Today, Nigeria's federal bi-cameral legislature, the National Assembly, begins another parliamentary journey 20 years after the country's return to multi-party democracy. Look back in time, the two chambers of the legislature have their separate share of sad and mournful tales to tell about their progress, especially regarding their overall image, legislative performance, and general behaviour and comportment of lawmakers.
As usual, the main business in today's proceedings in both chambers is election of presiding and principal officers. In the previous sessions, especially 1999, 2003, 2011 and 2015, the process of electing the leaders of National Assembly were enmeshed in controversies and recriminations that ended in truncated tenures.
The election of Senate President and Speaker of House of Representatives in 2915 has continued to serve as a backcloth of how attempts to interfere in what is actually and primarily the internal business of the lawmakers ended up hurting governance.
Although Yakubu Dogara and Dr. Bukola Saraki completed their tenures as immediate past Speaker of the House of Representatives and president of Senate respectively, the scars of the infighting remain as part of the life story of the current administration. The NASS election of principal officers in 2015, which marked the fourth cycle of such elections that capped up the 20 years of Nigeria's democracy, mirrors that of 1999, when the practice of executive intrusion started.
Both the former Speaker Alhaji Salisu Buhari and Senate President Evan(s) Enwerem, who received the anointing of the presidency did not last long on their seats.
Salisu Buhari was forced to resign from office for falsifying his age in breach of section 65(1) of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulated (until recently amended in the Not-Too-Young-Run Act) the ineligibility of anyone below the age of 30 from running for membership of the House of Representatives.
While he was born in 1970, Buhari falsified his date of birth as 1963 as well as falsely claiming to have studied in Toronto University. The scandal blew open six weeks after his inauguration.
Also, Enwerem was impeached on November 8, 2000 for alleged discrepancies in his name and sundry corrupt offences and Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, who was the popular choice of other senators, also kissed the dust for accusations of anticipatory approvals.
As the upper legislative chamber witnessed some reprieve and leadership stability under Senator David Mark, despite the crooked emergence of Aminu Tambuwal as Speaker and Emeka Ihedioha as his deputy, one other principal officer that left the office of speaker under unsavoury conditions was the first female speaker, Mrs. Patricia Etteh.
Against this background of influenced election of principal officers, some stakeholders, particularly the lawmakers, decided to voice their concerns and sound a note of caution to the members-elect of the 9th National Assembly being inaugurated today. Most observers worry that the alleged conviction of one of the frontrunners in the speakership contest, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila by a United States jury could be a possible precursor to likely replay of the Salisu Buhari era in the event that the member representing Surulere 1 in the House of Representatives gets elected.
While some observers hold that the incessant squabbles between the legislature and the executive could be traced to the attempt by the presidency to influence the election of National Assembly leaders, others insist that a tainted legislature undermines good governance and democracy.
Ahead of today's inauguration of the 9th National Assembly, some senators have therefore taken time to caution on relationship with the executive arm of government that could spell doom for the legislature. Some of the issues they raise include the independence of the legislature, executive impunity, abuse of parliamentary privileges, disregard for motions and laws passed by the National Assembly as well as abuse of the judiciary.
Former Senate Leader and aspirant for the position of Senate President, Mohammed Ali Ndume, was among the first to draw the attention of Senators to imminent danger to the 9th National Assembly over possible collapse of its independence. Ndume called on his colleagues to be ready to stand firm against forces that might work against the independence of the upper chamber. He noted that the legislature would be worthless if it loses its independence, adding that what differentiates democracy from a military government is the existence of the independence of parliament.
While urging his colleagues to see the legislature as the symbol of democracy, which must be protected at all cost, Ndume stated: "We had loads of disagreements. I respect your resilience and your ability to stand for what you believe in. We started together and we were doing fine. What happened was part of the learning process.
"My concern is the independence of this arm of government. That is not to say we must not work with the other side. I see a dangerous thing coming. The only thing that makes democracy different from the military is the parliament. We need to ensure the independence of the parliament."
Ndume said if the independence of the parliament is taken away, what remains is not democracy, stressing, "I am one of those that were controversial in the last four years. Within the process, we may have offended one another. I take nothing personal.
"This institution is very important. Let us protect the sanctity and safety. This is the Nigerian Senate. There is no APC or PDP Senate. This is the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
However, Senator Dino Melaye, (PDP - Kogi West) bluntly narrated his experience regarding the worsening executive/legislature relationship in Nigeria, particularly since 2015. While speaking at the Valedictory Session of the 8th Senate, Melaye declared: "I am here to thank God because in 2017, I was arrested eight times. In 2018, I was arrested 18 times, and out of 365 days in 2018, I spent 124 in police custody. I campaigned only four days to the 2019 election.
"I want to thank God Almighty, who is the supreme controller of the universe, for being alive and sitting here today. You will recall severally, Mr. President, I addressed you as the irremovable president of the Nigerian Senate when cankerworms and caterpillars arose against thee, when the seat of power took you to Code of Conduct Bureau, when the state petitioned you and took you to the courts and established a case of forgery against you.
