By Reuben Abati
The present Senate serving the Nigerian people runs the risk of being remembered as the worst since 1999. Public Relations Consultants and media officials of this particular Senate have done their part flooding both the print and the online media with details of how productive the Bukola Saraki-led Senate has been, and they have been quite aggressive in telling us about 30 important Bills which when passed, will change the face of Nigeria and deliver change.
The Senate according to one report has considered over 125 bills, debated over 48 motions, and passed three bills. But nobody is apparently impressed. During the Jonathan administration, the Senate was the better regarded of the two legislative chambers. While members of the House of Representatives in the Seventh Assembly behaved as if they were a band of students’ unionists, the then Red Chamber projected an image of maturity and temperance, even if it was also self-serving! With the 8th Assembly, the House of Representatives, apart from the shameful resort to physical combat over the distribution of “juicy” committees in November 2015, has shown itself to be better organized than the present Senate. The critical difference is that of leadership. It is one of management. It is a matter of weight and politics.
What is clear is that the leadership recruitment and selection process in the legislative arm of government is as critical as it is in any other sphere of government. During the 7th Assembly, the politics of the emergence of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, a PDP lawmaker who became an agent and later, chieftain of the opposition party, ensured that the House remained almost permanently in a frosty relationship with the Executive. Likewise, the manner of Bukola Saraki’s emergence as Senate President, marked again by alleged disloyalty to his own party and collusion with the opposition for personal gains, has laid the foundation for the supremacy of intrigues, cabals, and the politics of mischief in a Chamber that should be devoted strictly to the making of laws for the good governance of Nigeria.
His colleague in the House of Representatives also emerged under controversial circumstances, but Yakubu Dogara’s politics seems to be better managed. Saraki’s politics is made more complex by the fact that he has strong roots in the two dominant parties in the National Assembly and has proven to be extremely influential across party lines, making him a dominant force in Nigeria’s current power equation, and most certainly, a threat to other power centres.
Online, the Saraki-led Senate claims that it has done a lot, even if it has spent more time being on vacation in less than a year, and obsessed daily with the politics of contradictions. The Senate President once reportedly boasted that the Senate under his watch has helped to block corruption by helping Nigeria to save money. He talked about the Senate’s probe of the Treasury Single Account (TSA). But now, here is the contradiction: Many Nigerians would find it difficult to see how a Senate whose leader is on trial for corruption-related matters, and that has chosen to buy for its members, luxury SUV vehicles at inflated cost can claim to be helping Nigerians at a time when the economy is on a tragic downward spiral, and yet the same Senators had allegedly collected vehicle loans. This has brought the Senate condemnation from both the Nigeria Labour Congress and a coalition of about 400 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
But we know where the problem lies: politicians are always playing games, and the Senate under Bukola Saraki’s watch has acted more than once, as if it is against the people. This Senate has had to reverse itself thrice in the last one month following public outcry about its lack of moral rectitude. The painful reality is that the impression has now been created that the Senate as presently constituted is playing the politics of one man. It has reduced itself to a Saraki-must-stay-and-the-Executive-and-anti-Saraki-APC-leaders-must-bow-Red-Chamber. Most members of the House of Representatives have tactfully stayed away from this abuse of privilege and utter contempt for the original mandate of the National Assembly, but they need to be advised to also stay away from the kind of infectious madness that seems to be seizing hold of the Senate. It is a form of madness that encourages recourse to farce, burlesque and conspicuous acquisition.
Determined to show support for their embattled Senate President who is on trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), and whose name has also been mentioned in the Panama Papers scandal, many of the Senators abandoned the Senate Chambers and started following their boss to the Tribunal. On one occasion as many as close to 50 Senators abandoned their primary assignment and chose to go and play politics at the Tribunal. If this seeming relocation of the Senate to the Code of Conduct Tribunal was meant to intimidate the presiding judge, His Lordship has refused to be intimidated, either by the crowd or the convoy of buses or the retinue of 90 defence lawyers. He has now chosen to attend to the case on a daily basis. The number of Senators doing follow-follow has since reduced: it will of course, be absurd to shut down the entire Senate to embark on sycophantic frolic. Nonetheless, the Saraki case is taking its toll on the Senate. It has placed it on a collision course with a court of competent jurisdiction, with the Executive and also divided the ruling All Progressives Congress.
