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Senate and politics of defection

Senate has never been held in the grip of a gale of defections, as it is presently. Hints of defection of some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senators to the , started last September 2013, after seven serving PDP governors stormed out of the special convention of the party a month earlier, formed the New PDP and quickly unveiled 79 members in the National Assembly.

The grouse of the nPDP, as they were then known, was that the old PDP was hounding them in their respective state chapters while some had the control of those chapters crudely taken away from their grip, others were simply shunned and a parallel executive installed.

That movement to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre to announce the formation of a New PDP, with Alhaji Kawu Baraje as chairman and aggrieved former Osun State governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola as secretary respectively signalled the beginning of crisis in the PDP, which would later snowball in the affected states.

Besides, as is the norm in Nigeria, any out-going governor would love to participate actively in choosing his successor; something which was never going to happen during the chairmanship of Alhaji Bamanga Tukur.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back, according to some National Assembly sources, was the December meeting between Tukur’s NWC and the Senate PDP caucus; the first and last of its kind before he resigned from office last month.

Sources told Daily Sun that the promise of automatic tickets to senators was the last straw for some governors who quickly banded together to put pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan that Tukur must go. The governors simply played safe as 15 PDP governors are reportedly eyeing the seats of their senators and the present occupants of the seats also anxious to return to the chamber.

The trend for governors to come to the Senate after their tenures started in the Sixth

Senate and the fever had since caught on.

Anyway, the rumour of possible defection of large number of PDP members to the opposition was confirmed in November 2013 when 37 members of the House of Representatives moved to the newly-registered APC, an amalgamation of three major opposition parties in the country. Never in the history of the National Assembly from 1999 had there been a gale of movement from the ruling party to the opposition party.

Thereafter, the focus shifted to the Senate. The nation waited with bated breath because right from the outset, although 22 senators were publicly released as belonging to the nPDP, some ‘members’ never really owned up when asked publicly. At informal meetings, some senators who were purportedly on the list gave myriad reasons how their names happened to be on the list.

Some senators simply expressed surprise that they found their names on the list while some said it was the handiwork of their state governors as they never expressed any desire to leave the PDP. Again, some senators, along the way, grew weary of the in-fighting in the PDP and saw no need to move after Tukur exited the party. Moreover, as soon as the new chairman, Adamu Mu’azu came on board, he began peace move.

Regardless, while the defection gale hit the chambers of the House of Representatives, it didn’t immediately happen in the Senate until December when reports filtered in that a former governor who had crossed over to APC would formally defect on the floor. His defection was supposed to signal the gale of defections in the chamber. It didn’t help that it was a full house on that day, with all the nPDP members present in the chamber turned out in resplendent national dresses.

Before that day, however, the 79 lawmakers had approached the Federal High Court in Abuja in suit no: FHC/ABJ/ CS/ 621/2013 to stop and obtain an order restraining the then National Chairman of the PDP, Senate President David Mark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from declaring their seats vacant.

Alas, that defection rumour went as the others before it as nothing happened. Later, another report had it that the defection would take place in January, after the senators would have perfected the moves at the ward and local government levels.

Came January 21, when Senate resumed plenary after the Yuletide recess, there was apprehension that although the number had whittled down from 22, some senators were set to defect. Expectations were again deflated as nothing of the sort happened.

Six days after, in Ilorin, Kwara State, Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Ecology, senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki, announced to the media that 17, out of the 22 senators would defect in the last week of January.

Before that day, out of a statutory 109 members, the ruling PDP had a commanding lead of 73 members while the APC had 32. The remaining are: Labour-3 and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA)-1.

For the APC to gain effective control of the Senate and perhaps, effect changes in the leadership, they need to have two-thirds of 109 members. The APC needs 73 members while it can only boast of 32 members presently.

And so, in an anti-climax of sorts, senator Saraki walked into the chamber on Wednesday, January 29 and handed a letter to the Senate President while lawmakers were busy with the debate of the general principles of the 2014 budget.

That correspondence supposedly contained a list of 16 names, but only 11 members signed the January 20 letter addressed to Mark titled: Notification of change of political party.

The undersigned senators notified the presiding officer of the move to the APC “This action and decision is as a result of the division and factionalisation in the PDP that sponsored our elections into the Senate. In view of the above, we write to inform you that following the division and factionalisation in the PDP, we have formally joined the All Progressives Congress, APC.

“This communication is made pursuant to section 68 (1) (g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) for your information, guidance and record purposes…”

But some months earlier, an Abuja court had ruled that therewas no crisis in the PDP and so, no basis for the formation of a new PDP. Senators, it seemed, were not swayed by that court ruling as they insisted that not only is there crisis in the PDP, there are factions in the party.

The correspondence has, however, generated controversy as the presiding officer did not read the letter at plenary. It is against parliamentary norms and tradition as the time had passed for such correspondence to be shared in the chamber as time had lapsed for such activity.

Going by the Senate Order Paper, upon filing into the chamber with the principal officers, the Senate President or the presiding officer says the prayers, followed by the approval of the votes and proceedings of the previous plenary. This is followed by announcements, if any and lastly, petitions are presented by senators, if any.

