From Kunle Akogun and Sufuyan Ojeifo:
• Jonathan sends 5 more nominees to Senate
There was a blend of agitation and drama yesterday when the role of former Information and Communication Minister, Prof. Dora Akunyili, in the dissolved cabinet of ailing President Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua came under focus in the Senate.
It all happened during her screening by the upper legislative chamber as a prospective returnee-minister.
Senate Chief Whip and arrow head of the pro-Yar’Adua men in the Senate, Senator Mahmud Kanti Bello, put Akunyili at her wits’ end, saying her role was divisive and against national unity.
Bello’s question tended to portray the former minister as a traitor “cooking dishes” for First Lady Turai Yar’Adua only to allegedly move against the family.
In her response, which came amid bouts of rowdiness in the Senate, Akunyili defended herself, saying, “I’m loyal to him (President Yar’Adua), I’m loyal to the constitution and I’m very loyal to the country, Nigeria.”
At the height of President Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence from the country on medical ground, Akunyili had written a memo to members of the Executive Council of the Federation (EXCOF), asking for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to be empowered.
She also granted a series of interviews to some newspapers and television stations where she alluded to a cabal in the Presidency holding the country down.
Yesterday, Akunyili was the third and last nominee to appear before the upper legislative house on the first day of the screening that may extend beyond the next two days.
Meanwhile, Acting President Jonathan has forwarded the names of five more ministerial nominees to the Senate for confirmation, bringing the total to 38 now before the upper chamber.
Senate President David Mark read Jonathan’s letter under announcement.
Four of the nominees who were members of the dissolved cabinet are former Minister of Environment, John Odey; former Minister of State for Finance, Mr. Aderemi Babalola; former Minister of Transport, Hon. Ibrahim Isa Bio; and former Minister of State for Commerce, Mr. Humphrey Abbah.
The fifth nominee representing Benue State is Special Adviser to the state Governor Gabriel Suswam on Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, Mr. Sam Odeh.
Of the 14 nominees slated for screening yesterday, only four – former Minister of State for Agriculture, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode (SAN), and Akunyili – were screened.
But Akunyili’s screening, which ended yesterday’s session, turned dramatic when Senator Bello (PDP, Katsina North) rose to ask her questions.
He questioned her nationalism and patriotism against the backdrop of the role she played as Information Minister.
Bello questioned her claim of the existence of a cabal in the Presidency, wondering how she could not have been a member of the cabal when she identified with the First Family and, in fact, was a very close friend of the First Lady Turai Yar’Adua.
Attempts by Senator Lee Maeba (PDP, Rivers South-east) to block Bello’ s question through a point of order were frustrated by the Senate President who clarified Bello’s question and refocused Akunyili on the specific issue she was asked to address.
After an initial rowdy session on the floor, Akunyili said: “I want to state here very respectfully that I have always tried my best to be a nationalist right from when I was in NAFDAC.
“I worked for the whole country. The people that were supposed to be involved in drug counterfeiting were actually my own people. But I did not spare them because of my interest in Nigeria as a nation and the Nigerian people as my own people.”
Some senators applauded her; some others murmured their disapproval of the statement.
Then Akunyili continued: “Then coming to the cabal, Senator Kanti Bello mentioned…
Distinguished senator said that I was supposed to be part of the cabal and he went on to say that I was cooking dishes for Madam (Turai). Sir, I never cooked for Madam (Turai).”
Mark interjected, saying “That bit is not part of the question.”
Akunyili went on: “Thank you Sir,” adding, “Again, I was not in any way part of the cabal and I want to state here very clearly that President Yar’Adua is my boss, my big brother. And everybody knows he is a fine gentleman and with beautiful spirit, but when we started having issues in the system; when we started having problems, I decided…”
It was at this point that some senators became somewhat rowdy again; forcing the Senate President to stand on his feet and to repeatedly hit the gavel on the table to call the house to order.
