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MINISTERIAL SCREENING, HOW NOMINEES SCALED SENATE HURDLE

By NBF News
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Akunyili
The Senate once again adopted the doctrine of necessity in its decision to fast-track the screening and confirmation of ministerial nominees sent to the upper legislative body by Acting President Goodluck Jonathan.

Back in 2008, the Senate had said that it would no longer screen or confirm ministerial nominees unless their portfolios were stated. But the Senate under the leadership of David Mark again did not keep to its words.

However, the selection process and the waiting game before the release of the list of the ministerial nominees by the Acting President easily came across as one of the best kept secrets of the administration. The selection process was believed to be very cumbersome and had put Jonathan under intense pressure.

Presidency sources informed Sunday Sun that a lot of permutations took place as a way of ensuring the usual balancing of the cabinet as well as take into account the position of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was said to have become very uncomfortable with Jonathan since the latter appointed his former bosom friend and confidant, General Theophilus Danjuma, as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council and General Aliyu Gusau as National Security Adviser.

At a point, it was gathered that the Acting President almost gave up the idea of appointing a fresh crop of ministers and resorting to reappointing more than 50 per cent of members of the dissolved Federal Executive Council. But he reportedly beat a quick retreat upon the realization that doing so would mean digging his own grave politically.

It was this realization that the same Ministers that failed to take a decision on matters of national interest at a critical point in the life of the nation may eventually sink the ship of state if re-appointed that made the Acting President have a change of plan.

The submission of the list to the President of the Senate was equally a guarded one. Contrary to expectation, it was the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters, Hon. Cairo Ojougboh, and not the Special Adviser, Senator Mohammed Abba-Aji, who strolled into the National Assembly unnoticed and went straight to Senator Mark's office. The Senate President also quietly collected the list and pocketed it, and ensured that the veil of secrecy thrown over the list remained in place.

This much was evident in the fact that most senators contacted over the list and who ought to have known about it were kept in the dark with regards to its content.

The process of submission of the ministerial list created curiosity in the minds of the public as to why the Presidency was keeping a document that ought to be open for debate like in other democracies. The situation was further compounded by unconfirmed change of guards in respect of the liaison between Aso Rock and the National Assembly. In the past it was the responsibility of the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Abba-Aji, to deliver all presidential communications to the National Assembly, particularly on such serious matters as that of ministerial nominees.

The fact that the list was delivered by Abba-Aji's deputy, Ojougboh, was instructive. Abba-Aji probably was not found suitable to handle the delivery of the very important list given that he had allowed himself to be hijacked by some powerful people around ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua, who prevented him from submitting the letter communicating Yar'Adua's trip to Saudi Arabia for medical attention to the leadership of the National Assembly in accordance with the provision of the Constitution. It was these powerful people that the former Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili, described as the cabal within the Presidency.

The development has led to Abba-Aji being seen as disloyal to the State House and thus cannot be trusted to handle such sensitive assignment, a situation which accounted for his absence at the ministerial screening exercise. The development, according to information pieced together by Sunday Sun, may force the Kanuri-born politician to head for his home state of Borno for a possible confrontation with Governor Ali Modu Sheriff in the battle for the 2011 election.

However, as soon as the list was made public, some of the ministerial nominees, particularly the re-appointed ones who were not too sure of their chances of scaling the hurdle, quickly put together powerful lobby groups to assist them talk to the senators. While majority of the nominees engaged the services of politicians and other lobby groups, Senator Sanusi Daggash preferred to do it himself, since most of them who were his colleagues till 2007 when he was appointed a Minister by Yar'Adua. He thus put ego aside and visited more than two-thirds of the senators, to explain his actions while he served as Minister of National Planning during which period he had brushes with his former colleagues on principle and along official lines of duty.

Unlike others, Daggash's choice to visit the senators in person made a great difference, as the legislators saw humility in a man they hitherto thought was arrogant and not a team player. Accordingly, when he appeared for screening, he accepted that he erred in his relationship with them and would ensure it does not happen again. As soon as he was through with his biography, he was asked to take a bow, a privilege usually accorded former federal legislators.

One of the high points of the lobby was the move by the former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Tony Anenih, to campaign against his estranged wife, Josephine, a nominee from Anambra State in favour of Akunyili.

Chief Anenih, Sunday Sun gathered, went in the company of Akunyili to see Mark to ensure the confirmation of the former Minister of Information and Communications, owing to the petitions over her nomination and not that of Mrs Anenih, both of whom hail from the same senatorial district in Anambra.

Mark, who is known not to belong to the same political camp with Anenih, owing to the opposition the latter mounted against his emergence as Senate President, was very evasive in his response as he merely told him that the power of clearance belongs to senators who would do the voting and not him as the presiding officer.

The Senate President, it was gathered, was however not happy that Akunyili enlist the services of Anenih while she already had the support of majority of senators, particularly those in the National Interest Group (NIG). Some of the NIG members were said to have sent for her and directed her to cut off any political relationship with Anenih or risk disqualification. She was said to have complied pronto. It was after she reportedly dumped Anenih that some of the senators went to see the Acting President to allow her be the Southeast geopolitical zone nominee and not Anambra representative.

However, while these behind the scene moves were on, Mrs Anenih, a former Women Leader of the PDP and also versed in the art of lobbying, quickly moved to get the support of senators from her state and other South East states to reach out to majority of the Northern senators on her behalf.

