* Idongesit Ituen (top), Nse Ntuen, Otobong Ndem, Gabriel Tobi, & Victor Udofia
The five sacked lawmakers namely Idongesit Ituen, Nse Ntuen, Gabriel Tobi, Victor Udofia and Otobong Ndem came shortly after seven A.M. on Tuesday, November 28, through the VIP entrance overlooking the rear end of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, and immediately moved into the legislative chamber in a commando-like style. Their hidden agenda, it was later gathered, was to “impeach” the Speaker, Barr Onofiok Luke, a second time, and Governor Udom Emmanuel.
From where I stood in the assembly lobby, I could see clearly that the expelled lawmakers came to the complex with more than 30 armed policemen conveyed in four trucks. Also escorting the former lawmakers that day were youths suspected to be hired thugs. There were more than 150 of them. They came in buses painted with the All Progressives Congress (APC) insignia. Nse Ntuen and his colleagues came with a retired Sergeant-at-Arms, now identified as Godwin Ukpong, who carried a new mace and gavel to aide Ntuen while he presided over the five-man group.
Shortly after their arrival, Mr Kufre Okon, Speaker Onofiok Luke’s Press Secretary, who was taking a phone call just by the Speaker’s car park, was accosted and harassed. “Take his phone”, Idongesit Ituen had ordered Victor Udofia, who did not only snatch the mobile device from Mr Okon, but also dealt him a blow before he collected the gadget. The moment I observed these actions from where I stood watching the scene, I disappeared to make reports.
Soon, many Uyo residents comprising men, women, youths and students who had been following the issue in the news marched into the assembly complex from different directions as reports went out on the social media that the former assembly men had forcefully entered the legislative chamber to hold their sitting. The solidarity provided by these people would later spur the 21 legitimate lawmakers to retake control of the legislature from the invaders. It was a move to defend the democratic structures of the state, as captured in their banners.
At the time the Uyo residents arrived, I was already at the front of the assembly, close to the main gate, because the policemen that came with the sacked lawmakers and the thugs alike had sent away assembly staff members. While some of the youths sang solidarity songs as they marched towards the entrance hall with banners bearing the inscription, “Defend Our Democracy Today”, others who had already moved faster blocked Nse Ntuen, leader of the sacked lawmakers, as he and his colleagues were about leaving the building.
In the House of Assembly, lawmakers usually access and exit the legislative chamber, as well as as their offices, through the VIP entrance. Mr Ntuen and his colleagues entered the chamber through the VIP way that morning. But they hurriedly passed through the main entrance hall at the end of their meeting. They had heard the blaring siren of Governor Udom Emmanuel and so they probably miscalculated, by assuming that the governor passed through the VIP way.
In the ensuing melee, those who got hold of Nse Ntuen nearly tore off his clothes as they pulled and pushed him. He and others, including Idongesit Ituen, managed to escape through the fire service section of the House. They ran towards the back gate, scaled the fence and disappeared into the surrounding streets. The police discharged teargas and several gunshots into the air in the process. The situation was war-like, even as the windscreen of a black tinted van driven by one of the sacked lawmakers was smashed. In sum, the youths and students who came to the rescue overpowered the mob brought by the sacked lawmakers.
As soon as the atmosphere calmed, the House, led by Speaker Onofiok Luke sat. The House passed a resolution ordering for the immediate arrest and prosecution of Godwin Ukpong, the fake Sergeant-at-Arms, together with the five expelled lawmakers for breaking and entering, and desecrating the hallowed chamber of the state legislature.
In the motion for the resolution which was moved by the House Leader, Sir Udo Kierian Akpan, and seconded by the Deputy Leader, Barr Ime Okon, the 21 members of the House, in the other five prayers of the resolution, also:
(ii)Banned the former members from going near the premises of the state assembly.
(iii)Passed a vote of confidence on Barr Onofiok Luke for his leadership qualities and for standing by the provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Standing Orders of the House.
(iv)Asked the commissioner of police and other security agencies to protect the institution of the legislature and its members and, warning them to desist from supporting the criminal activities of the sacked lawmakers.
(v)Resolved to stand strong with the Governor and the government of Mr Udom Emmanuel to continue to build a peaceful and stronger Akwa Ibom State.
(vi)Urged the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, to immediately redeploy Mr Musa Kimo, the state commissioner of police, for supporting the criminal activities of the sacked lawmakers by supplying them with over 50 armed policemen to invade the state House of Assembly and disrupt activities at the complex.
