In the face of difficult challenges on the part of the executive branch of government, the Saraki Senate has In the face of difficult challenges on the part of the executive branch of government, the Saraki Senate has acted as a stabilising factor in keeping the ship of state steady but then not without its own contradictions.
By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor & Henry Umoru
It was an unprecedented step for Senator Bukola Saraki when he last Thursday ordered members of the Senate Committee on Downstream Petroleum to cut short their Yuletide Holidays to address the crippling fuel crisis that has paralysed movements across the country in the last few weeks. Senators often take delight in spending the yuletide holidays with their constituents and failure to do so is often seen as an act of arrogance or indifference to the situation of constituents.
The action by the Senate President reconvening the committee underlined the seriousness with which the Saraki leadership of the Senate is considering the crisis. Even more, it again showed how the Senate, nay, National Assembly has in the present dispensation repeatedly stepped in to steady the ship of state in the face of overwhelming odds against the executive branch of government.
The seeming collaboration between the National Assembly and the executive branch, however, did not start with such concerted gestures.
After Saraki’s emergence as Senate President against the prescription of All Progressives Congress, APC chieftains, the stage became set for conflict between the two arms of government. The attacks which at the beginning were wholly one-sided against the legislature saw the quizzing of the wife of the Senate President by operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. She was not charged with any offence. Following that was the arraignment of the Senate on charges of false assets declaration. That was later followed by the arraignment on the charge of forgery, a charge that was subsequently withdrawn upon the assumptions of its hollowness in the charges.
Against the background of such assaults, expectations that Saraki would use his travails as an excuse to fight back at the executive have not materialised.
If anything, the National Assembly and the Senate in the outgoing year played significant roles to stabilise the polity in the face of the vulnerability of the executive branch of government.
The challenges for the executive were there from the beginning of the year, 2017 when President Muhammadu Buhari went on his first medical leave of the year.
Unarguably, the most testing aspect of the relationship between the Saraki Senate and the presidency were the two medical vacations Buhari took in the year.
When the president took his first leave on January 19, he had written the Senate and the House of Representatives that he would be away for ten days. However, that vacation eventually stretched into six weeks raising commotion among stakeholders.
However, when the president went on the indefinite medical leave in May, it inevitably provoked constitutional questions.
By the time he proceeded on his second medical leave, the issues around the 2017 budget of the country had yet to be settled. The matter of who would sign the budget was the least of the concerns given the suspense the absence of the president cast on the polity.
Seven years earlier when President Umaru Musa Yar‘adua was in a near similar situation, the Senate acted differently.
Of course, there were significant differences between that development in 2010 and the Buhari situation in 2017.
Then, there was no law binding the president to give notice in writing to the National Assembly on his intention to proceed on medical leave. In 2010 the Senate had to postulate a Doctrine of Necessity to empower Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as acting president.
However, when he left the country on May 7, 2017, the president inevitably stirred constitutional issues when his letter dated the same day sought to confer on his deputy, Osinbajo, limited powers.
In his letter to the Senate President dated May 7, 2017, Buhari said: “In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, I wish to inform the distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London. The length of my stay will be determined by the doctor’s advice.
“While I am away, the vice president will coordinate the activities of the government. Please accept the distinguished Senate president the assurances of my highest consideration.”
The reference that the vice-president will coordinate the activities of the government inevitably stoked passions as it was alleged that some presidency minders drafted the letter in a way to limit the powers of the vice-president while the president was away.
Some senators had sought to impute mischief in the letter, but their inference was quickly addressed by the Senate President who relying on Section 145 of the Constitution ruled that the transmission of the letter to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives was enough to convey acting power to the vice-president.
Just before the president proceeded on his second medical leave of the year, an issue that had tested the might of the legislative body came to fore when the Senate received the report of the Senate Ad-hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the North-East. The committee had investigated claims that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal misused his office in awarding contracts to his companies.
Remarkably, Mr. Lawal refused the summons from the Senate Committee even after outside factors sought to mediate. Just before the president proceeded on his second medical leave, the Senate received the report of the committee which indicted Lawal and recommended his dismissal.
The faceoff with Lawal was a clear demonstration of how the Senate could apply grit on an issue it is well at grips with. Lawal was eventually suspended before the president proceeded on leave and finally dismissed after the president returned in August.
An indication of the Senate’s readiness to push through measurable legislations that would impact positively on the populace was the initiative from the Senate President to push through the long pending legislative proposals to reform the oil industry.
Senator Saraki’s approach was to push through the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, PIGB which sought to address key operational issues of the industry while at the same time skirting around the more controversial ones. The personal involvement of the Senate President helped to push the bill to passage.
Other notable legislative proposals that passed through the Senate in the last year included the Northeast Development Bill, aimed at rehabilitating the Northeast following the Boko Haram insurgency, the Not Too Young To Run Bill which brought down the age qualification into political offices, the Ease of Doing Business Bills which aim to invigorate private enterprise. The Ease of Doing Business bills include the Credit Bureau bill which was passed in May 2017 and the Secured Transactions in Moveable Assets bill.
The Senate also passed the Whistleblower Protection Bill aiming to protect Nigerians who provide leads for the recovery of public assets, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) Bill which aims to vest independence to the unit for the purpose of meeting the standards of the global financial watch body, the Financial Action Task Force, FATF.
However, the crowning jewel of the Senate in its lawmaking affairs was the amendment of several provisions of the 1999 Constitution. Among the most fundamental proposals adopted from the 33 clauses proposed were the ones that stipulated that the president must provide a portfolio to nominees for ministerial nominations, independent candidature in elections, affirmation of democracy in the local governments, and autonomy for local governments.
The Senate, however, rejected the proposal for devolution of powers in a move that inevitably cast a dark shadow on the Senate’s inclination on the clamour for restructuring.
The Senate also in 2017 showed empathy towards the poor with roundtables on jobs and drug abuse.
But there were times when the sights and sounds of the Saraki Senate seemed to have been set in avoidable controversies. The Senate’s issues with Mr. Ibrahim Magu, the acting chairman of the EFCC and Col. Hameed Ali, (rtd.) the comptroller general of the Nigerian Customs Service remain striking.
Moved by what some alleged to be private concerns some senators sought to compel Col. Ali, a former army officer, to appear in his uniform as the head of customs. It was a needless controversy in the opinion of several stakeholders.
The on-again-off-again squabble with Magu was a drama that played from the beginning of the year till December. In one breath senators following their refusal to clear Magu for the office of the EFCC chairman claimed they no longer recognised him and in another breadth, they were ready to pander to him and entertain him at budget defence sessions.
Its foibles nonetheless, the Senate under the leadership of Senator Saraki has acted as a balancing factor in a year in which Nigeria’s constitutional structure was stressed beyond measure.