By Ola Awoniyi
Bad news is good news in journalism. But the axiom of the profession which states that facts are sacred does not permit a practitioner to manufacture bad news. Also, the principles of fairness and balance do not permit him to cherry pick facts so as to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.
In his feature of 24 September, 2021, titled: “Absolute Rubber Stamp: Lawan-led Senate Joins Buhari’s Kitchen Cabinet, Leads Presidency Annex, Rolls Out Bills of Oppression Against Nigerians”, the Punch reporter, Sunday Aborisade, apparently set the headline first and then went fishing for evidence that fit into the headline. His profession and the readers of his newspaper deserve better from Mr Aborisade.
Of course, there is a background to this. I have been accosted on many occasions by my journalist colleagues at the National Assembly complex with the joke that the Ninth Assembly that took off in 2019 has made their beat boring. They said, unlike before, there are no daily crises to report. No spectacles. No brickbats flying out of the chambers in the direction of the Aso Rock Villa.
Before, they said, as soon as you file a report that the Senate had turned down Buhari’s request for something, you prepared for rumours of a plot by the Executive to remove the Senate President, which in turn gave birth to real live dramas. Such used to keep reporters busy and make the beat interesting.
I always shared a good laugh with them, even though I could feel the nostalgia in the jokes. I knew reporting the National Assembly used to be more “interesting”, especially for the reporters who are unaware or just do not care about the collateral damages that avoidable political conflicts wreak on the economy and general polity.
Since the inauguration of the Ninth National Assembly, there have been criticisms of its relationship with the Executive Arm of the Government. Some political commentators insist that a warm relationship between the two makes the National Assembly a lapdog of the President. In that school of thought, parliament demonstrates independence and efficiency only by barking and sniping at the heels of the president and his officials, and being uncooperative with him on his policies, appointments, and expenditure plans, etc. This, even if both sides were elected on the same political platform.
Others have explained why this should not be the norm for a developing country and democracy. Apparently, those who see politics as a bloody sport will never believe a game is on until they can count the bodies.
Please take another look at the headline of Mr Aborisade’s report at issue here. I can understand coming across such on social media or some unprofessional online platforms. Certainly not in a mainstream newspaper, because of the robust gate keeping mechanism expected to be in place to protect the integrity of the publication. Unfortunately, this was published by the respected Punch Newspapers and written by their Senate correspondent.
The kicker of the headline sufficiently betrays the bias of the reporter. But that is really not my concern, as democracy anticipates mischief sometimes joining the delegation of free speech. My concern is to examine the issues Mr Aborisade raised.
On the face of it, the reporter’s purpose was to hit the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and the Ninth Senate over their cordial working relationship with the Executive. However, I can recall that this young reporter was also acerbic in his reporting of the Eight Senate, which did not exactly enjoy a cordial relationship with the Executive. Does that mean Mr Aborisade understands his role as merely to condemn the relationship between the two arms, whether frosty or cordial? Is it the case with him of damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
The reporter started his report by describing the tension in the chamber during the election of Senator Lawan as the 14th President of the Senate as a sign that the ruling party had no confidence in its candidate winning. Does Mr Aborisade really expect tension to be absent in an election of such magnitude?
In some parliaments, the officers are chosen by party caucuses and ratified in the chambers. But that has not been the case in the Nigerian National Assembly since 1999. Parties’ choices have been challenged by their members in parliament in almost every dispensation. And that has nothing to do with the mode of election – senators are distinguished citizens who you cannot force to pick a leader they do not want.
That Lawan got the endorsement of his party and its Senate caucus does not mean the celebration of his victory could start before the election was called. So whatever anxiety Mr Aborisade noticed during that election of the Senate President on 11 June, 2019 was not a query of the party’s judgment.
The reporter also declared that an “unholy alliance” between the Senate and the Executive has “done more damage than good to our country.” To the contrary, the cordial relationship with the two other arms of government has so far facilitated the legislative business of the Ninth Assembly. I will cite a few examples of how this has happened.
On his assumption of office as Senate President, Lawan took up the task to reset and stabilize the national budget cycle to January – December to make the fiscal calendar predictable. Not a few people thought it was a tall order. The sceptics had a genuine case: before Lawan, others had tried but failed. Now it is a done deal, to the benefits of Nigerians and the economy. That was no doubt helped by the President ensuring the MDAs concluded their internal budget processes to fit into the schedule set by the National Assembly.
I can also recall the confidence the Senate President exuded the week that the National Assembly finally passed the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contract Act (Amendment) Bill 2019. At a function at the National Assembly, Lawan remarked that the bill would be passed that week and that the President would assent to it the following week. Knowing the antecedents of that ritual, I expunged those remarks from the official press release because I was curious about how that could happen.
