Legislators exploit the provisions of the constitution on the powers to remove a President or governor, to harass members of the executive sometimes on trumped-up charges
It was like the threat of a gang attack from an estranged wife. The husband knows that if she really means to carry out the threat, there is no secret she would not know. Such a development does not only put the marriage in jeopardy, it threatens the peace of the home. That is the impact of the threat of impeachment issued to President Goodluck Jonathan by the enraged members of the House of Representatives, before they proceeded on recess.
That has put the presidency and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, on tenterhooks, resulting in feverish lobbying of leaders of the National Assembly. The House complained that the federal government has been too slow in its implementation of the 2012 budget, for which it claimed that only 35 per cent has been achieved. Zakari Mohammed, chairman, House Committee on Media said, “The appropriation law is being addressed with impunity. We are empowered by the 1999 Constitution to raise questions like we did … on the floor of the House.” That is a reference to Section 43 of the constitution. The House therefore passed a resolution asking the President to implement the budget fully by September and also give undertaking that he would respect all House resolutions, if he were to escape impeachment. They also asked the President to instruct Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, minister of finance, to release the outstanding allocations to ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs, so that they can fund projects under them. The ministry of finance is said to have insisted that the MDAs must retire monies released to them before they can get another allocation. This is part of efforts to ensure that money released for capital projects are used for what they are intended. A source said the government expected that the legislators would collaborate with it in urging heads of the affected MDAs to comply, as this will curb corruption.
Implementation of budget and the funding of projects are not the only reasons the legislators are asking for the President’s head, they are also not happy with the alleged contempt that his government has for the parliament. The refusal of the executive to honour some of its resolutions did not go down well with the House. In the course of its probe into the aviation sector, the national assembly had ordered that Harold Demuren, director-general, DG, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, be removed from office. When the man appeared before the national assembly panel after the Dana crash, last June, the legislators did not hide their anger. They questioned Stella Oduah, minister of aviation why she had not fired the man; she told them “I have not received any instruction to that effect.” Recently, the federal government reinstated Arunma Oteh, DG, Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, on the eve of the release of the report of the House panel that probed the capital market.
For a woman who stood up to the Herman Hembe panel, and caused the current trial of the lawmaker, that action is seen as giving the woman the opportunity to have the last laugh. But one area they believe they can readily get the President is in the area of slow implementation of budget. While the legislature insists that only about 35 per cent of the budget had been implemented so far, the government said last week that it has achieved 56 per cent implementation. The contention of the legislators is that that official claim is open to debate, particularly because Nigerians have not been feeling the effect of the said implementation. If the government slows down in implementing the budget, should the threat of impeachment not be the last resort?
Amitolu Shittu, national coordinator, Committee for Democracy and Rights of the People, said “[The impeachment threat] is a welcome development.” His reason is that “the President has violated so many clauses in the constitution of Nigeria. So impeachment notice is commendable.” He has a supporter in Malachy Ugwummadu, a lawyer and civil rights activist, who said of the legislators, “If they are on a firm ground [they] can institute an impeachment proceeding against the President.” He had gone to court in the past over the issue of implementation of the national budget, asking for an order of mandamus to compel the President to faithfully implement the document.
Shittu does not also see as a tall order, the demand for him to fully implement the document by September. Though some Nigerians endorse the threat, there are those who read blackmail to it. The former group believes that it will make the government wake up to its responsibilities, while the others feel that there is more to the threat than meets the eye.
The former group is of the opinion that, the threat could force the executive to rise up to the challenge of development. They believe that the result will be to the benefit of the people, as well as give a shot in the arm to the President’s transformation programme. What that means is that the government will meet its objective of providing job opportunities, improving on generation of electricity, an effort that is expected to galvanise the indices for the growth of the economy; bring improvement to the agricultural sector, which appears to be one of the main programmes of the administration; provide other infrastructural facilities like roads and water. At the end of the day the promise of meeting the goal of Millenium Development Goals, MDGs, by 2015 would have received a boost.
So does that imply that the threat by the legislators is altruistic after all? On the surface, the parliamentarians would have goaded the government to give comfort to the people and provide an enabling environment for the growth of the economy. That will also make the country prepare adequately for likely effects of a looming global recession and move towards the dream of becoming one of the most developed economies in the world in the year 2020.
But there are people who are looking at the messengers, instead of the message. They are not doing that because they do not want to listen to the truth. Rather, they are guided by the antecedents of the federal lawmakers. Ugwummadu is concerned about the genuineness of the threat. “Let us ask when the budget was appropriated, what percentage has been implemented so far. When you calculate that, then you can decide if it is possible to achieve full implementation by September,” he asked. The budget was passed into law last March and signed by the President after some disagreement in April.
