Third Term: Masari & Politics Of Commendation


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Third Term: Masari And Politics Of Commendation



Ibanga Isine



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 legislative conduct.

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 the president.

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.



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