More so that the Presidency had earlier announced that the President was travelling to London that weekend. I felt the bill would wait for the President to return to the country. I was also aware of the pressure being mounted by the International Oil Companies (IOCs) in particular against the bill.
Lawan’s confidence turned out not to be misplaced. The bill was passed that week and the President signed it the following week in London as the Senate President had predicted. That wouldn’t have been possible without a cordial working relationship between the two arms of government that put them on the same page on important national issues. We all know the benefits expected from the passage of that amendment.
Take the Petroleum Industry Bill recently signed into law by the President. President Buhari had reasons to hold back his assent. Instead, he decided to pursue an amendment to provisions of the PIA that he is not comfortable with, which he did just 36 days after assenting to the bill.
There are many more such developments which can be attributed to the two arms swinging in unity. We still have the record of how many bills were denied presidential assent in the previous dispensation because of distrust between the two sides. That is certainly not the kind of situation we want to perpetuate. If Nigerians elect the president and the majority of lawmakers from the same party, they certainly expect them to cooperate in pursuing the agenda of that party for national development.
Mr Aborisade also magisterially declared that the “Ninth Senate under Lawan rolled out the most wicked, draconian and anti-people Bills since 1999.” His evidence? “The Social Media Bill, Hate Speech Bill, Amnesty for Repentant Terrorists Bill, the Health Emergency Bill.” Phew, what a judgment!
For the purpose of clarity and better understanding, I hereby quote the first four paragraphs of the report titled: Quarantine Bill scaled second reading in Senate”, written by the same Punch Senate correspondent and published on 18th February, 2021 when the Health Emergency Bill was considered in plenary:
“The Senate on Wednesday considered a bill enacted to repeal the obsolete Quarantine Act enacted in 1926.
“The proposed legislation was also aimed at helping Nigeria to deal with any impending outbreak of infectious and contagious diseases in the future.
“Tagged “The Health Emergency Bill, 2021,” the Bill scaled second reading in the floor of the Senate at plenary.
“The proposed legislation did not make it mandatory for any Nigerian to be subjected to forced immunisation.”
Mr Aborisade made that report. The same reporter, as if just returning from a trip to Damascus, has now called the Bill one of the “most wicked, draconian and anti-people Bills since 1999” in the same newspaper!
Did you notice too that the report did not state when the “Draconian” Bills were passed by the Senate? The omission was deliberate. None of them has passed!
As the National Assembly correspondent of one of the nation’s major newspapers, I assume Mr Aborisade knows the working of the Parliament and the stages involved in the lawmaking process. Any lawmaker can table a bill for consideration. It is a privilege which cannot be denied even by the Senate President who is just first among equals.
Senators at plenary, eventually, pass or reject a Bill only after a public hearing where members of the public express their views on the proposed legislation.
Was Mr Aborisade saying the Senate President ought to have blocked his colleague senators from proposing laws because Mr Aborisade considers them “most wicked, draconian and anti-people”?
Because of the obvious intention of the write-up, the reporter did not remember any achievement of the Senate in the last two years. He could not recall even the restoration of the budget cycle which he had praised in his own report.
What about the Deep Offshore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contact (Amendment) Act, 2019 that jacked up Nigeria’s share of its oil revenues from 150 million dollars to 1.5 billion dollars annually?
The reporter did not remember the Finance Act which specifically amended 17 other legislations to support key reforms in taxation, customs, excise, fiscal and other laws.
He also completely forgot the fundamental amendment made to the Company and Allied Matters Act. Or the Sexual Harassment Bill which criminalises sexual harassment in tertiary institutions in Nigeria or several other Bills proposing the establishment of more educational and health institutions across Nigeria.
The reporter belongs to the school of thought that Nigeria’s loan burden is as a result of the “Senate Loyalty” to the Executive. First, approval of loan requests is not the exclusive responsibility of the Senate.
People have expressed different opinions on the loans, as you would expect in a plural society and free country. The Senate has explained that the burden accumulated over time and that the current loans are made necessary by the need to invest in infrastructure, a need neglected due to misplacement of priority and corruption when Nigeria had the money to meet it in the recent past.
Senator Lawan has formed his opinion from more than two decades of being in the National Assembly on how it should best relate with the other arms of Government. He believes that the benefits of a cordial relationship far outweigh those of rancour. Lawan understands that other Nigerians have their own opinions on this and other national issues. He also accepts that he could be vilified for promoting an approach that seeks stability in governance and discourages avoidable conflict in the polity.
But when a reporter decides to sit in judgment on the views and actions of public officials and institutions, he should remember those principles of fairness and balance that make the media an indispensable estate of the realm.
***Awoniyi is Special Adviser on Media to Senate President