Baring any other dramatic aftermath, the Eighth National Assembly will be led by two gentlemen who defied their party’s directive to emerge as the number three and four citizens of Nigeria.
Senator Bukola Saraki (APC, Kwara) and Hon. Yakubu Dogara (APC, Bauchi) emerged on Tuesday as the new Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively. It was a spectacular event at the National Assembly complex in Abuja and certainly the most astonishing political development in the country since the defeat of Peoples Democratic Party by the All Progressives Congress. The drama in Tuesday’s election, however, is not so much about the ‘betrayal’ of these new leaders of the parliament, but in how their emergence draws attention to the fragile nature of the APC union.
Despite being members of the ruling party, neither Saraki nor Dogara was the choice of the party leaders for the leadership of the National Assembly. The party even had to conduct a straw election within its fold to formally announce the choice of Senator Ahmed Lawan and Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila as its candidates. But Saraki and Dogara refused to be cowed by party supremacy, and instead opted for elections on the floor of their chambers, after apparently sealing deals with the opposition PDP, which though not the majority in both chambers, still had to be courted before APC could produce a clear winner as required by law.
Politicians are hardly the type who cannot be caught in bed with the enemy, which explains why Saraki was returned unopposed with only 57 ‘distinguished members’ at the election, 49 of who are from PDP. A lot would still have to unravel on why President Muhammadu Buhari, who had earlier publicised his indifference to whoever emerges as the National Assembly leaders, all of a sudden and fresh from the G-7 meeting in Germany, would be said to have convened a meeting with all the APC senators just before the inauguration of the Senate.
In attempting a last-minute intervention, apparently to persuade APC senators to abide by the party directive and present a common candidate for the election, did the President forget to withdraw his proclamation letter which empowered the Senate to proceed with its inauguration even if he would not be physically present? Did he underestimate Saraki’s resolve to be Senate President at all cost even if he had to negotiate with the ‘enemy’ and concede Deputy Senate Presidency slot to them as he has clearly done?
In any case, without fully persuading Saraki to drop his ambition or wooing some PDP senators over, how did APC leadership think Lawan was going to win even if the other 51 senators had attended the inauguration and voted for the party’s choice?
It might turn out that Saraki’s reign will be short-lived, but undoubtedly APC lost on Tuesday because it went into the election with a divided house. Yet, this division, strangely, conveys a sense that a better checks and balances structure might be achieved with the country becoming the better for it. Saraki tossed a coin whose first side clearly shows defiance and indiscipline. But the other side of his coin, glittering with intrigue and subterfuge, reveals a man who can swing both ways, politically speaking, and who is clever enough to carry the South-East along, as evident in the Ike Ekweremadu’s reelection as Deputy Senate President.
I suspect that during Saraki’s reign, neither party will trust him; but his tenure, if it lasts beyond this month, will treacherously endure because he will continue to play the two parties against each other while staying carefully in the middle for as long as necessary, mainly towards 2019 when another round of desperate realignments will erase every sin of the past. But at least, he would have redrawn the reward template for the main parties that coalesced into APC – Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) got the Presidency (Buhari); Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Vice-Presidency (Yemi Osinbajo); New-PDP, the Senate Presidency (Saraki), and the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) got the Speaker of the House (Dogara).
Save for the embarrassing wild goose chase that took the 51 other APC senators out of the chamber on Tuesday, Saraki’s ‘victory’ is akin to how the late Evans Enwerem emerged as the Senate President in 1999 when most PDP stalwarts had thought Chuba Okadigbo was the ideal choice.
Similarly, with Dogara’s emergence as Speaker, a sense of déjà vu also comes with it. Like Saraki, the University of Jos-trained lawyer had rejected his party’s directive, preferring to run against Gbajabiamila in an election that would be determined by a simple majority. In defeating his learned fellow from Lagos by a very slim margin (182–174), therefore, Dogara reminds one of one of the hidden hands that urged him on, Governor Aminu Tambuwal, who too had defied the PDP leadership in 2011 to emerge as the Speaker.
In June 2011, Tambuwal and Emeka Ihedioha had relied on the support of different opposition parties to defeat Hon. Mulikat Adeola-Akande, who was the party leadership’s choice due to its zoning arrangement. Tambuwal won with 252 as against her 90 votes. But his victory ignited PDP’s series of crises that eventually led to an implosion, causing the party five governors, the Speaker of the House and a former President elected on its platform.
It will be harsh and premature to assume that Tuesday’s National Assembly elections amount to a death kernel for APC. The new behemoth will reign for some time if it is proactive, learns from unforced errors and re-strategises. It faltered on Tuesday because it lacked experience in the politics of desperation at the federal level. Part of that indiscretion was in allowing Lawan to be tagged as Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s candidate. Another was the tactical error by the President to have shown indifference to the politicking that would produce the leadership of the National Assembly. Except it was a clever decoy by Buhari, the naivety that bred that sort of neutral disposition would be tantamount to saying that the President would not have a Special Adviser on National Assembly matters. It is one thing to win an election on the strength of popularity, but it’s another thing to have what it takes to steer the ship of the nation aright in shark-infested waters.
Having tested its strength as an opposition with marginal success, PDP will certainly want more influence going forward. Some commentators have attributed what happened on Tuesday to a rejection of ‘godfatherism’ in politics. They are wrong. Like the Tambuwal ‘insurrection’ of 2011, what was witnessed on Tuesday was an attempt to throw up a new set of fresh, perhaps influential godfathers in another mould. They will have their space, but the new kids on the block will do well to realise that except they transition, godfathers don’t really lose in politics.
They live to fight another battle, always.