By OLA AWONIYI
The inauguration of the 10th Senate in June was accompanied by the usual political drama that open new dispensations at the National Assembly. Many observers took the keenly contested leadership elections in the chamber as further signals that Nigeria is a thriving democracy. The new leadership of the Senate under Godswill Obot Akpabio, like the pilot of an aircraft taking off in rough weathers, encountered a slight turbulence before getting to cruising altitude. But it has since stabilized and the 10th Senate is well into its four-year journey.
At least that was the common view until a few weeks back when media report painted a disturbing picture.
However, as l ponder happenings in the Senate since the said media report, the global hit by one of America’s best-selling R&B singers, Robert Sylvester Kelly, popularly known as R. Kelly, flashes through my mind: The Storm is Over Now!
The syndicated media report purporting a move to change the three months old leadership of the Senate indicated that the aircraft had run into a storm. The report left many concerned readers wondering: how could Distinguished Senators, who are almost all senior citizens with vast political and leadership experiences, be contemplating the removal of a Senate President who has barely taken his seat? But like the refrain in R. Kelly’s song says, the storm is over now.
That “storm”, to be sure, was not strange. The outcome of the elections of the presiding officers had indicated that there were two major tendencies in the upper chamber. But the thinking was that the tendencies had fused in response to the olive branch magnanimously waved by Akpabio immediately he took his seat as the new President of the Senate.
But some people often want to see drama and tension in the Legislature. Otherwise, the chamber is boring for such people. For this reason there are always actors available to create situations or imaginary situations of “crisis” for the media to amplify. They do this mainly to secure concessions for themselves. So it is purely a selfish act.
At the beginning, the 10th Senate had attended to some national issues requiring urgent attention. Immediately after, the Senate adjourned and members proceeded on their annual vacation as planned in their calendar. The Senators were on the vacation when the news broke of the alleged plot to remove Akpabio.
Discerning Nigerians could see that the report was a ruse. But some people fell for it. Thus, the rumour, even though baseless, created apprehension in the light of the nature of politics at the National Assembly. It was a quick reminder of the “banana peel” syndrome in the Nigerian Parliament when its leadership at some point almost became a game of musical chairs.
In the midst of this apprehension, Senator Elisha Abbo who until 16th October, 2023 represented Adamawa North Senatorial District, granted a media interview which further fuelled suspicions that he probably knew about the purported plot to remove Akpabio because, rightly or wrongly, he was believed to be mouthpiece of a group within the chamber. He alleged lopsidedness in the allocation of leadership of Senate standing committees.
So when the Senate resumed plenary on 26th September, 2023, some people expected a rowdy session in the chamber. But Akpabio, an experienced politician well-versed in the politics of the National Assembly, was unruffled.
As soon as the plenary began, he called for an executive session. When the Senators rose from the exclusive meeting, the atmosphere had become calm. Whatever storm there was, was over.
That development did not surprise close observers of the chamber in recent times. The Senate is populated by senior citizens who highly value systemic order and stability. That is why Senators often act as members of the same family despite their different party affiliations.
However the following week, precisely on Tuesday 3rd October, 2023, the Senate Leader, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, in a motion during the plenary, proposed an amendment to the standing orders of the Senate “to clearly state that a Senator vying for the office of the President of the Senate or Deputy President of the Senate must have served at least one term in the Senate as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The motion passed and now effectively excludes first timers at the Senate from vying for the posts of presiding officers.
Some people see the development as a barrier expediently erected against political adventurism in the Senate. But many also see it as a necessary amendment to ensure stability in the upper chamber and also make experience in the workings of the Senate a priority in leadership selection in the chamber. Before the amendment was passed by a voice vote, Senator Bamidele reminded his Distinguished colleagues that the idea is in line with what is obtainable at the House of Representatives.
The Senate Leader also proposed an amendment to create nine more Standing Committees of the Senate. According to Senator Bamidele, this addition is “in response to emerging development that will enhance rules of procedures for a sound legislative practice.”
Beyond the official explanation for the newly created committees, some consider the step a strategy to offer more ranking lawmakers the chairmanship of committees. This is in a bid to strengthen bond within the chamber so that the receded “storm” does not rise again.
Some keen observers are also suggesting to the Senate to take a step further by amending its standing orders on the mode of election of its Presiding Officers. They want the Senate to adopt the Open Ballot system.
At the moment, the Senate rule provides for secret ballot, unlike the open ballot mode in use at the House of Representatives. Leading that advocacy is a pro-democracy group, the Citizen Network for Peace and Development in Nigeria(CNPDN). The argument is that the last exercise polarised the Senate into two major tendencies, which was not the case in the House of Representatives despite the fact that contests for the positions were keen in both Chambers.
Maybe these tendencies in the Senate would have fizzled out at the point of voting like it happened at the House of Representatives had the ballot been open.
Senator Elisha Abbo’s comment on Arise Television on 17th October, 2023 however confirmed what most people had been saying that the purported impeachment plot was a ruse. Senator Abbo said, a day after the Court of Appeal annulled his election for a second term in the Senate: “I want to say that there was no plan to impeach the Senate President at any time, who himself was a product of the popular vote of confidence by us (his colleagues). I support and respect Senator Godswill Akpabio to deliver on the core mandate of the Nigerian people. I am praying for God to give him wisdom because the Senate is a chamber of equals and I am praying for wisdom for him to know how to manage his colleagues because I don’t want him to fail.”
In the TV interview, Senator Abbo recanted on his earlier accusation that the Senate President was responsible for his electoral travail in court
Similarly on Tuesday 17th October, the media, with screaming headlines, wrongly projected another storm in the Senate Chamber. They reported that the Senate Chief Whip, Mohammed Ali Ndume “stormed” out of the plenary in protest against the Senate President, who had ruled Ndume out of Order when he raised Point of Order during the proceedings. It was not only the media that got it wrong, Ndume’s walking out of the chamber was too sudden that even some Senators misread the development. But the Borno South Senator left the chamber for a different purpose, as he later explained.
“I made a point and the Senate President ruled me out of order, then I left because you know, it was close to 1:30 pm and whatever business we are doing, I normally go to pray,” Senator Ndume told BBC reporter, Hausa service.
“The press misinterpreted it and the Senate President misinterpreted it, that I got annoyed and left. When I came to the office, they said the Senate was in executive session, that I should come because we said we should have executive session. I said let me go to the executive session briefly because I have already performed ablution and continued to the Mosque.”
That media report created another apprehension but it was quickly managed. The Senate President himself later told State House reporters that there is no cause for alarm.
“The Parliament is like that. Sometimes we disagree to agree. But the major thing is that we are all working in one accord. There is no problem at all. Even if some people disagree on some of the happenings in the senate, still, it is only the majority decision that prevails.
“Parliament is like that. But we will never get to a point of throwing chairs. We will never get to that point. The Senate is too mature, full of matured people, so, if we have a disagreement, we immediately go into a closed session, resolve it and come out smiling,” Akpabio said.
Awoniyi, media aide to Senate President, writes from Abuja.—