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NASS Inauguration: How Clerk Averted Constitutional Crisis

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To say the road to the inauguration of the 9th Senate on June 11, 2019 was tumultuous and tension soaked, perhaps was understatement.

However, constitutional crisis was averted when the  needless “midnight court judgement’’ Senator Jibrin Barau (Kano North) hurriedly obtained to halt open balloting process for the conduct of the National Assembly leadership elections on June 11 did not suffice.

Senator Barau’s court restraining injunction evokes memories of Chief Arthur Nzeribe’s Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) who also secured an ex-parte order from Justice Bassey Iheme of the FCT High Court, Abuja in the wee hours of June 11, 1993, ostensibly to halt presidential election of June 12, 1993.

Justice O.A.Musa of Court 13 of the FCT High Court sitting in Bwari had granted an interim injunction restraining the Clerk to the National Assembly, the Clerk of the senate and the Sergeant At Arms to the senate and others from relying or enforcing the senate standing orders 2015 (as amended) in the conduct of election of Presiding officers of the senate of the 9thAssembly, pending the determination of this suit.

The court however, ordered the senate to apply the senate standing Orders 2011 (as amended) by the senate on the 24th May, 2011, which prescribed the use of open ballot rather than secret ballot mode in the election of presiding officers of the senate.

The order in suit number FCT/HC/BW/CV/136/2019 with Motion No M/266/2019, was said to have been made after the court heard the motion on notice and an affidavit deposed to by Senator Jibrin Barau and filed on his behalf by his lawyer, Barr Ebere Nwanya.

Curiously, nothing was heard of this ex-parte order until at about 6pm on June 10, just about 16 hours to the inauguration of 9th National Assembly on June 11, 2019. Besides, none of the FCT High Courtroom was opened on June 10, 2019 due to the valedictory session held in honour of Justice Sunday Aladetoyinbo who retired after attaining compulsory retirement age and even if the judgement was granted before then, why should Senator Barau decides to ambush some lawmakers with it? This and other questions are still begging for answers from Senator Barau himself.

Prior to the emergence of Senator Ahmed Lawan as senate president of the 9th senate, he and former majority leader Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume were the contenders in the senate presidency race. Senator Barau was in Senator Lawan’s camp who favours open balloting while Senator’s camp believed in secret balloting.

On good authority, Senator Ndume’s camp also obtained a counter order from the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja even before 10:00am when inauguration of the 9th senate was to begin. Perhaps, senators from Ndume’s camp would have presented a “stay of execution order’’ to the Clerk to the National Assembly if he had aligned to obey the court order directing him to adopt open ballot for the election.

However, Clerk to the National Assembly, Alhaji Mohammed Ataba Sani-Omolori began the inauguration of the 9th senate at about 10.05am when he read proclamation letter from President Muhammadu Buhari preparatory to the lawmakers’ swearing-in.

Trouble began when he announced that the elections for the emergence of the senate president and his deputy would be conducted in line with Orders 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the 2015 Senate Standing Orders (Rule Book). These orders guarantees conduct of the two elections by secret balloting.

But immediately Sani-Omolori made the announcement, Senator Barau and Senator Ovie Omo- Agege (now the deputy senate president) led a shouting bout to say that the rule had been set aside by a court injunctions granted by the Abuja High Court on Monday.

Specifically, Senator Barau thundered out asking Sani-Omolori on whether he was aware of the court order or not, to which the Clerk responded thus: “I will answer the question from you out of respect. I heard about the court order but not served.

“May I appeal to all the Distinguished Senators – elect that the guiding principle here is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Senate Rule book as amended.

“Provisions in the rule book as regards how to conduct today’s election are very clear and that is what we shall comply with’’.

Senator Barau’s protest was countered by advocates of secret ballot method led by the PDP senators and the development degenerated into a rowdy session which lasted for about five minutes.

Before it came to a halt, Sani-Omolori had to take charge, with his mercurial and aristocratic voice he made further pronouncements, this time around very ominous and melancholic, just to sound a note of warning to effect that any senator who asks question again would be sent out of the chamber.

“No question shall be entertained and no motion shall emerge. None of you have a voice here now until you are sworn-in. But for the matter of respect, I think the question is whether I entertain any court order or not and the answer is no,” Sani-Omolori said. This made the then senators-elect, like unruly school pupils in the headmaster’s office to keep quiet.

Sani-Omolori then invited the Clerk of the Senate, Nelson Ayewoh, to take the roll of the senators-elect in attendance, alphabetically starting from Abia State. And at the end of the roll-call, Ayewoh announced that 107 out of the 109 senators-elect were in the chamber.

This was followed by nominations for Senators Ahmad Lawan (Yobe North) and Ali Ndume (Borno South) to take the seat of the President of the 9th Senate.

