Two weeks ago, we collated the results of a poll we sent out to thousands of our readers. We wanted to gauge public opinion on the quality of leadership in the current National Assembly. We asked our readers, “what do you think of the current leadership of the 9th Assembly; Doing great, average, or docile? Exactly 1,423 responded to the poll, and 94% believed that the National Assembly’s current leadership is docile. While this might not be reflective of the feelings of most Nigerians, it at least gives credence to the argument that in the eyes of the current leadership of the National Assembly, the President can do no wrong.
Senator Lawan has avoided any confrontation with the Executive by allowing their budgets, requests for loans and virements, and nominees to scale through the National Assembly with minimal scrutiny. There is very little debate about the country’s indebtedness or its ability to service such loans before the Assembly approves them. Criticisms of the President’s handling of National Security on the floor of the Assembly are barely tolerated. And the powers of the National Assembly are now ceremonial, reduced to issuing an advisory to the Executive. To think that it took severe public outrage (including members of the APC) to get the National Assembly to halt the process of confirming Lauretta Onochie as INEC commissioner temporarily should tell you a lot about the current leadership of the Senate. Expectedly, the nomination has been resent to the Senate, and many would bet more than a nickel that It would go through with little scrutiny.
When I interviewed Senator Ahmed Lawan in his office a month after his party had won the 2019 general elections, there was an aura around him. From the way he selectively took calls from a mobile phone that never stopped ringing to the way several of his colleagues grinned at every word he uttered, I could tell that he been anointed for a position far more influential than that which he currently occupied at the time. He carried himself with the kind of swagger most President elects demonstrate as they wave past a cheering audience from a motorcade at the eagle’s square.
Senator Lawan had been made the Senate majority leader as part of several strategic maneuvers to appease a powerful bloc within and outside the Senate that wanted Senator Bukola Saraki ousted as President of the National Assembly. Hence, in what appeared as a masterfully executed Coup d’etat on January 10, 2017, Senator Ali Ndume stepped out to observe the ‘Asr’ prayers as Senate leader and returned ten minutes later to realize he had been removed by members of his party and replaced with Senator Lawan.
Despite being made the majority leader of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan was never appeased. He believed that having been in the National Assembly since 1999, it was his time to be Senate President. He had secured his party’s support (or so he thought), and that of the President. Unfortunately for Lawan, it took remarkable political skill (and a bit of party disloyalty) for Bukola Saraki to outwit the party and deny Lawan his most cherished desire. “He never forgave Saraki for that move,” a legislative aide at the National Assembly who got a ringside view of the unfolding events, told me. “Even after being made the Majority Leader, some of the Senators who supported his ambition still looked for ways to impeach Saraki, but they never managed to secure enough support.”
Another legislative aide who pled to be anonymous also told me that “many APC senators were merely posturing. They gave the party the impression that they were working to impeach Bukola Saraki but would turn around to make deals with the same person at Night.” “It was so funny to watch,” he chuckled.
After waiting for about 30 minutes, he gave a nod to begin the interview. “Oya, ask your questions,” he said as he settled down onto a brightly polished leather couch facing the camera. Two things stood out for me during the interview. The first was that Senator Ahmed Lawan gave the impression that he believed the Senate and the National Assembly should work for all Nigerians. When I asked him what he would do differently should he emerge the President of the 9th Assembly, he said, “we will do everything to support the programs of Mr. President to boost the economy, protect Nigerians and end corruption.” He believed the National Assembly could play a critical role in dealing with insecurity and taming the banditry in the North West.
The second thing that stood out was the idea of the kind of relationship the National Assembly should have with the Executive. “I do not believe in fighting with the Executive,” he said. “What has all the fighting gotten us now. I believe in a working relationship with the Executive where we will support them to succeed with their programs.”
Little wonder, in a recent forum organized by the Youth arm of the APC, the Senate President said that “our government could not perform optimally because of the crisis between the parliament and the executive arm. So, APC has already lost four important years.” This is quite a strange way to pass the buck, given that Ahmed Lawan was the third highest-ranking officer in the Senate during the period. Indeed, the two years since his assumption of office as Senate President, despite his cordiality with the Executive, has proven that it takes much more than avoiding confrontation with the Executive to transform the fortunes of the Nigerian people.
Senator Lawan would argue that he has achieved some of the things he set out to do in office. When we spoke, he told me that “I can’t see why it takes 6 to 7 months to pass an annual budget. We should ensure our budget cycle starts in January so businesses can plan following our financial year.” It is fair to say that he has achieved this. But on the more severe issues of Electoral reforms, PIB, and Police reforms, he seems to be foot-dragging, observing the body language of the Executive. He hasn’t done much in terms of pressing constitutional amendments even though he told me that “I do not believe in a system where the commissioner of police does not take orders from the Governor who is the chief security officer of the state.”
The challenge with Senator Ahmed Lawan is rooted in how he defines his role as senate president and the conflict of where his loyalty should lay – whether to the President or the constitution. As he once told me, “My understanding of separation of powers is not that we are independent of each other but that of specializations of functions.” Perhaps, what the Senate president shies away from is that the specialization of the function of the National Assembly will inadvertently lead to several confrontations with the Executive where he is bound to choose the constitution over his loyalty to the President. That is how democracy works.
At the moment, unfortunately, he may go down as the most unpopular Senate President since the return to democracy in 1999. Can he change that narrative? Only time will tell.