By Yomi Odunuga
The deft political calculations for effective capacity, geo-political balancing and spread, as well as the alignments and realignments that permeated the battle· for the leadership· of the 9th National Assembly around this time· last· year did raise· some concerns about whether the All Progressives Congress-led government· would tread· the same path· of errors it trod four years· earlier and which almost ruined its return· to power. .
Perhaps, it was that fear, more than anything else, that propelled the entire leadership of the party to insist on certain governance principles and strategies that should lead to the emergence of qualitative, dedicated, committed and principled leadership in the two chambers of the National Assembly. And so, it was no mean fit that, at the end of the day, that task was achieved even if with some mild protest which is the hallmark of party politics and democracy generally.
Specifically, in the Senate, the Senators in the 9th Assembly elected Senator (Dr) Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan and Senator Ovie Omo-Agege as President of the Senate and Deputy President of the Senate respectively on June 11, 2019. Expectedly, not all Nigerians accorded them much chance of successfully steering the affairs of the Senate. Some critics had described their emergence as a mere ‘marriage of convenience’ that would ‘crash’ in no distant time.
One year down the line, unfolding events both in the Red Chamber and in the polity have shown that the leadership of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) and the senators made the right choice in nominating the two individuals to occupy the exalted positions. It is also a pointer to a now-established fact – with mutual respect, atmosphere of brotherliness and singularity of purpose for the good of all, the nation stands to gain a lot from its leadership without necessarily sacrificing the all-important principle of checks and balances in a democracy.
This is a key point in the synergy that has existed between the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan and the Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo-Agege not just in their dealings with their colleagues and personal aides. This disposition positively manifests in their various interventions in national affairs, including relations with the executive. Mature discourse has replaced what was known as frosty relationship with the executive and with ministries, departments and agencies that present clear patriotic agenda before the legislative arm of government.
People say that politics is a game of numbers. Yet, it is also a game that requires maturity, intelligence and effective leadership. These key factors continue to play important role in the way these leaders interface with people in both private and official capacities. They are conscious of the danger posed to the business of law-making by an unduly fragmented Red Chamber with less focus on unity of purpose and with more attention on being at loggerheads with the executive. The intense negativity that such inflicts on legislation is part of the consequences one can easily glean from the number of the 8th National Assembly bills that the executive refused to sign into law, ending up as mere vocal exertions in the hallowed chambers from 2015 to 2019. In their pragmatism, the two current heads of the Senate acknowledged that without a drastic paradigm shift, they knew the country would still be trapped in the chaos of movements without motion and a baggage of missed opportunities. Clearly, Lawan and Omo-Agege were not cut for such unproductive kind of narrative; instead, they want their names etched in gold by the time they finish with the onerous national responsibilities placed on their shoulders.
That maturity and intelligence to work positively with people from all parts of the federation must have been ingrained in them through varied experiences as professionals. For example, before their foray into politics, both leaders had distinguished themselves in their respective professions. Their attraction to politics is borne out of service to humanity, especially the downtrodden in their respective constituencies. However fate has a bigger responsibility for them; it has thrown them in the driver’s seat of the nation’s legislative body to set a new narrative of executive-legislative relationship for the good of the people. The desire to achieve that goal is writ large in the way and manner these two leaders have been discharging the arduous task of leading a parliament comprising scores of equally cerebral members with different political ideologies.
Until he entered the political sphere in 1998 as the Vice Chairman, Yobe State Chapter of the defunct All Peoples Party (APP) before his election into the House of Representatives in 1999, Lawan was a seasoned educator and erudite scholar with the University of Maiduguri, Borno State. Omo-Agege, on the other hand, had a thriving legal practice, having worked as a lawyer both in Nigeria and in the United States of America. He joined active politics in 2002.
Like Senator Lawan, the Deputy President of the Senate is an experienced legislator. Both principal officers understand that the workings of the Senate require diligence in handling the various issues that come with legislative business for the benefit of the masses. It is a known fact that the seamless cooperation between the principal officers, apart from signalling the harmonious relationship that governs decision making in the Senate, also inspires a rancour-free execution of committee duties by the various committee chairmen. These respected colleagues take a cue from the humble approach adopted by Senators Lawan and Omo-Agege in the leadership of the Senate. Without due diligence and the cooperation of all members, it would have been near impossible for the leaders to excel in the last one year as it relates to law-making, representation and oversight functions.
Like the neck supporting the head, the Deputy President of the Senate has kept faith with the confidence of his colleagues who elected him to be second among equals by assisting the President of the Senate in the performance of his functions. These functions include but not limited to: presiding over plenary in the absence of the President of the Senate, as enshrined in Order 26 of the Senate Standing Orders 2015 (as amended) as well as representing the Senate President in the inauguration of some ad-hoc committees and declaring public hearings open as directed by the President of the Senate.
Within the period under review, the symbiotic relationship has witnessed Senator Omo-Agege leading the Senate delegation to attend international parliamentary events like the Biennial Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth in Canada, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), Africa Region conference, Tanzania and a host of others.
Little wonder then that, at a time when the usually volatile rumour mill was agog with the news that the Deputy Senate President might not head the Constitutional Review Committee as it was the convention, the Senate President minced no words in dispelling the fake news by passing a vote of confidence on the ability of the Senator Omo-Agege to make a good job of correcting the identified lapses in the Nigerian Constitution as amended for the benefit of all citizens. With his declaration that he would toe the line of parliamentary convention, a thunderous gloom of silence pervaded the rank and file of those who had predicted a breakdown of ‘war’ between the two leaders over the issue.
