Port Harcourt — The worst kept secret in town has been confirmed: Chief Godswill Obot Akpabio is the Senate President of the 10th National Assembly. In an anti-climax to weeks of intense negotiations, horse-trading and a media campaign which reverberated beyond the Red Chamber, the former Akwa Ibom Governor who first made it to the Senate in 2015 on the platform of the PDP, was elected to a post which makes him the Number 3 citizen after the President and Vice President. The 60-year-old defeated Senate debutant and former Governor of Zamfara State Abdul’aziz Yari. The Deputy Senate President is Kano indigene Jibrin Barau. In the House of Representatives, the lower arm of the National Assembly, Tajudeen Abbas from Kaduna State emerged as Speaker while Benjamin Kalu from Abia State is Deputy Speaker. In the words of law professor Itse Sagay, the 109-seat Senate is senior to the 360-seat House, but not superior. The Senate President is therefore the leader of the National Assembly.
Agreed the processes leading to the election of the leadership of the National Assembly have been tortuous and sometimes rancorous, but there is nothing strange or frightening about it. This is democracy in action. Perhaps, Nigerians should consider taking lessons on the demands and processes of this system of government. In the far-older democratic clime in the United States, it took Kevin McCarthy 15 ballots that stretched into sessions and days to emerge as Speaker of the House of Representatives in January 2023. It qualifies as the longest election for Speaker in “God’s own country” since 1859. The website of the Speaker is appropriately titled “NEVER QUIT” (emphasis theirs.)
We should be grateful that Akpabio and co won at the first ballot! It has been a remarkable run for Akpabio, a University of Calabar-educated lawyer who got his maiden political appointment as Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Petroleum and Natural Resources in 2002, while working in the telecommunications sector. He has shown no signs of slowing down. After serving in other positions in the Akwa Ibom State Executive Council, Akpabio, an Anang, ran for governorship in 2006, defeating 57 aspirants in the PDP primaries in a campaign titled, “let God’s will be done,” an eponymous allusion to his first name. He won.
My friends from Akwa Ibom credit him with achieving an infrastructural revolution in the state. I’ve visited the state several times and agree that Uyo looks good, at least from the airport to the city centre. Riding on this crest wave, Akpabio got a second term which ended in 2015, hence his bid for the Senate. He won to represent Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial District and quickly assumed the position of Senate Minority Leader as the PDP had lost its majority (and the Presidency) in the 2015 elections. Three years later, Akpabio defected to the APC. He was later appointed Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, resigning to contest for President but stepped down on the night of the primaries for eventual winner Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Meanwhile, Akpabio had picked his ticket to return to the Senate in controversial circumstances which were finally decided in court. He won his election to the Senate and has just won the right to “own” the gavel for four years, if God and man allow.
Akpabio, a Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) and recipient of eight honourary doctorates, comes with a lot of reputational challenges. The EFCC has been investigating him for allegedly diverting state funds but no charges have been filed. He was summoned by the House of Representatives in May 2020 over purported misappropriation of 40 billion Naira. This man is a survivor and has swam across stormy political waters which would have drowned lesser mortals. So what do we expect from the National Assembly under Akpabio? Sadly, not much. First, there will be scramble and posturing for plum committee roles, whereby the new leadership will reward supporters. Again, there is nothing to be surprised or worried about because this is how democracy works. Kindly lower your expectations — Akpabio is not a revolutionary. He is a chip of the old block. He is “one of them” and travels in the same boat with them, so it wouldn’t pay to trouble the waters. In fact, he is incapable of anything like that. As we’ve seen, bills, especially from the Executive will be passed after some colourless debates and speeches that are tailored for the cameras. Probes will be sanctimonious and selective.
Still, I believe Akpabio’s work has been made clear in the incident between the immediate past Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika and Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, in the 9th National Assembly, Nnolim Nnaji. Amidst the controversy of the reported launch of Nigeria Air, Sirika accused the legislator of “demanding five per cent stake in the proposed national carrier.” Nnaji had at a public sitting, called the launch and in fact the airline effort “a sham and fraud,” prompting the former Minister to level the accusation. If Akpabio and co achieve nothing else, can they work to discourage any behaviour that can trigger this kind of accusation against those we refer to as Honourable members and Distinguished Senators? Akpabio’s ascension to the exalted seat of Senate President is prophecy come true. Akpabio was elected Speaker of the parliamentary year in his undergraduate days at the University of Calabar. He is now Senate President. His constituency then was the university community; today, his constituency is the Nigerian nation. New times require new men.
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