By Ehichioya Ezomon
It’s good to see Senate President Godswill Akpabio putting ice on the “plenary spat” between him and Senate Chief Whip Ali Ndume on October 17, 2023.
The disruption the rowdiness could’ve caused was timely averted with the Senate going into an executive (a closed-door) session. Akpabio – (APC, Akwa Ibom West) and former Governor of Akwa Ibom State – told State House reporters in Abuja on October 18 – after he met with President Bola Tinubu – that members of the upper chamber of the National Assembly (NASS) won’t throw chairs to iron out disagreements.
His words: “In the parliament, sometimes you disagree to agree. We are all working in one accord. There is no problem at all. Even if some people disagree on some of the happenings in the Senate, still, it is the majority decision that is going to prevail.
“But we will never get to a point of throwing chairs. The Senate is too mature, full of mature people. So, if we have a disagreement, we immediately go into a closed session, resolve it and come out smiling.
“We are politicians, no permanent hatred but permanent interest. That interest is the interest of the nation, to support the President, his administration in legislation, oversights functions to succeed, in order to move the country forward.”
Surely, politicians may have no permanent hatred, yet, their permanent interest equates self-interest that fuels disagreements at plenary, and disruption of the parliament therefrom.
His confidence aside, Akpabio should watch it, as the counts mount against his four-month gaveling at the Senate leadership that he assumed because Ndume (APC, Borno South) pulled the chestnuts out of the fire – amid a campaign to pit the North against the South.
Ahead of inauguration of NASS in June 2023, Ndume, former Senate Leader in the 8th Senate, was an early bird for the Senate President, but dropped his bid and became Akpabio’s campaign manager when agitation for rotation of the seat to the South won the day.
Ndume’s gesture was against the aspiration of former Zamfara State Governor Abdulaziz Yari (APC, Zamfara West), who – counting on the numerical strength of Northern senators – made Akpabio and the Presidency to sweat on election day despite all stops pulled by Tinubu for Akpabio, who defeated Yari by 63 votes to 46 votes in the 109-member Senate.
So, Akpabio should be mindful, as tension builds among senators – even before Senate’s resumption from long vacation in September -over his handling of procedural matters and others affecting his colleagues – who may exit from executive sessions “smiling” but wait for him to misjudge his steps on the famed “banana peel” (banana skin in British English).
The complaints, reported widely in the media, include: (1) Insensitivity to the demands of senators (regarding observance of laws, and procedures and rules). (2) Sidelining of some ranking senators in allocation of chairmanship of committees. (3) Answering to President Tinubu’s beck and call (thus undermining the legislature’s independence). (4) Unsavoury role played during screening and confirmation of ministerial nominees (when three nominees, including former Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai, were dropped over undisclosed security reports). (5) Embarrasing floor announcement on September 9 of a “token” and “prayers” (money) to enable senators enjoy their holidays amidst economic hardships, aftermath of removal of fuel subsidy and floating of the Naira by the Tinubu administration.
(In a viral video, Akpabio said, “In order to enable all of us (senators) to enjoy our holidays, a token has been sent to our various accounts by the clerk of the national assembly,” sparking instant rowdy moments on the floor of the Senate, and occasioning Akpabio to rephrase the statement, thus, “I withdraw that statement. In order to allow you to enjoy your holiday, the Senate President has sent prayers to your mailboxes, to assist you to go on a safe journey and return.” (More whoops at the plenary!)
Read along with the nebulous charge of “gross misconduct,” the above allegations could form grounds for Akpabio’s ouster – moves actually speculated a couple of times by “aggrieved senators” in the past weeks.
But Akpabio’s denied these allegations, and the reported threats to impeach him, saying that contrary to the “sponsored news report,” the Senate is stable and unperturbed by what appears to be a “syndicated media attack from outside the precincts of the National Assembly.”
Akpabio’s Special Adviser on Media, Mr Eseme Eyiboh, said in September that, “The Senate has since moved on after the leadership contest. The plot to drag in senators, who initially did not support the emergence of the present leadership into a conspiracy that does not exist, was uncharitable to the senators.
“Continuing to link these senators with one conspiracy or the other, with barely disguised innuendo, is rather unkind. We call on the media not to give in to the conspiratorial tales. ”
However, there’s a twist to the hush-hush in the Senate, as claimed in September by the now sacked Senator Ishaku Abbo (APC, Adamawa North), alleging that Akpabio, “along with his associates,” were the disseminators of the story about intention to impeach him.
Abbo – who later accused Akpabio of orchestrating his sacking by the Appeal Court, but later retracted the allegation and apologised – said that Akpabio’s behind the impeachment narrative “to create discord between President Tinubu and northern senators.”
“I woke up today (September 17) to find over 10 mainstream Nigerian newspapers all carrying news of a plan to impeach Senator Akpabio by senators from Northern Nigeria,” Abbo said. “As a Northern senator and an official of the Northern Senators Forum, I boldly affirm that this news is intentionally disseminated and propagated by the ‘camp’ of Senator Akpabio solely to pit President Bola Tinubu against the North.”
