06 Jun

Analysis – The gloves are off

Yesterday, a rare joint session of both houses of Nigeria’s National Assembly met and issued a series of resolutions that has set it on a collision course with the executive arm of government, and holds important political and economic consequences for the country as it stares down the barrel of crunch elections next year. The tension between the two most important arms of the Federal Government, both controlled by the same party – the All Progressives Congress, has endured through the tenure of the Buhari administration and is consequential for a host of reasons – for the party, for the wider political state of the country and in driving economic policy.

Federal lawmakers, in passing a vote of confidence in the principal officers of the Senate and the House of Representatives, condemned the “systematic harassment and humiliation by the Executive of perceived political opponents, people with contrary opinions including legislators and the judiciary,” complained of the current “reign of fear and intimidation” in the country’s politics, urged the President to “take immediate steps to contain the growing level of unemployment and poverty,” called for “competitive and inclusive” elections in 2019 and perhaps most important for the purposes of this analysis, warned that the National Assembly will “not hesitate to evoke its constitutional powers if nothing is done to address the above resolutions”.

The immediate motivation for the sharp rise in the tone and rhetoric of the National Assembly was an unprecedented move by the Nigerian Police on 3 June to invite the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, for questioning over allegations that he financed a criminal gang that carried out a spate of armed robberies and killed at least 33 people including pregnant women in Offa, an economically important town in Saraki’s home state of Kwara. The police said, in a statement, it had 22 suspects in its custody who had confessed to have been “sponsored with firearms, money and operational vehicles by the Senate president”.

The relationship between the police and the National Assembly has descended to new lows, with the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, refusing to appear before lawmakers on a number of occasions over the course of the year. In their latest actions, the legislators did not fail to communicate their “vote of no confidence on [Idris] who does nothing other than preside over the killing of innocent Nigerians.” Saraki is far from the only federal legislator within the radar of the federal security services; outspoken senator representing Kogi West, Dino Melaye, was arrested and prevented from leaving the country in May on alleged corruption charges which he and his colleagues see as politically motivated. Kaduna Senator, Shehu Sani was also invited by the police over being allegedly implicated in a murder case in April this year.

Saraki has been leading a pack of APC politicians who first bandied together as part of a breakaway faction of the former ruling Peoples Democratic Party – and have variously alleged marginalisation and a lack of inclusiveness within the APC since they joined. His candidacy for the presidency of the Senate was not supported by Buhari and a large part of the APC establishment, but was ultimately successful in part because he secured the support of the significant PDP Senate caucus which saw a reason inflict a first political setback on the President.

Saraki remains a significant political force and amid growing discontent with the APC, his next actions will be a useful barometer for determining whether the ruling party heads into the general elections from a position of strength or weakness stemming from disunity in its ranks. It is not far-fetched to envisage a mass exodus of senior and influential politicians away from the APC or backroom deals with powerful APC and PDP state governors in states that are not favourably disposed to President Buhari. Such deals could harm his reelection chances. As a former state governor, Saraki still maintains strong ties with most current state governors as well as many former state governors, some of whom are now his colleagues in the Senate.

Politically, we are of the opinion that there will be no impeachment of President Buhari. The number of those against him in the National Assembly is simply not large enough to put together the majority required for such a move. However, on economic policy, as they have shown in the recent past, the National Assembly can place blocks in the plans of the Executive. In an election season, governance, already on the back burner, will be stymied by these new developments. The status of the year’s budget remains unclear despite the National Assembly passing the Appropriation Bill amid claims by senior economy officials in the executive that President Buhari is still studying the bill. Do not expect a quick response from the National Assembly if the President makes significant changes to what he received from them. Going further, the legislature will have reduced motivation to pass important reforms in critical sectors like oil and gas, power and infrastructure, which might deliver crucial wins for the administration, wins which it could sell to the Nigerian electorate as the elections draw closer. A united party would have been hard pressed to deal with substantial policy issues with the elections less than a year away, but with the ongoing impasse, real governance would be next to impossible and the substantial political premium attached to doing business in Africa’s largest economy will only grow.

This is not to say Saraki’s support in the Senate is unanimous. The Senate President has resorted to the questionable measure of suspending members who differed on issues from the Senate, most recently being the suspension of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege which culminated in the fiasco surrounding thugs breaking into the Senate and making away with the mace.

Recent economic and financial markets data indicate that the economic recovery is anything but firm. The country’s manufacturing sector surprisingly slowed in May despite excess capacity whilst the stock market just ended a two week losing streak. These specify that investors (foreign and local) are cautious about the state of the nation. The news from the National Assembly is unlikely to ease such worries though bargain hunting for assets in the various market will likely continue in the short term. If the near disaster of the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) Act earlier in the year is indicative, crucial laws may go unpassed even when the consequences for Nigerians is significant. This is a recurring theme in the approach of both the legislature and the executive in prioritising politicking over crucial issues important to Nigerians. When Nigerians became vocal about alleged incidences of impunity and extra-judicial killings orchestrated by a special unit of the police, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, there was little response from both arms of government – it was not until now when the police attempted to extend a sliver of what ordinary Nigerians normally experience to the Senate President that the National Assembly came out strongly against the police’s actions.

Structurally, the current administration has been hampered by the infighting and the functional breakdown in coordination between its constituent arms, the most prominent sign yet of the wider fracturing of Nigerian politics. As questions of restructuring, the devolution of more economic, political and social responsibilities to the federating units, respect for environmental rights, the increasing breakdown of law, order and security and wider unease with the performance of the economy abound, more Nigerians will begin to vocally express their discontent with the ruling elite, which notwithstanding their affiliations, they will begin to hold responsible for their present economic malaise – a recipe for increased uncertainty on a number of fronts as they contemplate their choices at the ballot in February and March 2019.