In this piece, KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes on the lingering crisis rocking the minority caucus in the House of Representatives viz-a-viz moves by the House leadership to punish members who cross the line.
Seven months after the 9th House of Representatives was inaugurated, the minority caucus remains enmeshed in crisis that has it factionalized as the rivalry between the two contenders for the position of leader of the caucus, Hon. Godwin Elumelu and Hon. Kingsley Chinda, linger.
The crisis which followed Elumelu’s emergence as the minority leader of the House, has left Chinda in running battle with the leadership of the House while it earned Elumelu and a few of his supporters a suspension from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
It would be recalled that shortly after inauguration of the House, lawmakers elected on the platform of the PDP and other minority parties became enmeshed in a leadership crisis stemming from Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila’s decision to announce Elumelu as the leader of the minority as against the PDP national leadership’s choice of Chinda.
Moves by the leadership of PDP to address the matter saw to the setting up of a committee led by former senate president, Iyorcha Ayu, to investigate the matter. The committee was set up by the Board of Trustees (BoT) of PDP. A disciplinary committee had earlier been setup by the National Working Committee (NWC) of the PDP led by former minister of Interior, Chief Tom Ikimi.
However while the committees worked, attempts by the Chinda-led faction to prevent the speaker from reading a letter which had Elumelu as minority leader; Toby Okechukwu as deputy minority leader; Gideon Gwani as minority whip and Adesegun Adekoya as deputy minority whip as purportedly endorsed by members of all the minority parties, failed.
Six months after its leaders were announced, the caucus stays divided between Elumelu, the minority leader, and Chinda as the leader of the PDP caucus. It is worthy of note that this is the main opposition party, by convention ought to led by none other than the minority leader in the House.
Chinda’s position which was authorised by the leadership of the PDP however, had the House initiate an investigation on him and his deputy, Hon. Chukwuka Onyema, the whip, Yakubu Barde and deputy whip, Hon. Ajibola Muraina, all of whom had hitherto, co-signed statements as leaders of the party caucus.
The decision for the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges to investigate them was consequent upon the adoption of a motion by Hon. Ben Igbakpa who alleged that the quartet were falsely parading themselves as leaders of his party, PDP caucus thus violating the standing rules and orders of the chambers.
The committee chaired by Hon. Kolawole Lawal which commenced its probe on November 6, 2019 had asked the lawmakers to defend themselves in a written documents. It also invited them for more appearance upon resumption of legislative activities this year even as its report is expected to be laid anytime soon.
However, it was learned that barring any last minute changes, the House is pushing for the suspension of Chinda as well as other leaders of the PDP caucus for allegedly flouting its rules.
A source who pleaded anonymity said, “The committee on ethics has already come up with its report and as most of us predicted from the day Hon. Igbakpa brought that motion calling for an investigation, we knew the aim was to suspend Chinda and that is exactly what the committee is recommending. All that is left to be done is for the committee chairman to lay the report and for the House to consider and adopt it.”
On whether the speaker has the powers to determine the leader of a party in the House, he said, “I’m not sure. This is probably the first time this sort of thing will happen.
“While the speaker may have starting it, it is now beyond him. He is now being pressured to suspend them. They are only pushing the Speaker to champion a battle that is not his. The Party, PDP, can’t do anything because the Governors are divided and some of them are even pressuring Femi to suspend them.”
Another member who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, decried the development which he worried would hit up the polity.
“This ugly development if allowed to sail through will heat up the body polity and create the impression that there’s more than meets the eyes on this issue.
“The situation is getting uglier. I heard from that they are seeking their suspension and I don’t understand for what. The party in question has come out to state that it gave him the authority to head its caucus in the House, why does the speaker or anyone for that matter have a problem with that. The suspension simply shows there’s probably more to the whole issue than meets the eye,” the member said.
In his reaction, Chinda who expressed shock at the reports and informed that his faction had been in talks with the speaker, said he was optimistic that the speaker would not succumb to pressure to suspend him for assuming a role his party, PDP authorized him to play.
