Buhari’s Yes Chamber?

There are concerns that despite assurances of leaders of the ninth National Assembly the legislature may be too submissive to the executive that it may shirk its traditional role of keeping the government on its toes

As soon as the leadership of the 9th Senate was inaugurated on June 11, Ahmed Lawan, the newly elected President of the Senate and Ovie Omo-Agege his deputy, went straight to the Presidential Villa where President Muhammadu Buhari was waiting to receive them. After the visit, they told reporters that it was a “Thank you” visit.

But the move led to speculations about how the 9th National Assembly would relate with the executive. While the visit may have been routine courtesy between two arms of government, a viral video of the new deputy senate president kneeling to greet President Buhari is seen by many as an indication of what the relationship between a submissive Senate and the presidency would be- a ‘Yes’ chamber genuflecting to the presidency. 

Although this need not be so. The legislature can maintain its independence without behaving as an adversary of the executive. But this could only happen if the legislators stand on the oath they took to serve in the interest of the country.

Femi Gbajabiamila, the House of Representatives Speaker and his deputy, Ahmad Wase also went to the villa to ‘thank” the president for his support and to pledge the cooperation of the legislators.

However, Lawan and Gbajabiamila have both rejected the notion that their leadership would be a rubber stamp for the executive. In their acceptance speeches as senate president and speaker, both acknowledged the ‘myriad of problems” confronting the country and the expectations of Nigerians on the national assembly.  Gbajabiamila even went further to give a hint of what Nigerians should expect from his leadership.

He said: “The 9th Assembly under my leadership is going to be a House of reforms or if you like a reform Assembly. The reforms will be dished out piecemeal and at intervals so as not to shock the system.  Moving forward, therefore, my dear colleagues, it will not be business as usual and we will be shaking the table just a little.”

But so far there is nothing yet to show that the 9th national assembly would show vibrancy and put the executive on it toes. For instance, while many of the legislators in the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, speak to reporters off-the-record about why Buhari needed to quickly release the list of his next cabinet before their resumption on July 2, no one, including the leadership, has gone on tape to urge the president to do so.

Many papers carried reports of senators and House of Reps members giving reasons why the president was expected to submit his list of ministers to the Senate before last week’s resumption. But up till press time, the much-anticipated list had still not surfaced. Yet everyone seemed to see the situation of the country as an emergency, which required a sense of immediacy on the part of the executive.

PRESIDENT BUHARI RECEIVES NEW SP AHMED AND DSP OMO-AGEGE 2A. L-R;  President Muhammadu Buhari in a handshake with The newly elected Senate President Senator Lawan Ahmed accompanied by the Deputy Senate President Senator Ovie Omo-Agege  at the Residence State House in Abuja. PHOTO; SUNDAY AGHAEZE. JUNE 11 2019
PRESIDENT BUHARI RECEIVES NEW SENATE PRESIDENT AHMED AND DSP OMO-AGEGE 2A. L-R; President Muhammadu Buhari in a handshake with The newly elected Senate President Senator Lawan Ahmed accompanied by the Deputy Senate President Senator Ovie Omo-Agege at the Residence State House in Abuja. PHOTO; SUNDAY AGHAEZE. JUNE 11 2019

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Could it be a sign of timidity or the loss of independence that the lawmakers have failed to call out the president on the issue? If the legislature cannot call on the presidency to do the right thing, how would it be able to perform the more critical task of screening ministerial nominees?

The APC has 64 members out of 109 senators while the opposition holds the rest with PDP having 41.  This would mean that the APC has a simple majority, though it may not be in the position to push through major bills on its own, which may require a two-third majority. This would make the opposition relevant to any legislative agenda.

But having control of both chambers of the national assembly would undoubtedly ease the working relationship between the legislature and the executive-a relationship that was contentious during the 8th national assembly under Bukola Saraki.

It is an advantage, which may yet prove a challenge for the Buhari administration, which blamed its first-term failures on the miss-governance of the administrations before it and the adversarial disposition of the last legislature where the opposition was strong enough to produce the deputy senate president, Ike Ekwerenmadu.

Now the executive has no such excuse as it practically installed the current leadership of NASS. Both Lawan and Gbajabiamila were anointed candidates of the party and that of the president. The party and the presidency lobbied governors and the legislators to ensure they were voted as the leaders of NASS.

Since it now has control of both chambers of the legislature, there is no reason why the government would not be able to push any of its agenda as it relates to election promises to the electorate.

But the administration would have to show purposeful leadership if it hopes to take advantage of its position in the national assembly. A lack of supermajority by the ruling party in the Senate is expected to make it less docile and help promote legislative independence. The ruling party needs the opposition, at least some numbers, to get through its agenda.

But this would also not be difficult if Lawan and Gbajabiamila keep to their promises to run an inclusive administration, which gives headship of some important committees to the opposition. After their inauguration, leaders of both chambers understandably promised to lead with the support of opposition members.

They were elected with the support of many opposition members who defied the directives of their parties to vote for them. The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, told its members in the Senate and House of Reps not to support the anointed candidates of the APC. It asked them to vote for Ali Ndume in the Senate and Mohammed Bago at the House of Reps.

The results of the elections for the principal officers of the national assembly shocked the PDP. Lawan scored 79 votes while Ndume polled 28 votes out of the 107, a figure which showed that a sizeable number of PDP members voted for the new Senate President, against the directive of their party. A similar scenario played out in the second chamber of the national assembly. In the House of Reps, while Gbajabiamila needed only 181 votes to become speaker, he got 283 votes to defeat Bago who scored 76.

The overwhelming victory of Lawan and Gbajabiamila riled the PDP leadership, which saw it as a betrayal of the party by the legislators. A press statement signed by Kola Ologbodiyan, national publicity secretary of the opposition party, last week, said the party was poised to probe the betrayal.

But for many Nigerians, the only way the national assembly leadership can show it is not a rubber stamp legislature is to make the executive accountable by asking relevant questions and initiating radical bills aimed at bringing about transformation in the system.

National Chairman of the Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP, Ikenga Ugochinyere, says the country is going through rough times and the legislature must check the executive to ensure good governance.

“They should prove that they are not Hallelluyah boys to the president. I’m not saying fight him. Prove that you’re on the side of effective transparency and monitoring. How would they do it? The rules of checks and balances are there. Checkmate the executive. Over one billion naira has been spent on security and we’re not seeing results. Bandits have taken over our country. Let them get into that. Investigate the service chiefs and if they’re found culpable, they should recommend their removal.” he said.

Ikenga told TELL that the legislature should also send back the amended electoral act to the President for his assent instead of ‘wasting time’ on a new one. “After the president’s assent, it could be further amended.”

But President, Voters Awareness Initiative, Wale Ogunade disagrees with him. Ogunade wants the 9th assembly to take a “deep look” at the electoral act and use relevant recommendations of the electoral reform panel.

Others who have expressed their views on what should be the pre-occupation of the new assembly include activist and lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba, who wants the legislature to ensure devolution of power to states.

He said: “The first item of business should be a bill for an enactment to devolve powers to the states from the Federal Government and the next most important is to legislate for autonomy of local governments and third is to pass a special bill on economic recovery with major emphasis on banking regulation to fix interest rates in single digits and finally, a bill to create a national credit guarantee administration to support private sector borrowing backed by government guarantees.”

Neither of the two chambers has revealed its legislative agenda yet. But many Nigerians expect the current legislature to be on the side of the Nigerian people in their yearning for good governance, security, economic development, and social welfare.

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