Things appear to be falling apart for the leadership of the Senate as the once united chamber splits over reordering of election sequence, SOLOMON AYADO writes
Since the adoption of the amendment of the election sequence by the National Assembly conference committee, Nigerians have been wondering what rationale is behind the legislative action, due largely to evidence of conduct of previous elections in same order by past electoral bodies, same as the contentious sequence recently released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The polity became heated immediately, resulting to dexterous power play by concerned political stakeholders.
Adopting the alteration at a time the conduct of election is barely a year to the 2019 general elections which is a period expected for the conduct of the general poll in the country, there are mixed reactions, agitations and counter-agitations as to whether the legislative exercise is constitutional and/or a mere political gimmick to achieve some hidden motives.
The two chambers of the National Assembly- the Senate and House of Representatives, have not taken their legislative responsibilities for granted. It ensured that the electoral amendment was passed.
Before now, the lawmakers in the lower chamber had amended the Electoral Act 2010, awaiting the Senate to reconcile the amended electoral bill while considering the report of the House Committee on Electoral Matters.
The Senate had, in 2017, passed an amended version of the 2010 Electoral Act. The House of Representatives equally passed an amendment to the Electoral Act to change the order of 2019 general elections' time table.
Quickly, the Upper Chamber constituted a committee led by chairman of the Senate Committee on the INEC, Senator Suleiman Nazif, to meet with the House of Representatives to harmonise the version of the amended electoral bill before it will be finally sent to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.
In the amendment, Section 25 of the Principal Act was substituted with a new section 25 (1). According to the section, the elections shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly election (b) State Houses of Assembly and Governorship elections (c) Presidential election.
Similarly, Section 87 was amended by adding a new section 87 (11) with a marginal note "time for primaries of political parties. The primaries of political parties shall follow the following sequence (i) State House of Assembly (ii) National Assembly (iii) Governorship, and (iv), President".
The amendment held that the dates for the above stated primaries shall not be held earlier than 120 days and not later than 90 days before the date of elections to the offices. Also, Section 36 is amended to allow running mates of candidates who die before the conclusion of elections inherit his votes and continue with the process.
All was harmonized by the joint conference committee before adopting the changes as contained in the House of Representatives version of the amended Electoral Act. The chairman, Senator Suleiman Nazif (APC Bauchi North) had put the matter to vote.The joint committee has 12 members and all of them unanimously voted for the amendment.
Just almost immediately, some obvious questions on the necessity of the exercise came to the fore, begging for cogent answers. Many people questioned the legislative powers of NASS to reorder the election sequence released by INEC which, according to them, is saddled with the constitutional responsibility. But Nazif said the change "does not in anyway violate any provisions of section 76 of the 1999 constitution which empowers INEC to fix dates and conduct elections."
According to Nazif, the powers of INEC to fix elections were duplicated in the bill just as powers conferred on the National Assembly by section 4 (2) of the constitution were exercised in respect of rescheduling of election sequence.
Also, the chairman of the House Committee on INEC, Edward Pwajok insisted that the sequence of election provision in the bill is not targeted at anybody but aimed at further given credibility to the electoral process by way of giving the electorates the opportunity to vote based on individual qualities of candidates vying for National Assembly seat.
Precisely on Wednesday, February 14, 2018, Senate performed consideration of the report on a Bill for an Act to amend the Electoral Act No. 6, 2010 and Electoral Act (Amendment) Act 2015. Chairman of the Joint Committee on INEC, Senator Suleiman Nazif (APC, Bauchi North) presented the report in plenary.
Strangely, the legislative move sparked an uproar and there was rowdiness as some dissenting lawmakers staged a walkout from the chamber. Instantly, there was a split between proponents and opponents of Section 25 of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.
Initially, many senators faulted the presentation by the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Nazif, noting that copies of the reports were not been distributed. But Senate President Bukola Saraki, tactically resolved the matter and asked Nazif to pass the copies around.
As if the storm was over, a more stormy wind blew later when a vote for adoption was raised by Saraki. Some lawmakers openly kicked but Saraki insistently ruled in favour of adoption.
Aggrieved Senators who firstly opposed the adoption were Senators Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa West), Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta), and Kabiru Gaya (APC, Kano), calling for physical counting of lawmakers for or against the new sequence. Still, Saraki ruled them out of order, rather, appealed to them to be statesmanly.
Saraki said: "We will come and go, but the institution will stay. We need to come up with laws that will build strong institutions. Let us not be personal about this. Let us behave like statesmen. We have procedures on some of these things."
