They call it the hallowed chambers, a place where laws are made for the good governance of the society. A place made sacred by the gravity of the decisions made within its walls. But recently, the negative trend of mace snatching in Nigeria’s legislative arm of government, from the National Assembly to Local Government Councils, has not only desecrated these sacred chambers, but poses a threat to Nigeria’s democracy SAMSON BENJAMIN reports.
In a space of one month, the legislative arm of government in Nigeria witnessed three ugly incidents of mace snatching across the three tiers of government, federal, state and local government, raising worries on the danger of extinction of this symbol of authority.
First, it was the National Assembly that was hit, then the Gombe state House of Assembly and just on Friday last week, the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC).
The AMAC incident saw the mace being stolen while part of the council’s chamber was destroyed after a tussle between the members on Thursday.
The missing mace brought to fore crisis that has enmeshed the council’s hallowed chamber after calls for the impeachment of the Speaker, Daniel Shanyibwa Michael, over gross misconduct.
The Gombe State House of Assembly, on its part witnessed a bizarre drama when a member, Abdullahi Abubakar, who represents Akko West, seized the mace during the session of the House and fled the chamber.
According to reports, “the incident occurred during an attempt by some members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the House to impeach the Minority Leader, Mohammed Haruna.
Similarly, there was pandemonium and tension in the National Assembly on April 18, 2018, when some armed men stormed the Senate chamber, overpowered security men and forcefully took away the mace. The incident was said to have happened immediately after a suspended senator, Ovi Omo- Agege, entered the chamber.
Genesis of mace snatching
Significantly, these recent incidents were not the first time the legislature across the three tiers of government in Nigeria would temporarily lose their symbol of authority.
Investigations indicate shown that snatching and stealing of mace in Nigeria pre-dates the first republic. Some notable incidents include Ebubedike, 1962; Okadigbo, 2000; and Port Harcourt, 2013.
In 1962, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was Premier of the Western Region when Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa tried to impose a state of emergency in Nigeria’s Western Region. It was a move that did not sit well with Awolowo.
As lawmakers deliberated Balewa’s position in the Western Regional Assembly on May 25, 1962, a fierce argument ensued. As chairs were flung all over the floor of the House, Mr. Ebubedike, an indigene of Ozubulu in Anambra state, representing Ajeromi/Ifelodun/Badagry East in the parliament, seized the mace and dared anyone to come close.
When the Speaker, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, and other lawmakers came close, Ebubedike used the mace on them.
Also, with the return of democracy from torturous decades of military dictatorship, Nigerians witnessed the second incident of mace snatching at the National Assembly, Abuja.
It happened in 2000 during the tenure of Chuba Okadigbo, as Senate president between November 1999, and August 2000. Then an alleged contract scandal involving Okadigbo had thrown the Senate into crisis and a plot, supposedly by those opposed to him, was hatched to remove him.
In a bid to scuttle the plot, Okadigbo adjourned plenary and took the mace away from the National Assembly to an unknown location.
He was reported to have taken the mace to Ogbunike cave in Anambra state, where he reportedly kept it under the custody of a seven-foot python for weeks. Okadigbo, however, lost the battle to remain senate president, as he was impeached weeks later.
Port Harcourt, 2013
Similarly, the Rivers State House of Assembly also had its fair share of violence, when the Speaker, Otelemaba Amachree, convened a session of the legislature to amend certain portions of the Rivers State Budget on July 9, 2013.
Hon Evans Bapakaye Bipi, representing Ogu/Bolo Constituency, was reported to have arrived the Assembly with thugs, pounced on House Leader, Hon. Chidi Lloyd, and took custody of the mace.
Lawmakers, said to have been against the state Governor, Chibuike Amaechi, were alleged to have subsequently smuggled a fake mace into the House in an attempt to unseat the Speaker sparking another rowdy session with Evans Bipi slapping a pro-Amaechi member, Chidi Lloyd, just as he descended on the Speaker, who was said to have arrived the chamber at the time and tried to intervene.
All hell was, literarily, let loss as Hon Lloyd reportedly seized the mace and attacked another lawmaker, Hon Chinda, ended up in a hospital.
Mace, still symbolic?
Different interpretations have been given to mace snatching. For some legislators under attack seek protection from the mace based on the understanding that legislative proceedings cannot continue without the mace. Some others perceived as a sign of disrespect for the legislature.
However, a new argument has been introduced to the mace snatching and stealing narrative. Speaking on a television programme, recently, on mace snatching saga at the Senate, rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said it was not necessary for the mace to be in the Assembly for plenary to take place.
According to him, “There is nowhere in the constitution that a mace must be provided before the Senate and others could sit or conduct legislative business. By virtue of Section 54 of the constitution either arms of the National Assembly is competent to sit and conduct proceedings once the quorum of members is formed.
“The said quorum is one third of all the members of the legislative house concerned. In all cases in which the impeachment of state governors had been annulled and set aside by the Supreme Court and other courts it was due to the failure of the Houses of Assembly concerned to comply with the provision for quorum which is two-thirds of all the members in line with the section 188 of the constitution,” Falana stated.
He argued further that the mace was an inherited colonial legacy, but when Nigeria became a Republic in 1963, the paraphernalia of office and title of the leaders of the House were retained, including when the country changed to the presidential system of government.
