DAY SITTING ARRANGEMENT TORE SENATE APART

THE tragi-comic drama that played out in the hallowed chamber of the Senate on Wednesday was not completely unexpected. The event aptly depicted the bottled up disaffection among senators stimulated by the July 2018 defection of the Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki. Saraki’s defection from the majority All Progressives Congress (APC) to the minority Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ruffled not a few feathers. Sustained calls for Saraki to do the needful by vacating his seat as Senate President, having moved over to a “minority party”, fell on deaf ears. Although there appeared to be calm and conviviality in the chamber when the senators resumed plenary after an 11-week recess, what actually prevailed in the chamber was the peace of the graveyard. Senators who could read dispositions and signs knew that the peace pack hurriedly fashioned when the senators resumed plenary from their overbloated recess would sooner than later give way.

There was no doubt that some senators, especially those of the APC extraction, felt cheated after the failed attempt to force Saraki out of his seat, following his defection to PDP. That set of senators could be seen wearing long faces. Perhaps they are simply tagging along waiting for an opportune time to strike. The semblance of warmth in the chamber was brokered through a resolution on October 9 when the senators agreed to put Saraki’s defection and the need for leadership change behind them. National interest, the lawmakers resolved, should take the front seat in all the dealings on the floor of the upper chamber. That, however, was not to be. A mere sitting arrangement was all it took to “put a knife on the things that held the Senate together.” Trouble started from unexpected quarters though.

One, a former governor, the other, a past commissioner, stoked the fire that shattered peace and order in the chamber. For more than 30 minutes, common sense took a flight from the chamber. Tempers rose. Personal interest and political party affiliation rather than national interest, which the senators swore to uphold at all times, took their better parts. It all started with a point of order raised by the Senator representing Akwa Ibom North East, Bassey Albert Akpan. Akpan, a PDP senator, specifically raised Order 43 which deals with personal explanation under which a senator is allowed to speak about himself and his constituents. Having secured the authority of the Senate President to speak as required, Akpan got up and steadied himself. In a voice devoid of emotion, Akpan informed his colleagues about an alleged plot to destabilise Akwa Ibom State. Akpan did not stop there. In a measured tone, he claimed that the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state had concluded arrangements to unleash mayhem in the state, which would possibly lead to the cancellation of the governorship election in 2019.

Akpan further claimed that the aim of APC in the state was to instigate the cancellation of the governorship election in the state in order to deploy “federal might” to cause change of leadership in the state. He said the forcible takeover of the governorship seat of the state was the target of the alleged plot. Saraki promptly ruled that the information given by Akpan was “well noted.” But if you thought Saraki’s ruling was the end of the matter, you may need to think again. Senator Godswill Akpabio (APC Akwa Ibom North West), who was obviously the target of the information, appeared to have been agitated and bruised by Akpan’s information. He angled to respond to Akpan’s weighty information from where he sat, but Saraki asked him to go to his seat before he could be recognised to speak. He added that Akpabio could not speak from a seat that was not his. Besides, Saraki noted, there was no microphone where Akpabio sat. Akpabio, on his part, was insistent and unrelenting in his demand that he should be allowed to speak. Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, reminded Saraki that there was no formal sitting arrangement in the chamber. Akpabio, he said, had the right to speak from where he was since the leadership of the chamber had failed to ensure a formal sitting arrangement.

Lawan recalled that he had raised the issue of a formal sitting arrangement in the chamber with the Senate President without the expected result. For the Yobe North senator, the Senate chamber must be guided by its rules, which made provision for a streamlined sitting arrangement. Lawan said there had been movements across party lines with the possibility that more people would still move as they deemed fit. Saraki was adamant. He said the Senate Clerk, Nelson Ayewo, was directed to allocate seats to senators. A new sitting arrangement in the chamber, Saraki said, would be completed next week. The assurance of Saraki that a new sitting arrangement would be fashioned next week did not assuage the seemingly battle- ready senators. As the verbal exchange between Saraki and Lawan continued, Akpabio was visibly boiling where he sat. He insisted on being allowed to speak, while Saraki stood his ground that Akpabio should go to his seat before he would be allowed to speak. Senator Dino Melaye came into the picture and took sides with Saraki, as expected. The Kogi West Senator literally took over the chamber. He attempted to shout Akpabio down. Akpabio got irritated and was also shouting on top of his voice. Confusion descended on the chamber as other senators joined the fray. It became a shouting match between APC and PDP senators. Chamber decorum momentarily became the casualty as if there was nobody in charge. Attempt to restore decorum was made by Senator Emmanuel Paulker, who reminded his colleagues that Akpan raised Order 43 (personal explanation), which did not give room for contribution or discussion by other senators.

The Bayelsa State senator said that by relying on Order 43 to make his personal explanation, Akpabio was not entitled to respond to what Akpan said. Lawan moved to confer with Saraki apparently about the way forward. Saraki explained that his position was that Akpabio should go to a seat that has a microphone. He said Lawan was not fair to him by insinuating that he did not want Akpabio to speak. Saraki said he never wanted to block Akpabio from speaking but only wanted him to go to a seat that had a microphone so that he could be recorded. “Nobody is trying or wants to prevent Senator Akpabio from speaking. All I said is that Senator Akpabio should go and sit where there is a microphone and he will be allowed to speak. It has never happened in this chamber that a senator is allowed to speak where there is no microphone,” Saraki insisted. But Lawan appeared not to be impressed by Saraki’s explanation. For him, on no count should APC be discriminated against on the floor of the Senate. Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, raised Order 11(1)(2) to apparently defuse the raging storm. Ekweremadu said every senator has the right to speak for himself and the people he represents. He was cut short.

Two APC Senators, Mohammed Ali Ndume and Kabiru Marafa, began to allege discrimination. The duo took to the floor and raised their voices. Ekweremadu was forced to sit down. He later explained that the rules of the chamber made provision for sitting arrangement. When Akpabio was finally given the permission to speak, he said the seat he sat on was allocated to him by the Senate clerk. He was bitter about “the embarrassment I received today” which he described as “unwarranted and uncalled for.” He said he would not say more until the chamber was properly reconstituted. Saraki disagreed and asked the Clerk to confirm if he allocated the seat to Akpabio. The Clerk said that when Akpabio requested to sit on the seat, he informed him that there was no microphone on it but Akpabio insisted on sitting on the seat. The Clerk said he had no choice but to allow Akpabio to sit where he wanted.

With Ayewo’s explanation, Saraki gave Akpabio the floor once again to speak. The former governor of Akwa Ibom State promptly demanded an apology “for the unwarranted embarrassment I received today.” He wondered why apologising to him would be difficult when even the Peoples Democratic Party apologised to Nigerians. Akpabio reiterated that “until the Senate sitting arrangement is properly constituted, I rest my case.” That looked like the end of the matter until Ndume revived it by apologising to Ekweremadu for preventing him from speaking. Ndume said he had nothing against anybody. Lawan also apologised for the altercation on the floor. For him, there was nothing personal about what happened. The rules of the Senate should guide proceedings at all times. He said his position should not be misinterpreted as taking sides with APC senators on the issue. He pleaded that they should always see themselves as one body working for the good and interest of the country. Surprisingly, the lawmakers continued with the business of the day after the bitter disagreement as if nothing happened. Perhaps it is the nature of politicians to create a false impression to deceive the gullible. While some observers said the events of Wednesday in the Senate could be a plot which Akpabio fell into unknowingly, the two divides in the Senate may have buried the hatchet only to mark the spot.

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