Not satisfied, 10 senators were peeved that their argument against the bill was truncated. They angrily walked out of plenary. They are considered to be pro-Buhari Senators. The Senators who staged the walkout alongside Adamu are Abdullahi Yahaya (APC Kebbi North), Ibrahim Kurfi (APC Katsina Central), Abu Ibrahim (APC Katsina South), Abdullahi Gumel (APC Jigawa North), Binta Marshi Garba (APC Adamawa North), Ali Wakil ( APC Bauchi South), Andrew Uchendu (APC River East) and Benjamin Uwajumogu (APC IMO North). They are considered to be pro-Buhari Senators. Describing the amendment and process of its passage as 'illegal', they swore that it would not stand, unless it is reversed.
Leader of the protesting group, Senator Adamu said they already have 59 signatures of Senators against the Act, which has section 25 (1) inserted in it. He said, "Though we are 10 here now, but we can assure you that as at this morning (Wednesday), not less than 59 Senators have expressed their opposition to the illegal sequence of elections included in the Act. Perhaps that was the reason why the Senate president refused to follow due process when report on the Act was to be adopted in the Senate. "Section 25 (1) of the Act reordering the sequence of elections from the one earlier released by INEC last year is a law targeted at an individual which to us is totally in bad faith and will not be allowed to stand."
Among the aggrieved Senators, Senator Binta Marshi Garba, in her submission, believed that the passage was instigated and hurriedly exercised.
Also, Andrew Uchendu (APC, Rivers), said the amendment is a sham. For Senator Omo-Agege, he claimed 59 out of 109 senators were opposed to Section 25 (1) of the amendment, insisting that the leadership of the Senate did not follow due process before adopting the report.
Swiftly, Senator Nazif who is chairman of the electoral amendment committee reacted. Firstly, he noted "politics is dynamic and that laws are reviewed in line with prevailing circumstances." He further dismissed claims that the bill was targeted at the President or any other person.
Meanwhile, the Senate spokesman, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi insisted that section 25(1) of the amended Act and six other core areas of electoral processes were worked upon with the aim of deepening democratic process in the country. "We did it in the best interest of Nigerians and not for any selfish agenda", Sabi said. Asked about Senate's next line of action in the event where the president refuses to assent to the Act, he said, "When we get to the bridge, we shall determine how to cross it ".
Now, after the peeves and protest of some pro-Buhari Senators, Saraki refused to reverse the ruling on the amendment of the election sequence. No one is sure whether the split in the Senate will auger well so that the sequence reorder may eventually stand.
Of course, there are doubts. At the same time, there are predictions that the electoral amendment will stand, even as it awaits assent of the President. But the split of the Senators is worrisome because the political shenanigans following the entire election sequence and other amendments of the Act is a gnaw at everyone's kidneys.
No one can predict right now what exactly may become of the legislative action. Between Saraki, his allied Senators and the Pro-Buhari group, it is not yet established whether what transpired has come to lead the way for any unending apathy in the Red Chamber. In some quarters, there are feelers that the said 59 Senators that opposed the change in election schedule are moving to pass a vote of no confidence on Saraki. Another source said Saraki too is not sitting lamely to allow any machination by the opposing Senators to consume him. Somewhat, the politics in the matter has assumed a notorious dimension.
Asked, for instance, whether any move to impeach Saraki may be anything to ponder, the recent forceful adjournment of plenary on Thursday, February 14, 2018 over a fire outbreak have tersely replied to insinuations that all is not well. The ugly incident occurred less than 24 hours after there was rowdy session in the Red Chamber. The sitting was adjourned till Tuesday, 20th February, 2018 accordingly.
It was gathered that the smoke in the Chamber was caused by an electrical surge in one of the technical rooms situated in the basement of the Senate White House building which resulted to multiple burning of electrical cables. But other sources said the engulfed smoke was masterminded and stage-managed to scuttle plans by Pro-Buhari Senators to pass a vote of no confidence on Senate President Bukola Saraki.
Be that as it may, the Senate is in many ways more divided as it were. Apart from the varied party lines, a polity overheat has really added to the compounding issues, more so that 2019 is by the corner. Already, many Senators are said not to be sure of their return in 2019 and some of them, with their display of ardent protest for election sequence now, is to pave their way through the band wagon effect.
One big question is, can President Buhari assent or veto the proposed electoral amendment Act as adopted by the National Assembly? Now that there are claims that the amendment is targeted at him (Buhari), what becomes of his assent to the Act? And whether assent or not, what is his fate in 2019 especially now that the legislature is obviously aroused? What would be the next line of action by the National Assembly chaired by Saraki? As it stands, if Senate resumes plenary and the unexpected does not happen, it will be more confusing, thereafter.