Last week, the emergence of former Akwa Ibom State governor as the new Minority Leader of the Senate was a major surprise to many Nigerians, especially political observers being a first time lawmaker in the Upper House. OLUGBENGA SALAMI writes that the precedence may mark the end for ranking rule in the Senate
Against all expectations, former Akwa Ibom State governor and now a Senator representing Akwa Ibom North West, Godswill Obot Akpabio last week emerged as the Senate Minority Leader following his nomination by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP caucus in the upper chamber of the National Assembly.
However, political observers and analysts noted that Akpabio’s emergence for the post may signal the beginning of the end for the ranking rule in the senate. This is because the Senate Standing Order 2007, which was amended in 2011 gives preference to the ranking senators as principal officers in the Senate.
Lobbying by the zonal caucuses started barely 24 hours after PDP national leadership announced the sharing of the positions, based on the six geo-political zones. The party had zoned the Minority Leader’s position to South South, Deputy Minority Leader to North East, Minority Whip to North Central and Deputy Minority Whip to South West respectively.
Contenders for the post of Minority Leader included Senators James Manager (Delta South); George Sekibo (Rivers East); John Enoh (Cross River Central); and Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom North West). Ordinarily, going by the senate standing rule, PDP should have narrowed down the contest to Senators Manager and Sekibo who are presently serving their third term in the Upper House.
Although, Enoh has served three terms in the House of Representatives before coming to the senate, only Akpabio is totally new in the legislative business.
The 6th Senate had adopted the provision of a new Order 3(2) of the rules and deletion of Order 97(1f) of the existing rules. The 2011 amendment which precludes new senators from vying for positions of principal officers and give preference to ranking senators in gaining positions as principal officers or chairmen of committees followed a motion by the then Senate Leader, Teslim Folarin.
The new Order 3(2) states, “nomination of senators to serve as presiding officers and appointments of principal officers and other officers of the Senate or on any parliamentary delegation shall be in accordance with the ranking of senators.”
The order explains that ranking senators are those returning based on number of times re-elected; senators who had been members of the House of Representatives and those elected as senators for the first time.
But, at the end of it all, Akpabio, who, according to the Senate rule, is the most junior of the four contestants, emerged as the Minority Leader. Akpabio’s nomination, though, is against the standing rules of the senate, which exempts first-term senators from holding principal positions, a source said this may not be unconnected to his preference for the position by the PDP leadership which the senate caucuses only carried out.
On Wednesday, July 22, Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court, Abuja had rejected an application seeking to stop the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki from naming Akpabio as Minority Leader of the Senate.
Two members of PDP, Alaye Pedro and Okechukwu Ibeh had filed an ex parte application challenging the party’s choice of Akpabio as senate minority leader. They contended that the possible emergence of Akpabio as senate minority leader would breach the senate standing orders exempting first-term senators from holding such a position.
But the court struck out their application, paving way for Akpabio’s nomination on Monday, July 27. The senate president, at the plenary after the senators returned from recess did not only announce Akpabio as the Minority Leader, he also named Senator Emmanuel Bwacha (PDP Taraba South) as Deputy Minority Leader. Others were Senator Phillip Aduda, PDP, Federal Capital Territory (FCT), as the Minority Whip and Senator Biodun Olujimi (PDP Ekiti South) as Deputy Minority Whip.
But, Senator Kabir Marafa (APC Zamfara Central) immediately challenged the appointments, saying they violated the Senate’s rules on ranking.
Marafa, who particularly challenged the appointment of Senator Akpabio, who is a first-time senator as minority leader, urged that the appointment should be declared null and void.
Citing Order 13(2) of the 2015 Senate Standing Rules, he argued that a ranking senator should have occupied the position given to the former Akwa Ibom State governor.
He said: “With due respect to our colleagues on the other party, the rule book regulates the proceedings of the chamber. This book brings about law and order in this chamber. This is the book that stipulates the dos and don’ts.
“Order 3 (2) states that nomination of senators to serve as presiding officers and appointment of principal officers and other office of the Senate or on any parliamentary delegation shall be in accordance with the ranking of senators.
“The nomination made by the PDP is not in accordance with the ranking and is therefore null and void”.
However, the Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekwerenmadu, insisted that the appointment of the officers was strictly PDP’s affair and not the business of Marafa, who is an All Progressives Congress, APC member.
He stated that the rule on ranking only stipulated that ranking senators should be considered first before other non-ranking senators, stressing that the constitution allowed any senator to occupy any position.
“If the ranking senator cannot take the position for any reason, then the next level of senators can be considered,” he said.
The Senate President, however, ruled Marafa out of order, saying the PDP senators were not complaining about Akpabio and other senators’ emergence as principal officers from the party.
However, the PDP is not alone in this infringement on the Senate’s Order 3 (2), the APC is also as guilty. In constituting its principal officers in the Senate, the ruling APC had also included Senator Francis Alimikhena, APC, (Edo North) as the deputy senate majority whip. Senator Alimikhenab is a first time senator.
Like Marafa argued, some lawyers believe the emergence of Akpabio and other first timers was a bad precedence since it is against the Senate’s standing rule. They pointed out that their experience in legislative business would definitely affect their performance as principal officers in the Red Chamber.
According to Barrister Suleiman Ayeni, the explanation of the Deputy Senate President on the emergence of Akpabio in particular did not hold water, saying the PDP senate caucus should have supported Senator James Manager who has been in the senate since 2003.
“This (Akpabio and other minority principal officers’ elections) will definitely hunt the senate in future. How can the senators, because of politics, set aside their own standing rule and nominate somebody who has just come to the senate. Ordinarily, Nigerians would have understood if someone like Senators James Manager and John Enoh were not in the race for the Minority Leader’s position.
“How do you, as a party explain the emergence of a first timer in the senate where there is someone who is serving his third term and another person, who has also served three terms in the House of Representatives before coming to the senate. I mean, this is not right for the development of our democracy”, he said.
Another lawyer, Bisola Adeyemi said, “the whole episode is part of corruption that Nigeria has been battling with over the years. I was saddened because every Nigerian is expected to key into the change programme of President Muhammadu Buhari administration, whether you are in APC, PDP, APGA, or other parties. Nigeria is one and we should only engage in actions that will move the country forward”.
But Chief Princewill Okoroafor, a member of PDP said the nomination of Akpabio and other officers was strictly a party affair, which has nothing to do with either the constitution or standing rule of the senate.
He argued, “look, neither the party in particular nor the senate as an institution has laid any bad precedence on the nomination of the principal officers. It is PDP’s affair and the party’s caucuses from different zones in the Senate, especially in the South East and South South met and agreed on Akpabio as the Minority Leader. Then what kind of precedence are you talking about?”
Above all, political observers maintain that the action of the senators in discarding the senate standing rule on appointment of the principal officers is a precedence that may hunt the upper chamber of National Assembly in future.