As a stakeholder in the Nigeria Project and member of the Nigerian 6th senate from 2007 to 2011, I am not only passionate but also very concerned about every step that is taken to strengthen the senate. It is one mission that has tasked the ingenuity of successive senate presidents since 1999. I keenly observed, in 1999, how the late Senator Chuba Okadigbo glamourised the position, deploying his flamboyance, panache and intellectual magnitude.
Okadigbo preached respect for independence in the relationship between and among the trinity of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Although his presidency of the Senate was short-lived, he succeeded in redefining the course of legislature-executive relationship in the right direction. Whereas, the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo, had envisioned a legislature that would always genuflect at the table of the executive for handouts, Okadigbo’s temperament would not allow the legislature to kowtow to the imperial lordship of Obasanjo.
The fourth session of the National Assembly was, no doubt, rambunctious. The individualities of the presiding officers made it so. Okadigbo had a strong ally in the speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba, who also and rightly refused to compromise the integrity and independence of the lower chamber. With the support of a vast majority of house members, he was able to survive the executive onslaught to remove him.
Anyim Pius Anyim, who replaced Okadigbo as senate president, tried his best to step into Okadigbo’s shoes, after he experienced early into his senate presidency that he was not going to survive if he continued to pander to Obasanjo’s diktats. He broke away and defined his eon through a fight that cost him his return ticket to the senate. Na’Abba understandably did not also return in 2003. Obasanjo worked against their return.
In the fifth Senate, Obasanjo had tried his hand on the old trick by ensuring the imposition of Adolphus Wabara as senate president. Wabara walked a delicate balance, trying to satisfy his colleagues and at the same time Obasanjo’s presidency. He was eventually sacrificed on the altar of some selfish political expediencies and calculations ahead of 2007 presidential elections.
But Kenechukwu Nnamani, who benefitted from the leadership vacancy, approached his assignment with a clear focus and determination to ensure legislative due process in the administration of the Senate. That was the fulcrum around which he presided over the death of Obasanjo’s ignoble tenure elongation or Third Term agenda in 2006, and thereby strengthened the senate as an institution.
Significantly, the era of the late Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan was devoid of the characteristic ballyhoo that had defined the relationship between the executive and the legislature in a greater part of the fourth republic democracy. But it is important to note that David Mark, who stepped in as senate president from 2007 to 2015, redefined the concept of legislative leadership. It is to his credit, for instance, that he stabilised the Senate. He ensured a rapprochement between the Presidency and the National Assembly.
The Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration respected the independence of the legislature and did not overtly breathe down its neck in a conscious effort to influence its leadership choices. Recall that the Doctrine of Necessity that eventually led to the emergence of Jonathan as president in 2010, following the incapacitation of Yar’Adua and before his death, was a product of a robust executive/legislature relationship under Mark’s leadership.
I have taken time to provide this brief background in order to situate in proper context the philosophical motivation behind the political and legislative exertions of the incumbent senate president, Dr. Bukola Saraki. It is clear that Saraki believes in the independence of the legislature. Having been in the Senate from 2011 to 2015, he had sufficiently bided his time and decided to take his chance in the race for the senate top position in 2015.
Despite the decision of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) which curiously aligned with President Muhamamdu Buhari to guide the position of senate president to Senator Ahmad Lawan from Yobe, Saraki and some senators had felt righteous indignation to the move by outside forces to determine for the senate who should be its president. For the Saraki group, that was not how to build an independent senate that would enjoy the respect of the executive.
In order to save the senate from becoming compromised and ridiculously tied to the apron string of the presidency, or becoming an extension of the executive arm of government, the process of producing the leadership must be revolutionary. That was largely what informed the brinkmanship that characterised Saraki’s historic emergence as senate president on June 9, 2015.
Saraki had strategically built an alliance with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to produce Senator Ike Ekweremadu of the PDP as deputy senate president. By that singular political legerdemain, Saraki upended the calculations by the APC leadership and the presidency to install their preferred candidate as senate president. It could only have taken a politically sharp and sagacious mind to pull through that kind of stunt.
To be sure, that was Saraki’s original sin for which he was hoisted with his own petards of false asset declaration and the Offa robbery saga. He had already secured an emphatic victory at the Supreme Court in the false assets declaration case filed against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The Police authorities against whom he had a running disagreement over the insecurity in the polity are propping up the Offa robbery saga as their trump card to dent the Saraki persona.
The agents of the executive arm of government have consistently treated Saraki and the senate with contempt. It is a carryover of belligerence arising from the grudge battle from which the Saraki senate presidency emerged. The Comptroller General of Customs, Hamid Alli, and the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, had rebuffed sundry directives by the senate. President Buhari himself had openly criticized many members of the National Assembly as redundant.
The entire scenario questions, in the main, the capacity of the executive and its agencies to understand the dynamics of politics and administration. Whereas, they relate with Saraki as an enemy who must be defeated, many of us, especially non-serving senators, do not see Saraki from the prism of a felon which is what they want to achieve. We see him as a force that is exerting itself to build the institution of the senate in terms of its independence and ability to stand up to the executive excesses, impunity and rascality. And there is no doubt, at all, that he (Saraki) is garnering tremendous support and solidarity by the day from the Nigerian Senators Forum, NSF.
This is how to galvanise a common front to confront our burgeoning civilian dictatorship. Saraki exemplifies the very spirit that emboldened the likes of Okadigbo, Anyim, Nnamani and Na’Abba to confront the seeming dictatorship of Obasanjo. Incidentally, Buhari, like Obasanjo, also has anti-democratic temperament defined by military background that feeds dictatorial tendencies. It is in the light of the current opposition by Saraki that the Ilorin-born Senator should be essentially appraised.
He has put his nose to the grindstone at the expense of his personal comfort to defend and strengthen the independence of the senate. In the process, the institution is strengthened as a guaranteed rampart for good governance anchored on accountability through legislative oversight of executive management of our public finance, despite the compromises by some of its members who are in bed with the presidency.
The Saraki exemplar is the progressive trajectory for conscionable leadership of the legislature to tread, now and in future. He has taken the right decision and all well-meaning Nigerians and lovers of democracy and good governance should support the idea and readiness at all times to confront executive recklessness. By so doing, the senate will be strengthened and its independence guaranteed for posterity.