A Seat at the Nigeria Senate

Take a seat, any Nigerian Senate seat, and you are looking at one of the most prized political assets in the world. There are 109 of them, and they will be contested with great aplomb in April 2011.

Going into the contest, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) holds an absolute majority of 83.  None of those VIPs can imagine not being a Senator when the new house reconvenes in June.

That was why, two years ago, they decided to do Nigeria a favour: they asked their party to declare them un-opposable at the party primaries for the 2011 elections, that is, to make them automatic candidates at the elections for their seats.  That would have meant that the contentious party primaries of last January would never have happened.  The magnanimous Senators did not want their beloved nation to go through such turmoil or be denied the experience of some of each of them.

Their leader, Senate President David Mark, actually made a public plea in that regard, no irony intended.   But the PDP demurred, leading to the testing of the theory at the primaries.

It was an eye-opener: most of the Senators, including so-called “elder statesmen,” were soundly rejected by their own people.

Count the carnage: in such states as Adamawa, Anambra, Bauchi, Ebonyi, Enugu, Gombe, Imo, Kwara and Taraba States, all of the PDP’s Senators were either returned home, or had fled the party for ethically and politically higher ground in other political parties.  In many other states, the PDP lost at least two incumbents.

Furthermore, in some states such as Anambra and Ogun, the PDP had even become big enough to sprout two irreconcilable factions, and each went ahead to hold its own primaries and produce their candidates.  Goodluck Jonathan was so rattled by the situation in Anambra that he set up a nine-man panel, headed by Imo State Governor Ikedi Ohakim, to sort out the mess.  It is ironic to consider that Governor Ohakim had been so successful as a party stalwart in his own state that none—that is, not one—of the state’s serving Senators, wanted to be associated with the party in the federal legislature any longer.

In any event, whoever emerged in the Anambra Central Senatorial District was going to be facing formidable candidates that include APGA’s Dora Akunyili, the former Minister of Information, and the ACN’s Chris Ngige, a former governor.  That is how competitive some of the races are going to be.

In Oyo State, Senate Majority Leader Teslim Folarin, has a new title: The Accused.  He is facing murder charges in the death of Lateef Salako, a former labour chief.  At the PDP presidential primaries in January, however, political influence was used to open his detention cell to enable him play a key role among delegates in Abuja.  He did.

In Ogun State, the PDP Senate story for the 2011 election is also about our former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who cornered a faction of the party opposite the troubled state governor, Gbenga Daniel.    Obasanjo’s list of candidates was on its way to the elections as the Daniel faction unraveled.  Among other things, this means that Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello may be back as Senator in the new term despite all the corruption allegations that have soiled her image.

All of these high-level political fistfights are important because the Nigeria Senate is very big business.  Constitutionally, as the Upper House of Nigeria’s National Assembly, the body enjoys great prestige.  It has responsibility not only for legislation, but for sundry activities that support Nigeria’s democracy, such as the confirmation of key nominees of the executive.

Regrettably, the Senate has not enjoyed great respect since the nation returned to our current political structure in 1999.  For most of the period, it has been advertised more for its excesses and its dysfunction than for its achievements.   Several of its presiding officers have been impeached, and many members seem unsure of their mission in Abuja to make law for the governance of the nation.  Only months ago, the governor of the Central Bank laid the blame for Nigeria’s underdevelopment at the door of the nation’s atrocious leadership.  He lamented that one quarter of the nation's annual budget goes to the National Assembly as allowances and salaries.  That charge found ready credibility with a nation that has seen members of the Assembly living like lords, although they are rarely seen in their constituencies.

As a result of the domination of Nigeria’s politics by one party in the past decade, the Senate has become everything from a hiding place for former governors fleeing from political and economic crimes in their home states to a retirement home for former party operatives eager to be close to the seat of presidential power.   For over a decade, they have all been involved in widely-known political shenanigans that included shaking-up or shoring-up a two-faced executive arm of government in their own interest.  Not only do they lack the respect and originality that similar legislators elsewhere, they are seen as collaborators in a thinly-veiled scheme to support each other and fleece the people.   The Senate has rarely held the executive to account, a nudge-and-wink favour the executive gladly returns.

Nigerians seeking improvement in the nation’s governance would do well, however, to keep an eye on the Senate.  With defections to other political parties by important party members and a general realignment of passions nationwide, the April 2011 elections could signal a significant shift in the legislative landscape, with important implications for the country.

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