Several senior lawyers yesterday berated the Senate for going against the laws of the land in suspending its members. They said if the Senate was not prevailed upon to toe the line of decency and adhere strictly to provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and other extant laws of the Federation to halt the gale of suspension of fellow senators, some components of the country being denied of representation may take a recourse to self-help.
Recalls that the Senate had on Thursday suspended Senator Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta Central) for 90 legislative days for making an allegation against his colleagues to the effect that the new amendment to the Electoral Act regarding election sequence in the 2019 general elections was targeted at President Muhammadu Buhari.
The upper legislative chamber took the decision after its Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions submitted a report which showed that the embattled senator had taken the Senate to court after initially apologising for his comments.
However, senior lawyers, who separately spoke with our reporter, faulted the Senate’s decision to punish a member for expressing an opinion contrary to those of the majority or that of the leadership of the Senate, likening the move to a gangster action. President Muhammadu Buhari’s former lawyer, Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN); chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Ant-Corruption (PACAC), Professor Itse Sagay (SAN); Lagos-based activist lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), Alasa Ismail and Abubakar Sani described the Senate action as lawless, brash, illegal and unconstitutional.
On his part, Chief Alex Izinyon (SAN) said the matter is in court and therefore subjudice. The senior lawyers stated that the Senate had no right to deny representation to any component part of the country, adding that the earlier it called itself to order and respected the provisions of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and by extension right to expression of legislative view, the better.
The lawyers, who warned the lawmakers against becoming law onto themselves, asserted that their in-house rules cannot take precedence or override the provisions of the 1999 Constitution which is the grundnorm of the country. This is just as they noted that the Senate’s action could trigger unprecedented constitutional crisis if it did not reverse itself and find a way to recall those it had suspended and equally stop further suspension of members more than the 14 days stipulated in its Rule 67 (4). Prof Sagay described it as a lawless action.
“That suspension is sheer lawlessness. It shows they have no regard for the rule of law. They tend to operate as if they are a world onto themselves. They wanted all along to be acting as lawmakers as well as executive arm of government. Now they are trying to take over judiciary work which is the only arm of government with the duty to award punishment to offenders. It is the characteristics of the Senate to resort to brashness and lawlessness. They are a law onto themselves,’’ he said.
Chief Ahamba spoke in similar vein. “The problem of some arms of government is that they want to be law onto themselves. The Senate must be warned that they are dealing with the right of component parts of this country. In that sense they must be careful not to deny any part of the country the right of representation in the upper chamber.
“I do know that if a lawmaker does something amounting to misconduct, he or she can be disciplined to maintain integrity and good personality of the institution, but to take it to the extent of denying some people representation for six months or more for holding a legislative view contrary to the opinion of Senate Leadership does not amount to misconduct that equally can attract six months suspension.
If they don’t interfere with the rights of others, court needs not interfere with its internal affairs. But there is no way the Senate Rule or bye-law can override the provisions of the 1999 Constitution,’’ Ahamba stated On his part, Falana accused the Senate of regular resort to unlawful actions and quoted court rulings which outlawed the Senate’s action.
“The purported suspension of Senator Omo-Agege is the height of the serial illegality. In Hon. Dino Melaye v. House of Representatives (unreported), the Federal High Court declared the indefinite suspension illegal and unconstitutional on the ground that a legislator could not be suspended for more than 14 days, but in the House of Assembly v. Hon Danna, the Court of Appeal held that a legislative house is not competent to suspend a member even for a single day as it is a violation of the democratic rights of members of his/her constituency.
“In view of the settled state of the law as expatiated upon in the aforementioned cases, the Senate is advised to reverse its illegal decisions and quickly return to the path of constitutionalism in the interest of lasting democracy in the country. However, if the Senate remains intransigent, the Executive branch of the government should adopt decisive measures to terminate the rein of impunity in the National Assembly,” Falana said. Another lawyer, Alasa Ismail, likened the suspension to underworld tactic.
“This is sheer gangster action the Senate is exhibiting. You can’t collect some members to start resolving or voting for the suspension of a colleague who were voted by his constituency for equal representation in the same chamber. Only by the pronouncement of the court or recall by the constituency he is representing that can oust him from that chamber even for a minute,’’ he argued.
On Izinyon’s part, he said the matter was subjudice, “and I can’t comment now.” Weighing in on the matter, a civil society organisation (CSO), the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), described the suspension of the senator representing Delta Central, Ovie Omo-Agege, as an act of intolerance and a threat to democratic practice. CISLAC executive director, Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani), described it as the height of legislative tyranny.
He expressed concern at the level of intolerance witnessed in the 8th Assembly, saying it is alien to democracy tenets. “The level of intolerance to opposing views is getting all democrats very worried. This action by the Senate is tantamount to opposing the freedom of speech and political views,” he said. According to Auwal, democracy, especially the legislature, is the most appropriate place to express diverse opinions. “Democratic space is deliberately being closed. The view of the majority in the National Assembly is becoming an ambush andlegislative tyranny to fellow members. Members are the representatives of their people, and denying them that representation for a long period is anti democracy.
The essence of having 109 senators is to express diverse opinions. The leadership of the National Assembly should know the limits of its powers,” he said. Meanwhile, in a reaction to the suspension, a group of Nigerians from Senator Omo-Agege’s constituency have approached a Federal High Court in Abuja to demand the retraction of the Senate punishment. It was reported in some dailies yesterday that the plaintiffs: Alfred Okaka, Chris Agaga, Kingsley Okrikpo, Harrison Akpojarho, Manny Edu, Lyndon Ugbome, Moses Adegor and Godspower Emowhomuere, are asking the court to declare that the said suspension amounts to a deprivation of the rights of the people of the senatorial zone from due representation in the upper legislative chamber. They argued that the tenure of the senator “cannot be abridged, diminuted, suspended, abrogated and or vitiated, except as stipulated by the 1999 Constitution (as amended)”.
The defendants in the suit are Senate President Bukola Saraki, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, the Senate, Clerk of the Senate, the Department of State Services, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Inspector- General of Police and Senator Omo-Agege. Similarly, a human rights lawyer, Frank Tietie, condemned the suspension of Omo-Agege and threatened legal action if the Senate failed to revoke the suspension.
Recalls that the Federal High Court, Abuja, had on November 10, 2017 nullified the suspension of former Senate Leader Ali Ndume from the Senate, describing it as illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional. It consequently set aside the suspension letter, dated March 30, last year.
The court also ordered the president of the Senate and the Senate, who were the first and the second respondents in the suit filed by Ndume, to pay him all outstanding salaries and allowances for the period he was barred from his Senate duties. The court, however, declined to award Ndume the N500 million he sought as damages over his suspension. Ndume had approached the court following his suspension from the Senate for a total of 90 legislative days, for what it described as “not conducting due diligence before filing a petition against the Senate president, Bukola Saraki, and the lawmaker representing Kogi West senatorial district, Dino Melaye.”
Ndume was also indicted “for bringing Melaye, his colleagues and the institution of the Senate to unbearable disrepute,” as contained in the report submitted by the Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, headed by Senator Samuel Anyanwu.