Thereafter, the Senate goes into the legislative business of the day. It was at this juncture that Saraki submitted the letter to the Senate President, who after receiving  the letter, beckoned on his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu and Senate Leader Victor Ndoma. Besides, Daily Sun gathered that the bearer of the letter allegedly “told the Senate President not to read the letter yet.”

A similar January 20 letter titled: Sustenance and protection of the unity of National Assembly as an institution, which also submitted to the Senate President, had specifically reminded him of the pending suit at the Federal High Court, Abuja which stipulated that no action can be taken on the matter until the final pronouncement by the court.

A part of the letter reads: “Having reaffirmed our confidence in the National Assembly as the only institution empowered by the Constitution to protect and defend the collective interest and yearnings, Nigerians are, however, concerned about some comments and threat in the print and electronic media credited to some elected and unelected persons threatening to declare vacant, the seats of some Senators who are the representatives of the Nigerian people in the National Assembly.

“Those threats, we view with serious concerns, are mischievous and capable of undermining the independence of the legislature thereby taking away the mandate given to such Senators who are the representatives of the Nigerian people.

“We are also aware of a pending legal matter at the Federal High Court, Abuja with suit no: FHC/ABJ/ CS/ 621/2013 on the same subject matter. In view of this, it (is) the practice of the Senate that where a matter is pending in a law court, such matter cannot be a subject of discussion or debate on the floor of the Senate.

“We, hereby, note that this is not the first experience in the Senate where some senators have moved to political parties of their choice as a result of one reason or the other, whereas, such has not caused any political tension or intimidation. It is our resolve that the Senate should maintain and sustain this principle and precedence.

“It is our resolve that we do not support any attempt that the seat of any Senator proposing to defect to another political party be declared vacant except by recall process from their constituents or by the pronouncement of a court of competent  and final jurisdiction, rather than politics of intimidation, harassment and of comment that could jeopardize the peaceful co-existence of unity of Nigeria…”

The inability of the Senate President to read the defection notice is perhaps rooted in section 53 (5) of the Senate Standing Orders (2011, as amended). The order states that,  “Reference shall not be made to any matter on which a judicial decision is pending, in such a way as might in the opinion of the President of the Senate prejudice the interest of parties thereto.” Senators know that this rule has always been upheld by any presiding officer and also, in petitions which do not seek judicial remedy.

This defecting senators were probably non-pulsed that the presiding officer, this time around, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, did not read the letter in the chamber.

A flurry of Point of Orders rained on the chamber, all in a bid to get Ekweremadu to read the letter but at a point, the Deputy Senate President informed his colleagues that since the letter was not addressed to him, he was not in its possession. This put a cog in the wheels and matters rested; more so as Ekweremadu had pleaded with them to allow Mark return from his official assignment in Jigawa to address the matter himself.

The status of the suit filed by the lawmakers is unknown as at press time after it came up for hearing on January 29.

But then, 10, out of the original 22 Senators dissociated themselves from the suit when they returned to the court on November 29, 2013 and filed a Notice of Discontinuance Pursuant to Order 50 Rule 2 (1) of the Federal High Court (Civil Procedure Rules, 2009).

They averred that they should be removed from the list of the Senators who wish to defect to the APC in suit no: FHC/ABJ/ CV/ 621/2013 and copied to the leadership of the Senate.

The defectors may, however, be caught up in their own plot as Section 68 (1) (g) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, does not seem to support their case. The section specifically stipulates the conditions for which a federal lawmaker would vacate his seat in each chamber.

It reads in part: “A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if… “Being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected;

“Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.

Besides, Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN) punctured the arguments of the Minority Leader, senator George Akume, who argued passionately last Thursday, that the constitutionality of the defections in the House of Representatives, cannot be said unconstitutional in the Senate.

Speaking exclusively with Daily Sun at the weekend, the Senate Leader was emphatic that each house has its own procedure and so, the fact that a group defection was allowed in the House is not automatic in the Senate.

Hear him: “First, we have different rules in both houses. Our rules are different. Two, the nature of both houses are different. Remember that in the House, representation is based on federal constituencies while in the Senate, it is based on equality of states; so, that makes both houses inherently different…Because the circumstances ads different, we don’t necessarily have to follow the precedent in the House of Representatives.

In addition, the sections cited above uses the singular, it refers to ‘a member’ and not “members,” besides, each of  the defecting senator was elected separately, from each, distinct senatorial district on the platform of the party from where they are defecting. The tenure for which they were elected would be up in 2015 and so,

The PDP’s loss today is APC’s gain. In the past, there had been defections from the opposition party to the PDP and from the PDP to the opposition party and although eyebrows have been raised, with the PDP threatening fire and brimstone when the pain touches home, nothing has ever been done to test the spirit and letters of the Constitution with regards to defections at the federal level.

It should also be said that in the past also, the PDP has always been the winning party in defections. This time around, it is not so and that may perhaps explain why the party is now ready to abide by constitutional provisions.

This week will surely be a turning point in the chamber as both parties get set to claim all of 11 members, and more.

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