By Mumini Abdulkareem
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, on Tuesday announced that he is leaving the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), accusing forces within the party of causing his exit.
Mr Saraki is the third in hierarchy in Nigeria’s current governance structure coming after President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. His defection, therefore, puts the APC in a difficult situation.
The relationship between Dr Saraki, as head of the legislative arm of government, and the ruling party had been characterised by frictions and distrust after he emerged President of the Senate against the wish of leadership of the party in June 2015.
Saraki faced a lot of onslaughts most notably his trial for alleged non-declaration of assets which terminated with the Supreme Court ruling in his favour.
The Senate President also faces allegations that he was a sponsor of armed robbers who murdered and robbed banks in Offa town, in his native Kwara State. Over 30 persons were killed in that attack. The police say their investigations show that some of the armed robbers were Saraki’s political thugs and that he may have provided arms and logistics to them. The police also alleged that Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed of Kwara, a strong ally of Saraki who also followed him out of the APC Tuesday, was equally implicated by the arrested suspects. Messrs Saraki and Ahmed have denied any links with the suspects and alleged political witch-hunt.
Before Saraki’s exit, 14 Senators left the APC last week, after which both chambers of the National Assembly went on recess till September.
After last week’s defections, the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), speaking through its leader in the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, said that it was now the majority party in the upper chamber.
However, APC Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, told State House correspondents after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari that the ruling party still has a majority in the Senate with 53 lawmakers.
The PDP, according to Mr Lawan now has 50 Senators.
Can Saraki be removed as Senate President?
With his formal exit from the APC Tuesday, attention will now be shifted to Saraki’s position as President of the Senate.
The APC can, as the ruling party still with a slight majority in the Senate, try to remove Saraki as senate president. However, that move will fail, several senators have held; because Saraki commands huge loyalty even among APC senators.
Although there are some APC senators like Ali Ndume, who want Saraki to cease being the senate president and would likely support his removal, other APC senators like Senate spokesperson Aliyu Sabi and Kaduna lawmaker Shehu Sani are believed to be opposed to such action.
Ndume told Punch newspapers that although two third of members will be required to remove the senate president, the senate leadership “should emerge from the majority; that is the practice all over the world.”
Sabi countered and told reporters that “nobody can remove Saraki. We elected him and we are not ready to remove him yet.
“From day one, they never wanted Saraki. What we are saying is that the right to choose the senate president lies with senators and we have chosen our leader.”
Sani also hinted at his support for Mr Saraki to retain his position when he wrote on Wednesday that “The Executive should respect the decision of those who chose to defect, maintain a cordial relationship with them and never attempt to persecute any of them for their individual political decisions.”
Another APC senator also who spoke off Tuesday night said that despite Saraki’s defection, “it is simply impossible to impeach the Senate President legally.”
The senators made mention of likely failure of ‘legal’ removal also hints that the Buhari government could attempt an illegal one. At least on two different occasions, officials of the administration, using security agencies, have attempted to force a change in Senate leadership. Both attempts failed and were condemned by most Nigerians.
What the law says
Although there have been defections by a sitting vice president (Atiku Abubakar) and a speaker of the House of Representatives (Aminu Tambuwal), Mr Saraki on Tuesday became the first Senate President in Nigeria to leave his party while in office.
The legal practitioners explained that there is no illegality in the way Mr Saraki announced his defection.
In his reaction to Mr Saraki’s defection, a senior lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, said Mr Saraki also needs to write the office of the Senate President as expected of all senators changing their party.
“He (Mr Saraki) will write to the Senate President also, but his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, will preside over the session where it will be read.
“Section 68(1)(g) of the 1999 constitution refers,” Mr Ozekhome said in a text message.
A legal practitioner, Liborous Oshoma, said the lawmaker has not broken any rule by making his announcement on his social media platforms as there is no constitutional provision for that.
“There is no constitutional provision but I know by virtue of their house rule, he is to announce his defection on the floor of the Senate to give the house notice of his decision.”
