A lawyer and former member of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Babatunde Ogala, speaks to TOBI AWORINDE on the recent invasion of the Senate and the suspension of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege
What is your opinion on the incident that led to the mace-theft in the Senate two weeks ago?
Let me quickly say that what happened in the Senate last (penultimate) week is such a big shame. It’s embarrassing. It is a desecration of the hallowed legislative chamber. It trampled on the Constitution of the Federal Republic (of Nigeria). I condemn the invasion of the Senate and seizure of the mace by some external bodies, who are not members; very condemnable. I condemn the laxity in security that led to such an invasion by total outsiders. Without equivocation, it is an act that I disapprove of; that I think is an assault on our collective integrity as a nation and I seriously condemn it.
Can you address the incident beforehand whereby the Senate suspended Senator Ovie Omo-Agege?
Like I have previously expressed opinions on that, immediately I heard about it, I quickly went into the books to look at what the law says. First, there was the matter of a female member of the Bauchi State House of Assembly (Rifkatu Danna) that was suspended in a similar circumstance by the state assembly pursuant to a resolution. And she did go to court. If I recall, I think Femi Falana (SAN) was her counsel in that matter. The matter was fought all the way through, her suspension was quashed and the court did rule that the legislative houses have no right or powers to suspend any member; that same is constitutionally null and void.
I am not unconscious of the fact that the Legislative (Houses Powers and) Privileges Act makes provision for “short suspensions”. Those are not the exact words, but it provides that he (a senator) could be asked to be excused from participating for a very reasonably short time. But we also know that legislations not in consonance with the provisions of the constitution are null and void to that extent.
Also, the Senate rules did make a provision that when matters are before the court of law, the Senate would not delve into same. The earlier matter I mentioned (Speaker of the Bauchi House of Assembly vs Danna) was in the state House of Assembly, but the case of Senator Ali Ndume is one that was direct at this same Senate, where the court held a similar view that the Senate had no powers to suspend any legislator; that the only people who have powers to stop an elected legislator are the constituents — through a recall process — or the courts of the land, and the courts include the election petition tribunals.
If you recall, Omo-Agege’s matter too was a subject of a judicial intervention. It was another senator that was purported to have won the election on the platform of the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), until Omo-Agege contested same through a legal process and was declared as being the elected senator for Delta Central. Omo-Agege, of course, contested on the platform of the Labour Party. So, he is also a product of a judicial intervention, just like Senator (Victor) Umeh (Anambra Central) of APGA (All Progressive Grand Alliance) is also sitting down there because of a judicial intervention. The same goes for Senator (Margery) Okadigbo.
There are also some in the House of Representatives that have been asked to vacate their seats and, in some cases, re-election or run-offs ordered, and sometimes some being suspended. I think even recently, there was one from Benue, where the legislator was even asked to return all that he had collected by the Supreme Court. There was also a recent case in the Delta State House of Assembly along the same lines.
I lay this background so that we know how the Senate, in its wisdom, has put the judiciary on a pedestal, including these rules that, ‘if a matter is a subject of litigation, you shall not touch it’ and also where final decisions of court had been obeyed by the Senate, the House of Representatives and the various Houses of Assembly.
Does that mean the Senate no longer has regard for the judiciary?
I just did two matters at the (election) tribunal where I was acting for one party — my clients were the sitting legislator — but the court ruled that they should be removed and the candidate of the other parties should go and sit. Of course, I wrote an opinion piece that ‘yes, that is the position of the courts; they (the opposition) must be allowed in and those other persons (my clients) must vacate’. And that was obeyed.
Now, the same Senate that had put in its rules and that applied the provisions of those rules in the past — notably, remember when (Rotimi) Amaechi came for his (ministerial) screening and (claims were made), the committee said, ‘The matter is in court, so we can’t look into it. So, we cannot hold him down based on a report that is subject to litigation’, which is the purported indictment by the Commission of Inquiry in Rivers State.
If, in those circumstances, you obey these rules, then Omo-Agege, in his own case, once purported to have made some comments, which the Senate found unsavoury, unpleasant and felt it breached its rules, he came out publicly to apologise — neither here nor there; apology does not exonerate — and you referred the matter to your Committee of Ethics and Privileges, headed by Senator (Samuel) Anyanwu. Omo-Agege went to court; he sued the Senate and the committee.
