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President Olusegun Obasanjo regains his footing and has resumed his tough talking on the House of Representatives’ 14-day ultimatum to him to resign or be impeached. What really happened?
Mr president... we hereby advise you to resign honourably within two weeks.
Tunde Asaju, Abuja Bureau - Newswatch Nigeria
The House of Representatives has forced President Olusegun Obasanjo to his knees. Although he played the hard man in his public statements, the president accepted a multi-pronged approach to save his seat and his re-election bid last week.
Obasanjo despatched Audu Ogbeh, chairman of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP to Kano to beg Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano to intervene for him with Ghali Umar Na’Abba, the speaker of the House of Representatives, which issued a 14-day ultimatum for the president to resign or be kicked out.
He did not stop there. The president was said to have called on his predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida to equally intervene. Babangida was sighted at the Presidential Villa on Monday. He went into a closed session with the president and Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. He was said to have given his suggestions on the best way to address the impasse between the executive and the legislature.
President Obasanjo equally got prominent Yoruba Obas to address the press in Lagos . Newswatch gathered that these were part of the strategies adopted by the presidency to forestall what a top government official called “the insurrection” from spreading. Since August 14 when the House of Representatives issued a 14-day ultimatum to the president to resign or be impeached, events have been moving on a fast lane. Shortly after some members of the House met at a prestigious hotel in Abuja to debate on the state of affairs, Newswatch gathered some of the legislators headed straight to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to alert the president of the move. That night, unusual movement of Obasanjo’s loyalists were noticed at the Villa. By the morning of August 14, the president’s advisers had fine-tuned their survival game plan to beat the upcoming storm.
First, the decision to issue an order releasing July salary for workers was meant to win back the loyalty of the federal civil service. Jerry Gana, minister of information and national orientation issued that statement just as the news of the ultimatum was being released to the public. He also announced a presidential audit order on various government agencies and ministries including a peep into the finances of the National Assembly.
Last week, as part of the fire-fighting strategies adopted, the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission announced that it had worked out an agreeable revenue sharing formula for the country. This followed the deadlock that had greeted the unilaterally amended formula which Obasanjo released and which stalled the meeting of the commission with state finance commissioners. The unacceptable formula had created a backlog of unpaid salaries in most states and local governments.
Many observers believe it was a panicky measure on the part of the executive to draw sympathy from civil servants who were fast becoming disillusioned with the administration’s insensitivity to their welfare. While most of them were paid last week, officers and men of the State Security Service, SSS, and those on Foreign Service were still groaning about the non-payment of arrears, which is said to range between two and six months.
Newswatch was reliably informed that security officials at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa were equally unhappy with the non-payment of their ration allowance since July. Senior cadres of the security at the Villa are paid N4,000 per month while the rank and file receive N1,000. Newswatch also learnt that ministers have not received their N400,000 weekly federal executive meeting allowance in a long time now. But all these came out two weeks ago in the face of the new onslaught by the House of Representatives to make the Obasanjo administration more accountable to the people that elected it. Some close friends and associates of the president told Newswatch that the ultimatum jolted him and that he was worried about the implication of the ultimatum not only on his re-election chances but also the dregs of his popularity in the international community.
As a result of this, an earlier state visit to the Fiji Islands was suspended at the last minute. The president equally turned down an invitation to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Denise Sassou Nguesso, the new president of Congo . He sent Vice-President Atiku Abubakar to represent him. It is rare for the president to cancel a state visit except when there is a national disaster.
Obasanjo’s spin-doctors went to work immediately after the ultimatum. The strategy, Newswatch learnt, was generally to demonise the members of the House. By Saturday, the president had adopted the Abacha strategy of meeting with traditional rulers and the so-called leaders of thought. Visitors trooped into the Presidential Villa throughout the weekend of August 16 through 18. Their brief, Newswatch gathered was to penetrate the media and keep up the tempo of criticism against the impeachment move. Solidarity rallies and press conferences were equally planned. Newswatch gathered that some editors were also invited from Lagos to parley with the president to ensure that opposition views were stifled.
A source told Newswatch that in the heat of the pressure brought about by the ultimatum given to Obasanjo, there was large scale movements of cash in many Ghana Must Go bags out of the Presidential Villa. “Since Obasanjo became a tenant here, I have never seen such massive movement of cash out of the Villa,” suggesting under-hand deals in the attempts to resolve the conflict between the House and the president.
What Newswatch sources could not confirm, however, was the destination of the bags of money. At the House of Representatives the “tough talks” about impeachment seemed to have given way to the issuance of conditionalities for resolving the conflict.
