Nigeria: Politics in the National Assembly

7 December 2019

Saturday comment2

Ifedayo Jimoh gives an insider account of an election deal in parliament

Upon the inauguration of the Ninth National Assembly on 11th June, 2019, its two legislative chambers had since taken off with the impression of serving Nigerians better than ever before.

Indeed, the Senate and the House of Representatives had quickly packaged and launched their legislative schedules called legislative agenda to guide their activities for the next four years. Also, the ever quiet and very important engine room of the legislature, which is the Management of the National Assembly, has more than ever been re-energized and refocused to service the political arm of the National Assembly.

It follows therefore that if the ninth National Assembly must perform better than its predecessors, its leadership and management must ensure a smoother working relationship than had ever been experienced.

In the task to actualize the legislative agenda, the President of the Senate, who doubles as the chairman of the joint session of the National Assembly, must go the extra mile to remove any perceived stain capable of negatively affecting the smooth working relationship with the either the Speaker of the House of Representatives or even the Clerk to the National Assembly.

Specifically, the unique and competitive political scenarios that gave birth to the leadership of the ninth National Assembly makes it extremely important that all pre-inauguration politics and the bitterness that came with it be immediately buried in the best interest of the assembly.

Observers of events in the National Assembly have since drawn attention to persistent rumour and speculation about a perceived frosty relationship between Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Clerk to the National Assembly, Mohammed Ataba Sani-Omolori. Some of those reports even attributed the alleged frosty relationship to the perceived role played by the clerk during the election of Lawan as Senate president.

Recall that but for the swift display of administrative and professional maturity by Omolori, the inauguration of the ninth National Assembly, particularly the Senate, would have been derailed as political contenders had deployed every means to outwit one another even to the detriment of a smooth inauguration and election of the Senate President.

Reports had it that due to the tension and apprehension that greeted the campaigns for the election of the senate president, President Muhammadu Buhari had to invite Omolori to the Presidential Villa for briefing on how the clerk intended to handle the election without problems.

It was reported then that Omolori had told the president that the only way out is to comply strictly with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended as well as the 2015 edition of the Standing Rule of the Senate.

This was exactly what was done to avert the serious constitutional crisis that could have produced grave consequences for Nigeria's democracy. The clerk was able to achieve this because a court order procured by one of the parties failed to be served on him.

Senator Jibrin Barau (Kano North) had obtained a court order to halt the open balloting process for the conduct of the Senate leadership elections on June 11.

Justice O.A. Musa of Court 13 of the FCT High Court sitting in Bwari had granted an interim injunction restraining the clerk to the National Assembly, the clerk of the senate and the sergeant at arms to the senate and others from relying or enforcing the senate standing orders 2015 (as amended) in the conduct of election of presiding officers of the senate of the ninth assembly, pending the determination of this suit.

The court however ordered the Senate to apply its standing Rule 2011 (as amended) which prescribed the use of open ballot rather than secret ballot method in the election of its presiding officers.

· Lawan and former Senate majority leader, Mohammed Ali Ndume, were the contenders in the senate presidency race. Senator Barau was in Lawan's camp which wanted the open balloting while Senator Ndume's camp believed in secret balloting.

It was learnt then that, Senator Ndume's camp had also obtained a counter order from the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja even before 10am when inauguration of the ninth senate was to begin. Ndume's supporters would have presented a "stay of execution order" to the clerk to the National Assembly.

When Omolori announced that the elections of the senate president and his deputy would be conducted in line with Orders 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the 2015 Senate Standing Orders (Rule Book), rumble ensued in the chamber by those opposed to secret balloting.

Jibrin and Ovie Omo-Agege (now the deputy senate president) led a protest against the use of the 2015 Senate Rule arguing that the rule had been set aside by a court injunctions granted by the Abuja High Court on Monday.

Specifically, Senator Barau shouting on top of his voice, asked Omolori on whether he was aware of the court order or not, to which the clerk responded thus: "I will answer the question from you out of respect. I heard about the court order but not served.

"May I appeal to all the distinguished Senators - elect that the guiding principle here is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Senate Rule book as amended. "Provisions in the rule book as regards how to conduct today's election are very clear and that is what we shall comply with".

Senator Barau's protest was countered by advocates of secret ballot method led by the PDP senators and the development degenerated into a rowdy session which lasted for about five minutes.

To restore order, Omolori had to take charge by dishing out warning to the effect that any senator who asks a question again would be sent out of the chamber.

"No question shall be entertained and no motion shall emerge. None of you have a voice here now until you are sworn-in. But for a matter of respect, I think the question is whether I entertain any court order or not and the answer is no. " Omolori said. This was how absolute calmness returned to the chamber and the election was subsequently conducted peacefully.

A former presiding Officer of the National Assembly, who had been observing developments since the inauguration of the ninth National Assembly advised that because the elections have since gone, the sentiments associated to that election should be dropped in the best interest of the assembly.

He said the rumour of threats to remove Omolori at all cost and by all means should be dropped.

"Look! All these harassment should stop because the clerk only did the needful; his role that day gave legitimacy to the emergence of the Senate President. It was keenly contested and won by the popular candidate with strict compliance to the senate rules. The clerk should rather be celebrated and saluted for his courage to do what was upright for the institution and nation at large by averting any constitutional logjam," he added.

Perhaps, it may be important to enlighten ourselves on some of the roles of the National Assembly clerk who functions as the de-facto Chief Executive officer of the Legislature and oversees the entire administration of the legislature in accordance with the constitution and standing rules of the assembly.

The clerk has a statutory role to sign copies of laws passed by the National Assembly before transmitting same to Mr. President for his assent. As stated earlier, it is the clerk who has the responsibility to inaugurate a new parliament after the proclamation by the president by conducting elections of the presiding officers in National Assembly.

And because of these special functions, the clerk must always be in smooth working relationship with the presiding officers and members who see him/her as guardian in the application of the rules of parliament.

In furtherance to the exercise of his duties, the clerk meets regularly with the presiding officers to resolve any dispute arising in the application of the rules that guide the conduct of affairs in relation to members or staff of the legislature.

The clerk also approves the appointment of staff nominated by members to work as legislative aides through the National Assembly Service Commission.

As accounting officer of the National Assembly, he is the authorizing officer for all financial transactions including the recommendations and/or approvals to members by the presiding officers.

Though the accounts of the Senate and House of Representatives are different from that of the management, no member can process payment in the National Assembly without the endorsement of the clerk. This means that even when the members secure approvals for their entitlements, such approvals will be forwarded to the clerk as accounting officer to authorize the payment.

.Jimoh, wrote from Abuja

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