Lawan, “power” of Senate gavel and use of ‘Division’


A very common part of the proceedings of a parliament is the echo of words like “aye” and “nay”.

Just hearing phrases like “those in favour, say aye” or “those against, say nay”, one could easily guess that it is the plenary session of either the Senate or the House of Representatives. It is one of the ways the lawmakers vote during such proceedings.

Voting is a vital part of deliberations by the lawmakers. It marks the end of discussion on a topic. No issue can be concluded or resolved without the voting exercise.

In Nigeria’s National Assembly, there are different methods of voting; the voice vote, electronic voting and the division method – mostly done verbally or by signing in a register.

Order 72 of the Senate Standing Rule prescribes that “the modes of voting in the Senate shall be: a) by voice vote b) signing a register in a division or c) through electronic voting device installed in the Senate.”

After the vote, the Senate President or Chairman of the chamber rules in favour of the side with the most votes and in the case of a voice vote, in favour of the loudest voices.

The voice vote is the primary system adopted by the legislature, being the fastest means, while other voting methods are used on rare occasions.

The electronic voting for instance has not been used by the Senate since 2016 when the lawmakers approved the nominations of Ejembi Eko and Amina Augie as justices of the Supreme Court; and in 2017 when the constitution was amended.

The division method on the other hand, was also not used for a long time, until recently.

Voice vote and “unfair” ruling

Although the voice vote is the easiest, many have argued that it is not always fair, reliable and effective especially in the ninth assembly and the Senate in particular.

In fact, some lawmakers have challenged the ruling of the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, on voice votes.

Some political analysts have cited instances of the Senate President allegedly ruling against the loudest voices.

“This renders the voice voting system totally unreliable, especially under Lawan’s Senate,” Akinloye Oyeniyi, a legislative expert, told PREMIUM TIMES.

“It has happened before. Not once, not twice. The proof is there. The video of all the proceedings where he gave unfair and biased ruling after the voice vote is out in the public,” he said after the plenary session of July 15 where the Senate confirmed Sani Adams as an INEC commissioner – despite opposition from some senators.

The Senate had initially stood down Mr Adams’ nomination because of a petition written against him. PREMIUM TIMES reported the controversial past of the now INEC commissioner which prompted the petition that was written against him.

Mr Adams had been sanctioned more than once for physically assaulting his colleagues – which led to the termination of a previous appointment. This and other allegations in the petition had caused many lawmakers to oppose his nomination.

But on the day he was to be confirmed, the leader of the Senate INEC committee, Kabiru Gaya, told the chamber that the petition against him “was paltry and that the reason for the termination (not dismissal as alleged by the petitioner) was not based on gross misconduct but on the rationalisation policy of the federal government…and has nothing to do with his integrity or moral uprightness.”

Senator Kabiru Gaya [PHOTO CREDIT: senkabirugaya.com.ng]
Senator Kabiru Gaya [PHOTO CREDIT: senkabirugaya.com.ng]

When Mr Lawan put the question of his confirmation to vote, the echo of “nay” was louder than “aye” (signifying that more lawmakers were against his confirmation) but Mr Lawan ruled that the “ayes” had it.

This can be considered one of the instances of “misjudgement” by the Senate President during proceedings.

MORE CASES…

– AMCON bill

Another instance was on April 28 when the senators passed the bill that empowers the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) to seize the assets of loan defaulters that were not included as collateral when the loan was approved.

Some lawmakers like the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, had raised concerns about some provisions of the bill which they said will empower AMCON to go beyond their mandate.

This newspaper reported how the senators complained that if AMCON goes beyond its mandate, it would bring legal issues.

But Mr Lawan simply told his colleagues that it was not the time to make corrections to the bill. He ignored their complaints and ruled in favour of the clause even when the voices against the clause were louder yhan of those supporting it.

This prompted Akwa Ibom senator, Albert Bassey, to raise Point of Order 73 (the division method) but he was talked out of it.

– PIB

The recently signed Petroleum Industry Bill was probably the most controversial subject to be deliberated upon in both chambers of the National Assembly this year.

A major part of the bill that caused chaos in the chamber was the allocation to host communities.

While the legislation proposed 2.5 per cent, the Joint Committees on Petroleum (Upstream and Downstream) recommended five per cent.

However, during the final consideration of the bill, a new proposal of three per cent was made. And then followed Mr Lawan’s ruling in favour of the new proposal despite resounding “nays” in the chamber.

PREMIUM TIMES reported how his ruling was followed by chaos in the chamber and eventually, another call for Order 73 by Rivers State senator, George Sekibo.

George Thompson Sekibo

And like in the previous time, an appeal was made for him to withdraw his motion for a division. He did.

– Electoral Act

The memories of the event of that day are still fresh in the minds of political watchers.

It was July 15, the day senators considered and passed the much anticipated Electoral Amendment Bill. The consideration and passage of the bill was preceded by calls for a total reform of Nigeria’s electoral system and attempts by some lawmakers to omit proposals and key priority amendments canvassed by citizens during the public hearings – some of which include the use of electronic transmission of results of an election and campaign spending limit for presidential candidates.

