Wednesday last week, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu during plenary of the House of Representatives, rose through a point of order under matters of privilege, saying he was uncomfortable that nothing has been said about the lingering controversies surrounding allegations that Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami had links with some terrorists’ organisations, demanding that he resign or be sacked from the cabinet. JOSHUA EGBODO writes on the later exchanges that greeted the move.
The raging controversies around the minister began with recent emergence of viral recordings of his past sermons as an Islamic cleric, where he was shown expressing sympathy with some extremist groups, especially al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. He said in one of such sermons that he considered al-Qaeda founder and killed Osama Bin Laden, a better Muslim than himself. He yet in another one said he was happy when infidels were massacred.
Calls for resignation or sack
With the recordings viral on the social media, and report of same in the conventional media, campaigns began with demands that the minister should resign, or be sacked by President Muhammadu Buhari from his cabinet. While the calls were yet on, the matter surfaced on floor of the House of Reps last Wednesday, when the Minority Leader of the House, Ndudi Elumelu, citing Order 6 of the house’s rules, argued that as a leader, his privileges were breached by the silence of the lower chamber of the National Assembly over the matter.
Elumelu noted that since the allegation came public, and trending in the media, he had been inundated with calls by his constituents, seeking explanations on what the House intended to do. “A serving minister in this government was alleged to have links and personally subscribed to the beliefs of some terrorist groups. Recently during his Ramadan message, he owned up, but said he only did so out of ignorance.
“My worry is that I am a serving member of this House. Few days ago, I was inundated with calls from my constituents, who said this house has been talking so much on insecurity, yet not saying anything over such a weighty allegation against a serving minister. He should either resign, or be removed”, Elumelu stated.
Responding to his submissions, however, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila reminded him that he came under the wrong order, but that even at that; “your observations have been noted”.
The move in the house was to later spark off more controversies, as some media reports suggested that Gbajabiamila deliberately shot down Elumelu’s presentation. Besides the explanation offered by the speaker the following day (Thursday) that there was not such intention in his ruling, spokesman of the House, Benjamin Kalu later issued an official statement to that effect.
Kalu in a statement dated April 22, 2021 and released late into the night insisted that Elumelu’s suggestion would be entertained by the house if properly presented through a motion under relevant rules of the house. “The House is aware of several publications on online and traditional media claiming that the Speaker of the House, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila blocked a motion by the Minority Leader of the House, Rep. Ndudi Elumelu purportedly demanding the resignation of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami.
“This misrepresentation of facts for the sake of sensationalism has necessitated this statement of clarification.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the House is guided by the standing orders of the House of Representatives (House Rules) in its operations and administration. In this case, the Minority Leader should have known better than to present such an issue for debate via Order 6 of the House Rules which only applies to Legislative Privileges. He ought to have come under Order 8 Rule 4, as a matter of urgent national importance, or via a motion on notice to enable other members second the motion and make their contributions through debate in true democratic fashion, after which the House would be able to take a position on the issue.
“It is, therefore, pertinent to inform Nigerians that the House has not acted in error, but in line with the provisions of its rules. All insinuations that the House did not allow democratic debate to take place on the important issue of Pantami’s resignation are simple untrue. The House acknowledges the severity of the issue and its nature as a matter of public concern. As always, the House stands ready to give audience to Rep. Elumelu or any other member of the House on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House”, he stated.
Minority caucus fires back
Reacting to that, however, Minority Caucus of the house said the demand was already a motion rightly presented with prayers, which the House should forward to President Buhari for compliance, and also demanded an apology from Kalu for engaging in what it described as personal attack on the minority leader.
A statement by spokesman of the caucus, Hon. Francis Ottah Agbo, dismissed the position of the House spokesman, stating in firmness that the motion by the Minority Leader was properly done in accordance with the rules of the House. “We demand that Hon. Kalu should withdraw his statement and tender an unreserved apology to the Minority Leader and Nigerians for misrepresenting the rules of the House.
“Our caucus, standing with millions of Nigerians, also demands that the Speaker should immediately act on the prayers of the motion..” it said in part.
No mistakes, House insists
The House over the weekend, through its spokesman while stressing that it will not condone terrorism in any way, again insisted on its earlier stand that no mistakes were made by the speaker’s ruling on the matter on Wednesday. “Our attention has been drawn to the press release by one Hon Francis Agbo, who claimed to be the spokesman of the minority caucus, alleging that the speaker was wrong in not allowing the debate on the issue raised by the minority leader…”, Kalu said, explaining that his earlier statement was not directed at the person of Elumelu, and neither was same intended to disparage him.
According to him, “there are rules for such a presentation that must be followed in line with parliamentary practice”.
He stated further; “The House acknowledges the severity of the issue and its nature as a matter of public concern. As always, the House stands ready to give audience to Rep. Ndudi Elumelu or any other member of the House on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House.
The House rules allow for Motions on Notice, Motions without Notice, and Motions on Matters of Urgent Public Importance. The minority leader could have come under any of these but he erroneously chose to come by way of privileges”.
“That Order 6 (1) reads; Privileges are the rights enjoyed by the House collectively and by the members of the House individually, conferred by the legislative Houses( Powers and Privileges )Act, 2017 and other statutes, Practices, Precedents, Usages, and customs. Purposively speaking, privileges are House-specific either individually or collectively. Therefore, issues that come under privileges must have this all-important element and must not be general in nature.
“Order 6(3) reads; A member raising a matter of privilege shall draw the attention of the House to the provision(s) of the Legislative Houses ( Powers and Privileges) Act, 2017 or the standing orders of the House and other statutes breached in relation to him or the House. At no point did the minority leader, Hon Ndudi Elumelu comply with these provisions of the house rules, simply because there was no nexus between the issue and the provisions of this Powers and Privileges Act, 2017. The matter did not and will never qualify to be brought to the house under Order 6. (Privileges)
“The relevant issue raised by Hon Elumelu which is of national importance is inadmissible under privileges for what it seeks to address, since matters under privilege, once breached, must be personal and internal to the House. This is why all matters of privilege are sent to the House committee on ethics and privileges, not to the President directly as the house resolution as alleged by the yet to be tutored “spokesman” of the minority caucus. One wonders what the house committee on ethics and privilege will be doing with the sack of Pantami”.
He concluded his statement by stating that “the House has not acted in error, but in line with the provisions of its rules. All insinuations that the House did not allow democratic debate to take place on the important issue of Pantami’s resignation are simply untrue. As always, the House stands ready to give an audience to Rep. Elumelu or any other member of the House on this issue, provided that such audience is sought through the proper channels and brought under the relevant rules of the House”.
Will a motion come?
With the controversies refusing to die, and gathering momentum by the day, fuelled by the government’s position that it would not bow to pressure and remove the minister, the question analysts are asking is whether Elumelu will muster the courage to again, present the matter as suggested by the house. This they say, may be the seeming first time he and his political party, the leading opposition PDP may be coming on the same page over such a national issue, since his emergence as minority leader of the House against the wish of the party.