The handling of the senate president’s saga by Nigeria’s ruling party is both naive and nefarious

On Tuesday, 7 August, a drama that had been unfolding in Nigeria since the start of the Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC) administration was sworn into power entered its final act. Masked, armed security men, reportedly operatives of the state security service, created a blockade at the National Assembly in Abuja, the capital city.  It was a selective barrier, which Senator Ben Murray-Bruce claimed had earlier permitted the passage of senators from the ruling party. According to PDP senators, the opposition was supposedly there to start impeachment proceedings against the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, who had announced his defection from APC to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) a few days earlier.

The breakaway of Saraki, and the legion senators who defected from APC to PDP, was the manifestation of a rift created in 2015, when the Kwara State senator ignored party instructions and their internal zoning arrangement to become Senate President. APC had chosen Ahmed Lawan as consensus candidate, but Saraki had his own ambitions. He courted senators from his former party, PDP, and made his move. Ironically, senators from APC were absent at the election, because they honoured the call of President Buhari to a meeting at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Abuja. Before that, President Buhari had declared that who gets elected as senate president did not matter to him. “There is due process for the selection of leaders of the National Assembly,” he said, “and I will not interfere in that process.”

It was clear to many observers, at the time, that the president should have been more interested in his party’s choice for Senate President. The party’s majority was slim, and he would need all the support he could get from the legislature for his government to run as he wanted. To have a preferred choice for Senate President, with his party in power, wasn’t an illegal act. The move on the day of election to invite senators from his party, giving a runway for Saraki’s ascension, betrayed the political naiveté of the president.

Saraki’s time as Senate President has been embattled. He and his deputy from PDP, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, were charged with forgery for allegedly altering the senate rule book to legitimise their election. Then he was charged with false asset declaration by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, an albatross that hung over his every act in power. He was cleared by the tribunal in June 2017, then sent back by an appellate court in December 2017. In June 2018 he was invited by the state security service over an alleged connection to a bribery in Offa town, from his home state. And this became an excuse for the siege laid on his house by the same state security service on 24 July, the day 15 senators defected from APC to PDP.

If President Buhari wasn’t interested in who led the legislature, perhaps he should have found ways to avoid making a hero out of Saraki, who has played the media game perfectly and turned his legal woes into a rallying cry for democracy. Even when it’s obvious that this is just a case for his own desire, not for the interest of Nigeria, his faux-activism is hard to ignore when security men in service of an administration led by a former military man are seen blockading the National Assembly. The methods to this madness are not new to Nigeria—they were employed by the last PDP-led administration—yet the narrative is different. The man who told Nigerians to be used to things being not as usual can’t justify such high-handedness.

The more cynical interpretation to all these is to assume that the APC-led government is puppeteering events with the intent of gauging the reaction of Nigerians. If there’s silence, then they’ll take the law into their hands. And there’s nothing in the conduct of the present administration, which has earned a reputation for repeatedly ignoring the rule of law, that makes this claim outrageous.

President Buhari is out of Nigeria—as is his custom—on a 10-day vacation, so Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is in charge of the country. Osinbajo’s spokesman, Laolu Akande, told CNN he did not know about the blockade at the national assembly. So, Lawal Musa Daura, head of the state security service, was fired. But if Daura was acting independent of Osinbajo, who is running the country in Buhari’s absence, just firing him is nothing but a placebo. That the head of the state security service can go rogue and act against the legislature requires more assertive actions. If nothing else comes out of this, as many suspect, then the events of 7 August have to be interpreted for exactly how they appear: a failed attempt by the executive arm of government to hijack the legislature. In a democracy, there are few things more nefarious than that.