By Lukman Olabiyi

The suspension of Abdul Ningi, the senator representing Bauchi Central Senatorial District for three months by the Senate on Tuesday, is generating more controversy.

Lawyers examining the development have expressed divergent views on the legality and implications of the action taken by the Senate.

Ningi had in an interview he granted the Hausa Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), alleged that the leadership of the Senate had padded the 2024 budget with N3.7 trillion. He said that the budget approved by the National Assembly was N25 trillion while the one that is being implemented by the presidency is N28.7 trillion.

Following the suspension of the senator, lawyers across the country have expressed divergent views on the development that has also subjected the senate to public scrutiny.

A senior lawyer and former chairman, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Dave Ajetomobi said Ningi’s suspension was not new and unusual as the rules allow it.

Ajetomobi is of the view that allegations “as criminal as the one Ningi made must be backed up with documents, he merely said he had documents. I believe if he has any document, he ought to have released it by now to avenge his suspension. We would have loved to see it and call out the corrupt lawmakers.

“Let’s not imagine that these people represent us, it’s when they lose out they remember their constituents, not when it is rosy.”

On the senator’s freedom of expression, he added that: “it is not absolute; it is subject to national security and the right of others to their individual dignity of their persons. He can be sued by individual lawmakers for bringing them to disrepute. Even the constitution doesn’t provide for absolute freedom of speech.

“Sanity and discipline should be enforced in the NASS. So far the NASS has disappointed the people they claimed to be representing. To me the suspension of Ningi is in order.” There is, however, a contention that by suspending the lawmaker, his constituency has been denied the representation they are entitled to. But Ajetomobi counters: “If the law allows for suspension of erring members, it will take care of issues arising from the constituency of the suspended member. They have two more senators from the state in the Senate.

On the other hand, a right activist and lawyer, Kabir Akingbolu faulted Ningi’s suspension by the Senate. He challenged the senate to justify the lawmaker’s suspension with the country’s constitution.

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He said: “Under the law, every state has a constitutional right to be represented by three senators. The right is an inalienable right but our funny legislators in Nigeria do not only disobey our laws but also flout their own legislative rules.

“I challenge the Senate to point to any law or rules which allows them to suspend members for more than 14 days. These people are merely playing politics with good governance in the land. Imagine, people are suffering, the state is heading towards failure and total collapse and someone is trying to correct the anomaly perceived in the budget you passed but instead of you to set up a committee to look into this, the only thing you could do was to suspend him and deny his constituent representation at the Senate. How do allegations of corruption and budget padding which is a heinous crime amount to a plot to remove your president? This people owe Nigerians a lot of explanations and certainly, they lack the power to suspend any member for more than 14 days, even by their own rules. This is an aberration of the highest order and a subversive and pervasive exercise of legislative powers. It is absurd and constitutes a rape on the collective reasoning of Nigerians.” Akingbolu added that the only option opened to Nigerians and Senator Ningi’s constituents is to approach the court to have the bizarre and vindictive suspension annulled in order to curtail any similar future occurrence.

Another lawyer and right activist, Gideon Okebu also faulted the suspension of Senator Ningi.

He said: “The senate has its own rules and orders that govern conduct of members and discipline. The power to regulate is own procedure is traceable to section 60 of the constitution. However, in my opinion, the suspension of Senator Ningi in this circumstance is not good for transparency, accountable representation and good governance. It must be noted that there is no express constitutional provision for the suspension of a senator by the Senate. The power to suspend a senator is at best the exercise of a derivative power, which in this instance conflicts with the rights and interest of the constituents in Senator Ningi’s senatorial district, to have competent and robust representation at the Senate,” he said.

Speaking further, he said the circumstances leading to the suspension of Senator Ningi were at variance with the right of a senator to dissent and express the wishes of his constituents in any matter affecting their interest.

“A Senator is an elected representative, who enjoys an elected office. Sections 66 and 68 are clear on the factors that can disqualify or affect the tenure of a sitting Senator. Raising an alarm of budget padding in the Senate is not one of such factors. Nigerians are entitled to know what goes on in the Senate under the Freedom of Information Act,” he added.

On what Nigerians should do to prevent a reoccurrence of the situation, Okebu said: “Senator Ningi and his constituents can sue the Senate President and the Senate, seeking an interpretation of whether Senator Ningi’s suspension is constitutional and for a declaration of court that his suspension is irregular.”

Maduka Onwukeme, another lawyer, in his own reaction believes that the suspension may not survive a legal challenge. He expressed doubts that the constitution intended that a senator may be suspended and his constituents denied their rights to have their elected representative contribute and represent them in the National Assembly.

“I believe the freedom of speech is not absolute but even such restrictions like the law of defamation are subject to laws. The Senate leadership cannot use the instrument of their leadership to protect themselves from being scrutinized or criticized. They could sue Senator Ningi for defamation or even submit themselves to an independent investigation panel to clear their names.

“It is quite unfortunate that the senate is now a place where members are suspended for expressing opinions or views that are critical of the Senate leadership actions, irrespective of how they affect the rest of us.  More so, where the senate leadership was accused of budget padding and the same leadership could not subject itself to an independent probe but chose to witch-hunt the whistle blower

“I believe at this point only a mass action can save Nigeria from its leaders. Citizens must be ready to take to the streets in massive protests to ensure that the political leadership in Nigeria is sensitive and accountable.”