On the day the ultimatum was given, Jerry Gana, the information and national orientation minister, physically went to the premises of the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, to ensure that the report on the motion was not carried on the Network News that night.
Nonyerem Macebuh, representative of Ukwa federal constituency, Abia State , who has been opposed to the leadership of Na’Abba addressed the press in Lagos last week, criticising the manner the motion for impeachment of Obasanjo was passed. He said the public was deceived into believing that the motion was duly raised and passed, but rather that there was manipulation of the issue by Na’Abba to settle personal scores and animosities with the president.
Macebuh said rules of the house was not duly followed in the passage of the motion. He said that the notice for motion was not given in advance as usual, for it to be given serious thought before discussion. The notice, he said, would have allowed caucuses to meet at zonal, state and party levels to discuss how the motion will affect them. “What I saw when I came to sign the attendance register that day was a motion already signed by more than 80 members. The prayers were based on allegations of misrule against the president and for him to resign in two weeks or get impeached. There was no urgency in the matter. Na’Abba was only taking advantage of public sentiments about failings of Obasanjo to pursue a selfish and personal interest against the president,” he said.
He said Na’Abba’s interest could easily be seen in the manner he handled debate on the issue as he is known to be a political enemy of Obasanjo. He said Na’Abba gave more opportunity to his supporters to speak in support of the motion while less attention was paid to those opposing the motion. “Na’Abba called more than 20 who supported the motion and only about three who opposed. He drew the curtain when my hand and others’ were still up. There is nothing in the rules to stop a member from speaking on the issue. He was autocratic. I left when he ruled against those who opposed it,” Macebuh said.
He believes there was no need to impeach Obasanjo admitting, however, that the president has not done very well in his handling of the economy. “Change is not necessary at this time we are near to 2003. We should be careful because there are crooks taking advantage of our plight to steal the presidency again,” he said.
Ironically, none of the issues raised by the House was discussed in most of the radio and television discussions on the ultimatum. Emphasis was placed more on the earlier refusal of the House to submit to a probe at the instance of the executive. On the day of the ultimatum, the president had ordered another probe of the National Assembly. But members, including members from the Upper House, the Senate, vowed to resist any probe instigated by the executive. They felt that this would amount to a witch-hunt.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, equally entered the fray. Audu Ogbeh, the chairman of the party called a meeting with principal officers of the House August 15. At the end of that meeting, the party directed the House leadership to withdraw the ultimatum. Na’Abba told the chairman that the motion was not the exclusive preserve of party members and that since it cut across party lines, it could only be withdrawn or resolved on the floor of the House.
This irked Ogbeh who felt that his authority was being eroded. The chairman fixed another meeting for August 16 at the premises of the National Assembly. That meeting, it was reasoned, would have included members of the other parties. That night, according to Newswatch sources Ogbeh was at the Presidential Villa where he discussed with the president. It was resolved at that meeting that the party should not ridicule itself by going to the National Assembly.
On the appointed date, Na’Abba and his colleagues waited in vain for Ogbeh, and his executive members. After the long wait, they got a call asking them to report to the party secretariat at the Wadata Plaza . As expected, the speaker refused to show up at that meeting. Ogbeh on his own went ahead to address the media. He told them that another meeting had been fixed for last Thursday and that all the House members who belong to the party would be expected to attend. He warned that those who flouted the order to appear stood the chance of being suspended from the party.
Newswatch sources said a decision to suspend belligerent party members had been taken on the first day. Following directions to security operatives to look at those who were either remotely or directly connected with the move by the House, the party hierarchy was said to have in the pipeline, a plan to suspend other “belligerent members.”
But Na’Abba would not be alone. Newswatch was informed that the axe of suspension was equally dangling on the head of some other principal members of the assembly including some senators. Notable among these are Jim Nwobodo and the president of the senate, Anyim Pius Anyim. Also on this list is Orji Uzor Kalu, governor of Abia State . They were perceived in government circles as thorns in the flesh of the party. The hawks within the ruling party were said to have reasoned that suspending these people or expelling them would show to others that nobody was above the party’s disciplinary board.
Sources also said the presidency was bent on using the divide and rule tactics to break the ranks of the members of the House. President Obasanjo met with some of the members who were opposed to the motion to impeach him. In one of his many remarks on the issue he told the BBC that he had not been served a copy of the motion calling on him to resign. He promised to officially react to it whenever he gets a copy. He, however, vowed not to heed the call for resignation saying it is all a joke.
