OrderPaperToday – The Senate has come down heavily on the Comptroller-General of Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd) saying he is unfit to hold public office and should therefore resign his appointment.
The Senate also barely fell short of calling for the resignation of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, for asking the Red Chamber to stay all actions in the face-off between it and Col. Ali since the matter had been already been taken before a court of law.
The law-making body however roundly condemned the chief law officer and advised President Muhammadu Buhari to call him to order.
The Senate has been embroiled in a face-off with the Customs boss over the refusal of the latter to wear uniform in appearance before the former which requested for a briefing on the now suspended policy of retroactive collection of duties on vehicles imported into the country.
While the Customs CG initially dishonoured invitations, he eventually appeared last week in mufti after the Senate threatened to invoke a warrant of arrest on him. He was sent back and asked to reappear today in uniform. But on Tuesday, Col. Ali said he would not appear today, citing a court process that had been instituted on the uniform issue. Same Tuesday, the Attorney General wrote a memo to the Senate advising the legislative body to stay further action on the matter till the case is determined in court.
After a closed door session, which lasted for about 95 minutes, Clerk of the Senate, Mr. Nelson Ayewoh, was made to read the letter from the AGF wherein he said “in line with the principles of rule of law, court decisions or most importantly, the declarations sought have been deeply rooted in the constitutional provisions; I hold the view that this matter is sub-judice,” and advised the lawmakers “to stay all actions in this case until the constitutional issues raised in the matters are resolved by the law courts.”
After reading the letter, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu who presided asked senators to make remarks on the matter and lawmakers took turns to lampoon Col. Ali and the AGF.
Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu (APC, Imo) opined that in line an existing Supreme Court judgment, no arm of government, including the courts, can stop another from performing its duties. According to him, “Nigeria operates a system established on a division of power. If we give in to this today, it means somebody can go to court and stop Senate proceedings. Can we pass a resolution and stop a court proceeding? I maintain that no court case can stop Senate proceeding.”
Senator Dino Melaye (APC, Kogi) described the letter from the AGF as an insult to the Senate, saying it was an unprecedented action that should not be tolerated. He said: “What we have from the AGF is an insult on the Senate and the National Assembly. Where does the AGF who was screened here, derive his powers to stop the National Assembly from carrying out its function?
“This is the first time an AGF in Africa is asking the Senate to stop a parliamentary proceeding. It is not even a court injunction, but a court process. It is another day for democracy in Nigeria. The integrity of the Senate is on the line. We have a rule in this Senate that a matter in court cannot be considered. But no rule says that a matter already being considered here should be stopped by a court. The CG of Customs is not fit to be there.”
Drawing instances from the Civil Service Rule, Melaye said the position of CG of Customs means the occupant is a public servant and is subject to the laws and by the provisions, Ali is not qualified to be there as he is over 60 years.
“The President on the 29th of May 2015 promised to obey the rule of law. It is up to the President to determine if he wants to sack Ali today or continue to allow him act. He has to chose between the rule of law and Ali. Enough is enough,” he added.
Senator Abdullahi Gobir (APC, Sokoto) on his part, urged the Senate to write to the AGF and warn him of his unnecessary interference with the day to day running of the parliament while Enyinnaya Abaribe (PDP, Abia), criticized the AGF.
“The issue that has generated this controversy was the fact that the CG made an obnoxious policy and which Nigerians condemned. I do not want Nigerians to forget that. What we did was to let Ali know that what he did was wrong,” Abaribe said, adding: “No other person is important in this matter other than the Senate. I want to question the understanding of the AGF of the laws of Nigeria. By going ahead to write to the Clerk to the Senate, it shows an abysmal lack of understanding of how things work here. We have an AGF who does not understand the provisions of the law. Finally, there is a decided case by the Supreme Court that no arm of government can stop another arm from doing its work. I suggest that we totally ignore the position of the AGF. I am sure that he has not seen the judgment in question. The CG has deliberately refused to come here. Let us declare the CG of Customs unfit to head the agency. We need to send a strong signal.”
Biodun Olujimi (PDP, Ekiti) on her part, described the refusal by the CG to appear as an act of arrogance and said the duo of Malami and Ali are unfit to hold public offices.
Sen. Aliyu Sabi (APC, Niger) reminded said: “I want to take us back to the primary purpose which gave rise to this issue. It is about the retrogressive policy which wanted Nigerians to pay for something they did not do. The NCS said they have suspended the policy to make further consultations. I will like my colleagues to strongly state that the policy should be cancelled instead of the current suspension. This is what we should do. If we do not make this statement, some Customs officers may begin to extort money from Nigerians in the hinter lands.”
In his concluding remarks, Ekweremadu warned against using frivolous court cases to undermine the legislature. He said: “It is important that the integrity of this institution be maintained, just as we are in the position and must as well maintain the integrity of other institutions of government.
“Recall that this was just a simple request by the Senate that a policy that is putting more hardship on our people should be reconsidered. A policy that sounds to be retrospective and what we got was that it was irreversible upon which we invited the CG of Customs to come and have a conversation with us and to properly dress up while coming here.
“I do not see any big deal in somebody dressing up in uniform of the organization he heads. No problem about that. People should be proud to do that and we expect him to lead by example because if he comes here properly dressed, the other officers and men will also follow the same example. We do not want a situation where we would be telling people by our conduct that you are free to go to the Customs duty wearing ‘agbada’. I think that is not a good example that we should encourage. We as public officers and people in authority must lead by example. It is the conduct you portray that those who are following us will be able to adopt. So, that for us is unacceptable and I think we have condemned it sufficiently.
“For the Attorney General, it is important that a message be sent to him that we are a different arm of government and that we obey the law in accordance with our constitution. We have our responsibility here to make laws. God forbids a day where we stopped considering the budget because somebody has gone to court to challenge aspect of the budget or we stopped consideration of Ministers because somebody somewhere is questioning in court the qualifications of a particular ministerial nominee.
At the end of debate, Senate made the following resolutions: That the Customs should cancel the controversial policy on vehicle inspection and come up with better ways of carrying out their responsibilities; Declaration that Ali is unfit to hold any public office and should immediately resign from office as Comptroller General of NCS; and that the AGF be condemned for flouting the provisions of separation of powers and the rule of law.