By ABBA MAHMOOD —
On Wednesday, April 18, some alleged thugs walked into the Senate chambers, seized the mace, the symbol of authority of the Senate, walked out, entered a vehicle and drove out of the National Assembly Complex in the full glare of TV cameras while the Senate was in session! For those who know, the National Assembly is one of the most protected places in Nigeria. So how did these “hoodlums” gain access and left, with at least 250 security personnel guarding the complex on any working day? How low can Nigeria go? The mace saga has clearly brought out the mess in the system.
The National Assembly is one of the three arms of government. So it is about the institution that is most worrisome and not the individual legislators. There are many members of the National Assembly that are respectable; some are even those one can count as friends. But many are neither distinguished nor honourable. In fact, several commentators have alluded to the fact that the recent ill-advised suspension of a senator by the leadership for holding different views was the immediate cause of the mace saga.
Professor Jibo Ibrahim wrote recently that “suspending legislators from the chambers denies the people their constitutional right to be represented and the consequence is destroying the legitimacy of parliament itself. The legislators are destroying their own power by repeated suspension of members over partisan disagreements and the earlier they realize it the better for them”. In any case, there are court judgements that make the suspension of legislators illegal, a recent one being the victory of Senator Ndume in the court.
What came out of the whole issue is the fact that Nigeria is laughing stock. If a whole arm of government with hundreds of armed and unarmed security personnel cannot be safe, then who is safe in the country? The weakness of the system is so glaring. And the weakness of the government in its primary responsibility is also very obvious. One of my favourite columnists, Eugene Enahoro, gave some perspectives on this in his usual objective and patriotic manner under the title “The 8th Senate: It’s really not about a mace”, which I reproduce below:
As if to buttress the widely held belief that Nigerian senators occupy themselves pursuing personal agendas rather than public interest, the electorate was entertained last week with video footage of mace snatching in the upper chamber. The saddest aspect of the entire furore is that the incident has little or nothing to do with the welfare of long-suffering citizens. Nigerian senators are renowned for their egocentricity. Egocentrics are on the whole self-centred individuals who think only about what is good for themselves, quite unable to understand or assume any perspective other than their own. When they hold political office, they are essentially unable to separate their personal interest from public interest.
Former British Conservative Party policy guru Steve Hilton claims that being inhuman isn’t the natural order of things. In his opinion people rarely set out to be callous and unfeeling, or to make other people’s lives unnecessarily miserable. However, in Africa the over-aggrandisement of political office, and the pressures placed upon perfectly reasonable individuals once they win elections, sometimes leads them to forget basic humanity. This applies very much to senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who are wrapped up in their own petty world of self-aggrandisement, infantile antics and treasury depletion. They operate in a sort of soulless, rigid and unthinking environment that breeds casual cruelty towards citizens.
Coming hard on the heels of revelations concerning their self-granted outrageous allowances, there is understandable nationwide indignation that at this critical juncture when unity, patriotism and respect for the rule of law are required, the best the Senate could come up with was self-centred, divisive, mace snatching antics. Deputy Senate president Ike Ekweremadu described the incident as an affront to Nigerian democracy, but regrettably the incident isn’t the biggest affront to Nigerian democracy. That distinction is reserved for the way and manner in which the National Assembly conducts its affairs. The conduct of so many senators has turned the upper into a caricature of what it’s supposed to be.
The 8th Senate definitely beats all its predecessors for sheer entertainment value! Distinguished senators have appeared dancing Owambe exuberantly and gyrating comically in viral videos on the social media, and also appeared on private TV stations trying to “make sense” by self-celebration. The Senate president presides over his own little fiefdom which has evolved into a bastion of opposition to the executive arm of government. In defiance of the anti-corruption war, senators abandoned their primary duty of legislating, and sheepishly followed their president to court in “solidarity” when he was arraigned on criminal charges. Continuously distracted by irrelevancies senators habitually spend little time sitting over serious issues. Once again their attention is being diverted by this self-centred attempt to alter the sequence of elections in spite of the implications for the independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
When Senator Omo-Agege and nine of his colleagues registered their disapproval of the proposed changes by staging a walkout, no one imagined that it would degenerate into a full-blown fiasco. Omo-Agege was suspended but a Federal High Court ruled that the suspension was wrong in law. It’s simply unjust for constituents to be denied representation. Based upon this ruling he resumed work. While no doubt the Senate has implied inherent powers to regulate its affairs in general, its proceedings and the conduct of its members, the operation, application, and enforcement of its rules are subjective. There is no justification for any law-making institution to denigrate the judiciary and arrogate to itself the powers of the courts.
The path of honour which the Senate leadership should have followed was to abide by the court order while appealing it. There appears to be a serious misconception amongst senators that simply because they make laws, they are somehow exempt from obeying them! They appear oblivious to the irrationality of lawmakers refusing to accept legal constraints and feeling above the law. The Senate leadership must accept the blame for setting the stage for the debacle. In complete contravention of Senate Rules and Court Orders, they belittled the judge and condemned his ruling. The ease with which Senator Omo-Agege strolled into the upper chamber revealed the emptiness of the Senate leadership ruling.
The mace snatching exposed the lack of professionalism within Nigerian security agencies. During the brazen operation, the response of security personnel was pathetic. They must be held to account. It’s a simple case of either complicity or gross incompetence. The National Assembly Complex is full of mobile police adorned in heavily starched dry-cleaned uniforms, carrying shiny new guns and being ferried about in brand new vehicles. It’s now evident that they do nothing to provide any real security. The inspector-general of police recently said that all such orderlies would be sent back to active duties within the force. The demeanour, mode of dressing and quality of arms of a VIP orderly contrasts sharply with those of the officers and men protecting the public who are expected to pursue and face down well-armed bank robbers with outdated guns and poorly maintained vehicles.
As for mace snatching itself, it’s become routine in state houses of assembly. The logic behind it is faulty. Maces don’t possess mystical powers, nor do they have NAFDAC numbers. There is no reason there shouldn’t be several maces available. In this particular case, the Nigeria Police claim they recovered the exact mace which was “kidnapped” after a “patriotic passer-by” saw it at a fly-over near the Abuja City Gate and alerted them. While those responsible for the criminal abduction must be brought to book, it’s really not about the mace at all. The whole episode is merely another symptom of a far more serious and debilitating malaise. What needs to be addressed urgently is the underlying dearth.