Background to the Problem
On Monday, 19th November, 2018, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly was in the news. It was a day the seats of five lawmakers namely Idongesit Ituen, Nse Ntuen, Gabriel Tobi, Victor Udofia and Otobong Ndem were declared vacant by the leadership of the House.
It was supposed to be a special sitting where members would, among other legislative activities, hold a special session to commemorate the 80th birthday anniversary of former Governor Victor Attah. Unfortunately, the Assembly complex, located at Udo Udoma Avenue in Uyo, the state capital, was invaded by hoodlums who also infiltrated into the gallery of the chamber while the plenary was about holding.
The hoodlums, numbering more than 600, and believed to be sympathetic to the sacked Itu lawmaker, Idongesit Ituen, had attempted to force their way into the assembly complex as soon as the Speaker, Mr Onofiok Luke, arrived in company of other lawmakers, but policemen deployed to the scene by the former Commissioner, Mr John Abang, responded with stronger force, thereby forcing the invaders to beat a retreat. They could not stop Speaker Luke and 21 other lawmakers from gaining entrance into the complex to hold the session which later saw to the sacking of the five lawmakers.
While declaring the seats of Ntuen (Essien Udim state constituency, Tobi (Etim Ekpo/Ika), Udofia (Ikono) and Ndem (Mkpat Enin) vacant, Speaker Onofiok Luke said that the lawmakers lost their seats in the legislature having defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) before the expiration of the four-year term for which they were elected to serve, as provided by law. In the case of Idongesit Ituen, the Speaker followed an order which was served on him by the Federal High Court demanding the immediate declaration of the Itu State Constituency seat vacant.
However, shortly after the House had adjourned, the trio of Nse Ntuen, Idongesit Ituen and Otobong Ndem unlawfully broke into the legislative chamber to announce Mr Ntuen as the new Speaker. The video of their meeting which has now gone viral on the internet showed Ntuen who sat on the Speaker’s seat making adjournment to Wednesday, 21st November 2018. That meeting could not hold as a combined force of the Police, Army and Civil Defense Corps had already taken over the entire assembly complex barring even the assembly staff from gaining entrance. The security men only ended their siege to the assembly last week Friday after the Nigeria Senate issued an order to that effect.
How Ituen lost at the Court?
Hon. Idongesit Ituen had defected from PDP in September 2018 to the APC, and in a bid to pre-empt the House of Assembly from declaring his seat vacant, he approached the court. He filed Suit No. FHC/UY/151/18 at the Federal High Court on Tuesday, 25th September, 2018. Ituen, in that suit, sued Speaker Onofiok Luke, together with the PDP, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the state commissioner of police, Akwa Ibom State Command. He had, among other reliefs, sought an order restraining the Speaker from declaring his seat vacant. But the court ruled against Ituen’s defection, describing it as unlawful. The trial judge, Fatun Riman, pronounced that, having defected from the PDP to the APC before the expiration of the tenure for which he was elected, Ituen had lost his seat in the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly. There was no stay of execution issued by any court of law against the Speaker in respect of Idongesit Ituen’s case, before he was sacked. Ituen only lied that there was in order to curry public sympathy.
According to the Deputy Leader and Chairman of the House Committee on Information, Barr Ime Okon, the decision of the house to declare vacant, seats of Nse Ntuen, Gabriel Tobi, Victor Udofia, and Otobong Ndem, who had defected to the APC, was in line with constitutional provisions as captured in Section 109 (1)g and (2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
The law, in Section 109 (1)g, says that a member of a house of assembly shall vacate his seat in the House if he was “a person whose election to the House of Assembly 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”. In subsection (2), the law says that the Speaker shall give effect to subsection (1) of Section 109 “so however that a Speaker or a member shall first present evidence satisfactory to the House that any of the provisions of that subsection has become applicable in respect of the member”.
Dear readers, the Nigerian constitution is not difficult to understand. The Speaker simply evoked the provision of section 109(2) which empowered him to declare the seats of those who had infringed upon section 109(1)(g) and accordingly declared their seats vacant. Let Akwa Ibom people and Nigerians, therefore, ask Nse Ntuen, Gabriel Tobi, Victor Udofia and Otobong Ndem whether they satisfied the provisions of Section 109 (2). If they claim they did, let them show it.
