Masari And Politics Of Commendation
culled from PUNCH, April 12, 2006
Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and
Austin Opara, his deputy, may no longer savour their coveted positions in the
National Assembly, after all. Going by what happened on the floor of the House
on March 15 and 16, there are indications that the two legislators have started
losing the grip on the lower chamber of the legislature. Although Masari has
been described by some of his colleagues as a charismatic and affable leader, it
is now difficult to measure his popularity. While opponents of tenure extension
accuse him of taking sides with pro-third term members, it was Masari who made
the first public statement against attempts to extend the tenure of the current
political office-holders in the country. That was during President Olusegun
Obasanjo’s presentation of the 2006 Appropriation Bill.
It’s not only age that makes majority of members respect Masari, his first-rate
sense of humility and affective candour within and outside the chamber also
stand him out as a sensible politician. As the fourth citizen of the Federal
Republic of Nigeria, he does not put on any air of a VIP. He could pass for an
ordinary man on the street. Sometimes, it seems that Opara, the youthful and
more belligerent deputy, is more powerful than his boss. Sitting at the head of
the House, he combines the qualities of a good listener and responsible umpire
with immense potential to steer even the most controversial bills and motions to
their ultimate end. But those of March 15 and 16 were different.
When Sergeant at Arms in a monotonous pitch, bellowed, “Mr. Speaker, Mr.
Speaker,” as Masari, Opara and other principal officers were ushered into the
chamber, there were indications that something untoward was in the offing.
Alhaji Bashir Nadabo, the Katsina-born lawmaker with a proclivity for opposing
Obasanjo, was at work, moving from seat to seat, dropping envelopes. Even when
Masari had taken his seat and offered the opening prayers, members were still
moving around against the rule. No sooner had Masari announced, “Honourable
members, the first order of the day is a motion for commendation for the speedy
passage of the 2006 Appropriation Bill,” than the House went into frenzy. Some
members shouted on top of their voices from all parts of the chamber. It was in
opposition to a motion considered as a move to test the waters preparatory to
the submission of the report of the National Assembly Joint Committee on the
Review of the 1999 Constitution, part of which seeks a third term for Obasanjo.
Those opposed to the motion insisted that the Kebbi State lawmaker, Alhaji
Abdulahi Farouk, should drop it.
A deafening chorus of “No, no, no” broke out from all parts of the chamber.
Members, especially of the Peoples Democratic Party, who were sympathetic to the
motion, tried in vain to ensure that it was taken but their efforts only
complicated the chaotic situation. For about 45 minutes, Masari could not bring
the House to order, as members moved from one end of the chamber to the other,
in a desperate move to woo others to their side.
Amidst the Babel, which the chamber had become, Nadabo took time again to
circulate his envelopes that contained a booklet about the President. The
65-page publication, entitled: “Obasanjo: The lust for power and its tragic
implications for Nigeria,” written by Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, had Obasanjo’s
mutilated portrait with a third term crown of thorns on his head. One of the
lawmakers involved in the drama, on sighting the Special Adviser to the
President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, watching the
disorderly gyration, flung a copy at her. It landed on her body and she fled to
another part of the visitors’ gallery. The Special Assistant to the President on
National Assembly Matters, Alhaji Bala Ka’aoje, also witnessed the absurd
Those who opposed the move to applaud the President and the National Assembly
for giving accelerated passage to the 2006 budget said the motion was conceived
by the Chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees, Chief Tony Anennih, during a
dinner party with 211 members of the House on March 9 in Abuja. They vowed that
the motion, which was suspected to test the waters prior to the presentation of
the JCRC, would not be considered. Although most of the members said they had no
grouse with the ongoing constitution amendment, they would not support any move
to extend the tenure of members of the executive arm of government, especially
As the commotion continued, Masari was watching helplessly, while also trying in
vain to restore sanity by hitting the gavel repeatedly and shouting into the
microphone until his voice became hoarse. The shouting match between proponents
and opponents of the motion would not stop. Masari shouted, “Honourable members,
please allow Farouk to move the motion after which an opportunity will be given
to all to speak for and against it. Please, please, part of our rules stipulates
that members should observe decorum within and outside the chamber,” Masari
begged and hit the gavel.
However, members remained adamant, prompting some lawmakers to go to the Speaker
for consultation. At the head of the table, these members drew attention to the
fact that their names were listed on the motion without their consent, while
others contended that the list not only contained fake names, but that some
names were also duplicated. Opara; Nnaji; Chairman, Business and Rules, Ita
Enang; Chairman, Judiciary Committee, Balla Nallah; Nze Chidi Duru and Dr.
Haruna Yerima, among others, consulted with Masari on the issue.
Reacting to this, Masari opted to read out the names of those listed in the
motion and urged those whose names were written without their expressed consent
to raise an objection. This also infuriated some of the members who almost
attacked some of their colleagues physically. Independence Ogunewe and Gabriel
Suswam almost exchanged blows close to where the Speaker was seated, except for
the prompt intervention of Mr. Chidi Duru.
At last, the Speaker called on Farouk to move the motion amidst the chaos and
advised those in support of the motion to indicate by signing their names before
stepping down the motion till the next day, Thursday. Masari did not call for a
vote before dropping the gavel to withdraw the motion. As soon as Farouk was
asked to take to the floor and move the motion on Thursday, another round of
crisis erupted as members shouted “Point of order, point of order,” from one end
of the chamber to the other, frantically. Halims Agoda, on Order 8, Rule 9,
stood up and drew the attention of the Speaker to the fact that no motion could
be brought before the House without routing it through the Clerk’s office. He
berated members who complained that their names were listed on the motion
without their consent and asked them to route their cases appropriately.
