political intricacies

Nigeria: Will Senate President Akpabio graft claims compromise independence?

By Ben Ezeamalu

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Posted on June 14, 2023 12:56

 © File photo of Godswill Akpabio. (rights reserved)
File photo of Godswill Akpabio. (rights reserved)

For years, Nigeria’s newly elected senate president Godswill Akpabio has had anti-graft agencies breathing down his neck – baggage that analysts fear the executive arm could use to arm-twist the senate leadership.

After his election as president of Nigeria’s 10th National Assembly on 13 June, Akpabio now finds himself at the centre of a power struggle in the upper legislative chamber, with longstanding allegations of corruption potentially used as leverage by the executive branch.

Akpabio, a former governor and federal minister, secured 63 votes, overcoming his challenger, ex-Zamfara governor Abdulaziz Yari, who garnered 46 votes. As the new Senate president prepared to take his oath of office, he was surrounded by senators shaking his hand and patting his back, a display of camaraderie that belies the political intricacies at play.”I will be a senate president that will stand for all,” Akpabio said in his inaugural speech.

Akpabio, 60, replaces Ahmad Lawan, the Yobe State senator who had occupied the seat since 2019.

Political journey

Akpabio’s political career began under the administration of Victor Attah, the then-governor of Akwa Ibom, in 2002. Despite initial support, his relationship with Attah deteriorated over Akpabio’s gubernatorial ambitions. This culminated in a heated party dispute that led to Akpabio securing the candidacy for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and winning the 2007 gubernatorial elections.

His time as governor was marked by significant urban development, including the building of an international airport and a highly-rated stadium. However, these successes were marred by accusations of exorbitant state spending and substantial corruption.

In his eight years as governor, Akpabio was credited with much of the urban transformation of the state capital, Uyo, including amelioration of the flooding nightmare and building the international airport.

The ‘uncommon’ politician

This legacy of corruption continued to follow him into his tenure as a senator and later as a minister for Niger Delta affairs. Allegations of graft during his time as governor were so significant that US diplomats labelled it as “exceptional”. In 2015, Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the EFCC, arrested Akpabio over the alleged theft of N108bn ($227m) belonging to Akwa Ibom State.

As a senator, he survived an auto accident in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital in 2015. However, rather than treat him at the ‘world class’ 20th Anniversary Hospital he built in Uyo while he was governor, Akpabio was flown to London. He later defended the action, saying the foreign doctors that would be employed at the hospital were awaiting immigration clearance before they could start work in Nigeria.

“When people are talking about the 20th Anniversary Hospital, they should go there and find out. Even the CT scan that I saw in London is not up to the one that you have in Uyo.”

Two years later, the hospital was shut down due to lack of funding.

Trailed by corruption

In 2018, Akpabio defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC). According to him, he joined the ruling party to help sweep away poverty and impunity.

As a member of the APC, Akpabio lost his re-election bid to the senate in 2019, suffering defeat to the PDP’s Chris Ekpenyong by a wide margin.

[…] his appointment can be seen as a kind of a deliberate action on the part of those who have sponsored him for that office

To compensate him for his loss of the senatorial seat, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed him the minister for Niger Delta Affairs in 2019.

At a reception ceremony to usher him into the ministry, Akpabio pledged to turn around the fortunes of the oil-rich Niger Delta region. “I love leaving marks wherever I visit,” he told the gathering.

Barely a month after his appointment, Akpabio clashed with the acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Joy Nunieh. Ms Nunieh, who was subsequently relieved of her position, accused Akpabio of graft and sexual harassment.

The minister denied the allegations.

Five months after he exited office in 2015, Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the EFCC, arrested Akpabio over an alleged theft of N108bn ($227m) belonging to Akwa Ibom State. However, his defection to the ruling party appeared to stall the case.

Interestingly, in March 2023, the EFCC first asked Akpabio to report to the commission’s headquarters in Abuja for interrogation over corruption allegations against him. The commission summoned him again in April. It is unclear if the invitation was in connection with his previous arrest or fresh charges. The anti-graft agency did not give details.

The charges from seven years ago could now become a tool in the hands of the executive branch. Some political analysts, including Olanrewaju Suraju, chairman of the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, suggest that the executive could use these graft charges to push through policies, effectively compromising the legislative process.

“Senator Akpabio has no record of actually standing up for anything that can be said to be pro-masses,” says Suraju. “And the fact that he is actually under investigation by the anti-corruption agency… His appointment can be seen as a kind of a deliberate action on the part of those who have sponsored him for that office so that there can be something to hold him on and also get a compromising assembly for the executive.”

Controversial election

Akpabio resigned his ministerial post in 2022 to contest in the APC presidential primaries. He stepped down for Bola Tinubu on the night of the primaries.

While Akpabio was channelling his energy on the presidential primaries, his party elected Udom Ekpoudom, a retired police officer, as the APC candidate for Akwa Ibom North-west senatorial district as a primary election in May.

Having failed in his presidential bid, Akpabio returned to Uyo. In early June that year, another primary was held where he emerged as the senatorial candidate. He then approached a federal high court, which ordered the APC to install him as the party’s flagbearer.

Although he prevailed at the federal high court, a court of appeal nullified the lower court’s decision and ordered the electoral commission to reinstate Ekpoudom.

The matter was, however, settled at the Supreme Court where Akpabio was recognised as the APC candidate.

At the 25 February senatorial election, Akpabio secured 115,401 votes to beat his closest challenger and candidate of the PDP, Emmanuel Enoidem, who got 69,838 votes.

‘Worse than rubber-stamp’

Analysts regarded the previous national assembly, the ninth assembly, as a ‘rubber-stamp’ that never critically examined or opposed any request by the executive arm. Suraju says the 10th assembly could be “worse than the ninth assembly”.

“If you consider the level of horse-trading and the baggage and also the kind of president we have now who is not likely to take chances with any other institution or agency, then you should be expecting a highly compromised national assembly,” he says.

David Lawal of the Abuja-based Centre for Communication and Social Impact agrees with Suraju. He says the process that led to Akpabio’s emergence as the head of the senate is akin to that of the Lawan-led ninth assembly.

“If the 109 lawmakers cannot be trusted to select a worthy leader to lead them in national interest, then I personally do not expect any great performance from the Akpabio-led senate,” Lawal tells The Africa Report.

‘Exceptional achievements’

Anietie Ekong, an aide to Akpabio, said he will not make “personal comments” on his principal and referred The Africa Report to the senate president’s inaugural speech.

“He answered all of that [the corruption allegations] in his [inaugural] speech,” Ekong tells us. “On his agenda, he talked about whether or not the 10th assembly will be a rubber-stamp and how they will relate with the executive.”

Solomon Jackson, president, Ibom Great Minds Movement, says Akpabio’s “exceptional achievements” as governor and federal minister would be an asset for the 10th assembly. He dismisses the allegations of corruption against him as the handiwork of his political opponents and blackmailers.

“Most of those allegations are not genuine, they have not been verified yet,” Jackson tells The Africa Report. “Is he even as corrupt as those who are blackmailing him?”

On Tuesday, the senate adjourned their proceedings till 14 June, but that was before Akpabio gave a parting shot on what to expect with the 10th assembly.

Congratulations and welcome to the uncommon 10th Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” he said.

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