What would have happened if Sani-Omolori had failed to take control or charge of the tension soaked senators-elect in that chamber and argument as to obeying or not obeying the court order persists, degenerate into heavy brawl like the old Western Region House of Assembly on May 25, 1962.

Going down the memory lane, it would be recalled that the crisis snowballed when Governor of Western Region, Sir Adesoji Aderemi summoned the House to ratify the new Premier, Chief D.S. Adegbenro after he dismissed Chief S.L. Akintola as leader of government and Premier of Western Region.

On that fateful day, two unsuccessful attempts were made to hold meetings of the Western House of Assembly; the first one ended in a violent uproar and disorder. The police had no alternative but to use tear gas to disperse all Members to end the second meeting. Besides, the mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, was broken. The Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on May 29, 1962 had to declare a state of emergency in the Western Region and appointed Senator M. A. Majekodunmi, the Federal Minister of Health and the country’s leading gynecologist, Administrator of the Region.

“No doubt, the uproar that greeted announcement of secret balloting for the conduct of National Assembly presiding officers election and counter uproar would have made mess of Nigeria’s democracy. Supposing the situation went out of hand and Sani-Omolori had to adjourn the inauguration day, the question would arise as to whether he has the power under the 1999 constitution to do so’’, an Abuja base lawyer, Alasa Ismaila argued.

“Section 63 of the 1999 Constitution provides that, ‘’the senate and the House of Representatives shall each sit for a period of not less than one hundred and eight-one days in a year’’.

“It went further under Section 64 (1) to state that, ‘’the senate and the House of Representatives shall each stand dissolved at the expiration of a period of four years commencing from the date of the first sitting of the House’’.

Ismaila further said, “there would have been state of détente, lull or anomie if Sani-Omolori has to adjourn sitting for senate presiding officers’ elections and swearing-in after he has read President’s proclamation.

“By virtue of Section 64 (2) of the 1999 Constitution, only the President can extend the period of four years mentioned in Section 64 (1), on the condition that the country is at war. Sani-Omolori would not have had where to cite in the constitution to adjourn inauguration sitting.

“The President cited Section 64 (3) of the 1999 Constitution which empowered him to issue proclamation commemorating the first sitting of the National Assembly and dissolution of the 8th National Assembly. In other words, he stand absolved of any extension or absence of Legislative Arm of Government for the number of days it stand adjourned.

“Sani-Omolori, been a lawyer knows the implication of resulting to adjournment of inauguration sitting and therefore threw courtesy to the wind and asked the senators-elect to keep quiet. “You have no voice until you are sworn-in. I won’t entertain question from anyone of you again’’.

Of course, with his imposing and raging voice, the senators knew they would be sent out if they open their mouth to say anything any longer, hence they kept silent. By that singular act, the nation was saved from needless constitutional crisis’’, Ismaila said.

A political commentator, Mahmud Aliyu said that “the arrogance and unruly manner the All Progressive Congress (APC) National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole disclosed that Senator Ahmed Lawan has been endorsed as the 9th senate president on Monday March 25, 2019, perhaps set on course the crisis and protest by the then senators-elect. It indeed sparked rebellion in Borno south Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume against APC leadership and the presidency’’.

Curiously, Oshiomhole made the announcement while President Muhammadu Buhari was hosting state governors and senators-elect of the APC to a dinner at the Presidential Villa, Abuja that night. President Buhari tersely and contentiously remarked that he aligned with his party decision.

Senator Ndume, who began his rebellion a day after Oshiomhole announced Lawan as the preferred candidate for the senate president position described the endorsement APC handed to Lawan as unconstitutional and completely against the spirit of fair play. While addressing a press conference to reject Oshiomhole’s statement, Ndume said that the position of the party on who emerges the Senate President cannot stand as it did not follow due process.

Even when the likes of Senator Adamu Abdullahi and Senator Danjuma Goje who overtly or covertly indicated interest to contest against Lawan later backed out of the contest, Senator Ndume insisted on contesting, a situation which gave APC leadership and the presidency deep concern.

What led to the near breakdown of law and order in the senate legislative chamber were in two major fold. Although Senator Lawan’s camp laid claim to absolute support of the PDP senators-elect, but at the same time highly suspicious of them. The camp also felt that except the election was conducted by secret balloting, some APC senators-elect would merge forces with PDP senators to upstage Senator Lawan.

Besides, Senator Ndume’s strategy to wrap identities of his supporters in secrecy equally heightened the anxiety within the APC leadership, Presidency and Lawan’s camp. The declaration by the PDP senators-elect a day to the inauguration that they would file enmass behind Senator Ndume for senate presidency election further increased the tension in the senate chamber during the inauguration day. This was just as the emergence of Lawan as senate president was more than a matter of life and death for the trio, especially the presidency.

At last, the inauguration was successfully proclaimed, and elections to the National Assembly presiding officers’ seats were held in the most peaceful atmosphere.

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