That is why Nnaemeka Amaechina, Lagos-based lawyer says, “It is immature for them to issue a threat. The year has not ended and how do they expect the president to have implemented a larger portion of the budget?... What they should do is to have issued a warning saying that they would do something if at the end of the year he does not fully or reasonably implement the budget and not to threaten him with impeachment. How do they expect him to do it? To me, I think there is more to the threat than meets the eye.”
Another person who questions the sincerity of the lawmakers is Tokunbo Mumuni, executive director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability. He said last week “If as at the end of July, the federal government has only implemented about 25 to 30 per cent of the budget, how do they think he can achieve much before the stipulated time. What have they been looking at all this while, why are they complaining now?” He said the move might be an attempt to blackmail the presidency, in order to get some patronage. Those who believe that there is an ulterior motive behind the threat wonder why the threat was coming at a time the House has been embroiled in bribe scandals over which two of its members are currently battling with credibility.
Hembe, former chairman of the House Ad hoc Committee on Capital Market and his colleagues on the panel probing the capital market had to be made to step down, following allegations of corruption. He is currently on trial. While his case was going on, Farouk Lawan, chairman, House Committee on Education became enmeshed in a bribery scandal over alleged attempt to extort money from Femi Otedola, chairman, Zenon Oil. Though Lawan, who headed the House panel on the fuel subsidy probe, is said to have told the police that he collected the $620,000 bribe from Otedola, which he wanted to use as evidence, he is yet to surrender the money to the security agencies. There were insinuations then that the sting operation that Otedola did with the State Security Service was commissioned by the executive, to embarrass the National Assembly.
That development really has negative impact on the image of the House of Representatives, because Lawan was believed to be a lawmaker with high degree of credibility, until that incident. Perhaps the doubts of the public about claims of his compromise would have been sustained if he had not confirmed that he receivedthe money, claimed that he kept it with Adams Jagaba, chairman, House Committee on Drugs/Narcotics and Financial Crimes, who has since denied Lawan’s claim, threatening to go to court. It was also confirmed that he had, in accordance with the promise he allegedly gave to Otedola, gone on the floor of the House to make a case for the withdrawal of the names of the man’s companies from the list of indicted companies in the fuel subsidy probe.
Many people take the threat with caution because they assume that lawmakers often embark on checks and balances to achieve selfish objectives. In 2002, when the House moved against Olusegun Obasanjo, the then president, the assumption was that they did that believing that the executive was behind the allegations making the rounds that Ghali N’Abba, then speaker, was involved in financial impropriety. In an interview with this magazine then Lawan said “Whenever we have crisis in the National Assembly, in most cases, we can trace the root of that crisis to the executive arm of government as it happened during the case of Okadigbo.” So in order to avenge the wrongs of the executive, the legislature simply issued an impeachment notice on Obasanjo, allegedly on grounds of for his failure to fully implement national budgets for the years 1999, 2000 and 2001. They faulted the former president for being unable to justify the earnings from crude oil for 2000 and 2001, which they put at $14.9 billion and $14.5 billion respectively. The ensuing political fire was doused after a lot of lobbying, by the presidency and the party. As it was insinuated then, there are speculations now that the latest threat is intended to send signals to the executive that the legislature can employ the big stick. In other words it may be intended to force the executive to prevail on the relevant agencies to soft pedal on prosecutions that affect lawmakers, on corruption.
That is not the only reason people suspect legislators may have issued the threat. There are also speculations that the lawmakers are angry because the inadequate implementation of the budget has hampered the prosecution of constituency projects. If they did it so the constituency projects can be done, is that not in the interest of the people? Perhaps yes. But some people allege that some of the lawmakers are angry because the projects are either awarded to their companies or to companies sponsored by them. Some even read political meanings to the move. But Mohammed condemned such postulations as mere fallacy. He told the media in Abuja, “To insinuate that the House of Representatives took this noble step to satisfy pressure from a political party or because the constituency projects were not awarded to members or because of the drama that followed the presentation of the fuel subsidy report, is to say the least malicious, damaging and uncharitable to the image of the assembly.”
