Despite his role in the emergence of Godswill Akpabio as the Senate President, Senator Ali Ndume has given “two yellow cards” to Akpabio over his alleged penchant for not obeying senate standing rules, heralding a new twist in once cordial relationship, AZIMAZI MOMOH JIMOH reports.
Compromise and jumping of legislative processes in passing bills, especially with the unanimous agreement of senators, is completely unknown to law.
The Senate’s Standing Rule, a set of regulations that the upper chamber put together in line with the 1999 Constitution to guide its legislative proceedings, strictly forbid the practice.
Amid controversies generated by the recent political faceoff between Senate President Godswill Akpabio and Senate’s Chief Whip, Mohammed Ali Ndume, The Guardian investigation revealed that the showdown was caused by arbitrary deviation from the rule.
However, Akpabio had insisted that his political relationship with Ndume is intact, despite wrong speculations in many quarters.Since its inauguration on June 13, 2023, the Akpabio-led Senate has initiated over 50 bills so far, but less than ten have reached second reading to attract debate on the floor.
Among those that have been debated, just a few have generated controversies among lawmakers and members of the public. These include the Bill for an Act to Amend the National Investment Programmes Act 2023; the other controversial one was a motion on the closure of the Nigeria-Niger border.
Order 79(1) of the Standing Rule dictates that “Every bill shall receive three readings previous to its passage, which readings shall be on different days, unless the Senate unanimously directs otherwise and the President of the Senate shall give notice at each reading whether it is first, second or third”.
It means that the Senate leadership cannot rush any of these stages to be done in a day or two without the consent of all senators present. Before a bill is sent or committed to a Committee for further legislative processes, it passes through several procedures none of which can be compromised for the other.
The Standing rule also listed the key processes, which must be strictly adhered to. According to section 77 of the Senate Rule, “Notice of presentation of a Government Bill shall be given by publication of the provisions proposed to be embodied in such Bill in an issue of the Official Gazette or National Assembly Journal of which a copy shall have been sent to every senator.
“Any Senator who wishes to move for leave to bring a bill shall give notice of provisions proposed to be embodied in the bill to the Clerk, who shall cause them to be published in two successive issues of the Official Gazette or National Assembly Journal and shall send a copy of the first of such issues to every Senator,” it added.
The rule equally requires that “a compendium of the background information and financial implications shall accompany every Bill.” Also, section 78 (4) states that “A printed copy of the Bill shall as soon as possible be sent to every Senator. (5) On receipt of the Bill from the President of the Senate, the Rules and Business Committee shall schedule the bill for the first reading. (6) Upon the short title of the Bill being read aloud by the Clerk, the Bill shall be deemed to have been read the first time.” It stated further that “At the conclusion of the first reading or on any subsequent stage of a Bill, a day to be named by the Committee on Rules and Business shall be appointed for the next stage.”
The faceoff, which began barely 50 days after the election of Akpabio as President of the Senate in which Ndume served as Campaign Director General, took watchers of events in the Senate aback.
The realisation that Ndume refused to be an image maker to the chief beneficiary of his three-month campaigns made political analysts jump to conclusion that serious cracks had emerged in the camp of Akpabio.
But Ndume, who served as Senate majority leader in the 8th Senate, insisted that there was no political malice in his insistence that due parliamentary procedures be applied in processing every legislative activity.
He explained that what was interpreted to be a walkout was a coincidence between the time for prayers and the time he objected to procedural error in the Senate chamber.
In an interview, Ndume explained that the rationale behind his departure was related to his decision to leave during the discussion of a topic concerning the closure of Nigeria’s borders.
He said the situation arose “when Senator Kawu Sumaila (NNPP, Kano) proposed a motion which he said was urgent on closing the border between Nigeria and Niger.
“At first, it was argued that the motion was not urgent, but the president of the Senate did not let (Sumaila) finish what he wanted to say. After hearing the motion, it was agreed that since it is related to security, it should be suspended.”
He also mentioned that he intended to clarify the importance of the motion to the assembly, but the Senate President refused to grant him the chance to address the issue.
“I would like to clarify that the motion, although impactful, falls outside the jurisdiction of the Nigerian Senate. The closure of the border was not initiated by the President of Nigeria, but rather during his tenure as President of ECOWAS. As such, he has the authority to advocate on our behalf.