“Even though Nigeria adopted the presidential system of government since 1979, our legislators have continued to retain vestiges of the Westminster parliamentary system… but with time, the mace, wig and gown which are not provided for in our statutes will disappear from our legislative Houses.”
Speaking with Blueprint Weekend, a Lagos-based lawyer, Oluwole Ibrahim, however, disagreed totally with Falana, stating that though the mace may not be mentioned in the Nigerian Constitution, “by convention, the mace is a symbol of authority of the legislature. Even the United Kingdom, Nigeria’s former colonial masters is not a constitutional society but a society governed by convention and of course by law.”
He further stated that: “But the conventions are even more adhered to than some of the laws because the democracy we are practising in Nigeria is an amalgam of the conventions and laws including the constitution. That is why even lawyers in courts will support their arguments with common law.”
He also pointed out that in the interpretation of laws by the courts; they also rely not only on conventional laws but also on equity and good conscience.
Ibrahim stressed that it is for that reason that lawyers argue and support their arguments with natural justice, equity and good conscience in court.
“And as long as everyone, both the legislature and other citizens of the country, considere it as such by convention, it is the symbol of authority of the legislature,” he maintained.
Another legal practitioner, Mr Moses Aghah, agreed with Ibrahim. For him, the mace is indeed a symbol of authority of the legislature and it is so by convention. However, Aghah believes that if it must cease to be so, it will require legislation.
“I think if it is to be done away with, a law may be put in place in that regard. But as long as there is no such law, the recognition and status that have been accorded it from conventional practices may remain,” he said.
Similarly, for another lawyer, Kenneth Ejike, the importance of the mace rests on the peculiarity of each nation’s democracy and its display is mostly ritualistic and obligatory.
“Lately, due to peculiarities of some democratic nations and the seeming autonomy to practise democracy in their own ways, they do away with the mace.
What they rely on is when a quorum is formed and if there is no section of the constitution that specifically states that without mace, no legislation could be convened, it will be difficult to say its absence or presence is legal or not,” he said.
Substitute mace to the rescue?
Specifically, the use of substitute mace by the Senate also brought to the fore the legality of having two maces for one Assembly.
It will be recalled that an hour after hoodlums snatched the mace from the Senate, the lawmakers went into an executive session, after which another ‘mace’ was brought into the chamber to replace the stolen one.
The Senate, thereafter resumed plenary with the new mace, thereby bringing to question the constitutionality of using the new mace.
Some lawyers who spoke with Blueprint Weekend, however, backed the lawmakers’ decision. Moses Aghah said the senators have the right to replace the mace, “so long as the replacement is recognised by the leadership of the Senate.
“Of course, it is constitutional to use a spare mace. They have the right to replace the mace. There is no particular mace under the law that they can use. The important thing is that the mace that was used is the one recognised by the leadership of the Senate. So, they have a right to replace it.”
Similarly, another lawyer, Sunday Ma’aji, said the mace would pass as a sign of authority, “so long it emanated from the appropriate authority.”
“Well the issue of mace, it is a symbol and if the mace is brought out of the appropriate custody, there is nothing wrong about it,” he said
However, Falana maintained that the spare mace “is not sufficient to replace the stolen one,” pointing out that the proceedings of the Senate stand suspended until the stolen mace is retrieved.
According to him, “The implication is that the proceedings of the Senate will stand suspended until the mace is produced. It will be dangerous to go and ‘manufacture’ another one”.
Will culprits be brought to book?
In a bid to bring the perpetrators of the mace snatching incident at the Senate to book, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, set up a joint committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives, headed by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, representing Kebbi South Senatorial District and Hon. Betty Apiafi, representing Ahoada-East/Abua/Odual Federal Constituency of Rivers state to investigate the invasion of the upper legislative chamber.
Regrettably, going by the slow pace of Police investigations, hope of bringing the culprits to book is rather deem. It would be recalled that the Commissioner of Police in charge of the investigation, CP, Abu Sani, shocked the committee with the revelation that it could take about 10 years for the Police to conclude investigation into the matter.
Sani told the committee that the investigation into the matter was inconclusive because the suspects arrested in connection with the matter have denied their involvement.
According to him, “The CCTV that was supposed to capture what happened from outside to inside the chamber was not functional. That would have assisted in puncturing the denial of the suspects.”
He further said ‘the internal security of the hallowed chamber that was left in the hands of the Sergeant at arms compounded the matter because the Sergeant at arms (National Assembly) relied on GSM to communicate rather than radio when the thugs struck.”
Similarly, the decision of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), to file a suit at Federal High Court in Abuja, seeking the nullification of the suspension of Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, who allegedly led the thugs into the hallowed chamber, also raises a lot of questions as to the willingness of the government to prosecute the suspects.
The AGF, represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, informed the court that the office has the duty to interpret the law and advised the court to grant the reliefs sought by the lawmaker.
“The actions of the Senate leading to the suspension of the plaintiff are unlawful and unconstitutional,” he said.
It goes without saying that as long as the mace remains a symbol of authority of the legislature failure to arrest and bring to book mace snatchers and their sponsors would only serve as signal for more of such incidents, especially with the menace having already spread to all levels government.