By Jibrin Ibrahim
On Wednesday, five thugs allegedly walked into the Senate, seized the mace, the symbol of authority of the Senate, walked out, entered a waiting SUV and drove off. After their departure, all hell broke loose. An emergency closed session was held to discuss the brazen challenge to Nigerian democracy, which some described as an attempted coup. It was said that: “This action is an act of treason, as it is an attempt to overthrow a branch of the Federal Government of Nigeria by force, and it must be treated as such. This action is also an affront on the legislature, and the leadership of the House has come to express their support against this action”. The Senate leadership marched to the vice president to report this breach to our democracy. The senators gave a 24-hour ultimatum to the director general of the Department of State Services (DSS), Lawal Daura and the Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris to recover the mace and apprehend the culprits. The members of the House of Representatives, led by Deputy Speaker Yusuf Lasun paid a solidarity visit to the Senate chamber. Then it turned out there was a spare mace, and then the stolen mace was recovered near the city gate and so on. The story is too complicated for me and I don’t get it.
The National Assembly is one of the most protected sites in Nigeria today. According to the headline in yesterday’s Daily Trust, there are over 500 security men attached to National Assembly and half of that number is on duty on working days. They are made up policemen, agents of the Department of State Services (DSS) and the sergeant-at-arms staff. The report explains that the five persons had arrived at the main entrance of the National Assembly in a black Range Rover SUV and reportedly told the security that they were together with Senator Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta) who was entering the premises at the same time. I can understand they came in through a ruse but how could they have left unchallenged with so many armed policemen around? And, why were they not chased? How come the three control points and gates were not closed to block their escape? How come there were tons of images of all the drama that were circulated almost immediately, as if cameras had been stationed to shoot a Nollywood film?
The drama had ben initiated with the suspension of Senator Omo-Agege, who had been punished because he disagreed with the majority view in the Senate and had remarked that the amendment to the sequence of elections was targeted at President Muhamamdu Buhari. Why should agreeing with the president and disagreeing with your parliamentary colleagues earn anyone long periods of suspension? Parliamentarians are highly respected in liberal democracies, not because of who they are but because of who they represent – their constituents, the people. Suspending legislators from the chambers denies the people their constitutional right to be represented and the consequence is destroying the legitimacy of the parliament itself. The legislators are destroying their own power by the repeated suspension of members over partisan disagreements and the earlier they realise it, the better for them.
The legal position on the issue has been clear for a long time. On May 30, 2013, the High Court in Bauchi had ruled that the suspension of Rifkatu Samson Dannah, member of the Bauchi State House of Assembly for over one-year was arbitrary, illegal, unconstitutional and violated the rule of law. The Court ruled that legislators do not have the right to deny Rifkatu’s constituents who voted her into office their constitutional rights of representation with the suspension. The Court of Appeal upheld the judgment. Why was she suspended? The House had passed an executive bill, which sought to relocate the headquarters of Tafawa Balewa Local Government to Bununu. The move was one of the ways the then governor, Isa Yuguda’s administration thought it could end the recurrent communal clashes between the dominant Sayawa ethnic group and the Hausa-Fulani in Tafawa Balewa town. Such clashes had on several occasions led to the burning of parts of the council secretariat, thereby paralysing government business and disturbing the peace. The governor and the majority of the members of the Assembly thought the bill in question was the solution. Hon. Rofkatu Dannah, who was elected by the constituency in question, disagreed and was severely punished by her colleagues. She was doing exactly the job she was elected to do – defend the interest of her constituency, as she understood it. In spite of the judgment delivered, our parliamentary assemblies continue to suspend members who disagree with them.
In the case of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, his suspension was based on his support for the president in an intra-party quarrel between the president and the Senate leadership. It was an attempt to fortify the faction of the Senate president, who has been involved in a dogfight with the president. By suspending the senator as a show of strength indicating that the Chamber could stand against the president, considerable democratic damage is done not to Omo-Agege but to the voters who sent him to the National Assembly. There have been allegations that he brought the thugs to steal the mace but he has denied it. The important point however is that the Senate is weakening itself and eroding its own legitimacy by the action. It was interesting that throughout the pandemonium, Omo-Agege remained at his seat until the end of the session. He witnessed the day’s sitting, including the closed-door session. After the session, he was arrested briefly and then released. If he was involved in the attack, then he is a thug and should be prosecuted. The decision should be for the courts and not for his colleagues who do not like what he said. Legislators are by definition protected to say what they think and we should not seek to change that if we want to protect our democracy.
I checked the website of the Senate of the United States. They assert the right given by Article I, Section 5, of the United States Constitution, which provides that “Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behaviour, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” In practice however, since 1789, the US Senate has expelled only fifteen of its members and of that number, fourteen were charged with support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In other words, except during the terrible conditions of the civil war, they had sought to avoid denying constituents their representation. Our legislators should learn the lessons of the consequences of the abuse of power.
A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development.