Eleven lawmakers have declared interest in the position of Speaker of the 10th House of Representatives. However, those considered front runners in the contest have one major thing in common – they worked for the emergence of the current speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila.
Mr Gbajabiamila’s deputy of four years, Idris Wase (APC, Plateau), is in the race, just as Muktar Betara (APC, Borno), Yusuf Gagdi (APC, Plateau), Ben Kalu (APC, Abia), Miriam Onuoha (APC, Imo) and Tajudeen Abbas (APC, Kaduna). They all played leading roles in the 2019 House leadership campaign.
Also, Abdulmumin Jibrin, the director-general of the Gbaja/Wase 2019 campaign, is back in the House, this time as a member of the minority caucus, and has already commenced mobilisation of minority votes.
The current Speaker is not just some random Speaker finishing his tenure. He has the ears of the president-elect and is expected to be in his kitchen cabinet.
In the past months, there has been a silent war within the 2019 alliance that brought in Mr Gbajabimaila. Although the Speaker has smartly advised the aspirants to wait for the party’s decision on zoning, they are directing their attention at those they consider to be Mr Gbajabiamila’s proxies for a clue.
The situation has become so sensitive that some days back, Mr Gbajabiamila was forced to dispel a rumour that he had resolved to back Mr Abbas from Kaduna State, which would have implied that he was working against the bid of his deputy, Mr Wase. In a statement, the Speaker said, “I cannot work against my Party’s interest and position. I am a product of APC’s zoning in 2019, and I shall adhere to that any time the party comes up with its arrangement.”
And there is always the fear of one of the candidates taking the path of Yakubu Dogara in 2015, by aligning with opposition lawmakers to defeat the candidate of the ruling party. This fear was expressed by the governors of APC in a memo they sent to the president-elect, Bola Tinubu.
Apparently, to forestall the 2015 scenario, some loyalists of Mr Gbajabiamila have formed a multi-party coalition called the Joint Task to support the zoning arrangement of the APC. Interestingly, “The Joint Task” is the theme of Mr Gbajabiamila’s Ninth House.
Because several loyalists of Mr Gbajabiamila are at the forefront of the coalition, many see it as the hand of Esau but the voice of Jacob. Many believe that Mr Gbajabimaila set up the coalition to prevent the 2015 experience where he was the main victim of the open rebellion.
Also, it appears the Joint Task is a continuation of the alliance between Mr Tinubu and the G5 governors. Kingsley Chinda, a loyalist of Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike, is the co-chairman of the Joint Task and Aliyu Madaki, a member-elect of NNPP, is the secretary. Essentially, the joint task is believed to be the reserve army to fulfil the decision of the president-elect on who becomes the speaker.
In essence, the group has infiltrated the opposition, which currently has a combined strength of 180 members, compared to APC’s 177 members.
Men battling to replace Gbajabiamila
Idris Wase (Plateau North-Central)
Idris Wase represents Wase Federal Constituency of Plateau State. He was first elected to the House in 2007 under the platform of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), a party founded by the president-elect. He was re-elected in 2011 on the same party’s platform and was part of the 2015 merger that produced the current APC.
Aside from his long journey with the ACN, Mr Wase also has a long relationship with Mr Gbajabiamila. In 2018, Mr Wase was appointed the deputy majority leader following the death of Umar Jibrin from Kogi State. By 2019, the duo decided to run a joint ticket for the speakership and deputy.
The choice of Mr Wase as running mate to Mr Gbajabimaila in 2019 was strategic – a Fulani from the Northcentral zone. The joint ticket divided proponents of a “Northcentral agenda” and ultimately helped in defeating the zonal coalition behind Umar Bago, a lawmaker from Niger State.
For four years, Mr Wase has been a loyal deputy and played the lead role in passing some of the landmark bills of the administration, including the Electoral Act, Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) and others.
In terms of experience, as the deputy speaker and statutory chairman of the House Committee of the Whole, there is no higher qualification test for the speakership. However, the task ahead of him is daunting.
