What would it take President Muhammadu Buhari to get the politics of the National Assembly right? Four years ago, he had a problem which, like a stubborn fly, has refused to go away.
After his election victory speech in 2015 when he was for all and for none, things went haywire, leading to the emergence of a National Assembly leadership that would haunt him for the rest of his tenure.
His wars with the legislature – from inflated budgets to outright refusal to confirm a number of high profile appointees and God knows what not – were probably next to his ill-health in the pecking order of his woes.
Most people blamed Buhari. If he had taken the lead early on and given a clear indication who he was comfortable to work with, instead of barricading himself in Aso Rock after the election, his party and, perhaps, his government, might have been spared the misery of a tumultuous executive-legislative relationship that made Tom and Jerry look like best of friends.
To avoid that this time, it appears that at Buhari’s behest, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has made its preference clear: Ahmed Lawan for Senate president, and Femi Gbajabiamila as speaker for the House of Representatives. Buhari did not issue a statement or call a press conference to announce his preference. He apparently gave his party the hint and left Chairman Adams Oshiomhole to do the rest.
If delay or indifference was the source of his problem the last time, it does not look like speed or enthusiasm will make any difference now. Not only have significant numbers of legislators made it clear that it is not the business of the president or the executive to choose their leaders for them, politicians within the ranks of the ruling APC have also told Oshiomhole to find a job and Buhari to mind his business.
Buhari, an introvert by nature and practice, must be wondering how he got himself into this mess: Steer clear, he’s damned; get involved, he’s damned. Interestingly, Ali Ndume who is probably the biggest threat to APC’s official candidate, Lawan, said he had personally informed Buhari of his decision to contest and received the president’s consent. Two private meetings with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on the matter have, so far, been unable to persuade Ndume to drop his ambition.
Ndume has maintained that he is opposed to anyone “imposing” a candidate on the Senate. Which sounds sensible until you remember that in 2011, Ndume was not the preferred candidate of Southern Borno senatorial district. A returnee member of the Peoples Democratic Party at the time, he was, in fact, imposed on the district over Garba Sanda, who was forced to step down for him.
But in politics where one week could be a lifetime, eight years are like eons past.
You would think that after the bloodletting of the last four years, the ruling party would have learnt its lessons and members would desperately avoid anything that could make it a laughing stock so soon. But politicians, being politicians, they have only one motivation: power and how to keep or advance it at any cost and for as long as possible.
Ndume’s case is complicated by two things. The first is the nagging sense of injustice which goes back to his roots in Southern Borno, generally regarded and treated as the political backwaters of the State. If a Gwoza, Shani or Biu cannot be governor in Borno but manages, against all odds, to make it to the Senate, why should the candidate be prevented from pursuing his ambition to the end?
The second complication is Ndume’s sense of entitlement. Having occupied a leadership position in the Senate before Lawan, he feels the prize should naturally come to him. Why should he sacrifice his rank for Lawan’s ambition or the party’s vanity? He fancies himself as the truly “independent” candidate, a worn-out mask for self-interest.
Beyond Ndume, however, there is what may be described as the latent spite factor – the resentment of APC national leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu – who, for some strange reason, is regarded as good party talisman at the time of election but resented and despised as bad omen when it is time to share the spoils.
A lot has been said about what the so-called Tinubu agenda might be: that he’s lining things up for a bid for the presidency in 2023; that he is planting his men everywhere – including the National Assembly – to expand and consolidate his power base against the next general elections; that he is driven by an obsession for control and power grab and nothing else. Quite harsh and mostly far-fetched, to be honest. Does anyone seriously believe that Tinubu is single-handedly pressing the candidacy of Lawan and Gbajabiamila without the consent and approval of Buhari? Seriously?
It’s shaping up like an answer to the prayer of the PDP. Nigerians rejected the party at the polls in 2015, but Bukola Saraki and Speaker Yakubu Dogara, both elected on the ticket of the APC, opened the backdoor for PDP and consummated a marriage of convenience whose illegitimate children have haunted the country for four years.
And I’m not talking here about insinuations that Saraki is prepping Danjuma Goje or whoever he thinks can smear pepper in Buhari’s eye to take over the leadership of the National Assembly. I’m saying that I’m shocked beyond words that once bitten, the APC is not even remotely shy to see that the precarious numerical advantage it has in the Senate, for example – 65-41 – would again be exploited ruthlessly by the PDP.
It may appear that this is not our business: that the results of the last general elections show that some regions are overrated and those who have delivered the numbers should not only get a preferential share of the pie but also the legislature as a whole should be left alone to choose its leaders.
That sounds great, except that after four years of a weaponised hybrid leadership in the National Assembly, we have seen that it only produces stalemates, blackmail and a permanently divided house fighting over more allowances and benefits for its members.
It’s difficult to hold the National Assembly to account when its leadership, which sets out and provides direction for legislative business, has been subverted by the opposition. We cannot and will not have another four years of the minority tail wagging the majority dog after voters made their preference clear at the polls.
PDP is waiting to pounce again – and it will if APC refuses to look in the flea market just to purchase common sense. If other contestants refuse to step down for the party’s preferred candidates – and they have a right to refuse – then the party should ask the pre-designated zones to present candidates.
There’s no guarantee that desperate, wounded moneybags will not find their way to the zones, but that’s a lesser evil compared with the chaos that awaits the party if matters continue this way, and eventually end up on the floor of the National Assembly.
Since indifference is proving to be as deadly as meddling, a viable way to manage the chaos would be to let the candidates test their strength at the zones. The irony of these matters is that we may never see the real demons in the candidates – and that includes even the most carefully pre-selected ones – until they have been tested with power.
Azu Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor-in-chief of The Interview and member of the Board of the Paris-based Global Editors Network.