Mark cited Order 63 of the Senate Standing Rules (2007 as Amended), which states inter alia: “Whenever the President of the Senate or the Chairman rises during a debate, any senator then speaking or offering to speak shall sit down and the Senate or the committee shall be silent so that the President of the Senate or the Chairman may be heard without interruption.”
According to him, “For those who are new on the floor here, once the President of the Senate stands up, you must stop talking. Let me just remind everybody that we must conduct ourselves in a responsible manner.
“We are on live television; whatever your views, you have an opportunity to express it. This is the first time that I would stand up as the President of the Senate. I would not want this to happen again. We have got a nominee in our front here. We must conduct ourselves properly, please.”
Facing Akunyili, he directed her to wind up on the question she was answering.
Akunyili responded: “Consequent upon my close relationship with Mr. President, when he became ill, I organised a fast with my workers and my household and the Director-General of the FRCN was part of the fast.
“I also booked 90 days Novena mass for him in Saint Leo’s Parish, Ikeja, when he went to the hospital. This can be cross-checked. That shows you that I have nothing against our President. I am loyal to him; I am loyal to the Constitution and I am very loyal to the country-Nigeria.”
She wanted to continue, but the Senate President ended it for her, though the rowdiness on the floor also continued.
Mark, at this point, thanked her and asked her to take a bow.
As Akunyili was leaving the chamber, she went in the direction of Bello and greeted the senator.
The former minister’s screening is to continue this morning in the same Committee of the Whole Senate.
Earlier, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation Kayode told the Senate that the Acting President had already given approval for the establishment of dedicated courts to deal with the cases of corruption in the country.
He said the four weeks he assumed duties at the ministry before the dissolution of the cabinet afforded him the opportunity to undertake wide consultation on the issue.
Kayode said: “On the problem facing the management of corruption or anti-corruption cases, immediately I was made the Minister of Justice and Attorney- General of the Federation, I consulted quickly on this matter and it occurred to me that we have two basic problems.
“One, these cases are so important that they ought to be heard in dedicated courts; that is even if it is to be on a six–monthly basis; we must have dedicated courts thrashing out these matters rather than a judge who is taking libel case, land case, divorce case is also in the same cause list taking these matters as a normal business of the day.
“Actually, there is an approval by government, by the Acting President, to have a dedicated court for these corruption cases, especially in cases of Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), which is the higher profile of the corruption matters. That is the name the EFCC uses.
“Secondly, we need to do something about our rules. I know this red chamber has been trying to do something about reforming the Evidence Act. We need to move very quickly on that.
“But also importantly, our Criminal Procedure rules, with all due respect, are archaic. They relate to the past not to the future.”
He added: “I believe that the Court of Appeal can also help because many of us who are lawyers, we ask for a lot of interlocutory applications, some of them interlocutory appeals; some of them stay of proceedings pending appeals.”
Kayode said the concern really was how to get out of the corruption matrix, stressing, “I believe that we are just looking at one side of it because there is a limit to what criminal law can do. We all know that criminal law does not say thou shall not steal; it does not say that if you steal, you would not be punished.
“So, we need to find a way to bring the issue of reorientation because it is very critical and it is larger than criminal law. The first aspect of it is blocking the loopholes, strengthening the system and making sure that once a system is beaten, we should plug that hole.”
He maintained that throwing the criminal law at it would not achieve much.
Kayode tasked the National Assembly to review all the process of governance in order to plug as many loopholes as possible.
Former Minister of State for Agriculture, Njeze, during her appearance, answered question on the N200-billion Agricultural Credit Loan.
She said the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was managing, while the ministry was providing the institutional framework, adding that the first tranche of N100 billion had actually been released.
She said that the loan was meant to be recovered from the beneficiaries.
Njeze stated that N40 billion was earmarked as Commercial Agricultural Credit to small scale farmers and would be given out through the state governments.
The screening of the remaining 35 nominees already before the Senate would continue this morning in the Committee of the Whole Senate.
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