Nigerian assembly deadlocked over contract scandal

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ABUJA, Oct 16 (Reuters) Nigeria's House of Representatives was deadlocked today as the speaker, who was found guilty of breaking House rules over contracts worth 5 million dollar, refused to call a vote on whether she should step down.

Patricia Etteh of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) was condemned by an in-house panel for acting against the rules in the award of contracts worth 628 million naira for the renovation of two official houses and the purchase of 10 cars.

Minority leader Mohammed Aliyu Ndume proposed that Etteh, a former beautician, should step down temporarily while the house debates the report, but Etteh did not call a vote.

She had already sent the house on an unexpected two-week recess at the end of last month in an attempt to rally support, but the opposition was visibly in control of the house on its first day back at work.

''All we are saying, Etteh must step down,'' chanted opposition legislators during the two-hour stand-off, during which Etteh tried to leave the chamber only to find her exit blocked by opponents.

Farouk Lawan, a PDP member who has led opposition to Etteh, said he expected a new temporary speaker to be elected tomorrow to oversee the debate on the report.

''We will passionately deliberate on this report and whoever is found guilty will be sanctioned accordingly,'' he said.

Etteh allies had earlier said they had 260 representatives, almost three-quarters of the house, behind them.

''We demonstrated today in very clear terms that the bogus number that the Etteh group was orchestrating is in their own imagination,'' Lawan said.

Etteh adjourned the debate to tomorrow morning.

The furore over the contracts has been an embarrassing start for the House of Representatives, which has yet to debate any laws in the four months since taking office in June.

It has also undermined President Umaru Yar'Adua, who came to power on May 29 pledging a restoration of moral values and zero tolerance for corruption in one of the world's most tainted countries.

Yar'Adua has cultivated an image of austerity and simple living in an effort to curb the culture of profligacy among Nigeria's ruling elite, but his message has been lost in a daily flow of headlines about the speaker's lavish renovations.

In her defence, Etteh says she is the victim of a vendetta by veteran members who are angry because she did not name them chairmen of the House committees they coveted, choosing newcomers instead.

Some members privately agree, but they say Etteh should face the consequences of her actions even if the those who revealed the contracts were motivated by revenge.

''I think Etteh will have to step down in the end,'' a senior PDP official said, asking not to be named.

''The moral platform is weak and public opinion is strongly against her,'' he added.


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