“In order to address this matter, it is imperative to involve the President of our nation, but I was not afforded the opportunity to convey this message. While this was happening, it coincided with the time of prayer, prompting my departure.
Consequently, my colleagues misconstrued my exit, and the journalists changed the meaning of my exit,” Ndume said.
Part of the issues that had pitched him against Akpabio since the inauguration of the 10th Senate include rushing of legislative bills at the detriment of the Senate rule, proper consultation with Senators as well avoidable mistakes by the presiding officer.
Despite being the chief whip of the Senate, a position that restricts him to managing the affairs of his party in the Senate and protecting their interests, Ndume openly cautioned Akpabio against breaching the Senate rules in the passage of bills.
This was demonstrated during the consideration of a bill for amending the National Social Investment Programmes (NSIP). The amendment seeks to transfer the control and supervision of programs under the NSIP from the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to the Presidency.
The bill, presented by the Senate Leader, Opeyemi Bamidele, emanated from the executive arm. Ndume supported the argument of the senator representing Nasarawa South, Mohammed Onawo, who had also criticised Akpabio, for allegedly approving legislative bills without following due process.
He accused the Senate president of not ensuring that two-thirds of the senators were present during debates on bills before they were passed. Onawo questioned Akpabio for hurriedly approving sensitive bills. “It takes the total of the senators seated, but have we taken into consideration how many senators are seated and how many people have agreed that we say we are two-thirds.
“And apart from that, this point is very necessary because since we started this Senate, you said it is a corrective Senate.
“We have been ambushed all the time when very sensitive bills are brought and are expected to be passed with the speed of light, which is not good for this country.
“Every senator here is supposed to be adequately informed; he does his research, comes to the floor, and makes a positive contribution. But in a situation where even money bills are brought and we are expected to pass it within two hours, it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t go well for this country.”
“Sir, you are on the seat today; history will judge you that things like these are not good for this country,” the senator said. Ndume, who also contributed to the point of order, explained that the two-third requirement to pass a bill is based on the number of senators present at the plenary and not the statutory number of senators – 109.
“There are few instances like the amendment of the constitution; some parts require two-thirds. That means the senators before voting will be informed that there will be a vote on a certain matter and they need to be present so that two-thirds will be achieved. But any decision that comes up like this during the sitting of the senate, the two-third means those that are here.” Ndume added.
Another issue of disagreement between the Senate President and the whip is the one now popularly called “Prayers to senators’ mailboxes.’’
Akpabio earlier in August made a gaffe during plenary when he mistakenly revealed that money had been sent to senators to “enjoy” their recess.
The Senate president, who forgot that the proceeding was being streamed live, began to address his colleagues before the adjournment motion was moved at the end of the Senate’s ministerial screening.
“In order to enable all of us to enjoy our holidays, a token has been sent to our various accounts by the Clerk of the National Assembly,” he said.
When he was immediately informed by his colleagues that he was speaking on live television, Akpabio quickly withdrew his comment.
“In order to allow you to enjoy your holiday, the senate president has sent prayers to your mailboxes to assist you to go on a safe journey and return,” Akpabio rephrased the comment, apparently to correct what was considered an embarrassment.
Ndume, in reaction, said: “It’s common knowledge that if any employee is going on leave, he/she is entitled to a leave grant. That was the money we received, and it is nothing unusual or special. All senators received N2 million. And I am making this comment with a heavy heart because Akpabio is the cause of this controversy.
“He created an impression as if we were given some special or huge amounts of money. What’s the big deal if I receive two million naira allowance in my capacity as a senator?
“He made a very wrong statement, and I warned him immediately that his comments were unbecoming of an elder. In fact, we are even planning to take drastic action against him if he continues making unguarded statements and acting as if we are kids.”
Speaking with reporters after a meeting with President Bola Tinubu at the presidential villa shortly after the dramatic incident on the floor, the senate president said as politicians there is no hatred between them.
“In the parliament, sometimes you disagree. We are all working in one accord. There is no problem at all,” he said.
“Even if some people disagree on some of the happenings in the senate, still, it is only the majority decision that is going to prevail and the parliament is like that. We will never get to the point of throwing chairs. We will never get to that point. The Senate is too mature, full of mature people, so, if we have a disagreement, we immediately go into a closed session, resolve it and come out smiling.
“We are politicians, no permanent hatred but permanent interest.”