By Ikechukwu Okaforadi and Musa Baba Adamu
A bill seeking the establishment of Armed Forces Service Commission on Wednesday was stepped down after generating mixed feelings amongst Senators during plenary.
The bill was sponsored by the Minority Leader, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe (PDP, Abia South).
Leading debate on the bill, Abaribe said the piece of legislation seeks to get the National Assembly to give effect to the clear provisions of section 219 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.
Advancing arguments in support of the bill, Abaribe opined that, “the Armed Forces of Nigeria is a National institution of Nigeria that should be insulated from the vagaries of political divisions.”
According to him, “the framers of the constitution in their wisdom inserted section 219 to prevent a situation where our national symbol of unity and strength could be sacrificed on the alter of political temperament.”
He added that the bill, therefore, seeks to establish the Armed Forces Service Commission to ensure that the composition and appointment of Service Chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects Federal Character of Nigeria in the manner prescribed in section 217(3) of the 1999 Constitution.
Citing section 219, Abaribe read: “The National Assembly shall, (a) In giving effect to the functions specified in section 217 of the Constitution and; (b) with respect to the powers exercisable by the President under section 218 of the Constitution; establish a body that shall comprise such members as the National Assembly may determine and which shall have power to ensure that the composition of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects Federal Character of Nigeria in the manner prescribed by section 217 of the Constitution.”
The Minority Leader said that the function and powers of the Commission shall be to: Have the power and authority pursuant to section 219 of the Constitution to ensure that the composition and appointment of Service Chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Federation reflects Federal Character of Nigeria as prescribed in section 217 (3) of the 1999 Constitution.
According to him, the Commission shall also ensure that the functions specified in section 217 and the powers exercised by the President in the appointment of Service Chiefs and Officers Corps and other Ranks of the Armed Forces in section 218 reflects the said constitution.
He added that the body must also recommend to the President from among the best and most qualified, most educated and experienced members of the Armed Forces of the Federation for appointment as: Chief of Defence Staff; Chief of Army Staff; Chief of Naval Staff; Director of Military Intelligence, and other Arms-bearing Security Agencies.
The Commission, Abaribe said, shall recommend to the President the removal from office as Service Chiefs and Heads of other Arm-bearing Security Agencies on ground of misconduct, abuse of office, breach of any section of the Constitution, the Armed Forces Act or any other Act of the National Assembly.
“It shall also have the responsibility to approve promotion from among the best, most competent and qualified officers as Heads of Military formations/branches such as General Officers Commanding Divisions of the Nigerian Army and their equivalent in the Navy and Air Force.
“Provided that in making such recommendations the Commission shall observe the Federal Character principle and adopt an equitable template to spread the offices of the Service Chiefs, and Officers Corps and other Ranks of the Armed Forces of the Federation among the six groups-political zones of the country”, the Minority Leader said.
Contributing to the debate, Senator Istifanus Gyang (PDP, Plateau North), said the intent of the bill was to activate the position of the constitution.
According to the lawmaker, the establishment of the Commission would go a long way to “address certain concerns and strengthening the unity of Nigeria.”
Senator Ibrahim Yahaya Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara Central) said, “the new Commission that is being proposed to be established, rather than it having effect in terms of promoting unity and strengthening our armed forces, will be a mere division of a bureaucratic setup that will not enable the armed forces to do what it is supposed to do.
Speaking against the bill, Senator Adamu Aliero (APC, Kebbi Central), said that the piece of legislation offends the spirit of the Constitution as it seeks to politicize it, warning that going ahead with the proposed bill would undermine the Constitution, as well as compromise the Armed Forces.
The Deputy Minority Leader, Emmanuel Bwacha PDP, Taraba, on his part, advised against the politicization of the bill, adding that the issue of geo-political zones be de-emphasized.
Abdullahi Adamu (APC, Nasarawa West) questioned the timing of the bill, stressing that introducing the commission at a time when Nigeria’s unity is overstretched would be diversionary.
Danjuma Goje (APC, Gombe Central) in his contribution warned that, “to attempt to politicize the Armed Forces of Nigeria at this time is dangerous to the overall security of the country.”
“For is to introduce something that would bring disunity in the Armed Forces is to create more problems for ourselves”, he said.
Chukwuma Utazi, who described the bill as “harmless”, said the piece of legislation seeks to ensure that the essence of the Federal Character principle as contained in the Constitution respects the diversity of the country.
Lending his voice in support of the bill, James Manager (PDP, Delta South) noted that the bill had been before the National Assembly for over a year and, therefore, should be allowed to scale second reading to allow the relevant Committee fine-tune it based on submissions from the input of stakeholders.
He added that members of the upper chamber reserved the right to vote against any counter-productive aspect of the bill during a clause-by-clause consideration of the Committee’s report.
“Let us not feel that we have a reservoir of knowledge, we will invite people for public hearing. Those who come for public hearing will advise us whether this bill is good or not good.
“So, at the end of the day, the report will be presented, and when it is presented, we call for clause-by-clause reading. A particular clause that is not good enough for this country will be taken out,” he said.
The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, thereafter, put the question for a voice vote on the bill to be read a Second time.
Lawmakers in the majority, however, voted against the bill scaling second reading, a development which prompted the Senate President to rule in favour of its rejection in the voice vote by the Upper Chamber.
The Majority Leader, Eyinnaya Abaribe, at this point, while coming under a point of order, contested the ruling of the Senate President called for a division to allow for voting by members in accordance with the provisions of the Senate rule.
Responding, the Senate President said, “it’s not my opinion that the nays had it. We took a vote, the nays outnumbered or outweighed the ayes. So, I think it’s not right or correct that a Minority Leader would input the defeat of the bill to the President of the Senate. You may find another thing, but I didn’t rule inappropriately.
Abaribe however insisted saying, “Mr. President, I’m not saying that you did right or wrong, I’m only saying give me my right, and my right is that all our members here ought to get up and vote for this.”
Interjecting almost immediately, the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta Central), explained that the provision of the Senate rule does not allow for the contestation of the ruling of the presiding officer where the same was based on the position of the majority of members.
“The essence of order 73 is to challenge the opinion of Mr. President or the Chair. The power you just exercised is not an opinion, and therefore not subject to order 73,” Omo-Agege said.
Senator James Manager, on his part, prevailed on the Senate President to allow voting proceed, stressing that doing so put to rest any agitation and vindicate his earlier ruling.
The session which almost became rowdy as a result of consultations among Senators, however, was dissolved into a closed meeting by the Senate President which lasted for 30 minutes.
Rising after the closed session, the Senate President said, “l want to appeal that we don’t have to go into a ruling of the order he raised, that we can do without it, and the opportunity will also be available for him or any distinguished Senator here to represent this bill here after due consultation with colleagues here.
“So, Minority Leader, on behalf of all of us, let’s withdraw the order 73, so that the business of the Senate will continue, and if it is your wish to represent the bill, you may do so, and I’ll advise strongly that let’s consult our colleagues as many as possible to be part of the sponsors.”
Rising, the Minority Leader withdrew his earlier order for division and asked that the bill be stepped down.
He said: “I want to make a compound motion – two motions. In order to preserve the dignity of this hallowed chamber, I wish to withdraw my order 73.
“Secondly, and for us to be able to do further consultations on the bill that I have proposed, I wish also to step down the consideration of this bill until a more appropriate time, I do submit, Mr. President”.