“We have met with the speaker and had some frank and amiable discussions. I’m shocked to hear that this issue is resonating. I don’t think the speaker will concede to suspending us from the House for signing and asking that the constitution of the Supreme Court Panel to hear Presidential Petition should follow the laid down precedent of seniority or speaking on behalf of PDP Caucus of the House. No, the speaker won’t do that;
“The Speaker won’t even push for suspension of a member from Parliament for any reason whatsoever, talk less of a cooked up, flimsy and hollow reason. The speaker is very knowledgeable in parliamentary practice and a lawyer, he knows it’s unconstitutional to suspend an elected member and he had stood against it in the past, I don’t think he will change his stand now.
“Anyway from hindsight and the level of horse-trading in politics and the House in particular, I advise my other three colleagues to brace up for the worst. If we are suspended via a majority vote in the House, then I pity the Parliament and parliamentarians, because it means no member will have an independent opinion anymore. A bad precedent would have been set.
“I’m very sincerely, indifferent about the suspension, I know that it is an unconstitutional act and cannot stand the test of the law. Yes, I hear some people say when it’s done, we can go to court and they will frustrate the litigation with money for next 3 years and we will remain outside the Parliament but am not worried about all that. We only pray for divine wisdom and favour in everything we do, I am very sure it will end well,” Chinda stated.
Furthermore, the reported plot to suspend the River-born legislator has left the PDP and the House of Representatives in a war of words. The PDP which had earlier registered its displeasure over the investigation, at the weekend, cautioned the speaker to quit meddling “meddling in the internal affairs of the PDP.”
The party through its spokesman, Kola Ologbodiya, frowned at the speaker’s reported needless interference with the choice of the leadership of the PDP caucus in the House of Representatives” leading to intimidation and threats of sanctions against the “leader” of the PDP caucus in the House, Kingsley Chinda.
“The PDP, without equivocation, reminds Hon. Gbajabiamila that as a party, we reserve the right to form a parliamentary caucus as well as choose the leaders of our caucus, as it obtains in parliaments, all over the world and the House of Representatives under Gbajabiamila, as speaker cannot be an exception.
“Our party therefore, call on the speaker to respect our choice of leadership for the PDP caucus in the House of Representatives. Our choice has not, in any way, contravened any rules or posed any threat to the statutory running of the House of Representatives.
“Mr. speaker should, therefore, steer clear and bury the thoughts of punishing the loyal members of our party just because they are obedient to the decisions of the PDP.”
The House on the other hand, has posited that the PDP does not have the power to impose caucus leaders on members of the party in the parliament, and advised the party to desist from interfering in the affairs of the legislature henceforth.
Spokesperson of the House, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, said this in reaction to the warning issued to the speaker by the PDP to let its caucus leader operate as designated by it.
“To my knowledge, the interference of any political party in the affairs of the legislative institution is frowned at by our House rules therefore, PDP national executives have no business determining who is to lead the House caucus of their party, rather they can achieve that through the instrumentality of their members in the House.
“To the satisfaction of the leadership of the House, these PDP members chose Hon Ndudi Elumelu, the minority leader, to head the leadership of their members in the House. Why we are still on it is what bothers me.
“The PDP caucus of the House of Representatives among others, elected their minority leader in the person of Hon Elumelu, who by the House rules remains the highest office holder of the minority parties in the House including the PDP where according to INEC register, he is still a member.
“He is as well the highest recognised leadership voice by the House rules in matters affecting the minority parties, based on this, any minority member of the house acting outside the parameters of the House rules will be cautioned or punished by the House committee on Ethics and Privileges,” Kalu stated.
As the leadership crisis lingers, watchers believe that the impact would be felt largely in the quality of checks that would be provided by the main opposition on the majority party.
A legal practitioner, Ibekwe Erondu, said, “Of course, it should be expected that with the leading opposition party divided on the floor of the House, it would be difficult for them to provide robust, united and constructive criticism, or even hold the ruling party to account.
“Nigerians can see what the minority party is doing in the Senate but that has not been seen of the minority in the House which hitherto was known for its vibrancy and proactiveness. So beyond the poor conflict management within the PDP over this issue, it is expedient and in the interest of ensuring robust democracy that the opposition gets its act together in the House,” he said.
While the PDP continues it’s efforts to address the impasse, the leadership of the House of Representatives appears set to wield the big stick on Chinda and his team.