It has also led to a situation whereby the lawmakers even attempted to change the Code of Conduct Bureau Act in an obvious attempt to frustrate the Saraki trial. In less than 48 hours, the amendment bill went through first and second readings. If there had been no public outcry, the lawmakers would have passed the bill in less than 72 hours. It would have been the fastest piece of legislation ever, and yet it was meant to be self-serving: making a law to sabotage due process, even when they know that a law cannot have retroactive effect. When that failed, our Senators came up with the ingenious idea that the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal must appear before the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions. An indignant crowd of civil society agitators also shut that down. The Chairman of the CCT has also been a target of campaigns of calumny. Saraki’s supporters are throwing everything possible into this matter, where the legal process fails, the legislative process is deployed; when that also fails, an internet war, rallies, protests, all designed to win the public mind is launched.
Senate President Bukola Saraki may not have read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, for he seems to have broken too many of those laws already; perhaps he has read The Art of War by Sun Tzu. He should have been told that to rush headlong into war without mastering the dynamics of power is costly. This is one bitter political lesson about the strategy of war that Senator Saraki is currently learning. But now that he has gone so deep into the battlefield, he may no longer be allowed to surrender or retreat, even as his troops are gradually fleeing. Saraki has stepped on the proverbial Banana peel; as he struggles for survival, our Senate, the people’s Senate, must not be allowed to fail as a public institution. Senator Saraki should step aside, for now, as Senate President. If he emerges victorious from his travails, his colleagues should do him the honour of reinstating him to that office of honour, without question. But if he loses, he should remember that war only offers two possibilities, and even when a warrior wins, there may still be dangers on the way back home. In all, the politics of Saraki’s trial should not consume the Senate, and indeed the 8th Assembly.
“So far, so good”, Saka Olawale wrote assessing the present Senate. I don’t think so. If anything, this Senate needs to be rescued. Whatever explanations our present set of Senators offers would be difficult to believe given the manner in which they have exposed their own limitations. The Senate cannot even keep documents. Copies of the 2016 Budget vanished from its custody. The copies when eventually found mutated into versions unknown to the Executive arm that presented the same Budget at an open ceremony.
For five months, the Senate is embroiled in a needless controversy over the content of the Budget. What is worse: In almost one year, no Senator can be quoted as having said anything engaging or profound. The only Senator who makes a serious effort to display some common sense is far more active on Twitter than on the floor of the Senate. The more prominent Senators are known for their rabid politicking or their wardrobe or exotic cars or the comedy that they provide. One of them even came up with a bill to gag free speech. It was in this same Senate that some male chauvinists declared that women cannot have any equal rights with men, and so a Gender Equality Bill is unacceptable.
They failed to realize that in the United States, whose Constitutional democracy we are copying, a woman is only a short distance away from emerging as Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and as 45th President of the United States. I imagine many of them struggling to be photographed with the same woman if they are so privileged. Was it also not in this same Senate that a member argued that Nigerian lawmakers should only patronize Made-in-Nigeria-women? This was meant to be a “brilliant” contribution to a debate on the need to promote Made-in-Nigeria goods. How dumb! And this kindergarten level statement actually generated some debate!
Challenging as the democratic process may have been, Nigerians can still remember a few Senators of old who sat in that same Assembly and made impact with their interventions and insightful speeches. To now have a group of Senators who crack jokes, borrow their imageries from road side bars, embark on a frolic, or spend time on sycophantic exertions, and when called upon, prove annoyingly incapable of analyzing and interrogating policies and making solid contributions is sad. We expect this to change.