As unfolding political gridlock, the spat between the Presidency and the Senate suggests a tragi-comedy that belittles the Nigerian people. Three months and counting into the year, the 2017 national budget is held up in parliament, which is also holding up the screening of 27 electoral commissioners to spite the Executive branch. We have on our hands an arrogant, power-drunk Senate and a weak Presidency.
Look closely into the root and you will discover that corruption is aroused, but it is fighting back furiously from several fronts. To demonstrate its power, the Senate last week peremptorily declined to screen 27 persons nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari for appointment as Resident Electoral Commissioners to fill vacancies in the Independent National Electoral Commission. Their reason for this blatant abuse of their constitutional duty defies rationality: they had arrogantly given the President a two-week ultimatum to evict Ibrahim Magu from office as acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, whose confirmation they had twice rejected. More threats have been aired, some openly, others subtly, to reject ministerial nominees and to scuttle the budget, among other abuses of legislative leverage. The Senate had also attracted ridicule by trying to force the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, to appear before it in uniform.
In all this, senators appear uncaring for the welfare of the people and the country’s future. With the country in recession, all efforts should have been made to quickly pass the budget. The Senate itself acknowledged since September last year that INEC “cannot function without the full complement of members”; yet, it put national interest in abeyance in order to settle scores with the Presidency. This is unacceptable behavior from supposed representatives of the people.
The unfolding face-off will require political dexterity from Buhari, an attribute he has so far failed to demonstrate. But he will have to summon up some sagacity to confront a formidable group that combines constitutional independence with ruthlessness, roaring ambition and the survival instincts of alley cats. The Senate has immense power under the constitution and in the hands of power-hungry actors, it can severely hobble the Executive. At the root of the crisis is the attempt to return the country to the path of sanity and probity in public affairs and the ensuing push-back. No fewer than 10 senators are either facing trial or under investigation for corruption. Leading the pack is Bukola Saraki, President of the Senate, whose trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and allegations bordering on corruption against him have further damaged the reputation of the Senate. Despite a damaging opinion on Magu by the State Security Service, public perception remains very strong that senators rejected Magu because he dared to investigate, arrest and prosecute senators.
Gridlock, according to the Brookings Institution, entered the political lexicon in the 1980s and is “the natural consequence of separated institutions sharing and competing for power.” But whereas in other climes, the executive and the legislature usually differ over policies, along party lines or ideology, here, it is usually over perks, ego or corruption from the legislature. This has been a feature of our parliament since the Fourth Republic was inaugurated in 1999. When the legislature threatened to impeach the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, it was over their padding of the national budget and the notorious “constituency projects” through which legislators usurp executive functions and fleece the treasury.
Evidence that Buhari had boxed himself in was apparent on Tuesday when Saraki and senators from his own party, the All Progressives Congress, reportedly demanded that the government drop corruption charges against him at the CCT. A fatal error of judgment was committed when, on winning majority seats at the Senate and the House of Representatives, Saraki and his supporters defied the party and colluded with the opposition to emerge as Senate president, trading in the deputy slot to the opposition party, while Buhari remained aloof. He also prevented the party elders from resisting the treachery, naively believing that a president can be totally above party politics.
But lessons from the United States after which our constitution is patterned and other presidential systems are that having a loyal majority helps see through your legislative agenda and nominees. Otherwise, you need skills to build bipartisan support. President Barack Obama’s many programs were thwarted by a hostile Republican-controlled Congress. Despite this majority, however, the irascible President Donald Trump is having problems ramming home his pet bill on health care.
Buhari should shake off his lethargic approach to governance and take full charge of his administration. He should identify forward-looking members of his cabinet and delegate more responsibilities to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. He has made a start by empanelling a team led by Osinbajo to smoothen relations with the National Assembly. He should not bow to the blackmail of senators. The constitution clearly spells out the responsibilities of each arm of government. Nor should he wind down the anti-corruption war as a trade-off.
The President should now understand that politics is sometimes ‘‘war by other means’’ and choose his battles: if he succumbs to threats to wind down the anti-corruption war, he loses his sole electoral appeal. He has to stand firm, provide leadership for his party and knock it into line. He should rally the party elders and APC governors he has so unwisely alienated by his clannishness. Above all, he should stop ignoring increasingly anguished complaints about the damaging intrigues of his inner circle and adopt a hands-on approach.
In negotiating with the recalcitrant Senate, he should be guided at all times by national interest and resist compromises that will leave Nigerians worse off and the anti-corruption war in ruins.