Oshoma added that “he has not broken any rule since the parliament is on recess.
“Maybe when they resume, he will announce it on the floor of the Senate. But apart from that, there is no constitutional procedure for that,” he said.
He also said the Senate President will have to write a letter to his party secretary at his ward “just like it is done when you want to join or register with a party.”
While stating that a lot of people expected this to happen before now, the lawyer said for him, “the party has always treated him as an outcast since he won the election to the office of the Senate President. That’s why he has always been in opposition with the ruling.”
Another legal practitioner, Inihebe Effiong, also noted that there is constitutional provision for changing political party in the legislature.
“It is just for the member to indicate interest in joining another party. Going by the rules of the Senate, usually such decision is communicated to the presiding officers and he is a presiding officer.
“What amounts to the defection is a question of fact; once a member of the National Assembly has indicated that he has left a party, irrespective of how he does that, he is deemed to have left that party.
“That he announced on social media does not alter his decision – which is that he has left the APC. I believe that upon resumption, he will make the announcement.”
He further explained that Mr Saraki doesn’t need to write to the APC to say that he is no longer their member. “There is freedom of association,” he said.
Jiti Ogunye, a lawyer, had the same response when he was contacted.
“There is no elaborate procedure for that. What is conventional is to do it on the floor of the Senate; a letter is addressed to that effect. Due to the fact that the National Assembly is on recess, the letter cannot be read.”
While stating that Saraki’s decision has been long awaited, Mr Ogunye explained that the most important procedure is not just the defection, it is the implication of the defection.
“It takes a single majority to appoint a presiding officer but it takes two-third of the majority to remove him, except he (Saraki) doesn’t want to be Senate President anymore, which in that case, he will resign,” he said.
With the seemingly impossible task of legally removing Saraki from office, the APC can also choose to persuade him to resign; a move that would fail as according to an aide, Saraki intends to continue in office as senate president.
Implications for APC
The National Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole, had in a reaction to the defection of 14 APC senators last week said it was good riddance because that would enable the party concentrate on its campaigns.
He said even while they were in the APC, the senators constituted themselves as opposition to the governing party.
The sour relationship between the executive and legislative arm has affected the smooth running of the administration of President Buhari. For instance, many opine that the relationship is the major reason why it took over six months for the National Assembly to pass the 2018 budget.
In the same vein, several key appointments by Mr Buhari that requires Senate approval suffer delays hence affecting key agencies of government.
However, contrary to widely held perception, Mr Saraki has also made efforts to build a cordial relationship with the executive. A subtle attempt to push for an impeachment process against Buhari over the spending of about $440 million to purchase fighter jets from the U.S. without lawmakers’ approval was said to have been thwarted by Saraki.
Despite his travails, the Senate President appears to sometimes follow the path of caution and steer his colleagues to an amicable resolution of conflicting issues as they arise between the Senate and the executive or APC.
Saraki, himself, attested to this when he stated on Tuesday that “over the years, I have made great efforts in the overall interest of the country, and in spite of my personal predicament, to manage situations that would otherwise have resulted in unsavoury consequences for the government and the administration. My colleagues in the Senate will bear testimony to this.”
With his defection and reluctance of senators to remove him as their leader, Saraki will be the highest opposition member in an APC administration, a role hitherto performed by Ekweremadu. He will not be there when the ruling party meets to discuss key issues for its governance. He may also not be present when Buhari lobbies for the support of key top government functionaries on important policies for the smooth running of his government.
Saraki’s defection may also make it more difficult for the APC administration to easily get the approval of the Senate for important matters. These include appointments, the budget and other spending, especially the knotty funding required by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct the 2019 election.
The Nigerian Senate, henceforth, is not likely to overlook any infraction from the Buhari-led executive, no matter how small.
An APC senator and key ally of Mr Saraki, however, warns against going confrontational with the executive.
“The Parliament led by the opposition must not be a stumbling block for Government policies and programmes and the person of the president and his office must be accorded the highest respect it deserves,” Shehu Sani wrote on Wednesday.