Lawan’s statement then stands as a testimonial to the confidence he reposes in the personality of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege. He said: ““Traditionally, everybody knows that since 1999 when the Constitution Review Committee was formed in the National Assembly, in the Senate, the Deputy President of the Senate usually heads the committee while the Deputy Speaker is usually the chairman of the Committee (in the House of Representatives). We are going to maintain the tradition in the 9th Senate.
“We have a Deputy Senate President who is vast, erudite lawyer who played an important and significant role in the 8th Assembly as a member of the Committee on INEC and Constitution Review. So, we are good to go by the grace of God.”
Vast, Erudite. Those are not mere words. And coming from a man with loads of experience in law making process spanning several years at the National Assembly, those who had drawn a likely battle line between the two leaders had to quickly withdraw into their shell having realized that it was a waste of time trying to dig a hole of deep-seated animosity between the leading lawmakers; where a block of symbiotic relationship has been cemented.
Consequently, on February 6, 2020, the President of the Senate constituted the 57-member Senate Constitution Review Committee with Deputy President of the Senate as Chairman. The panel which has since commenced legislative business is expected to make far-reaching proposals on altering the nation’s constitution. Over 40 constitution amendment bills are currently with the committee.
No doubt, the two Presiding Officers of the Senate are in sync with each other. And that accounts for why they have been able to stabilise the workings of the Senate; such that in one year in office, innovations to accelerate approval of critical bills have been adopted.
One of such innovations is the return of the nation’s fiscal year to January – December budget cycle, as evidenced in the early approval of the 2020 budget by both chambers of the National Assembly. According to the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) – a non-proﬁt research organisation – Nigeria’s economy suffers 2.5 per cent depression whenever the budget is delayed. The think tank expressed concern that the country’s budget implementation has always been chaotic, ultimately leading to the subversion of its objectives.
Also, in its September 1, 2019 editorial, The Punch newspaper pointed out that “Delayed passage of budgets has done incalculable harm to the economy over the years. Infrastructure projects, which catalyse economic developments, suffer most with late implementation. Local investments are delayed as investors tarry to see how their businesses could be affected. This malaise cripples jobs and wealth creation”.
The January to December budget cycle would address these anomaly and haemorrhage to the nation’s economy. The credit for achieving this should go to the entire National Assembly spurred on by a leadership with a thinking cap that tries as much as possible to engage in fruitful negotiations with all partners instead of having a toxic mind-set that often breed trouble and slow developmental legislations.
Another critical legislation that witnessed accelerated approval, which analysts have attributed to the cordial relationship between the two leaders on the one hand, as well as the smooth working relationship between the National Assembly and the Executive, on the other hand, is the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract (PSC) Amendment Act.
The amended law changed the 1993 Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract and added two more revenue streams for the Federal Government. First, is a flat 10% royalty on all projects over 200 meters deep and secondly, a 7.5% royalty on frontier and inland basins. Analysts say the measures would add about $1.5 billion to government coffers in two years.
To the Presidency, things can only get better, as it gave itself a pat on the back for supporting the Party’s choice of Lawan/Omo-Agege as its candidates for the Senate leadership election a year ago. And for the Nigerian people, it implies more revenue to enable government improve on critical infrastructure that improves on the quality of life of the average Nigerian.
The importance of this symbiotic relationship is not lost on the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who showered encomiums on the duo for stabilising the Senate. He noted that both the Presidency and the ruling APC knew that supporting the two leaders would be to the advantage of Nigerians because of their commitment to nationhood.
Speaking at a thanksgiving Mass in honour of Omo-Agege for emerging as the nation’s Number Six Citizen, Osinbajo noted that: “Both Senators Lawan and Ovie were the unanimous choice of most of us in the APC. At the leadership of the APC, there were very little doubts about these two and we worked very hard to make it happen. The reasons are very simple: Senator Lawan has always proven to be a party person and same as Ovie.”
And if you think Lawan’s endorsement of his deputy some days before the inauguration of the Constitutional Review Committee was a one-off thing, then you need to listen to him speak on the same occasion of Omo-Agege’s thanksgiving Mass in Warri, Delta State: He described him as a “big blessing” not only to the Senate but also to the APC caucus in the upper legislative chamber.
Lawan, who doubles as Chairman of the National Assembly, lauded the bi-partisan support for his deputy as an evidence of the level of cooperation he enjoys among his colleagues.
“For us in the National Assembly, we have come to thank God for two things for the blessings he bestowed on our colleague and for us to have our colleague as the Deputy President of the Senate.
“He (Omo-Agege) is a big blessing for us even though none of us emerged unopposed, other senators ran against us but today, the Senate is one. In fact, here we have all the principal officers of the PDP in the Senate, led by no other person than the Leader of the minority, Senator Abaribe.
“This is someone (Omo-Agege) who is loyal, committed, dedicated, courageous and never shy of taking responsibility. These are the kinds of leadership traits we need in Nigeria.
“We love what you have been doing in the Senate. In fact, our sojourn started right from the 8th Senate when you joined us. Right from there till date, no one has any reason to doubt our loyalty, commitment and ability to ensure that as a people with different ethnic backgrounds, we work together to make Nigeria better”, he said.
Borrowing from Bill Taylor’s words, both Presiding Officers “understand that in an era of hyper-competition and non-stop disruption, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special”. Although it is too early in the day to adjudge the 9th Senate as a success or failure, as it has spent just one-quarter of a possible four-year tenure in office, it is safe to say that the Lawan-led Senate is on the right track.
Yomi Odunuga, the Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the Deputy President of the Senate, Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege, writes from Abuja