“What the senate resorted to was to ask such nominees to react to allegations or petitions pending before other statutory bodies. Naturally the concerned nominees denied the allegation but in law, mere denial does not amount to full proof that the allegation is not true”.
Upon the assumption of President Muhammadu Buhari into office, an issue which attracted so much debate was when the President would appoint Ministers. With the passing of each day that the President failed to give any indication as to when the appointments would be made, Nigerians across the six geo-political zones and across political dividesshared a common apprehension as to whether the President intended to govern the country without the assistance of Ministers. Assurances by the President and the ruling party that the appointments were delayed owing to a resolve of the President to appoint only credible persons did little to assure some. At the height of the controversy, a suit was instituted before the Federal High Court for a determination of questions bothering amongst others on the legality or otherwise of the delay in appointing ministers.
“NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL”
However when the list of nominees was eventually sent to the National Assembly, matters seemed to take another dimension. As required by the provisions of Section 147 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended), the Senate must confirm the nomination of each Minister designate. Upon receipt of the list, the Senate announced that the screening of the nominees “would not be business as usual”.
In the course of screening, Nigerians were treated to one drama or the other including the walk out of Senators elected on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). I do not really intend to state whether the screening exercise was “business as usual”or not.Without a doubt, the screening was not riddled with the “take a bow” scenario which characterised previous screenings and pursuant to which many who were not qualified for Ministerial appointment had their nominations confirmed without any attempt by the senate to seriously inquire into their qualification and suitability for ministerial appointment.
However the screening threw up some questions including the propriety of the screening extending to allegations made against some nominees and which had been referred to law enforcement agencies. As I will shortly argue, such incidents could and should have been better handled by the Senate.
However it is firstly important to refer to the provisions of Section 147 of the Constitution from where the Senate is said to derive its power to screen Ministerial nominees. The said section provides amongst others as follows:
(1) There shall be such offices of Ministers of the Government of the Federation as may be established by the President.
(2) Any appointment to the office of Minister of the Government of the Federation shall, if the nomination of any person to such office is confirmed by the Senate, be made by the President.
(6) An appointment to any of the offices aforesaid shall be deemed to have been made where no return has been received from the Senate within twenty-one working days of the receipt of nomination by the Senate.
A fact that is easily noticeable from the above is that section 147 does not employ the word “screen”. Therefore some have argued that the Senate lacks the power to screen the nominees and must consign its role merely to “confirm” the nominees as stated in section 147(2). But an examination of the entire section will reveal that the Senate may refuse to confirm a nominee and as indicated in Section 147(6) may even fail to make a return in respect of a nominee. Therefore the Senate is not expected to rubber stamp the nominations received from the President. In coming to a decision it therefore must undertake an appraisal of the qualifications and suitability of the nominees which may, as decided by the senate take the form of oral examination. I am therefore of the view that the screenings are in order. The United States Senate holds similar confirmation hearings pursuant to the provisions of Article II, section 2, clause 2 of the US Constitution which provides as follows:
“The president shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States . . . . “
Having stated the above, I feel that the hearings should not be conducted in such a way as to erode the powers of statutory law enforcement agencies. Some of the nominees were reported to have either subsisting Petitions or uncompleted investigations pending against them. What the senate resorted to was to ask such nominees to react to allegations or petitions pending before other statutory bodies. Naturally the concerned nominees denied the allegation but in law, mere denial does not amount to full proof that the allegation is not true.
Firstly the Senate should have invited those who made the allegations to substantiate the said allegations or at least provide facts with which the affected nominees could be confronted. This would accord with the right of hearing enjoyed by all Nigerians including a complainant and the accused. This is even more imperative when it is considered that the decision of the Senate to “screen” the nominees by means of an oral examination is itself rooted in the need to afford them a right of hearing. Why then should those who have facts with which their suitability could be questioned be ignored? Whilst the Senate claims to have set up a Committee to look into the allegations made against some nominees there is no indication that the said Committee heard from the members of the public who made allegations against some nominees or if they were heard, that the facts supplied by them played any real role in the confirmation hearings.
Secondly, the Senate should have sought the views of the agencies to which the allegations were directed to find out the level of the investigations. By clearing nominees who have criminal allegation pending before other statutory bodies, the Senate could be interpreted as having given a verdict on the pending allegations thereby compromising ongoing or future investigations before those panels.
As a result of these errors, the screening as stated earlier was not without dramatic moments including a walk out staged by senators elected on the platform of the PDP. As the upper chamber of the legislative arm of government the Senate is expect to be above board in the discharge of its functions. A situation in which the Senate appears to have thrown aside its own rules or contributed in any way to the violation of the law is not one that augurs well for the country. I therefore hope that the errors of judgement which characterised the just concluded screening exercise will be avoided in future screening exercises. In my estimation it is by so doing that the any future screening will be considered as having not been “business as usual”.
AARE AFE BABALOLA SAN, CON