• As  South West senators mount pressure on Akpabio

From Fred Itua, Abuja

The lingering crisis in the Senate between loyalists of the President of the upper legislative chamber, Godswill Akpabio, and northern lawmakers, has shifted to governors and other political leaders from the North.

The crisis, which led to the suspension of Abdul Ningi from Bauchi Central senatorial district, started weeks before the emergence of Akpabio as president of the 10th Senate in 2023.

On March 12, 2024, the Senate, led by Akpabio and three South West senators, namely, Opeyemi Bamidele (Senate leader); Adeola Olamilekan (Appropriations Committee chairman); and Jimoh Ibrahim from Ondo State, suspended Ningi for accusing the National Assembly of padding the 2024 budget to the tune of over N3 trillion, despite attempts by some northern lawmakers to rescue him.

Ningi, in an interview with the BBC Hausa Service, made some startling revelations. He had claimed that President Bola Tinubu was operating two national budgets, one approved by the National Assembly, and the other unknown to the parliament.

Bamidele, Olamilekan and Ibrahim, all from the South West, led the push for the suspension of Ningi. However, Bamidele’s outburst sealed Ningi’s fate.

Bamidele had said: “We must never accept any apology from Ningi. It is ridiculous to do so. He lied deliberately. Mr. Senate President, you’re occupying that seat, 40 years after a South South person occupied it.

“The last time a southerner was there was during former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure and they were being changed every time. It was only stable when it returned to the North. David Mark spent eight years, Bukola Saraki completed his four years, Ibrahim Lawan spent his four years.

“Don’t be deceived, the losers of June 2023 Senate president election are still angry. Some have accepted but a few have not. They have plotted to remove you before June 2024. That is why you must not allow this deliberate mischief by Ningi to go away. He did it on purpose. He knew he was lying, he set the public against you, he will do it again. We must apply our sanction,” he said.

Almost three weeks after the suspension, Daily Sun has gathered that ranking senators from the North and some governors, have now stepped in to mediate and resolve the lingering crisis in the upper legislative chamber.

A senator from the North West, who is one the key facilitators of the peace move, told Daily Sun that the issues would have been resolved without suspending Ningi if Bamidele, Olamilekan and Ibrahim had not mounted pressure on Akpabio to act.

The lawmaker said some governors who were worried about the ethnic dimensions of the crisis, reached out to Akpabio to apply caution and recall Ningi, who they said has the backing of leading politicians from the North.

He, however, revealed that when Akpabio tabled the issue before his close allies, especially lawmakers from the South West, they were opposed to it, insisting Ningi must serve out his suspension, despite an existing court judgment that a lawmaker cannot be suspended for more than two weeks.

“Akpabio had to ignore them and resolved to recall Ningi. Ningi has a support base and many northern senators and leaders see the suspension as an attack on the region. But some people want to maintain their ego and they feel they control what happens in the Senate.

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“Very senior senators from the North reached out to Akpabio. Former and serving governors also reached out and informed him about the dangers of bringing ethnicity into the chambers, as demonstrated by Bamidele.

“Akpabio has a task. There are many things the Senate plans to do and if you have a divided house, nothing will work there. He knows this and had to find a good excuse to get out of the mess those three South West senators put him in. So, that letter by Femi Falana written on behalf of Ningi is a good excuse,” the lawmaker said.

Last Wednesday, Ningi issued a one-week ultimatum to Akpabio to withdraw the three months suspension imposed on him or he will drag the Senate leadership before the court.

Falana said: “On March 9, 2024, our client granted an interview to the BBC Hausa Service on the 2024 Appropriation Act. He expressed his views on the budget of the Federal Government in the exercise of his fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.

“Dissatisfied with the interview, you caused our client to be put on trial before the Senate on March 14, 2024 contrary to the provisions of the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act, 2018. This was in utter violation of the provisions of Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution.

“As a senior lawyer, you (Akpabio) ought to have drawn the attention of the members of the Senate to these decisions and several others where the High Courts of some states and the Court of Appeal have held that no parliament in Nigeria has the power to suspend or expel a legislator and confiscate his salaries and allowances.

“In view of the foregoing, you will agree with us that the suspension of Ningi and the denial of his entitlements are illegal and unconstitutional in every material particular. We are compelled to request you to ensure the said suspension is lifted forthwith.

“However, if you fail to accede to our request seven days upon receipt of this letter, we shall not hesitate to pray to the Federal High Court for the reinstatement of our client.

“We shall equally report you to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee for treating the judgments of the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal with disdain.

“It is a parliamentary decision. I have not seen the letter yet. But Ningi is one of us. I mean what is suspension? I believe in a few days, he will join us. So, there is no problem. It would be resolved amicably. The Senate is a family.”

In May, 2018, a Federal High Court in Abuja nullified the suspension of Ovie Omo-Agege by the Senate for 90 legislative days (three months).

The ruling judge, Nnamdi Dimgba, had stated that the Senate is only empowered to suspend an earring member for 14 days and one legislative day.

Dimgba, in the judgment, ordered the reinstatement of Omo-Agege, his salaries and other entitlements should be paid.

Omo-Agege was on April 12, 2018, suspended during plenary over the remarks he made at a press conference that the amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act which changes the sequence of elections set by Independent National Electoral Commission is targeted at former president Muhammadu Buhari.

The judgment was never appealed by Bukola Saraki-led Senate. No lawmaker, since then, has been suspended by both chambers of the National Assembly.