The talk by the APC, particularly the one that came from the Presidential aide, Senator Ita Enang, that Tuesday’s commotion at the Assembly did not begin until the arrival of Governor Udom Emmanuel and his sympathisers at the hallowed chamber was a lie. Senator Enang was not there at the time of their incident. The commotion started at about 7.15 am as soon as the expelled lawmakers forced their way into the legislative chamber, as discussed earlier. The governor came to the assembly premises to see things for himself as the state’s chief executive. Those who understand the way Nigeria laws are structured would attest to the fact that a governor has the powers to visit any part of the state where there is chaos or commotion, anytime and at any day.
Since erstwhile lawmakers failed on Tuesday, I would not argue on whether or not the governor, upon his arrival at the assembly, foiled plots to impeach him or the Speaker, as most national dailies reported; the fact remains that the five lawmakers in question have been sacked. They are no longer lawmakers, so how would they have impeach the governor or Speaker? Even if they were still members of the House, five lawmakers cannot impeach a governor or Speaker in a legislature of 26 members. The law says it would take the votes of not less than two thirds majority of the House to do so. Two thirds majority in this case is 18. (See Section 188 of the constitution).
It is important to note that the declaring of seats vacant, of members who defected to other political parties from the one for which they were elected, is not unprecedented in Akwa Ibom and other states of Nigeria. Former Speaker, Sam Ikon, declared vacant the seats of Kufreabasi Etuk, from Uruan, Alice Ekpenyong (Mbo), Paul Owo (Ini), Sarah Elijah (Nsit Atai) and Bassey Etienam (Urue Offong/Oruko) after they defected to other parties in 2014, during the administration of former Governor Godswill Akpabio. They did not recruit thugs to cause mayhem in the legislature. In July, 2017, the Cross River State House of Assembly declared the seat of the lawmaker from Obubra Constituency II, Mr Elucate Ekom, vacant for defecting to the APC. Before Ekom’s defection, all 25 members of that House belonged to the PDP. Similarly, the Nasarawa House of Assembly, in August, 2018, declared the seat of a member from Wamba constituency, Makpa Malla, vacant for defecting from the APC. Still in August, Kaduna State House of Assembly declared the seat of the ex-deputy speaker, John Audu, from Kachia Constituency, vacant. In Kogi State, it happened in the same month too. The Kogi Assembly declared the seat of a former Speaker, Umar Ahmed, from Lokoja, vacant. These are but few examples, and those affected did not burn down thir legislatures. It is, therefore, not true that the Akwa Ibom Speaker lacks the power to declare vacant seats of defecting members, as the APC man, Eseme Eyibo, said on Wednesday.
Senator Ita Enang, who was in the National Assembly for 16 years under the platform of the PDP, also said: “in the National Assembly, under the leadership of David Mark, there were defections from the APC to the PDP and from the PDP to the APC. There was no declaration of any seat vacant”. In fact, there has been defections from the APC to the PDP and from the PDP to the APC at the National Assembly under Senate President Bukola Saraki in 2018. That is the National Assembly, not state. The case under review is of the state assemblies, and relevant sections of the constitution have been cited in support. Those who want to find out why seats have not been declared vacant at that level should ask Saraki (or former Senate President David mark) when they see him. Someone asked why Asuquo Archibong’s (from Urue Offong/Oruko) seat was not declared vacant by Speaker Luke after he defected from the APC to the PDP. Archibong had, at the time his defection, alleged that there was division in his former party at the time of the formation of the Reformed All Progressives Congress (rAPC), before he left. Besides, his former party never reacted.
The PDP at both the national and state level have accused President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC of causing mayhem in Akwa Ibom in order to take control of the state by force. In fact, the spokesman for the party in Akwa Ibom, Barr Ini Ememobong, said in a statement that Senator Akpabio cannot “wash his hands off the current embarrassment occurring in the state legislature by Nse Ntuen and his gang of ignorant former legislators”. Senator Akpabio’s outright threats of war on Akwa Ibom State as a strategy to win elections for the APC in 2019 is still fresh in the minds of the people.
I listened to Idongesit Ituen on radio on Thursday speaking with an outburst of invective. He said, among other things, that they, the expelled lawmakers, will be sitting on Tuesday, next week. He and his collaboratorsshould be reminded that the High Court of the state has given an order restraining Mr Nse Ntuen from parading himself as Speaker of the House. As former lawmakers, they ought to know that laws are meant to be respected and discontents can better be expressed through the court of law.
God bless Akwa Ibom State!
* Itoro BASSEY is a member of the Assembly Press Corps