed to the former governor were promised to be allowed to publicly vent their grievances before a final voting, just as this was the demand of the PDP caucus and it was agreed to by APC senator.
Back in plenary, trouble started when Senate Leader Ndume moved that the chambre should jettison the report of the Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee against the backdrop that it had confirmed that the Amaechi matter was pending in court, and that the lawmakers proceed with the confirmation of Amaechi.
Soon after, there was protest from Akpabio, who accused the Senate Leader of attempting to mislead the chambre from debating the report.
The Minority Leader, who cited Order 43 of Senate Standing Rule, reminded the chambre of an earlier agreement that when the Senate got to a nominee against whom there was a petition, the issue should be discussed before the Senate President would put a question on whether the nomination should be approved or not.
At this point, Senator Babajide Omoworare, APC, Osun East, observed that the part of the Senate Standing Rules the committee relied on to arrive at its recommendation was no longer relevant.
Not satisfied with Omoworare’s explanation, Senator Joshua Lidani, Gombe, told senators that the Section of the Senate Rule used by the Anyanwu committee was still in force, adding that it was in line with a Section of the 1999 Constitution, which empowers the Senate to regulate its affairs.
When it became obvious that the senators were poised for a showdown, Olujimi, who told her colleagues that, against the backdrop of the unfolding scenario, it was crystal clear that the APC senators were out to scheme out their PDP colleagues, stressed that the majority will always have its way.
The senator urged her colleagues to note that there was a moral burden, not just on the Senate but also on the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, voted into power based on its commitment to fight corruption, saying, “There is a moral burden on President Buhari. Although the majority will always have its way, Nigerians will know that this government is not willing to fight corruption but will condone it all the way.”
According to her, what the Senate ought to do from the point of moral view was to allow the court to decide on the matter and probably absolve the nominee before he could be confirmed.
In his reaction, Sekibo, who presented the petition against Amaechi, cautioned the APC senators on the implication of their action as the world was watching how events would unfold, especially against the backdrop of the morality on the Amaechi ministerial screening, adding, “We represent our people and the Nigerian people we represent are the majority. The majority is not APC, the majority is the Nigerian people. The true judges are the Nigerian people. So, we must respect the Nigerian people.
“The report that was laid here talks of weighty allegations of corruption and the sale of government assets, mismanagement of funds and, above all, a standing issue on petitions. And you are magnanimous enough to refer the matter to the Ethics and Privileges Committee. There is no way a senator can amend the report.”
A former National Chairman of PDP, Senator Barnabas Gemade, APC, Benue, who spoke, said that the role of democracy was that the majority will always have its way while the minority will have its say, adding that, consequently, Saraki should ignore the PDP senators and go ahead with the question to senators as to whether the nominee should be confirmed or not. At this point, PDP senators, led by Akpabio, stormed out of the red chambre.
At a press conference later, the Minority Leader said, “ We were shut out when the we wanted to react to the report when it was laid. There was a little bit of something we don’t think is in conformity with morality there. Once a case is before a competent court of law, any action on that matter is subjudice and the committee was able to establish that the issues that were brought against the nominee are already issues that were adjudicated upon by the Court of Appeal and other courts of competent jurisdiction. So the issue of taking further action on his nomination, whether by way of appointment or otherwise, did not exist . We tried to make this point but they felt as a majority party there was no need to comply with the law.
“The law is very clear that, once a matter is before a court of competent jurisdiction, you can take no further action. So there was nothing wrong with suspending the issue of confirmation until those cases are disposed of and, in this case, I understand it is the nominee that went to court.
“It could have been a good idea for the nominee to withdraw his cases from court to allow the Senate to go into the matter, but, when that did not happen, we felt that, as lawmakers, we have a responsibility to Nigerians not to partake in that kind of charade.”
When asked if the action of Saraki will not affect loyalty, especially against the backdrop of the support the PDP gave to him before his emergence as Senate President, Akpabio said, “The Senate President was returned unopposed. There was no voting, so you cannot say that anybody supported the President. He was a sole nominee; nobody contested against him and there was none of us here that indicated interest in contesting for the position of Senate President . So when the CNA invited people to bring nomination for the post of the Senate President , Bukola Saraki was the sole candidate; so he was returned unopposed and you cannot say anybody supported him.”
On whether PDP senators will continue to walk out when not happy with issues, he said, “It is not normal for PDP senators to stage a walk out. This is the first time and it is because we feel very strongly that there is a total breach of the law; in this case, that where a matter is before a court of competent jurisdiction, any action you take will be subjudice. Our colleagues did not allow us to air our views, they were bent on what they had already discussed and performing an illegality and we will not be part of illegality. Walking out will not be constant in the Senate, but this was very clear.” At the end of the day, the minority had its say, but the majority had its way. Amaechi was screened and confirmed without input from PDP senators.