Editorial: The Endless Senate-Presidency face-off

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The frosty relationship between the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led executive and legislative arms of government since inauguration in June 2015; may well be an exemplifier of an unseeming trend towards official deadlock, that risks adverse effects on the smooth running of government and the integrity of the nation’s democracy. Almost two years into the Buhari administration, it is obvious that unlike the leadership of the House of Representatives, the Senate has become a headache for the president. The more the two arms of government try to come together and work for the interest of the country, the more apart they fall. Viewed against some antecedents, and considering that the hostile relationship between the APC-dominated Senate and the Presidency has been neither here nor there since the controversial emergence of Bukola Saraki, as Senate president, many political observers are predicting that the political differences, suspicions, distrust and intrigues, which have made collaboration difficult, would remain Buhari’s albatross. The only way to disabuse the mind of the public in this regard is for APC leaders to get their act together and stop the emerging trend.

Unfortunately, the national leadership of the ruling APC, which is comatose, aloof and rudderless, is not helping the matters. Not even the party governors have shown character or any commitment towards resolving the crisis, complaining they have been sidelined by the presidency that has allegedly been hijacked by a cabal. The standing view is that Buhari created this logjam for his government, by refusing to strike the iron while it was hot. When APC leaders like Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Chief Bisi Akande and others insisted that Saraki’s emergence as Senate president should not be allowed to stand; Buhari was nonchalant and dithered on the fence and missed the opportunity to stamp his authority on his party and the country. The rumblings are growing louder within the corridors of power that Buhari would not achieve anything meaningful if Saraki remains the Senate president, with his hatchet man, Dino Melaye.

The increasingly assertive posture of the Senate, headed by Saraki, was partly due to Buhari’s lackadaisical attitude over how the leadership of the 8th National Assembly emerged in 2015. The actions and utterances of some Senators in recent times connote more than a mere insistence on the separation of powers and the rule of law. Rather, they suggest an evolving hidden agenda, to emasculate the president, and it seems obvious the Senate is gradually stepping beyond its boundary and may likely hold the country to ransom if not checked. The “official sin” of Saraki is that he has turned the Senate into a personal tribunal where Nigerians are summoned whenever they criticize or cross Saraki’s path.

Just for the records, when Ibrahim Lamorde, former EFCC chairman tried to investigate Saraki’s wife, he was summoned by the Senate. When the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) started Saraki’s trial, the Senate summoned its chairman and even tried to amend the CCB Act to whittle down its powers. When the Secretary to the Government of Federation (SGF) Babachir Lawal suggested that Senators would no longer execute constituent projects, the Senate summoned him. The Senate recently stood down the confirmation of nominees for positions of Resident Electoral Commissioners (REC), after expressing misgivings about the President’s refusal to remove Ibrahim Magu as EFCC acting chairman, after Magu was repeatedly rejected by the lawmakers. The Senators also accused the executive of disrespecting the National Assembly (NASS). The Senate therefore resolved to suspend the confirmation in protest. The latest incident in this unfolding saga involves the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hamid Ali (rtd). After customs officers impounded a bullet-proof Range Rover imported by the Senate for Saraki’s use, for non-payment of custom duties, the Senate did not only summon the customs boss, but insisted he must appear in uniform.

The unnecessary crisis over Magu’s confirmation as EFCC chairman and the Senate’s refusal to confirm the list of the RECs seems to be part of a grand design by Saraki to hold the president, and by the nation hostage. Other issues that have placed the presidency and the senate on a collision course include the National Assembly’s rejection of the federal government’s request to obtain a $30 billion loan; a position that was strongly defended by Saraki; the legislature’s dismissal of the 2017-2019 Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Sustainability Paper sent to it by the President, describing the document as empty and not worthy considering. The lawmakers also rejected Buhari’s lists of non-career ambassadorial nominees, ostensibly because they were not consulted by the presidency before nominating people from their states and constituencies. This itself, smacks of legislative recklessness, with grave implications for democratic stability.

As a party, the APC has not been an ardent respecter of separation of powers and respect for the rule of law. The presidency’s invocation of the rule, therefore, naturally triggers suspicion of Nigerians who feel that such proclamation should be taken with a pinch of salt. The presidency has demonstrated a high penchant for seeking to kill an ant with a sledge hammer, and for not coming to equity with clean hands. The question is whether politicians even understand the meaning of separation of powers, which is now causing friction between the two arms of government, as opposed to interdependency that demands collaboration, coordination and cooperation between the two arms of government.

Both the presidency and the senate are blameworthy as both arms of government are not fighting over policies that would improve the welfare of Nigerians, but on trivialities such as the customs boss’ refusal to wear customs uniforms. That this new phase of political immaturity is being funded by taxpayers’ money makes it all the more vexatious, more so as the principal actors in this ugly orchestration are all members of the same party. The fact that this is happening under a supposedly democratic government is dangerously worrisome. If unchecked, such legislative high-handedness poses grave danger to the delivery of democracy in all ramifications; particularly the fundamental human rights of Nigerians. The extremism of the Senate in dealing with real or imagined enemies, infringes on the rights of Nigerians and could degenerate into anarchy, and complicate the already parlous state of the national polity.

In what looked like an afterthought, President Buhari recently set up a committee chaired by vice president, Yemi Osinbajo to mend the rift. Other members of the committee are all ministers who were at one time federal legislators, as well as the Senior Special Assistants to the President on National Assembly Matters, Ita Enang (Senate) and Samaila Kawu (House of Representatives). But the initiative seems to be dead on arrival, not only because of its late timing; the committee does not include APC bigwigs and other major stakeholders. And the question must be asked: who are the president’s men in the Senate and where have they been?

The Senate is neither a law court nor an anti-graft agency and should not overstep its constitutional mandate by acting ultra vires. Saraki and all those involved in these anti-democratic antics need to be reminded that the federal government belongs to all Nigerians, irrespective of political and ideological inclinations. Its status must be kept federal and sacrosanct in all ramifications. President Buhari also needs to rise to the challenges of his office. Two wrongs don’t make a right. The president should take the high road by redeploying Magu back to the police and appoint someone else. Or better still; the executive should approach the Supreme Court for interpretation of the constitution on Magu’s position. That is the best way to settle the matter and forestall this kind of scenario in future. So far, by looking the other way, amid the stalemate, the President has not acted gracefully on this matter. The time to go beyond “my mercedes-is0bigger-than-yours” mentality is now, bearing in mind that Nigerians are hurting and waiting for the promised change by Buhari and his party.