This House Must not Fall! (Or, In Defence of the Fence-Scaling Legislators) By Ogbu, Blessing Ekpere
Last week, this nation witnessed a scene which was as obscene as it was incredible. It was a gross antithesis of democracy and a negation of all known principles and ethos of a democratic society. It was a culmination of a tensed three weeks following the defection of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Right Honourable Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, CFR during which the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Suleiman Abba, arrogating to himself the judicial role of an interpreter of the Constitution, highhandedly withdrew the security details of the Speaker and ceased to address him as such. On Thursday, the 20th day of November, 2014, the entire complex of the National Assembly was besieged by a band of Policemen who claimed they were within the legislative precincts to enforce the law. After their apparent instructions from above was foiled by the unexpected reaction from the honourable members of the lower house, the same Police issued a statement wherein it claimed that it occupied the premises of the National Assembly following intelligence reports that the complex would be invaded by hoodlums. But was the excuse tenable? The videos of that regrettable incidence, which have gone viral since that day, do not reveal any invasion by the so-called hoodlums.
It must be pointed out that this is not an exculpatory treatise on behalf of the Legislature. In fact, one cannot discountenance the opinion of some well meaning Nigerians who have maintained that according any measure of sympathy to the legislators would be criminal. Their contention is attributable to the indifference of the legislators to the travails of the ordinary members of this commonwealth. Such nonchalance, they assert, finds ample expression in the failure of the legislators to enact people-friendly laws and to respond to issues affecting the man on the street. An example that readily comes to mind is the Petroleum Industry Bill which has been pending in both Houses of the National Assembly since 2008 when it was first presented to the National Assembly by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Supposing Nigerians were at the receiving end of this police overzealousness, it has been hypothesised by these thoughtful Nigerians, these legislators would not have deemed it expedient to list such executive malfeasance on the Order Paper of the day.
But, we shall leave the dereliction of the legislators for another day. The events of that unfortunate Thursday call for circumspection. Nowhere in the world has the Police, acting of its own accord, or at the instigation of another person or authority, clothed itself with infamy, found itself enmeshed in the mire of public disapprobation and thereby pelted with the missiles of deserved opprobrium. The excuses proffered by the Police – when they withdrew his security details and when they invaded the precincts of the National Assembly are tenuous at best. Beginning with the former, the question that needs to be asked is whether the Police is the institution of State vested with the powers to interpret the law. This question becomes more urgent when viewed against the backdrop of the constitutional provisions on which the Police purported to derive the powers to so act. Section 68(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended provides that “A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the house of which he is a member if -” That subsection then goes on to list out the circumstances under which such Member shall vacate his seat. Relevant to the present impasse is the provisions of paragraph (g) of the subsection and the accompanying proviso thereto. It states that “being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected; provided his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.”
It is only necessary we examine the duplicity of the Police in the light of the facts of the Tambuwal defection. When the Right Honourable Tambuwal announced his defection from the PDP to the APC, he informed his peers that he was doing so as a consequence of the division and crises in the Sokoto State chapter of the PDP. It is our submission that having alleged the existence of a particular state of facts in the PDP of his home state, the PDP, if it was aggrieved by the actions of the Speaker, should have adduced evidence to disprove the alleged state of facts. It could have done this only by approaching the Courts for a judicial intervention. This would have been consistent with the provisions of sections 121, 126 and 138 of the Evidence Act 2011 as amended. Particularly instructive is the provision of section 138 (2) of the Evidence Act 2011 as amended which states that “The existence or non-existence of facts relating to the admissibility of evidence under this section is to be determined by the Court.” Therein lies the first act of solecism of the Inspector-General of Police: usurping the role of the Court. If there was any act that threatened the time-honoured dicta of separation of powers, that was it: an agent of the executive arm of government audaciously performing the role of another arm of government.
But, supposing for the sake of argument that there was no division in the Sokoto State chapter of the PDP to ground Right Honourable Tambuwal’s defection, would the Police have been justified in declaring that he ceased to be a member of the Green Chambers, and by extension, the Speaker of the House of Representatives? We will not deign to answer the question in the affirmative. But, suffice it to say that are certain procedures that must be followed before the seat of a defecting member is declared vacant. A community reading of the proviso to section 68(1)(g) and the clear provisions of section 68(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended will make this point clear. We have reproduced the provisions of section 68(1)(g) of the Constitution and the accompanying proviso thereto. Here is the provisions of section 68(2): “The President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as the case may be, shall give effect to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section, so however that the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives or a member SHALL FIRST PRESENT EVIDENCE SATISFACTORY TO THE HOUSE CONCERNED THAT ANY OF THE PROVISIONS OF THAT SUBSECTION HAS BECOME APPLICABLE IN RESPECT OF THAT MEMBER.” (capitalization and underlining added for emphasis) In other words, the vacation of the seat is not an automatic consequence of the defection: certain measures have to be activated. Government is a serious business and should not be reduced to the nadir of whimsical flashes of tantrums and the puerile flexing of muscles. At this point, the actions of the Police in usurping the role of the Courts become, not only reprehensible, but utterly unsupportable. Granted, the Police may have the right to withdraw the security details of any person, since there is no known law that states that people should be accorded security details. But, it would have been saner if the Police had hinged its decision on some inhouse administrative policy rather than on its purported interpretation of the provisions of the constitution which, in our view, is an act of criminal dishonesty calculated to make mockery of the tenets of the twin doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balance. The Inspector-General of Police, who is also a Lawyer, should have known better.