While experience is a positive factor, it has been a minus for him. None of the other 10 candidates in the race has ever presided over plenary or the Committee of the Whole. In the last four years, Mr Wase has definitely had a few altercations with lawmakers in the course of discharging his duty. In October 2020, he had a face-off with Shina Peller. He also clashed with Mark Gbillah, Dachung Bagos and Segun Odebunmi.
Several opposition lawmakers may still hold grudges against the deputy speaker over the way and manner the PIA and the Electoral Act were passed. Despite a “walk-out” by members of the opposition, Mr Wase forged ahead to pass the bill.
To be fair, Mr Wase’s disagreement often stems from lawmakers not following the rules and procedures of the House. His no-nonsense attitude is in contrast with Mr Gbajabiala’s, who tries to indulge the lawmakers as much as possible. In the course of the campaign, opponents of Mr Wase have used words like “bully” and “hardliner” to describe him.
To cross the line, he may have to count on his loyalty to Mr Gbajabiamila in the past four years.
There is also the zoning factor. The North-central is well placed in the race because the region has never occupied the position. It also produced a strong performance in the presidential election for the APC. Thus, it is not strange that the Progressives Governors’ Forum (PGF) recommended zoning the position of Speaker to the North-west or North-central.
Even in the North-central, Mr Wase will have to battle a young lawmaker from his state, Yusuf Gagdi (APC, Plateau), who is also running for the position. Secondly, he has to persuade opposition lawmakers to back him.
Yusuf Gagdi (Plateau, North-central)
Mr Gagdi represents Pankshin/Kanke/Kanam federal constituency of Plateau State.
The lawmaker, a former Deputy Speaker of Plateau State House of Assembly, is the Chairman of the House Committee on Navy. He was first elected to the House in 2019 and has been reelected into the 10th Assembly. He was among the first to declare interest in the race.
If the election is zoned to the North-central, it could be an “all Plateau affair” with Mr Gagdi drawn against his Mr Wase. The duo so far are the strongest aspirants from the zone.
Mr Gagdi is one of the arrowheads of the Gbajabiamila/Wase successful campaign of 2019. Although many believe that he was rewarded with the Committee on Navy, by convention, former state assembly presiding officers get preference in the distribution of the positions.
Also, he will have to assure his colleagues about his temper, given his history of fighting on the floor of the House. In 2021, during the debate on the Electoral Bill, he fought with Mark Gbillah, the lawmaker from Benue State.
In the event the position is zoned to the North-central, those sceptical about Mr Wase may consider Mr Gagdi as a benign alternative.
Mr Gagdi also appears to have his eyes on the 36 votes of the Labour Party. In the past couple of weeks, he appeared to be targeting the new opposition party’s members-elect. First, he held a meeting with Alex Otti, who is the only governor-elect of the Labour Party, and followed up with another with some LP members-elect in Abuja.
His relationship with Governor Simon Lalong may also play a crucial zone in the battle. He is believed to share a close relationship with his home state governor. Therefore, the latter may leverage his influence as the Director-General of the dissolved APC presidential campaign council to sway the pendulum in the direction of Gagdi.
While it may be safe to say that his fate is tied to the zoning of the APC, his emergence in 2015 as Deputy Speaker in Plateau State tells a story of a man capable of navigating between parties. In 2015, when he was elected the deputy speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly, he was a member of a minority party in the House.
Muktar Betara (Borno, Northwest)
The media-shy Borno State lawmaker has added a new dimension to the speakership battle. However, for his bid, the elephant in the room is zoning because Vice President-elect Kashim Shettima is from his state.
The ruling party and the president-elect now find themselves in a delicate situation. In the past month, Mr Betara has emerged as the candidate to beat. While others are operating in the background, his campaign has been aggressive, cutting across minority parties.
But the ruling party may lack the moral right to rule out Mr Betara. One, in 2019, the incumbent speaker was backed by the APC to emerge as the speaker, despite being from the South-west as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. The arrangement excluded the South-east from the equation.
Although Messrs Osinbajo and Gbabiamila are from Ogun and Lagos states respectively, Mr Osinbajo is more of a Lagos politician, a state he served as attorney-general for eight years. In addition, he voted in Lagos in 2015 and 2019 even as a vice-presidential candidate in the two elections. Therefore, between 2019 and 2023, the number two and four citizens were from Lagos State.
