By Kehinde Olatunji
Barely six months to the crucial 2019 general election, anxiety is already building to fever pitch. The polity has begun to witness the verbal exchanges between the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The position of the Senate president appears to be the testing ground for the two big political groupings, following the decision of Senator Bukola Saraki to defect from APC to PDP. Leaders of both political parties are claiming numerical superiority as the basis of entitlement to the exalted seat.
Saraki, a former governor of Kwara State, emerged the Senate president in June 2015, partly because of APC’s victory at the general election. Saraki and 10 other senators had joined the party in January 2014 from PDP.Perhaps, because he emerged the chairman of the National Assembly against the wishes of APC leaders that favoured Ahmed Lawan, the incumbent senate leader, his defection raised fresh verbal contests between PDP and APC over which party has a greater number of Senators.
In just one day, 15 of the 63 Senators defected robbing the ruling party its absolute majority. Shortly, the Senate President, (Saraki), joined the 15 to embrace his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, in the PDP.Those whose defections were announced included: Dino Melaye, Rabiu Kwankwanso, Isa Misau, Usman Nafada, Suleiman Hunkuyi, Mohammed Shittu, Suleiman Nazif, Barnabas Gemade, Shaaba Lafiaji, Rafiu Ibrahim, Ibrahim Danbaba, Lanre Tejuoso, Monsurat Sunmonu, Adesoji Akanbi and Abdulazeez Nyako.
At a press briefing, the Senate leader, (Lawan), said after 14 senators dumped the APC, the ruling party still has a majority in the chamber with 52 lawmakers.Lawan explained that the majority was earned by APC having 52 senators as against 50 of the PDP. Lawan disclosed that out of 109 senators, APC has 52, the PDP has 50, ADC has three and APGA has two. “You will recall that we lost two of our colleagues.”This figure suggested an alleged plot to impeach Saraki with the claim that PDP was in the minority that he now belongs to.
But, Saraki responding to this claim in a statement described the move as illegality. “They know that they do not have the numbers to lawfully carry out this action.”
In view of the continuous battle against the Senate President, the leadership of the APC insisted that he lacked the moral ground to retain the position after changing platform.
The Acting National Publicity Secretary, Yekini Nabena, said: “We reiterate our call for the Senate president to resign from the position immediately as he no longer has the moral and legitimate ground to occupy that position as a member of the minority PDP. Going by the popular axiom, the majority will have their way, but the minority will have their say.”
However, Section 50 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution (as amended) does not bar persons from minority parties from occupying the position of the senate president.Section 50 (1) (a) of the document states that there shall be “a President and Deputy President of the Senate, who shall be elected by the members of that House from among themselves.
Observers have, however, argued that the Constitution does not specifically state that members of minority parties cannot seek election into the position.They noted that Saraki would rely on the provision to retain his seat until June 2019 when the Ninth Senate would elect its presiding officer and new principal officers, citing Section 50 (2) of the Constitution which says “The President or Deputy President of the Senate or the Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives shall vacate his office:
a) If he ceases to be a member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives, as the case maybe, otherwise than by reason of a dissolution of the Senate or the House of Representatives; or
b) When the House of which he was a member first sits after any dissolution of that House; or
c) If removed from office by a resolution of the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of the members of the House.
The aide also argued that in line with the constitution, there were occasions in the past political dispensations in the country where persons from minority parties presided over both chambers of the National Assembly.”In the Second Republic when the late Edwin Ume-Ezeoke of the defunct Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) was Speaker of the House of Representatives while his deputy, Ibrahim Idris, was of the then governing National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
Also, the Seventh Assembly, when Aminu Tambuwal defected from the PDP to the APC but retained his position as Speaker of the House of Representatives.Likewise, in the current Eight Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, is sitting as the deputy president of the chamber despite belonging to the PDP.
A human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), who waded into the controversy contended that there was no legal basis for the removal of the Senate President.According to him, legislators can only justifiably defect from their political parties without losing their seats when there is a faction at the party’s national level such that it is difficult for the parties to function.
He cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Abegunde v Ondo State House of Assembly (2014) LPELR 23683, in which the appellant, a member of the House of Representatives, had decamped from the Labour Party to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria.
“To that extent, the defection of the R-APC legislators from the APC to the PDP and ADC can be impugned under section 68 (1) (g) of the Constitution. “However, since the APC had allowed legislators to decamp from the PDP to join its fold in the recent past, the ruling party lacks the moral and political rights to condemn the defection of the R-APC legislators.
“But the crass opportunism of the APC cannot legitimise the prostitution of the political system.”The Senate president in responding to calls for his resignation by the ruling party after his world press conference, said: “First question, I was not given the position of the Senate President, I was elected by members. Secondly, our Constitution says members of the National Assembly who so wish shall elect a President… it does not say you have to come from the majority party. There are those that know that.”
The National Assembly is the nation’s highest legislature whose power to make laws is summarized in chapter one, section four of the 1999 Constitution.It consists of 109 senators: the 36 states are each divided into three senatorial districts each electing one senator; the Federal Capital Territory elects only one senator.The president of the Senate is its presiding officer, whose chief function is to guide and regulate the proceedings. The Senate president is third in the Nigerian presidential line of succession. The Deputy President of the Senate assists him.