Published On: Thu, Apr 6th, 2017

Brewing storm in National Assembly over suspension, by Otei Oham

national-assembly

Over a dozen members of the National Assembly have, at different times, since the return of democracy in 1999 been suspended so far from the Senate and House of Representatives.

The prime reason always canvassed by those who pushed for this suspension has been linked to insubordination on the part of the affected members.Yet, those slamming the suspension have hardly paid attention to the implications of their action on the affected members and their constituents, their political career, and the fate of their personal and constituency office workers.Often, these workers are returned to the unemployment space as soon as their bosses are denied representations.

Not long after the proclamation of National Assembly, when democracy returned to the country in May 1999, the Senate suspended Senator Joseph Waku. Evan Enwerem was then the Senate President. Soon after, there was confusion as to whether his first name was Evan or Evans.Before then, Dr. Sidi Ali was suspended from the House of Representatives in the Second Republic after he allegedly pulled a toy gun in the House.

In the reign of former Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim, Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe was booted out of the upper chamber, indefinitely, for allegedly defrauding the Senate to the tune of N22,082,000. The Senate also unanimously in October 2002, passed a resolution handing over the case to the police for detailed investigations.

In a motion, the Senate said in accordance with its rules, Nzeribe was to remain suspended until he supplied evidence that “he has purged himself of his anti-democratic, anti-senatorial and disreputable conduct.”

On June 22, 2010, Senator Dino Melaye, then a member of the House of Representatives, was suspended indefinitely alongside 10 others. The Speaker of the House then was Dimeji Bankole.

Melaye headed for the court to challenge the action of the House. Then a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja and presided over by Justice Adamu Bello nullified the suspension of the lawmaker and other members, who were all members of the ‘Progressive Group’ in the House of Representatives.

The court held that the suspension was unlawful, null and illegal, maintaining that the lawmakers were not granted fair hearing before they were suspended. The action, the court said, breached their constitutional right to fair hearing.While conceding that the legislature is empowered to regulate itself by the provisions of Section 60 of the 1999 Constitution as well as Section 24 of the Legislative Houses, Powers and Privileges Act, Justice Bello noted that the maximum period for the suspension of any member of the legislature as provided in the law is for a period not more than 14 days.

He frowned at the imposition of an indefinite suspension on the plaintiffs and described the action of the House as an ‘arbitrary show of power and the tyranny of the majority.’Melaye had supposedly hailed the judgment then. That was yesterday. Today, indefinite suspension of members is no longer arbitrary and tyrannical. Perhaps, the judgment then was unfair. Perhaps, the circumstances have changed or perhaps, it is the law that has changed. He had also risked being suspended by his colleagues for his alleged friction with the wife of the leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Oluremi Tinubu, few months of becoming a Senator.

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Last year, the House in a commando style, unanimously suspended a supposedly errant member, Abdulmumin Jibrin for 181 legislative days, based on a report that was compiled by Ossai Nicholas Ossai-led Committee on Ethics and Privileges that tried the lawmaker. Days before the suspension, Jibrin was stripped of his position as Chairman of Appropriation Committee of the House.

His offence: Jibrin had immediately the House went on the end of year recess, raised allegations of corruption against Speaker, Yakubu Dogara and several other members including four principal officers whom he accused of diverting whooping sums of money from the N100 billion Constituency fund, contained in the 2016 budget.It was during the scandal that the term, ‘padding’ emerged in the process of budget proposal consideration and passage.

The accused officers, aside Dogara, were his deputy, Yusuf Lasun, the House Whip, Alhassan Doguwa and Minority Leader, Leo Ogor.He did not relent; just as he was being sacked from the House and his office locked up by the management of the National Assembly, Jibrin publicly reeled out more damming allegations against the officials, this time, implicating more members. He wrote to security agencies to wade into the matter.

But he appeared to be alone in the fight. His most conspicuous ally, Mr. Ali Madaki, was allegedly intimidated and hoodwinked to abandon Jibrin. In frustration, Jibrin at a point, fled the country, alleging threats to his life.

Last week, former Senate Leader, Mohammed Ali Ndume was kicked out of the upper legislative chamber for six months, as against the 181 legislative days recommended by the Sam Anyanwu- led committee for alleged non-patriotic act.

Senator Joshua Ledani (PDP), Gombe had attempted to lighten the weight of the punishment on Ndume. He asked that Ndume be simply warned and made to publicly apologize to Saraki and Melaye.It was the appeal by Sen. Matthew Urhoghide (PDP), Edo South that the suspension days be slashed to six months that was eventually adopted by the Senate.

Ndume drew the first blood in a subtle scathing manner when he, in a point of order asked members to investigate newspapers’ publications, which claimed that the Senate insistence to summon the Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali, to appear before Senators was because the Service seized the vehicle of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki.

 

He also requested the Senate to probe an allegation of fake school certificate by Melaye as contained in one of the publications. He claimed that the privileges of members had been breached by the allegations.