But last Monday, the president paid what is believed to be his first visit to the headquarters of his campaign group. He told journalists he had come to see how his re-election campaign is being run. Though the headquarters itself is nearly empty, Akin Oshuntokun, the head of publicity said the president’s visit would act as a boost to the morale of his men. He said such a boost is given not as a result of melancholy but as a dose of energy to help them work properly.
The president equally scheduled several meetings. Some of the meetings were held August 16 with members of the House who were opposed to the motion. The president also held his first meeting with Anyim since the crisis between the two. Anyim’s image-makers said it was a normal meeting. But Newswatch gathered that the president was only trying to mend fences with the senate president so as to forestall the upper house from supporting the lower house on this issue.
Many senators believe that the move by the House was in order. J.K.N. Waku, one of Obasanjo’s ardent critics in the upper house told Newswatch last week that the senate would pass a similar motion when it resumes this week. According to Waku, President Obasanjo ought to have resigned honourably since the controversy, which dogged the electoral bill, which the president was accused of doctoring. He commended the members of the House for acting faster than the senators, saying that they did so because of their youthful energy, which stands them in a good stead to take forthright decisions.
“They were only faster than we are because they are young men and women who are able to act faster than we are. You know that with us being more matured in age, we were bound to take the pros and cons into consideration before passing such a motion. But I can tell you that we will do the same thing when we resume. The president ought to have resigned when he committed the electoral act fraud. I can tell you that Obasanjo is the easiest person to be impeached. I do not believe that the House was influenced by any external forces in taking their action. They are correct in what they did,” he said.
Waku also denied that the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, had a hand in the affairs of the legislature. “Some of us members of the Senate who are members of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, when we go to meetings, we do so as individuals,” he said. Waku was worried about the spate of criticisms from some sections of Nigeria saying it showed that Nigerians are not ready for democracy. He said having been sworn on the constitution, the president ought to respect its dictates.
Awwal Tukur, chairman, House of Representatives’ Committee on Aviation told Newswatch that the House was not being influenced by anybody from outside. He also said the move against Obasanjo was not a Na’Abba affair. “The speaker did not influence what the House is doing. In fact, the first meeting where this idea was discussed, Na’Abba only sat in as a good listener. He did not say anything. Tukur said: “We are doing what we ought to do to stop the drift that the country is witnessing now.”
Abubakar Bawa Bwari, Chief Whip of the House spoke in similar vein. “The president is due for impeachment. He has done a lot of havoc to the nation in many ways. Bwari dismissed criticisms that the move by the House was one of those strategies for making the executive to release funds to the National Assembly. “We really mean business and we believe what we are doing is the right way to go about the problems confronting this country,” he said.
If the Senate eventually pitch their tent with the views of the House this week, then the problems of the ruling party would have just begun. Waku said that the party is wrong in threatening to suspend anybody who refused to withdraw its signature from the impeachment motion. Na’Abba told the BBC that he has not flouted the party’s disciplinary order and, therefore, cannot be suspended by its executive.
Said Na’Abba: “My constituency has a clear knowledge of what is going on and knows that I have not disobeyed the party. How could allegations of constitutional breaches against the president be served as an evidence of dismissing a party member? We can’t sit and watch Obasanjo do whatever he wishes.”
Last week, the president invited all the 36 state governors to discuss “issues of urgent national importance.” At the end of the meeting, Segun Osoba, an Alliance for Democracy, AD, governor announced that he and five of his colleagues representing the six senatorial districts of the country have agreed to intervene in the crisis. The choice of Osoba is instructive. He comes from the same state with the president. His experience as second-term governor is also being called to use here. On the list of governors who held meetings with House members were Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, Bayelsa; Abubakar Hashidu, Gombe; Achike Udenwa, Imo; Saminu Turaki, Jigawa and Joshua Dariye, Plateau.
Osoba said after the meeting, which lasted several hours that the meeting was not to interfere in the squabble but to act as a bridge on which either party can walk to reconciliation. He told journalists: “Our mission here was initiated last night (Monday August 19) by the governors’ forum, that we should seek clarification, meet the speaker and his team. I want to say that we had a very useful discussion, very prompt, very honest and wide-ranging discussions with Mr. Speaker and the principal officers of the House of Representatives.”
“The main reason of the meeting is to see how to break the ice. We cannot resolve the problem immediately because we are not here as a judiciary, trying to pronounce judgment on the case before the entire nation. We are here purely as friends of both the executive and the House of Representatives. We do not have the mandate to interfere on either side but at least we can break the ice and create a window of opportunity for an amicable resolution of the problem that we have on hand,” he concluded.