During the consideration, an amendment was made to a section of the legislation to empower the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Assembly to determine the use of electronic transmission in an election.

As usual, the proposal was followed by murmurings and when Mr Lawan put the question to vote, the “nays” sounded louder than the “ayes” but he ruled in favour of the amendment. PREMIUM TIMES reported the hour-long argument and executive session that followed.

This prompted the Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, to call for a ‘division’ and he rejected appeals by Mr Lawan and the Senate Leader, Abdullahi Yahaya, to withdraw his motion.

Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe
Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe

An unmoved Mr Abaribe said the act of voting individually was necessary for Nigerians to know where each lawmaker stands. Fifty-two senators eventually voted in support of the amendment.

Order 73, the Division method

Although the third method of voting recognised in the Senate’s Standing Rule, this process is usually preceded by a call or challenge from a lawmaker unsatisfied with the ruling of the Senate President after a voice vote.

Order 73 of the Senate Standing Rule states that “any senator may challenge the opinion of the Senate President or the Chairman by claiming a division.”

While it remains a rare part of proceedings, Mr Lawan has been challenged with Order 73 three times already in two years.

“This goes to show you that many lawmakers, especially the minority, do not have confidence in the Senate President and his ruling. It is one thing to vote and another thing to rule and that is the one that he has been misusing.

“He only rules as it favours him or their political interest. Ruling from the chair,” Mr Oyeniyi said.

More calls for division imminent

The events of July 15 shows that there will be more calls for division in the chamber, Mr Abaribe told PREMIUM TIMES.

The lawmaker said the last call for division showed Nigerian where their lawmakers stood on the improvement of Nigeria’s electoral process.

He expressed satisfaction that some Nigerians queried their senators for the way they voted or being absent.

He also stressed the need for lawmakers to use the electronic voting system, describing the voice vote as anachronistic and no longer necessary.

“So, you can see that it is an improvement in our democratic system because you are beholden to your people. And you can see that that singular action of insisting that everybody must now vote openly will now give us how we should go. And that should be for us to simply use the electronic voting system that is already in the chamber.

“We are in a democracy and in the 21st century. Ideally, what we should be doing is voting electronically while you are in your seat. Which would mean that, first of all, your privacy is guaranteed. Secondly, you rule or vote according to your conscience and no longer as part of a herd mentality.

“So you can now see that this is just for people to get away with things that are undemocratic. So we want a change and maybe we will have to push for the electronic system to be used. It doesn’t cost you anything. It is already there.”

Although he could not tell if there are immediate plans to initiate the electronic voting system, he was, however, positive that there would be more open voting.

“I don’t know if there will be moves to start using the electronic voting system soon but one thing I can assure you is that there will be more calls for division as we go on. Because what it means now is that we now want Nigerians to know who their real representatives are and what they are doing.”

He further said whether or not future divisions swing the way of the minority, there is satisfaction in knowing that the constituents are aware of the activities of their lawmakers.

“A change does not mean that you have to win. You can also win by losing. That is what has happened. On the transmission of results, even though those of us who wanted direct transmission put in the law, lost, we won because the tide of public opinion swung against those who voted against it and they could see clearly that they were not doing what their constituents wanted.

“So you could see all those who voted “yes” who now had to take time out to explain themselves to their constituents and so many of them were thoroughly embarrassed by their constituents. And many could not face their constituents. I think that is the way to go.”

Bias rulings as evidence in court

Although the Senate President has the power to rule, a biased ruling could be used in court, Mr Oyeniyi explained.

With reference to Mr Adamu’s confirmation, the legislative expert said in instances where the petitioners approached the court to challenge his confirmation, a video of the day’s plenary could be used as evidence – to show that majority of the lawmakers were opposed to his confirmation.

“It flouts the law actually. Although it is in his power to make the final ruling after a vote, cases like that of the INEC nomination consideration, one can get the video of the proceedings and use them in court.

“You could argue that despite the choice of the people during the vote, the Senate President ruled it in his favour, practically making him the only one who made that decision.”

He further said Mr Lawan’s allegedly unfair rulings reflects poorly on the ninth Senate.

“There is disunity in the Senate, under Lawan. It is one thing to vote and another thing to rule and that is the one that the Senate President has been misusing. He only rules as it favours him or their political interest.

“We see how Lawan will put the question and even when you hear the people voting a particular way, he will rule another way. There are many instances. The videos of these proceedings are there, online, for people to check and see.”

He, however, said the voice voting system should not be entirely discarded but suspended in the ninth Senate.

“They should use either electronic voting or individual voting. That way everyone sees who’s voting. Counting is done and no ruler is able to rule against the main vote.”

The ninth Senate, now over two years old, already has three records of calls for division.

In the past, there were appeals to lawmakers who invoked Order 73. Will there be more calls for Order 73? Will there be appeals in the future? Will the rulings be “fairer”? Will the imminent calls for division reintroduce electronic voting? Are the lawmakers willing to subscribe to that method?

As some questions remain unanswered, many hope that the next two years of the Lawan-led Senate will provide the answers. Positive answers.

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