Also, in 2011, Mr Gbajabimaila, as Minority Leader, led the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) lawmakers to support Aminu Tambuwal to emerge as Speaker of the Seventh House. This was despite Mr Tambuwal and Vice President Namadi Sambo being from the same North-west. Thus, contemporary history has many facts to support Mr Betara’s bid.
Secondly, Mr Betara is also believed to have been one of the lawmakers that funded the Gbaja/Wase campaign in 2019. The coveted Committee on Appropriation was believed to have been given to him as compensation. To many in Mr Betara’s camp, Mr Gbajabiamila owes the Borno lawmaker a debt of loyalty higher than a “juicy committee.”
His position as the Chairman of the Appropriation Committee also gives him considerable leverage in terms of patronage. Lawmakers depend on the committee to push their projects into the annual budget. However, an estimated over 60 per cent of the current members of the Ninth House did not return, hence the frenetic lobbying of new members. A simple review shows that Mr Betara may not be doing badly in that regard.
Nonetheless, Mr Betara faces an uphill battle in his quest for speakership. He will probably be facing strong opponents from North-central and North-west. Some aspirants in the race have been visiting him in the hope of getting his support should he be forced out of the race. The Majority Leader, Alhassan Doguwa and Miriam Onuoha already paid the Borno lawmaker a visit in anticipation that he may drop out.
Tajudeen Abbas (Kaduna, Northwest)
The lawmaker representing Zaria Federal Constituency of Kaduna State has been very quiet. He is yet to officially join the race. However, his name has been mentioned as one of the favourites in the race. While he has been quiet about the race, lawmakers continue to mention his name.
Some weeks back, there was a report by a national daily that Mr Gbajabiamila had backed the Kaduna lawmaker. Despite the swift denial by the Speaker, the speculation has refused to die down.
Sources within the National Assembly said that Mr Abbas has been instructed to maintain a low profile while his supporters make the case for zoning of the ticket to the North-west as he is considered the favourite candidate. In the event that the Senate President is zoned to the South based on religious consideration, then the North-west will have a strong case for the speakership.
For many, Mr Abbas’ calmness contrasts with the temperament of many of his rivals from the North, considering that temperament has become a major talking point in the race for who succeeds Mr Gbajabiamila.
“The North-west is going to ask you, what is going to happen to me? It is up to the leaders of our party. You have got quality candidates from the North-west. We have got Tajudeen Abbas, three times member, PhD holder, current house committee chairman on land transport. You just mentioned, Sada Soli, we have (Ahmed) Jaji too,” Akin Alabi, a member of the Joint Task, said during an interview.
Mr Alabi, who is the spokesperson of the group, appears to be conveniently slotting in the name of Mr Abbas at every interview, oftentimes dropping “the PhD” title, while giving the other aspirants little or no mention at all.
To many lawmakers, Mr Abbas has two main combinations, soft temperament and competence, with the addition of being from the North-west. There is also the influence of Nasir el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State.
Mr Abbas has impressive legislative experience. He has sponsored the highest number of bills in the current Assembly. According to a report by OrderPaper Initiative, Mr Abbas had sponsored 75 bills as of December 2022.
However, there is a big hurdle ahead of him. His silence could be turned against him and made him labelled as the candidate of the establishment. Secondly, in the North-west, there are five candidates, thus, it may be difficult for the zone to produce a united front. And the entry of the majority leader, Alhassan Doguwa, perhaps has changed the outlook of the race.
Miriam Onuoha (Imo, South-east)
Ms Onuoha, the Chairman of the House Committee on Disabilities, is the only woman in the race thus far. The Okigwe North federal consistency lawmaker said she is not in the race to bargain for another position. “It is presiding officer or nothing,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
Her candidacy relies heavily on zoning. But the South-east National Assembly delegation in the ruling APC faces scrutiny over the outcome of the presidential election. Mr Tinubu, the president-elect, got a miserable one per cent of the total votes cast in the region. However, Imo State delivered more than half of the entire votes cast for the APC in the zone.
The zoning of the Senate President will also have an impact on her aspiration. If the APC zones it to the South, the speakership may be out of her reach. If the party decides to zone the speakership to the South, then she may have a strong claim.