Even though she did not mention names, it was obvious to most of the Senators she met that she was referring to the alleged role played by Akunyili in ensuring that Emordi was edged out to enable her take effective control of the leadership of the ruling party in Anambra.

The 'cabal' pronouncement by Akunyili and Emordi's ouster from the Senate by the Court of Appeal were points some northern Senators opposed to Akunyili wanted to use against her nomination.

That was the game Senator Garba Lado (PDP, Katsina), who has proven to be the last of the Yar'Adua political disciple standing, wanted to play when he raised a Point of Order directing the attention of the Senate to a Sunday Sun report on the issue of bribery, in which he alleged that the Katsina Senator that was referred to affected his privilege. The matter was quickly referred to the Senate Committee on Ethics and Public Petitions, where it is expected to be buried.

Not done, as soon as Akunyili mounted the rostrum for the screening, Senator Mahmud Kanti Bello moved to get the former NAFDAC boss rattled by accusing her of portraying an attitude of disloyalty and sycophancy to the First Lady Hajia Turai Yar'Adua, saying she was one of the closest allies to the Yar'Adua family.

As this was going on, the official time allotted for the Monday special plenary was about expiring and some of the Senators quickly sent words to the Senate Leader on the need for time to be extended through a motion in keeping with the Standing Rules. It was a counter-plan advantage the NIG Senators never wanted to let go.

Accordingly, as soon as the motion for extension of time was moved and seconded, the NIG Senators, who were obviously in the majority, hacked it down through a voice vote in order to prevent Akunyili, who was already getting visibly harassed from further scrutiny by Senator Bello and his supporters.

As soon as Mark's gavel hit the table, it was clear that Akunyili had scaled the screening exercise. And so it came to be as the Senate President in reporting progress of the exercise announced that Mrs Fidelia Njeze (Enugu), Chief Adetokunbo Kayode (Ondo) and Akunyili (Anambra) were screened by the Senate at the Committee of the Whole.

Curiously, a member of the NIG from Kogi State, Senator Smart Adeyemi, who kicked against the nomination of Mr Humphrey Abba during the screening exercise of President Yar'Adua's ministerial nominees in 2008, did not oppose the nomination of Mohammed Bello-Adoke, who hails from Kogi Central, even though he is a nominee of an eminent jurist in Nigeria.

Adeyemi told Sunday Sun that he had no reason to oppose the nomination of Bello-Adoke because it met the federal character principle of the Constitution, which encourages spread in the distribution of political offices. His words: 'I did oppose Humphrey Abba not because I did not like him; no, far from it. After all, he is of my generation and a brilliant and warm person. But I was concerned that only one senatorial district was dominating every political office allocated to the state and I believe that there was the need for equity. You can see that I did not oppose the nomination of Bello-Adoke because there is presently some semblance of balance in the process.'

For former Minister of National Planning, Dr Shamsudeen Usman, whose screening was shifted from Tuesday to Wednesday, Sunday Sun investigation revealed that he was invited to the Presidency on Tuesday to meet the Acting President, during which the Presidency sent in words to the Senate leadership to stand down his name for the next legislative day to enable him trash out some knotty issues. As soon as his name was skipped from the list of those being screened by the Senate on Tuesday, some Senators assumed that he may have been dropped from the ministerial list.

Sunday Sun reliably gathered that what led to the misinformation was the fact that when the Acting President sent for Usman, a verbal message was communicated to the Senate leadership to skip his name for another day. The message was misunderstood by some of the principal officers to mean having been dropped and before the meeting ended and message later conveyed to the Senate leadership to go ahead with his screening, most people had gone to bed. It was on that basis and to correct the wrong impression created that the former Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was screened as the first nominee on Wednesday.

Another nominee that scaled the security screening and later confirmation by the Senate was Dr Idi Hong, who it was alleged had been indicted in a security report over his purchase of two landed property within the city of Abuja for about N500 million in less than three years of his becoming a Minister of State, first in Culture and Tourism Ministry and later Health.

Hong's nomination was believed to have been influenced by Senator Jibril Aminu. Senators who were initially opposed to his nomination had to bow to the choice of Aminu, who they respect as an elder that has worked hard for the country.

Originally designed to be thorough, the screening exercise had to be reviewed at an executive session of the Senate on Tuesday, when the senators resolved that in view of the time left for the Acting President to function, there was the need to allow him have his ministers to enable the machinery of government start running again.

Not even the protest by some of the senators that drew the attention of the leadership to the effect that it was agreed in 2008 that the list of ministerial nominees should be accompanied with their portfolios before screening can commence was addressed as they were told that time was of essence. It also gathered that the senators at their executive session equally resolved to allow the issue of perceived marginalization and federal character principle in the allocation of political offices to lie low for the purpose of giving the Acting President the team he wants to assist him carry out the functions of state.

Against this background, petitions that were accompanied by court affidavits in line with Senate Standing Rules bordering on corruption and other issues were not given consideration by the Senate leadership, which was more concerned with carrying out accelerated screening and confirmation.

It was on this note that when Senator Satty Gogwin, who defected from the Action Congress to the PDP, opposed the confirmation of Miss Josephine Tapgun from Plateau State, he was quickly ruled out of order by the Senate President, who explained that most of the senators have similar issues to raise but based on the understanding to make sacrifices in the overall interest of the nation, such observation would be pardoned this time around.

While the Senate made the public to believe that it carried out a thorough screening of the ministerial nominees by the initial hard stance, which later turned out to be mere political rhetoric, the underlying fact remains that it was more of a circus show where the more you looked, the less you saw.