While the governors agreed to keep away from making contradictory statements, which might exacerbate the problem, the views of some of the governors are bound to irk the members. For instance, Hashidu, in a tone which did little to hide on whose side he is, told journalists that the office of the president is a very high one, which should be treated with respect. Dariye told the BBC after the meeting that the meeting was frank and afforded the legislators the chance of airing their own views and fears for the nation. He said: “I am sure they’ll meet with the executive, discuss those areas with a view to resolution.”
Farouk Lawan, chairman, house committee on information, described their meeting with the governors as ‘tremendously successful.’ Said he: “The governors were to reason with us that the polity is not well and that it is important that certain things are done. They recognise our constitutional responsibility in doing what we are doing. They also believe that their role should be that of peace-makers and that of bridge-builders and they want us to recognise them as a bridge that can be used in finding resolution to the current situation that we are in today.”
He, however, told the BBC that this meeting is not sufficient to make members withdraw the motion and the ultimatum given to the president to resign. He told the BBC: “What we did was to discuss, raise the issues, recognise the roles they said they would play and appreciate that role and also assure them that we are not averse to dialogue and peaceful resolution of the current situation and that it is important that the president recognises that he is not the only person who has the wisdom to run this country. That he must work based on the provision of the constitution of Nigeria .”
On whether there was a quorum to pass the motion, Lawan described the president’s remarks calling his colleagues jokers as most unfortunate and that the register of members who attended the sitting is there for anybody to see.
Last Wednesday, the presidency, issued a 17-page statement denying allegations of misrule and other issues raised against Obasanjo by the House of Representatives which were the reasons adduced for asking him to resign. The statement described the issues and accusations against Obasanjo as having been made in bad faith and therefore “vexacious, malicious, mischievous, uncalled for and unconstitutional.” It advised the House to face its business of law-making squarely.
In the statement signed by Tunji Oseni, chief press secretary to the president and read by Jerry Gana, minister of information, the presidency said about 97 bills have so far been sent to the House but that only 20 have been enacted into law, adding that a number of the bills passed were appropriation bills.
On the economy, the presidency said much has been done to curtail the depreciation of the naira and inflationary rate in the country. He said the rate of inflation was going down, contrary to what many people think and hinted that before next year, the rate of inflation will reach a single digit.
The presidency denied that nothing was being done to curtail insecurity and lawlessness in the country, explaining that President Obasanjo had already approved that 40,000 police officers be recruited annually to strengthen the force. The statement also denied that a loan was given to the Ghana Police Force.
The statement also said that the presidency has been implementing the national budget “to the extent that the parametre encapsulated in the budget is realised,” and denied ever reviewing the budget unilaterally but accused the legislature of failing to honour its invitation to participate in the review of the budget. The presidency confirmed that President Obasanjo has so far undertaken 113 trips abroad since 1999 but pointed out that 68 of the trips were one-day return trip with no entitlements to either the president or his entourage.
On salaries, the statement denied that Obasanjo was delaying payment of salaries, arguing that even August salaries were being paid now.
Some people had accused the military of involvement on the impeachment saga. But Ibrahim Ogohi, an admiral and chief of defence staff denied the military’s involvement. He said having left governance to the politicians, the military has returned to its traditional role of keeping the nation’s territorial integrity against internal and external aggression. He promised that the imbroglio would not lead to a military incursion.
Said he: “If you think that you are going to incite members of the armed forces against the government, you are just wasting your time. We will not budge. If you think that some members of the armed forces of this country can be used by anybody, politicians or no politicians, it will not happen. Members of the armed forces of this country have witnessed a lot and it is our desire that this democracy has to be protected at all cost. Members of the armed forces cannot be dragged or be incited to do anything against the legitimate government. You must also know that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of this country.”
Ogohi confirmed that the armed forces have been put on red alert to nip in the bud any adventurous officer from truncating democracy. He advised soldiers interested in playing politics to resign their commission before going into the fray.
Obasanjo was preparing to address the nation as at press time last week. He is expected to address the issues raised by the House. Efforts to get Gana to react to the impasse proved abortive. Dan Unimna, his press secretary, did not return our calls or answer our messages until press time. Last Tuesday, the police foiled an attempt by pro-Obasanjo protesters to storm the National Assembly.
Additional reports by Tobs Agbaegbu and Anza Philips.
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