Equally inimical to the sustenance of a viable democratic culture and more unsupportable is the invasion of the National Assembly by agents of the executive arm of government. It is this display of gangland antics that got Nigerians united against the brazen display of unbridled partisanship by the Police. While it is not in dispute that the Legislature in Nigeria as an arm of government has not lived up to expectations as such; and while there is no justification for the humongous amount of money Nigerian law makers receive (we deliberately eschew the word “earn” because there is no correlation between the immoral amount and the caricature they exhibit in the name of legislating to show that they actually earned it) – even higher than what the American President earns, making them the highest paid legislators in the world; and while Bills that would be of immense, or even tangential benefit to the masses hardly occupy the attention of these legislators; and while there is no question as to the scant disregard Nigerians have for the National Assembly as an institution and the denizens thereof as a class, especially the Senate under the leadership of Senator David Mark; Nigerians came out to hail the fence-scaling Honourables as national heroes and to condemn the Gestapo Nigerian Police and the secret hand behind the puppet – the Presidency – as agents of destabilization. Their condemnation is anchored on their love for democracy. Having fought so hard to entrench democracy in the most populous black nation on earth, it is only natural that Nigerians speak out against the actions of political adventurers on the corridors of power, who were nowhere to be seen when true democrats and activists fought the military juggernauts to a standstill. In commending the actions of these honourable members, Nigerians have not acted any differently from the way they acted in late 2009 and early 2010 when Nigerians, under the umbrella of the Save Nigerian Group, came out in unison to demand that the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan be made the Acting President – an act which compelled the ultraconservative Senate to invoke the doctrine of necessity so as to effectuate the demands of Nigerians. As it was in those days, so it is today.
It is laughable to use such derogatory words as shameful, irresponsible, etc, to dismiss rather cavalierly the actions of the legislators that day. If the honourable members had not scaled the fence and the gates of the National Assembly, Nigerians would not have been searching for appropriate epithets to qualify the conduct of the honourable members: on the contrary, Nigerians would have been lamenting another rape of Nigerian democracy by a bunch of narcissistic megalomaniacs straddling the seats of government. Nor can the Press Release of the Nigerian Police obfuscate the validity of this conspiracy theory, as the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Emeka Ihedioha and some PDP law makers were granted access into the Green Chambers by the Police. It happened in Rivers State when Evans Bipi and his four cohorts claimed to have removed the Speaker, Right Honourable Dan Otelemaba Dan Amachree and declared the seats of the other twenty-six honourable members vacant. That same week the Police invaded the National Assembly, an armed mobile police unit in Ekiti State escorted seven members of the Ekiti State House of Assembly to the Chambers of the House where they purported to impeach the Right Honourable Adewale Omirin, the Speaker of the Ekiti State House of Assembly. Thus, instead of vilifying these honourable members who cared not for how reactionaries perceive their conduct as they strove to protect and preserve our democracy, these lawmakers should be applauded for standing up to incipient tyranny. And, indeed, when the history of this era is written, these lawmakers will, without doubt, appear on the right side of posterity.
There are parallels, therefore, to be drawn from the unfortunate incidence at the National Assembly last Thursday. The first is that those who are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of a bequest, having not worked for it, harbour no compunction as they fritter away the bequeathed wealth in epicurean excesses. Such persons are like Nza the bird who, after a hearty meal, challenged its personal chi to a wrestling bout. Such is the life of the political actors of today. The second is that a mother must always strive to save her errant child from itself: the child remains her child even where such child inflicts her with heartaches too unimaginable to be contemplated. In other words, an elder must not be at home and watch a goat deliver while still tied to a stake. Such is the fate of Nigerians. The third is that those who keep quiet in the face of oppression sooner or later become victims of the same oppressor. Such is the fate of the National Assembly. Having chosen the ignoble path of staid complacency and revolting orthodoxy during the travesty in Rivers State, it is only poetically just that they experience firsthand the tribulations of visited on Right Honourable Otelemaba Dan Amachree and his twenty-five colleagues. The fourth is that those whose palm kernels have been cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should remember to be humble. This is true of President Jonathan. Regrettably, and most alarming, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, himself a product of the agitations of civil societies and the operation of democratic ideals, carries on as if he is one of those mythical deities that putatively descended from the heavens, while the Presidency under his watch rapidly evolves into the very avatar of anti-democracy and an embodiment of intolerance, having eroded the integrity of vital national institutions in the process. To all political actors we thus caution: THIS HOUSE MUST NOT FALL UNDER YOUR WATCH.
Ogbu Blessing Ekpere, Esq., a Legal Practitioner, writes in from Abuja
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