Sunday, October 11, 2015 6:49 pm
By Ayorinde Oluokun.
With the criteria already set, the huffing and puffing by Senators that it will not be “business as usual,” and petitions flooding the National Assembly, the screening of President Muhammadu Buhari’s 21 ministerial nominees scheduled to begin next Tuesday at the upper chamber of the Nigerian legislature already holds the promise of a soap opera that will keep Nigerians glued to their television screens while it lasts.
One man that will definitely be at the eye of the storm is Senate President Bukola Saraki. Depending on how he handles the process, analysts believe that Saraki who is still estranged from a significant section of his party, the All Progressives Congress, APC over the manner of his emergence as Senate President will either further deepen his problems or begin the process of endearing himself to his party members.
And in spite of claims to the contrary by Ita Enang, the special adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters in a chat with journalists on Friday and recent meetings with Buhari, sources have insisted that the relationship between President Buhari and the Senate President has remained frosty. The President, just like his party, this magazine gathered, is insisting on the removal of Ike Ekweremadu, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP Deputy Senate President as minimum condition for settling the rift with the Senate President.
For Saraki who emerged the Senate President with solid support of PDP Senators, including the promise of conceding the position of Senate President to the opposition party, fulfilling this condition has been impossible. Now, the fear is that the Senate President’s romance with the opposition party may give PDP senators the leverage to influence the ministerial screening to the disadvantage of the President and the APC.
Already, speculations are rife that the PDP Senators may seek to frustrate the entire screening process because only the names of nominees from 21, instead of from the entire 36 states were sent to the National Assembly by the President. Reports indicated that the PDP may insist that the President should send the names of his ministerial nominees from all the states of the federation before any screening should be embarked on by the Senate.
It is doubtful if the PDP Senators can actually pull off the plan to put the ministerial screening on hold given the potential backlash from the public. But they may seize upon some of the ground rules already set by the Senate for the screening to stop some of the nominees. As announced by Dino Melaye, Chairman, Senate ad hoc Committee on Media and Publicity, the criteria for the nominees to pass the screening include submission of proof of declaration of assets must have their nomination approved by two senators from their states; and must have a clean bill of health from its public petitions committee, among other conditions.
It was learnt that over 20 petitions have been submitted to the Ethics Privileges Committee of the Senate against the nominees as at last Thursday. Saraki had last Tuesday instructed the Committee to ensure that investigations of the allegations contained in the petitions must be completed before the beginning of the screening next Tuesday. A key target of the petitions has become evident since the names of the ministerial nominees were officially unveiled last Tuesday: former Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State. The three PDP Senators representing Rivers State in the Senate – Olaka Nwogu, George Sekibo and Osinakachukwu Ideozu had last Wednesday submitted a petition written by a nongovernmental organization against Ameachi’s confirmation, alleging that he misappropriated N70 billion belonging to Rivers as the State chief executive of the State.
The Senate President had directed that the petition which generated uproar from APC senators should be submitted to the Ethics Committee for investigation. The Nyesom Wike-led Rivers State Government had also, in a hurriedly released white paper, on the report of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry it set up to probe the sale of assets of the State under the former Governor asked Amaechi and others to return the sum of N97 billion.
This was believed to be part of the desperate moves by the PDP government of Rivers State to further tighten the noose on Amaechi’s chances of being cleared by the Senate for ministerial appointment by further tainting him with allegations of corruption. With the three Senators from Rivers against him, there is no way Amaechi would sail through if the Senate will keep to its position of the nominees getting support of at least two senators from their states to get cleared. In addition, six House of Representative members have also petitioned the Senate, asking that the former Governor should not be confirmed as a minister.
But Dakuku Peterside, the Rivers State gubernatorial candidate of APC in the 2015 general elections described the allegations against Amaechi as a “free rein of mudslinging,” by Wike that should be dismissed with a wave of hand. Peterside who alleged that most of the assets that were alleged to have been sold under the Amaechi administration were not sold added that the former governor has challenged the constitution of the panel in court while the white paper is illegal. “I feel sad because this is a man who served selflessly, served with integrity and people feel they can deny Nigeria his services,” said Peterside who accused Wike of doing everything to bring down Amaechi using different fronts. He however said the plots against the former Rivers State governor will come to nothing as the National Assembly cannot enquire into issues that border on criminality and issues before a law court. There is a presumption by our constitution, our laws that you are innocent until proven guilty. “To the eyes of the law, and to the best of our knowledge as Nigerians and Rivers people, Right Honourbale Rotimi Amaechi is innocent, no court of competent jurisdiction has convicted him and so that cannot be a basis for anybody to stop him from being confirmed a minister,” Peterside said while affirming that the former Governor will be confirmed in spite of the petitions.
The opponents of the convention had cited precedents in the 7th Senate when its President then, David Mark, went ahead to confirm Senator Musiliu Obanikoro despite the opposition to his nomination by three senators from his home state of Lagos. Melaye himself has also said that the Senate may not be rigid with the requirements that nominees must get the backing of two senators during the screening.
But ultimately, the man with the gavel is the Senate President and the survival of the screening process by some of the nominees will depend on how he handles proceedings during the screening. Many Senators have already indicated their determinations to throw different sizes of spanners in the works of the nominees either they or their principal do not want to see them emerge as ministers.
Speaking in Ikenne, Ogun State on Saturday, Saraki assured Nigerians that individual differences will not be allowed to influence the screening. “It is not about who you like and who you don’t like and I want to assure Nigerians that will not be the basis, it will be based on the constitution and our own assessment of capacity of the nominees to perform,” said the Senate President. No doubt, the ministerial screening is the first acid test for the Senate President.