The defection of Aminu Tambuwal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) has presented the PDP with an embarrassing problem. It has also posed an uncommon problem to the House of Representatives. It is an exceptional situation for two reasons. First, while politicians are free to move from one party to another, Tambuwal was elected speaker on the platform of the PDP. Second, while the 1999 constitution has addressed the conditions under which ordinary members of the legislature could change parties, the same constitution was silent on what should happen if the Senate President or Speaker of the House of Representatives changed parties.
The 1999 Constitution states in Section 68 (1)(g) that: “A member of the Senate or House of Representatives (House of Assembly) shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if – being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected; Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.”
Debate over Tambuwal’s defection has produced two entrenched and irreconcilable positions. There are those, mostly PDP members, who are offended by his action and therefore want him to go one step further by resigning his position as Speaker. This group also contends passionately that Tambuwal’s lily-livered action means he is no longer entitled to the benefits that are enjoyed by a Speaker.
The other group, led by APC members, believe that Tambuwal should not be stripped of his privileges just because he defected from the PDP to the APC. The kernel of their argument is that Tambuwal did not resign from his position as Speaker. In that regard, his privileges as Speaker must be accorded to him.
On the side of the PDP, the argument goes that a Speaker of the House of Representatives who voluntarily quits his membership of the political party that empowered him to become Speaker must lose all privileges attached to the office he occupies. If you believe this group, you probably would accept that the benefits that Tambuwal enjoyed were attached not to the man himself but to the office he occupies. Now that he has left the political party that provided him the platform to become a Speaker, Tambuwal has lost the moral right to claim that he is still entitled to his security aides and other luxuries attached to the office of Speaker.
This is a fatuous argument that overlooked the fact that Tambuwal did not resign from his position as Speaker. By defecting from one party to another, Tambuwal has only ditched the emblem he wore previously as a member of the PDP and has now taken on the badge of the APC. In a democracy, people should be free to join or leave a political party with no threats of penalty. After all, freedom of association is one of the underlying principles of democracy.
Angry PDP members insist that, if Tambuwal was pushed by the party (the PDP) to resign as Speaker, he would justifiably claim that he was still entitled to his privileges as he did not willingly vacate the office of Speaker. In that case, the benefits attached to a political office cease the moment the occupier of that office vacates that position.
The contentious issue here is whether Tambuwal has relinquished the post of Speaker merely by the fact that he has moved from the PDP to the APC. As stated in a preceding paragraph, this is a knotty question that the 1999 constitution did not even address or contemplate.
It is true that Tambuwal became Speaker of the House on the platform of the PDP. However, the constitution did not say that a Speaker must be elected from the party with majority members in the House. Given the complicated nature of the problem, only the courts have the legal authority to rule on this problematic question. The courts might even defer the question to members of the House of Representatives. In that case, a majority of members of the House will decide whether Tambuwal carries the majority support to remain Speaker or whether he has lost the support of the House.
Tambuwal has the right to contest any political office that he desires but he certainly does not have the right to force parliament to regard him as Speaker if he does not enjoy the support of the majority. He is fully aware that his fate rests with the courts and his parliamentary peers. If members of the House don’t fancy him, they will dump him and strip him of the title of Speaker. If they still admire him, they will reinforce their support through the ballot box. Tambuwal strongly believes that he still enjoys the confidence and support of his parliamentary colleagues. That’s why he alluded last weekend to the power of House members to decide his role as speaker.
At the end of the zonal meeting of the North-West executive committee of the APC, Tambuwal told journalists who asked questions about his position that: “As for my fate in the National Assembly and Speaker of the House of Representatives, it is in the hands of God and members of the House.”
Tambuwal’s defection has expectedly infuriated PDP kingmakers. They want him to relinquish the title of Speaker for a strong reason. The PDP understands very well the damage that Tambuwal could cause to its interests if he remains in the APC and retains the title of Speaker. He will embarrass the PDP, undermine the party’s strategic interests, and work against the party’s 2015 election objectives. For these reasons, PDP leaders have sworn to do everything possible to strip Tambuwal of the title of Speaker. The next few weeks will be interesting in the politics of the House of Representatives.
Tambuwal is no fool. He knew the constitution was not clear on what should happen when a Speaker of the House defects to another political party, as he has done. That is why he has taken his case to the court to resolve the issues and to restore some of his privileges that have been withdrawn since he left the PDP on 28 October 2014.
Soon after Tambuwal made the surprising announcement about his defection to the APC, the police hierarchy moved quickly to withdraw his security aides. Similarly, other benefits that accrue to the office of Speaker have been cut and placed out of reach of Tambuwal. These are signs of politics of vengeance. Politics, of course, has always been a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of humanity.
If Tambuwal was not assured of his popularity in the House of Representatives, he would not have plunged into a decision that would cost him the prestigious title of Speaker of the House and the advantages that go to the holder of that position.
As someone said the other day, the issue is not about whether Tambuwal has the right to quit his party but whether he can stay as the “majority leader” in a “minority party”. On this basis, some PDP supporters have argued that someone in a minority party cannot hold a leadership position reserved for the party with a majority in the House. This view has not been tested before now because the nation has only just been confronted with the situation created by Tambuwal’s defection to the APC. But, as highlighted elsewhere in this essay, the constitution did not specify that the Speaker of the House must be elected from the party that has majority of members.
PDP leaders now see Tambuwal not only as a pig-headed politician but also as a bone wedged awkwardly in the throat of the party. It is hard to swallow it and even harder to spit it out.
By Levi Obijiofor
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