"Today Mr. President, you are not just completing your term but you are going to have a glorious exit against the machinations of some demons. I congratulate you. And to my surprise, many of those who orchestrated your removal, downfall, on this floor, called you their mentor. Mr. President, it is your time to laugh.
"I have every cause to glorify God who is above every other man. Last year, I was arraigned in 12 different courts but here am I standing and returned undisputedly as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And I say to God alone be the glory forever and ever."
Melaye outlined what he called two historical days he would never forget in the history of the 8th Senate. He said: "One is a day of joy and merriment; the other is a day of sorrow and pain. The day of joy and merriment was the day one single Nigerian with multiple competences, one man who is indoctrinated with the art of civil administration and the rudiments of politics, intellectually mobile and administratively sagacious - I am talking about the day Abubakar Bukola Saraki became the President of the Nigerian Senate. And my elder brother and intellectual bank of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, became the Deputy President of the Nigerian Senate.
"My day of sadness, weeping was the day my own colleague, Ovie Omo-Agege, led dissidents, thugs to desecrate the chamber of the Nigerian Senate. It was the day he led criminals to move the symbol of authority out of the sacred chamber of the Senate. And just like the Bible said, Jesus wept. That day, I wept."
Melaye advised senators that once you take the oath of office, you cease to represent your political party, religious organisation, or a cabal on this platform, adding, "We must know that in the 9th Assembly, fortunately or unfortunately, some of us are going to be there. We will continue to work without fear or favour that Nigeria shall be ahead of any political permutation, presidential or gubernatorial, party permutation. Nigeria shall come first before any selfish interest. And we will stand by that and continue to speak the truth not minding whose ox is gored.
"You have another opportunity to prove that you are truly a Nigerian, because no Nigerian is more Nigerian than any other Nigerian. We must prove that we are here on behalf of the people. And we must continue to do only those things that will promote the unity and prosperity of Nigeria.
"Enough of presidential orders, enough of party directives. Any order that is contrary to the progress, unity and prosperity of Nigeria should not be entertained on the floor of the Senate."
Loopholes, failings and breaches
Former Chief Whip of the Senate, Olushola Adeyeye, warned the 9th Senate against the blunders of the 8th senate, especially that of extortion of monies during oversight. Adeyeye disclosed that the 8th Senate failed in strict adherence to the rules guiding the chambers, saying as parliamentarians, they did not live by example, even as he pointedly indicated that Senators did not maintain integrity at oversight functions.
He added: "The rule forbids us to extort money during oversight functions, but that was never so as each time Senators went on oversight activities. Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, we must tell ourselves the truth and I wish this should not repeat itself in the 9th Senate which some of you are returning.
"Our rule tells us not to extort money during oversight functions to Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, but today what are we saying? I hope this must not repeat in the 9th Senate for those who are returning."
Adeyeye expressed disappointment that they did not do a good job with oversight, adding,
"Since I got here, repeatedly announcements were made that oversights should not be used for extortion. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. Till now, two years in a row, NAFDAC budget has not been passed for no other reason than interplay of strong men in the corridors of power."
He regretted that while some senators were never punctual, most don't attend plenary scheduled for 10.00am as stipulated in the rule book, stressing: "Often times, we will get here at 10 but if we want to start we will not form a quorum. The Nigerian National Assembly, beginning with the Senate, must set the example that 10.00am means 10.00am. At a times we tried it for three to four months then we went back."
While faulting the 8th Senate for electing a first timer as Minority Leader (Senator Godswill Akpabio), Adeyeye recalled that it was the first time in the history of the nation's democracy, lamenting that the interplay of ethnicity produced a first timer as Minority Lleader in 2015. He therefore urged the 9th Senate to stop electing first timers as principal officers, saying that the offices require lawmakers with experience.
His words: "In 2015, I recall that there was interplay of ethnic politics that produced a first timer as a Minority leader. It should not repeat itself because it is against the rules of the Senate."
Deputy Senate President, Ekweremadu, noted with glee that even in the face of problems, the senators stood together as a senate, adding, "We are mindful of the institution and, of course, our loyalty was to the people of Nigeria. As a matter of fact, there were plans to overthrow this senate by force, but there are some people here, in spite of the political divide, they stood their ground. I thank them for their courage, for standing by the truth. This has shown that there are still men of good will in this country."
He praised his colleagues in PDP who, despite all the traumas, the persecutions, stood by democracy, the rule of law and committed themselves to the institutions, saying, "You are the heroes of the 8th Senate!"
With the background of five previous sessions, the 9th National Assembly should recognise that there would be no excuses for failure or room for petty quarrels and flip-flops. What happens at the Green and Red chambers will show how far the lawmakers, as good wine, have matured as Nigeria's democracy ages.