Masari upheld the point of order raised by Agoda, saying that any petition
brought before the House by a member must conform to laid-down rules.
“Honourable members, I think this matter is a simple one. Allow Faruk to move
his motion. After that those for and against it will be free to make inputs,”
the Speaker said. As Farouk made to move the motion again after the second
interruption, Mr. Datti Baba Ahmed shouted into the microphone, “Point of
constitutional order, point of constitutional order,” thus throwing the House
into another round of chaos.
Angered by this, Ogunewe dashed from his seat towards the back of the chamber to
the second row and made to grab Baba Ahmed. Over 15 members that formed a
protective shield around him rescued Ahmed. While some members were trying to
restrain Ogunewe, who had pulled his tie, from beating up his colleague, similar
actions were also taking place in some other parts of the chamber. Attempts were
also made to assault Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila and other members who raised an
objection to the motion.
When order was restored, Masari, relying on the power conferred on him by the
Constitution, impressed on his colleagues that Farouk would go ahead to move the
motion. He begged, “It is not right for you to stop a motion because you don’t
like it. What is most important is that members will be allowed to take their
positions after the motion has been tabled.”
Following this, Farouk was again called to take to the floor to present the
motion. In his presentation, the Kebbi lawmaker said that there was nothing
wrong with commending a person who has done a good job. He said that the
National Assembly, for the first time since 1999, passed the 2006 budget on
schedule and also commended Obasanjo for assenting it without any complaint.
Farouk said the motion had nothing to do with the third term campaign. “Mr.
Speaker,” he said, “I have not been bought by anybody and I cannot be bought.
What we have done in the motion is to commend the President and urge him to
fully implement the budget.” Ike Chinwo, Tunde Akogun and David Idoko spoke in
support of the motion.
Leading opponents to the motion, Uche Onyeagocha, said it was morally wrong for
the lawmakers to move a motion to praise the President for performing his
constitutional responsibility for which he had been paid by taxpayers. He argued
that since both lawmakers and other government officials were being paid for
services they rendered to the country, there was no need for them to sing their
praises. “Nigerians are not satisfied with the performance of President Olusegun
Obasanjo and it is unfair for us to sit in this honourable chamber and praise
ourselves and the President for doing the job we are paid to do,” he said.
Gbajabiamila said that the House was on the verge of making a history of
legislative sycophancy and warned the members to desist from actions that would
debase the image of the legislature. Obasanjo, he said, was elected by the
people to serve as their President and wondered why it was the House of
Representatives that should commend him, rather than Nigerians who did not feel
the impact of governance. The lawmaker also drew attention to a similar motion
that was sponsored by Mr. Emeka Atuma, to commend the House for its successful
completion of its legislative session, noting that the motion was thrown out on
unanimous consent of members.
Before ruling on it, Masari assured his colleagues that when the question was
raised and there was controversy on which side carried it, the House would be
divided. With this, members settled down and prepared for the vote. And Masari
put the question, “Those in favour of the motion should say ‘aye’” and they
responded. But when it was the turn of those against it, the Speaker said, “And
those against should say…,” without landing, thus creating a split second of
confusion. Those opposed to the motion came up with a near discordant “nay”
which was almost louder than those who supported the motion. When controversy
erupted on which side carried the motion, the Speaker refused to divide the
House as he promised and while ruling in favour of the motion, he did not
communicate his decision through the microphone.
While opponents and proponents to the motion were singing and dancing round the
chamber, celebrating their perceived victory, Ningi quickly moved a motion for
the House to be adjourned. Perhaps, Masari’s action prompted the meeting on
March 29, in which a group in the House, under the auspices of Concerned Members
threatened to withdraw leadership mandate on the Speaker for failing to uphold
the rules of the House.
Onyeagoacha, Nadabo, Joseph Ajata, Sola Adeyeye, Cyril Maduabum, Frances
Amadiegwu and Umar El-Yakub, among others, vowed to take action against Masari
if he continued to fall foul of the House rules. At a media briefing, the
group’s spokesperson, Gbajabiamila, accused Masari of breaching the rules of the
legislature during plenary sessions on March 15 and 16. Gbajabiamila said, “This
was contested but the Speaker reneged on his promise and refused to allow a
division. This for us is a serious matter that cannot be allowed to go
unchallenged especially in these times. We wish to register our disappointment
with the presiding officer on two counts: That he clearly manipulated the voice
vote. That he reneged on his promise,” he said.
Gbajabiamila insisted that the House Rule 2 compels a presiding officer to call
for a division of the House in an event where the result of voice vote on any
matter was challenged. The concerned members, he said, were worried that if the
situation was allowed unchallenged, it would be repeated when the bill to amend
the 1999 Constitution was brought to the floor of the House. He, therefore,
alerted Nigerians on the fact that no part of the constitution could be altered
unless such an alteration was supported by two-thirds majority of members as
well as approved by a resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than
two-thirds of all the states. There was no way the leadership of the legislature
could arrive at a two-thirds majority of members through a voice vote, he said,
adding that the proper thing to do was to call on individual members to state
their positions. The group, he contended, would not accept anything but the
observance of the due process in the conduct of the affairs of the House.
“We hereby demand Mr. Speaker to make a public statement and state categorically
whether or not the House will conform to the provisions of the constitution
regarding the amendment of the constitution, particularly Section 9 and allow
for a head and body counts to determine the required two-thirds and four-fifths,
as was done by the Senate,” Gbajabiamila said.
While the controversy rages on, analysts have argued that the National Assembly
is constitutionally empowered under the 1999 Constitution, to make laws in
Nigeria. They have also argued that since it is the sacred duty of an elected
President to give assent to the appropriation law, Obasanjo does not deserve any
commendation for doing a job he has been paid to do and which he sought the
peoples mandate to do.