He may be stating the real position of the House in this current matter, but the public has learnt to be cautious in their assessment of the situation and adoption of the position of public figures on matters that affect public interest. People have come to realise that in most of the cases legislators hide the real reasons for impeachment because they believe that they use the impeachment card as a bargaining power, not really to campaign for the wellbeing of the populace. They do that to attract public sympathy to their cause and win the support of the people. That was what happened in Osun State in 2000 when the state House of Assembly, under the leadership of Mojeed Alabi, attempted to impeach Bisi Akande, then governor. The House listed 22 impeachable offences, which include ‘his failure and refusal to implement the Appropriation Law 2000 in manner prescribed by the House of Assembly.’ The two parties stood at polar extremes. The legislature said it would not shift grounds and though the governor sent his response to the queries raised, he would not be persuaded to lobby the lawmakers. That tension was doused by the party leaders who intervened. Adejare Bello, who was a member of the House then and later served as the speaker for eight years recently threw light on what, transpired that time. Hear him, “There was impeachment move against Chief Bisi Akande between 2000 and 2001. Baba never offended any of us in the House of Assembly. It was because Baba was too prudent with the people’s money and we wanted money in the House.”
According to him, the conflict was over the decision of the former governor to slash legislators’ pay from N90,000 to N60,000 per lawmaker per month. But then the articulation of the offences by the House that time convinced the state branch of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, NUT, to line behind them. The union said the impeachment of Akande would “ serve as a deterrent to others and prove that the era of tyrannical rule was over in the country.”
When nine years later Garba Gadi, former deputy governor of Bauchi State was to be impeached, legislators raised offences and employed tactics that were later faulted by the court. Gadi may not have physically returned to his office, he won the legal battle against the impeachment said to have been inspired by the man’s refusal to decamp along with Governor Isa Yuguda from the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, to PDP. Last March, the Supreme Court put a seal on the matter, when it compelled the state government to pay Gadi his entitlement, amounting to N215 million. Prior to that incident, Peter Obi, governor of Anambra State had been impeached by the state House of Assembly led by Mike Balonwu. The lawmakers did that barely two days after the court of appeal in Ibadan voided the impeachment of Rashidi Ladoja, former governor of Oyo State. Balonwu’s House apparently studied the tactics employed by the Oyo House, and could not change tactics even after the court picked holes in the decision which a legislature took in a hotel, outside the hallowed chambers of the assembly. Though their counterparts in Oyo took their own decision at a hotel within the town, the Anambra lawmakers met at 5.30am in a hotel in Asaba, capital of the neighbouring Delta State to determine the fate Obi. It was therefore not surprising that, Obi, like Ladoja, was reinstated by the court.
However, where reasons appear genuine, for instance in cases of governors who were indicted by say the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, legislators often adopt some queer methods, either as result of the fears of what the affected governor could do to them or because of the division in the House that often makes it difficult to have a majority backing. For instance, when the EFCC gave the report of its investigation on Joshua Dariye to the Plateau state House of Assembly the division in the House made it impossible for legislators to get two-third of its members to effect an impeachment. The court of appeal quashed the impeachment of Dariye, done in November 2006, in March 2007, on the grounds that the assembly was not properly constituted, and so was not in incompliance with the constitution, that the former governor was not given fair hearing and that the position of speaker pre-emptor was not known to law. Mike Dapianlong had presided over the House as speaker pro-tempore, in the absence of the speaker, duly elected by the legislators. Not only that, Lazarus Dakyen, the then chief judge, constituted an investigation panel for the impeachable offences acting on the request of six of the 24 members of the House. That is not up to one-third of the House membership. When Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of Bayelsa State was to be impeached, lawmakers, though armed with what they believed to be strong evidence, had to run out of the state after serving him with the notice of impeachment. The Ebebi Peremobowei-led 17 members, out of the 24 members, relocated to Lagos. That effort succeeded and Peremobowei later became the deputy governor. He too was impeached under a controversial circumstance.
So what gives the lawmakers the confidence that they could wield the impeachment stick with impunity? It is their reading of the constitution. That document empowers them to give the president, the governor or their deputies the boot, after having been found guilty of ‘gross misconduct’. Here is the description of that term as stated in the constitution, section 143  ‘“gross misconduct” means a grave violation or breach of the provisions of this Constitution or a misconduct of such nature as amounts in the opinion of the National assembly to gross misconduct.’
The same applies at the state level, where the state House of Assembly determines the fate of the governor or his deputy. Now the constitution also says “no proceedings or determination of the panel or of the National Assembly or any matter relating thereto shall be entertained or questioned in any court.” So they assumed that no court would examine the decision of the legislature on impeachment. What they did not bargain for was that the court might have been barred from examining the decision of the legislature; it could look at the procedure leading to that decision. So they arrogated to themselves the power to fire the executive, but mostly under spurious reasons. The breach of procedure has saved some governors, but the President and the vice president are a bit protected by the fact that one of the two Houses cannot impeach without the support of the other. Perhaps that was what saved Obasanjo; and it may also work for Jonathan.
Additional reports by Tajudeen Suleiman, Stella Sawyerr, Adekunle Yusuf and Juliana Uche-Okobi