Of course, there is the option of deputy speaker – an office that may become available to the South-east if the speakership goes to the North and the South-south takes the Senate presidency. This scenario is becoming probable judging by the reality of things in the past few weeks. Deputy Speaker may be an option for her.
There is also the possibility some aspirants may consider a joint ticket with her. She offers a unique advantage to anyone seeking a running mate as having her as a speaker or deputy speaker will be considered a win for women.
Alhassan Doguwa (Kano, North-west)
On Wednesday, the Majority Leader of the House officially joined the race, with a clear message to his party – “what is good for Gbajabiamila in 2019 is also good for a Doguwa in 2023”. The Kano lawmaker is saying as Gbajabiamila made a transition from Leader of the House to Speaker, he should be offered the same privilege.
However, he has an albatross on his neck in his ongoing murder trial in Kano State. The lawmaker is accused of involvement in the death of three persons in his constituency and is currently on N500 million bail. To Mr Doguwa, a murder trial is no reason to deter him from the race.
There is also the temperament issue, which was also raised during the declaration. His response: “For those who refer to me as a high-level temperamental person, they have misperceived Ado Doguwa, the man who has four wives and 28 children.”
Mr Doguwa sees himself as the closest aspirant to the president-elect. During his declaration, he donned a cap with the Tinubu’s insignia and even declared the Yoruba slogan popularised by Mr Tinubu, “Emi Lokan,” meaning it is my turn.
Although he survived the NNPP tsunami in Kano, he has lost the numerical strength of the state’s caucus as NNPP now has 19 out of the 24 lawmakers from the state in the House. But will the NNPP back Mr Doguwa? That is a major poser.
As an individual, Mr Doguwa is not as formidable and requires the support of the president-elect and the APC to pull through.
Sada Soli (Katsina, North-west)
The Katsina lawmaker is a strong voice at plenary and committee meetings. His capacity cannot be doubted. Earlier in the race, his name was mentioned alongside Mr Abbas as a likely candidate from the North-west. However, it seems as though he has not been able to sustain the momentum.
Perhaps, if the ticket is zoned to the North-west, Mr Soli may change his approach.
Ben Kalu (Abia, South-east)
Weeks after he said he would be joining the race, Mr Kalu is yet to officially do so. The reason may not be unconnected to the aspiration of Orji Kalu, who is contesting for Senate President.
The duo are not just political associates but also from the same senatorial district of Abia North. In a race where only one option is possible, the two have to decide on what is important.
Aside from the tricky regional alignment, Mr Kalu’s speakership aspiration has exposed him to scrutiny from those that have accused him of betraying the APC during the presidential election.
Realistically, Mr Kalu faces a significant obstacle in the battle.
Tunji Raheem (Kwara, North-central)
Mr Raheem from Kwara State has equally declared interest in running for the position.
He represents Isin/Ekiti/Irepodun/Oke-Ero Federal Constituency of Kwara State.
The Kwara lawmaker is running under the “North-central agenda”, but is not considered a serious contender by any yardstick. To some observers, aspirants like Mr Raheem probably declared interest to negotiate for another office.
Mr Raheem has been in the House since 2018 but has remained relatively unknown.
Makki Yellaman (Jigawa, North-west)
The Jigawa lawmaker is one of the first to declare. However, he has been relatively quiet. Unless a last-minute surprise happens, it is not feasible for him to emerge.
Jaji Ahmed (Zamfara, North-west)
After an eight-year hiatus from the House, Mr Jaji is back and seeking to lead the House. He was in the House from 2011 to 2015.
Mr Jaji’s campaign for the speakership has been more of meeting the lawmakers personally while he has avoided media appearances. Sources within his campaign disclosed that he will only make his campaign public if the ruling party zones the seat to the North-west.
Nonetheless, Mr Jaji, like many other candidates from North-west, faces a herculean task because unless they agree to work together, they may lose out to other regions.
Mr Jaji also remains relatively unknown.
While zoning may provide Mr Gbajabiamila with the needed cover, loyalty will be tested within his alliance, For some of the hopefuls, concession and compromise may work, but for others, it could be the position of speaker or nothing.
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