In all ramifications, last week was an unusual one in the Senate. For the first time since this journalist took over the coverage of activities of the upper legislative chamber from his colleague, he witnessed a massive turn out of senators on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. A total of 100 of the total 109 senators in the chamber attended the day’s plenary.
They also arrived at the nick of time despite obstruction caused by some protesters. However, the large turn out was not a mark of sudden breakthrough in the chamber. It was rather a product of huge persuasion or perhaps media campaign by the leadership of the Senate, urging all senators and sundry to grace the day’s plenary because an event of “urgent national importance” would be considered. The event was the state of emergency declared by President Goodluck Jonathan on May 14 in three North-east states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in reaction to the increasing spate of insurgency by members of Boko Haram Islamist sect. Indeed, the senators responded to newspaper publications as well as advertorials in both the print and electronic media.
The nine senators who were absent were said to either be on essential duties or on a trip out of the country. The passionate appeal to senators, many of whom are not always punctual, was dictated by the urgency of the issue at stake as well as the necessity of the availability of a specific number of them if the chamber must live up to its constitutional requirements. Following the declaration of a state of emergency by Jonathan, two-thirds of each chamber of the National Assembly were required to either ratify or reject it.
The constitution also put time limit on this ratification. Two days after the publication of official gazette containing the emergency declaration, it must be approved or rejected by two-thirds of each chamber of the federal legislature. Section 305 (sub-section 2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) on declaration of a state of emergency, stipulates that “the president shall immediately after the publication, transmit copies of the official gazette of the government of the federation containing the proclamation including the details of the emergency to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, each of whom shall forthwith convene or arrange for a meeting of the House of Representatives of which he is president or speaker as the case may be, to consider the situation and decide whether or not to pass a resolution approving the proclamation.” Besides, Sub-section 6 of the same Section 305, provides that “proclamation issued by the president under this section shall cease to have effect if it is revoked by the president by instrument published in the official gazette of the government of the federation or if it affects any part thereof and within two days when the National Assembly is in session or within ten days when the National Assembly is not in session after its publication, there is no resolution supported by two-thirds majority of all the members of each House of the National Assembly approving the proclamation.”
The gazette containing the proclamation of a state of emergency in the three states was dated May 20. It was therefore in view of this “matter of urgent national importance” that absentee senators, after much persuasion in the media, made that Tuesday a date with history. Expectedly, on Wednesday, May 22, the chamber that was filled to the brim the previous day had been disserted as the absentees returned to their traditions. And by the time the Senate adopted the report of conference committee which harmonised both positions of the two houses on Thursday, May 23, attendance in the chamber had reduced to less than half of those that were present on Tuesday. Deputy Editor of THISDAY, Mr. Yemi Ajayi, had asked this reporter the previous week, “where do they go?” when the latter told the former on Thursday, May 16 on the telephone that even if the gazette had been published then, the Senate lacked the required two-thirds to consider the state of emergency since only 54 senators were present at the day’s plenary as against the 72 (two-thirds) required to get the exercise done. However, some people felt it made no sense that persons given mandates by their people to serve and who draw salaries and allowances from government coffers monthly and quarterly had to be invited to do same job through advertisements which gulped millions of Naira. Nevertheless, the chamber endorsed the emergency rule on Tuesday and also adopted harmonised positions of both houses on Thursday.
Two Days of Siege and Rage
Last Tuesday and Wednesday were days of trauma and anguish for all who worked in the National Assembly. Those were the days that sacked workers of National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), besieged the National Assembly, took over the entrance of the federal legislature from secretariat to the main gate. They were protesting their sack by NIMC without severance package as well as the perceived failure of National Assembly to come to their aid. On those two days, human and vehicular entry into the National Assembly from the secretariat was completely paralysed by the protesters who pitched their tents there with determination to make working in the institution a herculean and harrowing experience.
The protesters resisted the armed and fierce looking security personnel on the National Assembly junction at the secretariat and forced their way into the main gate. But for the prompt decision of the security personnel to shut the main gate, they would have equally invaded the premises and possibly disrupted sittings. To underscore the depth of their determination to make the lawmakers responsive to their demands, they practically relocated to the National Assembly gate within the two days, defying the sun, the night rain as well as the risk to their lives. They spent the night there on May 21 and continued till late in the evening on May 22 with their pyjamas, sleeping items, food and water. The trend forced lawmakers, staff and visitors to proceed to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) gate for access into the premises, thus causing acute vehicular movement from morning to evening of the two days. Driving from the secretariat to the SGF gate which ordinarily should not exceed two minutes took more than one hour with drivers whose cars were not air conditioned, sweating profusely. The gate and the road leading to the National Assembly were littered with empty sachets of pure water and other items consumed by the angry protesters while the siege lasted.
For lawmakers, workers and visitors to the National Assembly last week, their prayer was the same, “God, let this cup pass over us.” And by the time they eventually left on Wednesday evening, the prayer changed: “Lord, may we never see this again.” Whether God will answer the prayer or not remains an issue to watch out for as the protesters appeared to have left only late Wednesday to restrategise.