The court said, “Don’t take any further steps. Maintain the status quo until the final determination of the suit.” Now, what was the status quo? The status quo was that Omo-Agege was still a sitting member of the Senate. At least, the Committee had not submitted its report. So, simply put, the court was saying ‘don’t take any further step of investigating, not to talk of suspending, pending when I determine this matter’.
When that order came, it was brought up, if I recall, by Dino Melaye on the floor of the Senate. If I recall vividly well, the Deputy Senate President (Ike Ekweremadu), who incidentally is a lawyer and surprisingly, disgracefully and disappointingly so, went to town tongue-lashing the judiciary. They not only tongue-lashed the judiciary, they now took a decision to write to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, threatening fire and brimstone, and asking him to call judges ‘to order’. That means the Senate was aware that that matter was in court, and that’s why it came up at its plenary. So, you can’t claim not to be aware.
When Omo-Agege was invited by this committee, he attended the meeting quite rightly, tendered a copy of this order of court and also told the committee that “in the light of the fact that our Rule 53 says we shall not touch any matter that is pending before a court of law, as such, I don’t think this committee should continue and, in the circumstance, further to the order of court, I cannot testify. He said that much and was asked to go. So, he did not even proffer a defence for his purported comments. And what were the comments? Merely political comments that he objected to the National Assembly’s attempt to reorder the elections and said it would appear at targeting one person – the President. His prerogative! The majority had their say and had their way. For those in the minority, who call themselves the Parliamentary Support Group, said they didn’t agree with the position. But again, you had the majority saying, ‘Yes, we will reorder the sequence of these elections.’ That was the offence. Then he presented this to the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges and left. Behold, the senate committee and the Senate in plenary presented a report and took a decision to suspend him for 180 legislative days, which they said when he appealed, was reduced to 90 legislative days.
What is the implication of this?
Legislative days are the days on which the Senate sits — thrice a week. In my opinion, the Senate has encouraged anarchy, disrespect for the rule of law, trampled on the constitution, trampled on its own rules, trampled on the courts and the laws made by it. It has shown disrespect not only for the laws.
Do you think Omo-Agege’s suspension showed a disregard for his constituents?
That is constitutional. Secondly, I don’t even want to go there because that is the implication of suspension. When you suspend a member, you have totally disenfranchised those who elected that person from representation because, even when the courts ask one to vacate a seat, they either order INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) to conduct fresh elections within a period of time, or ask another to replace (the one unseated). So, there is no vacuum and, even when there is, it is for a short time. I think it is only in Anambra State recently where a series of litigation up and down, eventually led to Umeh’s emergence. I think for about one and half years, they had no representation. So, what the constitution envisages is that every constituency must, at every point in time, be represented, and if it will not be, the period must be extremely short.
Senators die. Immediately INEC is informed, it fixes fresh elections in 60 days. Ademola Adeleke of Osun West was, not long ago, elected. I think we have two that just died. One from Katsina and the other one from Bauchi. The moment that happens, INEC is informed, and by the following week, it gives you a fresh date. There was even one from Ifako-Ijaiye, Lagos State, at the House of Assembly. What the law has envisaged is that no constituency should be deprived of representation. That is why the courts usually, with the constitution and the Electoral Act, set a period of time within which it must be done. This is all covered by the law. And in disregard of our various laws, the Senate decided that Delta Central will not have representation for 90 legislative days.
You cannot deprive a constituency of representation. That is what the Senate has attempted to do, against its own rules and against an order of court. It trampled on the rule of law. And like I have opined, even though I have condemned seriously the action of the thugs, of which Omo-Agege is saying, ‘I am not aware. They didn’t come from me’, the Senate has laid a foundation for anarchy because it practised anarchy by the total disrespect for the rule of law. And when the law breaks down, anarchy sets in.
The Deputy Senate President (Ike Ekweremadu), who incidentally is a lawyer and surprisingly, disgracefully and disappointingly so, went to town, tongue-lashing the judiciary.