By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
The worsening relationship between the Senate and agents of the presidency has in the last two weeks degenerated to unpredicted levels with agents of the legislature seeking court orders to avoid legislative summons. The effects of the crisis is not just a snare to the delivery of democracy dividends, but to the country’s democracy
It has undoubtedly been a memorable week for the Senate. The week before, the Senate had cut down one of the most outstanding personalities of the Muhammadu Buhari regime when the senators on nationwide television rejected Ibrahim Magu as unfit for the office of the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. Despite the fact that the Senate’s action was generally believed to be part of an internal conspiracy within the presidency, the Senate’s rejection of Magu on the 15th of March set a memorable echo for many of the Ides of March.
The rumblings of the past week understandably underlined the increasing hostility between the presidency and the Senate in particular.
Proceedings in the Senate commenced on Tuesday with what on the surface appeared to be unsavoury moments for the Bukola Saraki leadership. Saraki was not on the dais on Tuesday and was rather at the Code of Conduct Tribunal where he is facing trial on allegations of corruption.
In his absence, his deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu presided. As proceedings commenced, Senator Ali Ndume, the immediate former Senate Leader stood up upon a point of order in which he brought to the notice of the Senate reports alleging that the Senate’s order on the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.) to appear in uniform was instigated by selfish purposes.
Ndume who quoted from a newspaper said the Senate owed it a duty to itself to investigate the allegation that the investigation was inspired by the Customs confiscation of a vehicle meant for the Senate President for allegedly failing to pay the necessary duties.
Senator Ndume noted that it had become a tradition for the National Assembly to probe allegations raised against its leadership as he enjoined the Senate to in the spirit of transparency probe the allegation.
Ndume also cited a newspaper report where Senator Dino Melaye, APC, Kogi West, was alleged to have paraded false certificate of graduation from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
The two issues were not debated and were immediately referred to the Senate Committee on Ethics for investigation.
That Senator Ndume brought up the issues immediately sent out warning signals on the perceived disaffection of the former Senate Leader with the leadership.
Ndume had been removed as Senate Leader at the beginning of the year following a coup by the APC caucus who it was claimed had the approval of the Senate President in their action.
The referral of the two cases to the Senate Committee on Ethics, however, did not excite many given the fact that the Senator Samuel Anyanwu led committee on ethics which some claimed was originally conceived as a hatchet tool for the Senate leadership.
The committee was established at the peak of the crisis in the Senate in 2015 between Saraki and Senator Ahmad Lawan and had its membership populated with Saraki’s allies with the aim of punishing supporters of Lawan.
The allegations against Saraki and Melaye nonetheless, the two allies have welcomed the probe saying that they would be acquitted even as they have absolved themselves of the allegations.
Senator Melaye in dismissing the allegations affirmed:
“I have seven degrees and I am pursuing the eighth one. So, it is a surprise to me that people would become so low but I want to say that I am not disenchanted, I’m not perturbed.
“The intention is to distract me, it’s to slow me down but I would say that I will continue to speak the truth at all times. I will continue to speak the truth at all times. But I am not speaking to be large, I’m not speaking to be praised. I’m speaking because the truth remains the truth and I would continue to speak without fear or favour.”
The events on Tuesday set the tension for the expected summons by the Senate to Ali, the customs CG on Wednesday.
Ali had appeared before the Senate penultimate Wednesday to respond to misgivings by senators over the confiscation of vehicles and other goods within the country on the allegation of underpayment or no payment of duties. The senators like many Nigerians believe that the customs were shirking their responsibility of collecting duties from importers at the port of entry and taking vengeance upon the end users.
However, when Ali appeared before the Senate that Wednesday he customarily came in mufti having never publicly worn the uniform of Comptroller General. The Senate thus ordered him to go back and return the following Wednesday in uniform.
Ali had earlier made concessions to the Senate by suspending the vexatious policy of retrospective inspection of custom papers on vehicles.
The choice of Wednesday was deliberate. It was meant to give maximum humiliation to Ali given that it is on that day that Senate proceedings are broadcast live by the NTA.
However, on Tuesday evening, on the eve of his appearance, the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami sent a letter of a court action in which he said that he had been served a judicial notice of a court action instigated by a lawyer to stop Ali from appearing in uniform.
A legal practitioner, Mohammed Ibrahim had asked the Federal High Court, Abuja to restrain the National Assembly from compelling Ali to wear Customs uniform in the performance of his duties.
The suit, named Ali, the NCS, the National Assembly, the Senate and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) as first to fifth defendants.
True to the letter from Malami, Ali did not appear on Wednesday fuelling a Senate resolution which labelled Ali as unfit to hold public office and calling on the president to caution Malami over his alleged interferences in the affairs of the legislature.
The passion and pains of the senators were reflected in the debate as senators from both parties alleged that aides of the president, notably, the attorney general were helping to undermine the institution of the legislature and democracy.
The bridge between the two arms of government was further widened when the Senate returned to its quarrel with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Mr. David Babachir Lawal.
Lawal had been indicted by the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the Northeast over his alleged involvement in the controversial grass cutting contract in the Northeast.
Lawal had refused to appear before the committee when it sat last year prompting the Senate to indict him just before it went on Yuletide break. President Buhari had, however, demurred saying that Lawal was not given an opportunity to respond to the allegation besides the claim that the majority of the members of the committee did not sign the report.
The committee had on March 15 written Lawal, again inviting him to give his testimony on Thursday, March 23.
Lawal, however, apparently drawing inspiration from the moves taken to stop Ali was reported to have written the panel on the eve of the appearance that he was going to court to stop the summons. His move, however, Saturday Vanguard learnt was against pleas by associates of President Buhari who had asked him to either present himself or give a tenable excuse for not appearing.
The concern from the president’s associates flowed from suggestions that the Magu and Ali cases with the Senate were already heating up the polity and hence that Lawal should not add to the tension.
The following day, Thursday, a letter was received by the Senator Shehu Sani led panel from Lawal in which he reported that he could not come for the hearing scheduled for that day on account of a pressing government appointment.
“I wish to kindly request that you draw the attention of the other members of the Committee that I will not be able to appear before the Committee primarily because of a pressing engagement of Government which clashed with the date and time of the hearing,” Lawal wrote.
Unlike Magu, the Senate was more forgiving as it promised to reschedule him for another day.
That, however, was not the end of the faceoff as another agent of the executive, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, the minister of power, works and housing also incurred the wrath of the Senate Committee on FERMA for failing to appear before it for a scheduled appointment on Thursday.
The relationship between the two arms of government which ordinarily should form the platform for delivering democracy dividend to the populace has, however, been ensnared in a circus of power play in which not just democracy dividends are at risk, but the democracy project itself.