Yet, Abbo hinted about the schism in the Senate relating to Akpabio’s alleged unfair sharing of committee positions that sidelined majority of ranking senators.
Abbo queried: “If Akpabio and his camp wanted a united Senate, much like (former Senate President) Ahmad Lawan (APC, Yobe North), they would have known exactly what to do during Senate Standing Committees allocation and supplementary budget resources allocation.
“But the camp of the SP continued to treat the Senate as a conquered territory where the winner walks away with the spoils of war. A classic case of the winner takes all!
“How do you justify a situation where out of Category A Committees, only two were granted to his (Akpabio’s) perceived rivals? How will you explain a Senate where 83.1% of those appointed Chairmen of Category A Committees also serve as Vice Chairmen of Category A?”
Abbo called on Akpabio “to rein in his camp, as the seeds of discord and deep ethno-religious division they are sowing will not bode well for the country.”
To survive any alleged threats against his position, Akpabio needs a bulwark like Ndume – a one-man riot squad you can rely on if he gives his word. But it appears their relationship has soured, especially as Ndume headlines Akpabio’s alleged mishandling of Senate’s affairs.
Pre-the October 17 “mild drama,” Ndume and Senator Mohammed Ogoshi Onawo (SDP, Nasarawa South) reportedly accused Akpabio of giving senators inadequate opportunity to interrogate and scrutinize bills, “especially money bills,” and warned that history would judge him “for approving executive requests and passing important legislation posthaste.”
So, did the “showdown” between Akpabio and Ndume stem from Akpabio attempting to get back at Ndume, by trashing his efforts to correct a motion of urgent national importance on “the need to reopen the Nigeria-Benin Republic border,” or Akpabio’s just following the rules that senators have accused him of jettisoning
Whatever, spotting that the motion – moved by Senator Summaila Kawu (NNPP, Kano South) – lacked a specific heading – and that Akpabio had fiated its consideration – Ndume, an opionated “stickler for rules,” raised a point of order, seeking correction under Order 51 of Senate Standing Rules, which enjoins correcting errors before proceedings at plenary.
Ndume said: “This is the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guided by laws, rules and procedures. If in the course of proceedings at any session, errors are observed, they must be corrected before forging ahead with such proceedings.”
But Akpabio ruled Ndume “out of order” on the ground that, “having ruled on issues raised, it (they) cannot be revisited.” Efforts by Senator Sunday Karimi (APC, Kogi West) “to sustain Ndume’s argument through another point of order” was unsuccessful, as Akpabio ruled him out of order.
However, Akpabio sustained a reading of Order 16 by Senate Deputy President Jibrin Barau (APC, Kano North), which requires “a substantive motion to be moved by any Senator for correction or review of earlier decisions taken.”
An “infuriated” Ndume raised Order 54 “to seek correction of the error.” With Akpabio again ruling him out of order, Ndume packed his documents and stormed out of the chamber, forcing senators into a hurried hour-long closed-door session, which “affected the items on the Order Paper for the day.”
It remains in speculations whether Ndume – who, as Chief Whip, acts as a bridge between the ruling and opposition members, and ensures information flow on government business – will be “punished” for disrespectfully walking out of plenary. (In March 2017, under the Senate President Bukola Saraki-led 8th Senate, Ndume’s suspended for six months, for peddling allegations of Saraki faking documents to import a bulletproof Range Rover, and involement in perjury by Senator Dino Melaye (candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the November 11, 2023, governorship poll in Kogi State).
The Senate, upholding the recommendation of its committee on ethics and privileges chaired by Senator Samuel Anyanwu (candidate of the PDP in the November 11 election in Imo State), said Ndume failed to do due diligence, but relied on media reports for his claims.)
In his chat with State House reporters, Akpabio papered over the Ndume episode, and a possible penalty to be meted to him – as, perhaps, any such moves had to wait, to avoid disruption of the 10th Assembly retreat
held in Akpabio’s home state of Akwa Ibom from October 19 to 22.
Akpabio said the retreat informed his visit to the Presidential Villa, to brief Tinubu and solicit his support for representation at the event, “and he (Tinubu) has graciously done that.”
He added: “He (Tinubu) needs to be informed that the Senate will not be available in Abuja. We are moving the Senate all the way to Akwa Ibom for the next four days. Thereafter, we will be travelling to Angola, to attend the (147th Assembly of) International Parliamentary Union (IPU) (hosted by National Assembly of Angola from October 23 to 27). So, before he (Tinubu) sees me, it will take probably another nine days. So, I needed to inform him.”
Now, “all eyes are on the Senate,” to see if Akpabio will push Ndume under the bus, and allow “political affliction” to strike him the second time via suspension from the chamber barely six and half years after his first “rustication”!
* Mr Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos,