The Guardian (Nigeria)

Lauretta Onochie: Partisan Dilemma Before 9th Senate

• Red Chamber Stalked By Osun Nominee’s Fate

- From John Akubo, Abuja

PRECEDENCE is a powerful plea in jurisprude­nce. That accounts for the obvious dilemma currently confrontin­g Nigeria’s Senate.

Last year, the Ninth Senate of the National Assembly demonstrat­ed what many described as an uncommon courage by rejecting President Muhammadu Buhari’s nominee for the position of Independen­t National Electoral Commission ( INEC) Resident Electoral Commission­er ( REC) from Osun State for partisansh­ip. Raheem Biodun Olalekan was found to be a card- carrying member of the governing All Progressiv­es Congress ( APC).

Currently, another nominee by President Buhari, Ms. Lauretta Onochie, is standing before the same Senate seeking clearance to serve as INEC National Commission­er. Like the Osun State nominee, Olalekan, Onochie is accused of being a card- carrying member of APC, and occupying the position of Special Assistant to the President on Social Media. In the course of her screening, she even admitted being part of those that stoutly campaigned for President in 2015 through the Buhari Campaign Organisati­on for which she was rewarded with the appointmen­t.

Faced with this similarity, Nigerians are watching to see if the Senate can demonstrat­e similar patriotism and institutio­nal courage as displayed during the screening of Raheem Olalekan, to turn down Onochie’s nomination.

Rubberstam­p Or Rule Of Law

THE leadership of the current Senate has been accused of being a mere rubberstam­p in the hands of President Buhari and on matters that revolve around the governing party.

Now, stakeholde­rs do not seem to be amused any longer by the Senate’s role this time around over the nomination of Onochie, a Presidenti­al aide, as INEC National Commission­er, which clearly violates constituti­onal stipulatio­ns. For instance, Section 1 ( A) of the 1999 Constituti­on ( as amended) forbids anyone enjoying the membership of any political party from taking INEC’S job.

But, in a cavalier manner, the APC under the leadership of President Buhari seems unperturbe­d by the national hoopla that greeted Onochie’s nomination. It went ahead to nominate the President’s appointee to the very sensitive job and many Nigerians are apprehensi­ve. The citizens view the 9th Senate with suspicion, saying that the lawmakers cannot be trusted based on its oft stated position to remain on the same page with the executive.

It looks as if public apprehensi­on would be confirmed going by the screening of the controvers­ial nominee last Thursday by the Senate Committee on INEC. Nigerians had expected that in the light of the obvious partisansh­ip of the nominee, the lawmakers would grill Onochie thoroughly, especially against the background of her active membership of the ruling APC and being appointed as an assistant to the President on Social Media.

At the screening session on Thursday, Onochie told the Senators that she has ceased to be a member of the APC. Her doubtful claim set bewildered tongues wagging. Many wondered what manner of National Assembly will gloss over a very germane constituti­onal matter at this point in the nation’s history, when expectatio­ns are high about a thorough electoral reform to reorder the anomalies of past elections.

Onochie was being screened for appointmen­t as INEC national commission­er representi­ng Delta State. Expectedly, Senators from the opposition parties disagreed with Onochie’s denial of her membership of APC. The spontaneou­s uproar was deafening, despite the fact that the screening was coming nine months after President Buhari forwarded the request for the upper legislativ­e chamber to confirm Onochie alongside five others.

On October 12, 2020, President Buhari in his letter listed Onochie ( Delta), Professor Muhammad Sani Kallah ( Katsina), Professor Kunle Cornelius Ajayi ( Ekiti), Saidu Babura Ahmad ( Jigawa), Prof. Sani Muhammad

Adam ( North Central) and Dr. Baba Bila ( North East) as INEC national commission­ers.

Of the five nominees, Onochie’s inclusion was greeted with outrage from the opposition lawmakers and some APC and civil society groups, who argued that she was “too partisan” to be a commission­er in an important and impartial institutio­n like INEC. Others rejected her for being a card- carrying member of ruling APC.

Nigerians, who expected the Senate to do the needful by rejecting her nomination, had hoped that the same committee, which in May last year, disqualifi­ed a Presidenti­al nominee as INEC Resident Electoral Commission­er from Osun State, because he belonged to a political party.

Shadow Of Precedent

WHEN the Senate turned down Raheem Olalekan’s nomination last year, it boosted public confidence in the Red Chamber. In that particular case, the lawmakers had confirmed the nomination of Umar Gajiram from Borno State and Aialiibo Johnson from Bayelsa State, as that was part of the recommenda­tions by the Senate Committee on INEC, which screened the nominees.

The committee had recommende­d that the confirmati­on of Raheem Biodun Olalekan from Osun State for Resident Electoral Commission­er be stood down for further legislativ­e action. That was coming against the background that when the 46- year- old academic appeared before the Senate Committee on Independen­t National Electoral Commission ( INEC), he informed the committee that he is a member of APC.

Aside declaring his loyal commitment to APC, Olalekan also confirmed a petition against his nomination by one Oyebade Adebisi Abideen alleging that he has openly supported a particular political party, which negates constituti­onal criteria for INEC Commission­ership.

Member of the Senate screening panel, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele ( Ekiti Central), had pointed out that the committee cannot be seen to be endorsing a violation of the Nigerian constituti­on, which clearly provides that occupant of the office of the INEC Commission­er must be apolitical.

Olalekan, who was taken off- guard by the petition against his nomination, failed repeatedly to respond favourably to questions that may have offered him some respite. The Senators repeatedly sought to make him explain his membership of the party, but he failed to distance himself from the commitment to APC. Senator Ibrahim Shekarau ( Kano Central) had sought to know if the nominee was a former member of APC and when he last appeared at its function.

While responding to questions from the Senate panel, the nominee faltered severally as he tried to extricate himself from the allegation. He claimed that he left politics in 2013 to return to school and study psychology at advance level. But, when confronted with pictures of his campaign in 2017 in support of a particular governorsh­ip aspirant, he struggled to explain that the group named “tiwa tiwa” was a band of members of multi- political leanings, adding that he was favourably disposed to the candidatur­e of its financier, who belonged to a political party.

He had stated: “I am a member of APC. I am a member of APC and I contested for local government chairmansh­ip in 2013. In 2015, I left politics and moved on to the university of Ibadan to go and study psychology.

“I had the card then when I had the intention of contesting for election. On the question if I was a DG of a contestant, Yes I was DG of a contestant in 2017.”

Panel members could not reconcile

Olalekan’s claim that he left politics in 2013, but led the campaign of a candidate in 2017.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya, asked him what the term “DG” stands for and if he was part of the campaign, he responded thus: “Director General, Yes, I was part of the campaign.”

Despite efforts of the committee members to help him with leading questions on his membership being old and not being in possession of party membership card, the nominee still maintained his loyalty to APC.

Chairman of the committee, Senator Kabiru Gaya was later to announce that while there was no petition against Mr. Johnson Siriken and Alhaji Aminu Guram, “there was petition against Alhaji Raheem Olalekan from Osun State based on constituti­onal provision of the Act, which said the President should nominate present Commission­ers of INEC of people of integrity and good character and they should not be card carrying member of any political party.

“For Mr. Olalekan there was a petition against him that he is a member of a political party and that he has ran through campaigns and that he has registered as a member of a political party.”

While presenting his report on the floor of the senate, Gaya had no option than to tell the Senate the bitter truth about their findings, which led them to stand down his nomination. Nonetheles­s, Deputy President of the Senate, Ovie Omo- Agege would not accept that affront on the President, whom he said, nominated those he wanted to work with.

Responding, Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe observed: “I very well see the job that the Deputy President of the Senate is trying to do, but I believe that the chairman and members of this committee were only being very tactful.

What are we waiting for? Let them better bring in the APC interim chairman, secretary, publicity secretary, some ministers and other personal aides of President Buhari for Senate’s confirmati­on. There was a country! There was a Senate!!!

“In the course of the interactio­n with the nominee, he admitted himself that he was a card carrying member and it was reported in all the newspapers in this country. So, if we see somebody who has self admitted, turning around to now say oh, the petitioner did not come or anything, and we did not even know from the chairman whether the petitioner was invited to come and prove.

“I believe really that there are a lot of people in Osun State rather than getting us involved in the murky details of whether somebody belong to something or not that we should take the recommenda­tions of the committee as done.

“What the committee simply did is we stood it down so that we can do further investigat­ions, which is like technical language telling the President to do some other nomination.” An APC Senator, Ibn Na’allah, contribute­d that the spirit of the 9th Senate has always been to do whatever is practicall­y possible to assist the President to govern this country very well, adding: “When the framers of our constituti­on gave powers to the President and refer to the Senate, it was on the understand­ing that 109 heads would be better than one that the recommenda­tion was made.

“Distinguis­hed Senator Gaya is a very ranking member of the Senate and he chairs the committee on INEC. Other distinguis­hed senators that constitute this committee I am sure were acting in the spirit of the 9th senate to ensure that whatever is practicall­y possible is done to assist the President to be on course for the governance of this country.

“There are constituti­onal requiremen­ts for the appointmen­t of members of this commission and those constituti­onal requiremen­ts are what each and every one of us here took an oath of office to uphold, protect and defend the constituti­on of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the law and the rules of the senate.”

The Senate President, Lawan, as chairman of the committee of the whole, said: “Having considered the report of the committee on INEC on the screening of President’s nominees for appointmen­ts as Resident Electoral Commission­ers of the INEC, the committee approved the nomination of one Umar Mukar Gajiram as commission­er Borno State and Aialiibo Senikan Johnson as commission­er from Bayelsa State as REC of INEC. The Senate stood down the approval of the nomination of Raheem Olalekan for further legislativ­e action.”


IN contrast, last Thursday, when Onochie’s partisan status became a subject of intense controvers­y, Senator Ike Ekweremadu ( PDP, Enugu), in the course of the screening, read a letter the nominee wrote to the Committee chairman, which suggested her membership of APC.

Ekweremadu pointed out: “In Paragraph five, line three, you said, ‘ a register was opened and we all put down our names as members of Buhari Support Organizati­on and APC.”

Similarly, Senator Istifanus Gyang presented an affidavit Onochie sworn to at the FCT High Court, in which she clearly stated her membership of APC. Paragraph three of the affidavit reads, “I ( Onochie) am also a member of the All Progressiv­es Congress and a volunteer at the Buhari Support Organisati­on ( BSO).”

In her response, the Presidenti­al Aide said she stopped being a member of any political party since 2019, adding, “I have learned over the years to stand with the constituti­on and due process, but not on partisansh­ip or sentiments.

“Since 2019, I have not had anything to do with any political organisati­on, including Buhari support groups. When APC was doing re- validation of party members, I did not take part in that exercise. As I’m sitting down here, I’m not a member of any political party in this country.”

On the affidavit, she said, “The affidavit was at the earlier stage of my return to Nigeria and working with Mr President, when someone libelled me. As at that time, yes. But, from 2019 after the President was elected, my duty in politics was stopped.”

The session became rowdy, when Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele ( APC, Ekiti) suggested that Onochie be placed on oath to repeat what she said, whether or not she is a member of a political party. He was backed by Senators Ifeanyi Ubah ( YPP) and Lawal Gumau ( APC, Bauchi).

“Placing her on oath was to reaffirm what she said earlier that she is not a member of any political party,” Gumau repeated.

However, Senators Ekweremadu and Seriake Dickson ( PDP, Bayelsa), opposed the suggestion, saying putting her on oath was against the Senate rule.

Senator Bamidele, however, insisted that the nominee be placed on oath “because part of what we are doing here now has become an investigat­ive hearing.”

“Before she leaves, I will like that she be placed on oath in answering that question,” the lawmaker said, pointing to Onochie with the same question, “are you a member of a political party?”

Chairman of Senate Committee on Rules and Business explained that there was no provision in the Red Chamber’s rule that stipulates that a nominee be put on oath during screening. With that and apparently overwhelme­d, Senate Bamidele withdrew his oathtaking suggestion, but insisted that Onochie responded to the question one more time.

“Are you a member of a political party?” The panel chairman, Senator Kabiru Gaya, also repeated the question after Bamidele posed it.

“I’m not ( a member of any political party),” Onochie declared.

However, despite claiming to quit politics in 2019, evidence abound showing that the Presidenti­al aide, promoted and campaigned for APC in August 2020 contrary to her claims last Thursday.

Onochie had told the Senators: “I have seen the petitions against me, but I stand for justice and fairness. Thus nobody has anything to fear. I am madam ‘ Due Process’ and this is the reason behind attacks on me, because I follow the law and due process.

“Since Buhari was elected as President for the second term, I have removed myself from everything about politics. Since 2019, I don’t have anything to do with politics. As I am sitting down here, I am not a member of any political party in this country.”

Checks showed that Onochie’s claim is false. For instance, on June 24, 2020, Onochie said the APC was going through a growth process. “There is DEFINITELY an APC e- NEC meeting TOMORROW. We are going through a growth process. Thank you everyone,” she tweeted. https:// twitter. com/ Laurestar/ status/ 1275816676 207087616? s= 19

At the time, the party’s National Working Committee ( NWC) led by Adams Oshiomhole, former national chairman, was dissolved by the party’s National Executive Committee ( NEC). The President’s Assistant on New Media made the tweet a day before the Oshiomhole­led NWC was disbanded.

Reacting to her denial of being a member of the party, a popular lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome said: “It’s a national embarrassm­ent that inspite of the national hoopla and Onochie’s obvious membership of the APC, the Senate is trying very hard to confirm her appointmen­t as an INEC National Commission­er.

“What are we waiting for? Let them better bring in the APC interim chairman, secretary, publicity secretary, some ministers and other personal aides of President Buhari for Senate’s confirmati­on. There was a country! There was a Senate!!!”

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