NASS leadership and Buhari’s change agenda



IN order to avoid the divisive acrimony associated with elections, the ruling APC decided to adopt consensus in its selection of the National Assembly leadership. Senator Ahmad Lawan was adopted for the Senate Presidency by the leadership of the party, while Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila was chosen for the House of Representatives speakership. Ambitious National Assembly members and certain powerful constituents of the party kicked against what they considered the party’s imposition. Senator Bukola Saraki, a consummate dealmaker, rallied his supporters in APC, struck a deal with PDP horse traders, forging a bipartisan coalition.

Reminiscent of a conspiratorial plot lifted from Cyprian Ekwensi’s African Night’s Entertainment or the Arabian Night, and like the proverbially cunning tortoise in African fairy tales, Saraki and his group bid their time, waiting for the right moment to strike. That moment came as loyal APC Senators waited at the International Conference Centre for a scheduled address by President Buhari. The conspirators struck. They rallied to the Red Chamber, got Saraki elected the 13th Senate President and PDP’s Senator Ike Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President. By the time the waiting loyalists knew of the plot and scampered to the National Assembly to abort it, it was too late. Saraki was already seated confidently in the Senate President’s seat. Meanwhile, a similar scenario was playing out in the Blue Chamber where Hon. Yakubu Dogara was elected Speaker.

The media, which is all too familiar with Nigeria’s numerous coups and attempted coups, quickly dubbed the political drama a coup d’etat. They are right, given the planning, execution and outcome.

The situation could be interpreted that Buhari’s refusal to intervene in the National Assembly leadership struggle and the unexpected outcome demonstrate the President’s respect for the independence of the various arms of government. Hence this is democracy in action.

On the other hand, Nigerians had overwhelmingly voted for Buhari for his “change” mantra. The nation needs change but change does not come easy in any society, especially under a democratic dispensation that calls for consensus building. To effect the needed change in a democratic system requires the chief executive of government to be in full control of the levers of power and the whole democratic structure must work more or less in tandem, although not without occasional hiccups and irritations. Analysts who do not see anything wrong with APC legislators’ defiance of their party leadership in the choice of legislative leadership are quick to point out earlier parallels. In the case of the Seventh Assembly, against the wishes of the ruling PDP, Aminu Tambuwal and Emeka Ihedioha emerged the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, respectively. During Obasanjo’s elected first term, the late, flamboyant Chuba Okadigbo, as Senate President, was often at loggerheads with President Obasanjo.

However, the consequences of such political misalignment is that Tambuwal’s loyalty never departed from the opposition parties that made possible his emergence as Speaker. That loyalty became a significant factor that engendered the implosion that culminated in the defeat of PDP. In the Obasanjo-Okadigbo case, Obasanjo’s carrot-and-stick brinkmanship and Okadigbo’s astuteness ensured that the two men continued to enjoy a working relationship. Will Saraki and Dogara become Tambuwals that would refuse to bite the fingers that fed them and become APC’s albatross?

Saraki’s conciliatory acceptance speech praising President Buhari for his neutrality and promising to reciprocate the President’s gesture seems to give some assurance that the Senate would not be the President’s nemesis and that the change agenda will be on course if and when it eventually takes off. Dogara’s acceptance speech also gave a similar assurance to work harmoniously with the Executive in national interest.

The other major consequence of the “Saraki coup” is the prospect of PDP revival. The internal crisis, recriminations and defections that followed the party’s electoral fiasco had made even senior members of the party to predict its collapse. Indeed democrats were beginning to worry about the prospect of an APC government without any credible opposition. Ekweremadu’s deft and surprising election as Deputy Senate President could be a rallying point for PDP partisans. In Senator Ekweremadu’s victory, the South-East law makers go their “sense of belonging”, leaving out the South-south the loser in the dramatic national power play.

Given the narrow APC majority in the Senate (59 against 49) a vibrant PDP opposition could spell trouble for APC. This would imperil the widespread expectation of change in the country unless the PDP decides to act in national interest by latching unto the change bandwagon instead of pursuing narrow partisan and personal interest. The question then is, if the PDP failed to bring about change during its16-year control of power, what is the prospect that the party could support a programme of change under an APC controlled government that had proven to be PDP’s deadly foe? Nevertheless, PDP opposing change will not guarantee its future return to power and the nation will be worse off if the highly anticipated change fails to materialise.
What should be APC’s response to the perceived rebellion in order to ensure party discipline that is crucial to the implementation of the party’s programme? Fighting the two men in the court in the attempt to remove them or taking any other action against them is not an option as that would create avoidable crisis that would distract the government.
The party should instead give Saraki the opportunity to make good his promise to reciprocate President Buhari’s neutrality in the choice of the National Assembly leadership. Dogara’s speech was similarly conciliatory and there should not be a deliberate effort to alienate him unless he proves otherwise. The party leadership should immediately initiate a reconciliation process. By and large, when is the expected change coming? People expected some key policy pronouncements and appointments that would assure them that change is indeed in the air. Two weeks after inauguration, key positions in government such as the office of Chief of Staff and Secretary to Government of the Federation are yet to be filled. There is as yet no word on how the promised war on corruption is going to be accomplished. It is still business as usual in NNPC where the petrocrats continue to hold sway. It is not enough to appeal to Nigerians to be patient lest endless patience leads to resignation and disillusionment. The momentum of the government may determine the strength of the opposition and the cooperation of the National Assembly. Nigerians are waiting.

The author is a Professor in the Department of History and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Port Harcourt.

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