The president will always have his way
TO date, of all ministerial screening by the Senate, the most controversial has been that of the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Richard Osuolale Abimbola Akinjide SAN (84). And that was as far back as 1979 – about 36 years ago. I covered the proceedings in the Senate at that time. Chief Akinjide contested the gubernatorial election of Oyo State on NPN platform in 1979 but lost to Chief Bola Ige of the UPN. In the 1979 Presidential election tribunal instituted by Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the then UPN, Chief Akinjide was the counsel to the eventual winner in the tribunal, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari (91).
On Thursday October 18, 1979, President Shehu Shagari included Akinjide’s name along with the 33 ministerial nominees to be screened by the Senate. The President of the then Senate was Dr. Joseph Wayas from Ogoja. Twenty-four hours later, the Senate rejected Akinjide’s nomination and that of Chief Paul Unongo from Benue State. On November 17, 1979, the Monday caucus of the NPN, then the most powerful body in the country, met at the Dodan Barracks’ residence of the President and decided to fight back to ensure that Akinjide’s candidacy as Minister was approved by the Senate. It was agreed at the meeting that for President Shagari to lose so early in a battle while his Presidency was still young would send a wrong signal.
The Monday caucus was made up of the President Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the Chairman of the ruling NPN, Chief August Meredith Adisa Akinloye, the Secretary of the party, Alhaji Suleiman Takuma, the Senate President Dr. Joseph Wayas and the Deputy Speaker of the then House of Representatives, Alhaji Idris Ibrahim from Minna, (since the Speaker Chief Edwin Umeh-Ezeoke was from NPP). The Monday caucus was designed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari to carry his party along on national issues so as not to appear as if he was a sole administrator.
On November 28, President Shagari, wrote a letter to Dr. Wayas re-presenting Chief Akinjide and Mr. Paul Unongo. For over 15 days, the Senate slept on the letter from President Shagari. At 4.10 p.m. on December 13, 1979, the Senate constituted itself into a committee to decide on the fate of Chief Akinjide. The then Senate Leader, Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki from Ilorin/Assa, moved two motions that afternoon.
The first was for the Senate to rescind its decision of October 19 in rejecting Chief Akinjide as a Minister of the government of the federation. After much heated debate, the first motion was approved when Senator Victor Akan from Eket pressed for a division with 48 Senators approving the first motion and 39 Senators rejecting the motion. It was the second motion moved by Senator Saraki requesting the Senate to approve the nomination of Chief Akinjide as a Minister that brought the firestorm. The then leader of the UPN in the Senate, Senator Jonathan Akinremi Olawale Odebiyi from Egbado, opposed the motion as well as the leader of the NPP in the Senate, Senator Jaja Anucha Wachukwu from Aba, even though there was an existing NPN/NPP accord. Senator Wachukwu and Chief Akinjide have been political rivals under the then Prime Minister Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa when they were both Ministers between 1960 and 1966. Senator Odebiyi alluded that it was against the rules of the Senate to reconsider a decision that has been taken earlier by the Senate.
Senator Uba Ahmed (Bauchi) led other NPN senators to plead on behalf of Akinjide.
In moving the motion for Chief Akinjide, Senator Saraki said that Chief Akinjide was well known throughout the country and that he is one of the best Nigerians that could be a minister. He said: “We should not allow any political vendetta. Chief Richard Akinjide should not be a victim of circumstances. I would like to appeal to each and everyone of us in this Senate this afternoon that the right course for us to take is to rescind the decision and confirm the nomination of Chief Richard Akinjide to be a Member of Cabinet of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.
In his reply Senator Odebiyi argued that Chief Akinjide was not being persecuted because of his role in both the campaign and the election of 1978 and 1979.
He declared: “Now, it has been said by some people that Chief Richard Akinjide was being victimised because of the part he played in the question of the election petition of Chief Awolowo. You know, we have heard it said in the Holy Writ: They shall have eyes and not see, they shall think they understand when they do not understand. The facts are quite clear Sir. Chief Richard Akinjide is not the author of 13 states. The author of 13 states and of twelve two-thirds, is the Ministry of Justice, to whom a request was made by the Federal Electoral Commission for a proper interpretation of the meaning of two-thirds of 19 states.” He was only used as a ploy to sound public opinion by announcing it. We know the facts, because we have pieces of evidence in support.”
In his contribution, Senator Joseph Sarwuan Tarka (Benue East-Central) said: “…I know that my Yoruba is not perfect. If it were, I would have referred to a Yoruba saying which is very common. However, I hope you will forgive my poor intonation. It reads: Gambari pa Fulani ko lejo ninu. The meaning is this. When an Hausa man kills a Fulani man, there is no case. If Akinjide’s brothers want to destroy him, that is their own business. But then, it has become a national issue so we are all concerned with it…Sir, as far as we are concerned, Akinjide has not been prosecuted, he has not fallen within the new period of dispensation which we are now discussing. Therefore, any destructive argument adduced against him should be regarded by all Senators as a nullity”.
After Senator Tarka’s speech, the Senate became rowdy for more than 15 minutes with Senators shouting at each other. The Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas kept on shouting order!Order!order! which fell on deaf ears. It was at this stage that the Senators from UPN led by Senator Odebiyi walked out of the Senate Chambers. Senator Mahmud Waziri led the GNPP Senators to walk out too while Senator Barkin Zuwo also staged a walk out with the PRP Senators. Only one UPN Senator, Ademola Adegoke stayed behind.
In refusing to go along with his UPN colleagues, Senator Adegoke declared: “My sitting down here does not make me a black leg, but various distinguished Senators here have reasons for joining politics and one of the reasons why I personally have opted for it is that it is a calling to contribute in a small way by which there could be peace and stability in this country. If we look back at this country, we find that 19 years ago we had independence but virtually we have achieved nothing. It is always a confusion caused by tribalism or one form of allegation or the other.”
The Senate President ordered the clerk of the Senate, Mr. A.A. Coker to take a roll call of the Senators that stayed behind to ensure whether a quorum was formed. Chief Akinjide was eventually confirmed as a Minister by 48 votes all from NPN Senators and only one dissenting voice, Senator Ademola Adegoke. Those who abstained were Senators Isaiah N. Ani, B.C. Okwu, U.L. Barma, L.Z. Zing, E.P. Echueruo, Jaja Wachukwu, Garba Matta and Obi Wali – all of the NPP.
Chief Akinjide later became the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation and served between 1979 and 1983. He was succeeded by Chief Kehinde Sofola (SAN) from Ikenne in Ogun State. As for Chief Paul Unongo, he too was confirmed by 28 votes with six abstentions. The Senate then adjourned at 8.00 p.m.
The simple lesson to be learnt since 1979, is that as long that you have a President who carries his party along with him and with a majority so united in the National Assembly, so long will such a President have his way in the National Assembly no matter what. Such a President will always get what he wants.
The opposition can bark but can never bite. The opposition can have their say but the President will have his way.
• Teniola, a former director at the presidency, stays in Lagos.