Ndume said in the past, former leaders of the National Assembly such as Salisu Buhari, Aminu Bello Masari, Adolphus Wabara, Evan Enwerem and Dimeji Bankole were all investigated when matters like this came up. He therefore, tendered the publications as evidence.

Consequently, deputy president of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, referred the matter to the committee to investigate and report back within a period of four weeks.The findings were hurriedly carried out, with the report of the Senate committee on Ethics and Privileges that conducted the probe, turned in far ahead of time. It absolved Saraki and Melaye of the charges, and recommended the suspension of Ndume.

Analysts have attempted to reconcile 181 legislative days suspension with the six months, recommended by the report on Ndume. If they do not include days of recess, public holidays and Mondays and Friday that the Senators do not sit in plenary, the 181 days would not elapsed in one calendar year.

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This insists the House Chairman on Public Accounts, Kingsley Chinda, means that the affected member would then be deprived the opportunity to represent his or her people who had duly elected him or her.

“Beyond this, other implications are that, suspension will dent his or her image and might affect his or her future political career,” he maintained.Going by the analysis of presidential adviser on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang, when he was a member of House of Representatives, that Mondays and Fridays are to be regarded as legislative days due to committee meetings held on those days, the 181 days ban might not last up to one year.

Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) and Chief Femi Falana (SAN) have separately disagreed over the powers of the Senate to suspend members, including powers to bar officials of government from holding office. As director general, Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai was banned from holding public office for 10 years by the House of Representatives.

The House has also recently asked Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Mrs. Jamila Shu’ara to vacate office forthwith, with a claim that she has exceeded the 35- year service requirement in office. This is notwithstanding the purported endorsement of the tenure extension granted her by President Muhammadu Buhari.

In an interview, Ozekhome said there was nothing wrong in the two chambers of the National Assembly regulating the activities of members and that of public office holders, such as insisting that Ali appeared before the Senate in customs uniform.

He explained that Rule 31 of the Customs Act requires all customs officers to wear uniform, recalling that Osita Chidoka as civilian wore the uniform of Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) as soon as he assumed office. He also recalled that late Emeka Okere as colonel wore the uniform of Sergeant-At-Arms (SAA) of National Assembly, not minding his military rank.

The Senior Advocate of Nigeria said it was wrong for Col. Ali to clad himself in agbada when zonal Comptroller Generals are in uniform. He added that sections 4, 5, 6,7 and 8 of the Legislative Houses Powers and Privileges Act empowers the legislature to summon any Nigerian of whatever class or status to appear and request for documents to aid its investigation.

He said those insisting that the Senate in the case Ali, had no powers to compel the appearance of the customs boss, in a manner it deems fit, are clearly ‘misleading Nigerians and attempting to castrate the Senate and rob it of its constitutional powers. The Senate is a chamber of the National Assembly, which is a separate arm with mandate to regulate itself and ensure that members do not denigrate the institution.

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In a media chat, a lecturer with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Prof. Aloysius Okolie applauded the Senate for suspending Ndume. The university don said the Senator should have investigated the claims before making allegations, saying his failure to do so amounted to blackmail.

On his part, Falana said the parliament does not have powers to investigate libel and reject confirmations of nominees. For him, only the courts do. He said nomination of the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu is constitutionally not required to go through Senate screening and that no law limited the number of times the President could seek confirmation of nominees.

He cited instances where former President Olusegun Obasanjo insisted on the confirmation of Babalola Borisade as minister of Aviation, even after the nomination was rejected three times by the Senate. The other instance, he said was Obasanjo’s insistence on the confirmation of Chief Onyema Ugochukwu as chairman of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

Falana said rather than pretend to be regulating its affairs by unilaterally resisting opposition and sacking members that are duly elected by their people, Senators had a choice of going to court if any of them felt he or she has been libeled.

He advised constituents of lawmakers that have been suspended to go to court and complain of denial of representation.Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER) supports the position of Falana. In a statement by the group’s executive director, Frank Tietie, CASER described the Senate’s suspension of Ndume as a violation of Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which guarantees the right to hold an opinion and to express it.

He said the suspension amounted to gross intolerance on the part of majority of Nigerian Senators and threatened to drag the Nigerian Senate to court if it fails within 48 hours to rescind the suspension.

His words: “It amounts to crass intolerance on the part of majority of Nigerian Senators whose many governmental sins and political foibles have many times been overlooked by Nigerians, yet the same senators have chosen to come down hard on one of their own for exercising his right to hold an opinion to which he is entitled under the Constitution to so freely express.

“CASER therefore posits that the action of the Nigerian Senators is a misapplication of Section 21 of the Legislative Houses Powers and Privileges Act. The use of suspension as a means of punishing a perceived erring legislative house member is a very serious matter since it touches on the right of a citizen in a participative democracy to be represented in governance through the National Assembly.

“The Senators ought to have given more consideration to the interest of the people of Borno South by choosing to simply express their reservations on the matter, rather than moving to deprive the people of their right to be represented by suspending the Senator representing a people of a Senatorial district.”

Source: The Guardian

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