EXCLUSIVE- Saraki and Defection: What the Constitution Says -Babatunde Oni

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The Senate President of Nigeria, Dr Bukola Saraki, recently defected from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the he has been under pressure to resign or face impeachment.

APRECON had a chat with a Nigerian lawyer and lecturer, Babatunde Oni, who believes there is so much ado about the impeachment from the ruling party leadership.

Oni is the Principal Partner of Babatunde Oni & Co and an Associate Professor of Law, University of Lagos.


What is your take on the defections in the National Assembly?

Let me just say that it is good for our democracy and calls for proper interpretation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Defection, as it is, is permitted under the law but there are criteria and conditions before you can defect or change your political affiliation. The Supreme Court has heard in different cases that an individual is being sponsored by a political party and the person can become whatever he wants, whether as president, a governor or a lawmaker, as a result of the person’s political affiliation. People vote for parties not individuals. The constitution also provides that in case there is any crisis within that party or precisely, division, and a member decides to defect from that political party, he will not be deemed to have vacated the seat.

But the situation we have here is what I call a stage-managed crisis. I am not sure there is any crisis in the APC, to the best of my knowledge. We have seen people gathering themselves together to form the R-APC but if there was real division, we should be talking about the party having factional chairmen, factional this and that. What we have is a group in the APC which looks as if it was planned because of the planned defection. I believe it is part of the exception to the constitutional provision for defection based on divisions in a party.

But sir, in the past months, there have been several factionings in the APC states, federal senators and state governors having loyalists that seem to polarise the party, like we saw the Kaduna governor going as far as demolishing a senator’s building. Are these not crises enough to warrant defection?

We have to understand that there is a difference between party crisis and personal issues. The Kaduna case you mentioned, for instance, is a case of personal grudges but they still belong to the same party. What happened with the PDP between Ali Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Markafi is a perfect example of party division. The party was divided, giving rise to two chairmen; it was subjected to judicial interpretation until a court ruled to confirm one of them as the authentic chairman. That, to me, is what the constitution envisaged, not when we have personal grudges with each other. You know people tend to interpret the constitution according to how they want it; it is like they want to change and because they want that change, they now try to stage-manage a ‘crisis’. So, was there really a crisis in the APC and what type of crisis? You have a situation in the APC where after a primary election, some people say they are not okay and register their annoyance but they are still in the party.

At the national level too, is there such division; do you see any? The kind of crisis the constitution refers to is a more serious crisis to the extent that it will be practically impossible for anyone to bring them together… If the drafter of the constitution referred to any kind of crisis, it then means that if I quarrel with my governor, it is a crisis.  

However, let us assume there is a crisis in the APC, what can then say is the crisis in the PDP because these defections are not restricted to the APC? There are PDP members also on the move to the APC. What is the crisis in the PDP? So you see that these politicians are just playing on our intelligence, not because there is a real crisis.

So, for Bukola Saraki to defect as a Senate President, has he contravened any law, based on his position?

Well, like I said, it is a stage-managed crisis. We can now assume that the APC is in crisis which he took advantage of and defected; there is nothing he has done wrong. The constitution is very clear on who appoints the senate president: the members of the assembly, not a political party. So I’ve not seen anything he has done wrong. It is now left for the same members of the senate to say ‘we don’t want you’ and vote him out with a two-third majority, that is what the constitution says. So if the APC has that two-third and can impeach him, then good luck to them. The members of the senate belong to different political parties but the constitution does not consider the parties as it does the members themselves.

Does it then mean that it is unlawful for the APC leadership to talk about impeaching the senate president to the media?

The APC Chairman [Adams Oshiomhole] I think, is trying to usurp the duties of the senators; it is not his business. The best he can do is to give directives to his senators by telling them what he wants of them. Fine, a ruling party will not be able to condone losing the leadership of the senate so they will do everything possible to ensure that the person is actually impeached. But it does not call for statements like ‘whether you like it or not, we will impeach you’. That is not really civil in my take. It appears to be arbitrary. They have party meetings where he should tell them what to do, not to go about it the way he is doing; sorry to say, the man makes a lot of noise. As a chairman, he has to have that kind of quality where a thing will be decided in-house and let his senators go and implement it. He is not a member of the senate so in what capacity is he talking about impeaching the senate president?

But there are also other Nigerians, besides the APC leaders, who call on the Saraki to resign on moral grounds… how do we marry that?

It is not the right thing, no matter who says that. There is a difference between morality and the law. Lawyers should know that difference. Aminu Tambuwal is one of those who defected from the PDP to the APC [in 2013] yet he finished his tenure as the Speaker of the House of Reps, nothing happened. What morality are we talking about? Except for the issue of government policy. If the government wants to bring an executive bill that may not be allowed by the opposition leader of the senate, then they have to lobby members of other political parties.

Every senator has the right to be a senate president no matter his/her party. The party only comes in when you want to lobby the members to support a bill. But this senate has not been doing that; we don’t even know whether the house is APC or PDP from the beginning. So morality and the law are way different. People should simply ask for what the constitution says about removal; if these people say they do not want him, do they have enough numbers to impeach him? If they don’t, the simple thing to do is to lobby the members of other parties within the house, nothing more. It is not something you do on newspaper pages or by shouting. Lobbying is a universal political process. There are APGA and ADC members in the assembly. Why can’t the APC just lobby them, including some PDP members that could be bought over?

Also, constitutionally speaking, the defection of Saraki does not amount to an impeachable offence. People just say what they want out of sentiments. What is his offence? There was a time he was being arraigned for a crime, that was the best time they could have impeached him, since he was facing charges. You know, in developed world, people would resign when they face such criminal charges but Africans don’t. So at that point of his facing allegations, they could have moved to impeach him. Now, there is no offence he has committed; he only defected. Where then is the morality question coming from?

The constitution grants him the right of defection on the grounds of party crisis and if his party does not want him to continue as the president, they should vote him out.

Finally, how would you rate the performance of the 8th Assembly so far?

Well, they can easily tell you how many bills they have passed and how many things they have done. They actually slowed down the process of this government’s governance, I can say that. It may be because of the internal crisis that involves the Senate President who is believed to be victimised for becoming a senate president behind the party. But then, how can you keep the budget for months before passing it? There are also other critical appointments that are still lying there. To me, they have not done well at all. And, I think, it is because of security issues; they have been more saddled with securing their positions and seats for another tenure, which has given rise to all the issues.

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