Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari transmitted a letter notifying the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria about yet another medical vacation in the United Kingdom. In the letter, the president made it known that he was travelling as a follow-up to his treatment in London earlier this year, for a yet-to-be disclosed ailment.
The letter did not reveal the length of the president’s intended stay in the UK but hinged this on the advice of his doctors. That was probably a careful way to avoid the type of anxiety and perturbation his long absence from the country created during his first medical vacation a few months back.
Besides, the construction of the letter elicited some debate over whether the president was sincere about handing over power to his deputy, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, while away, in consonance with the provision of Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, which provides that: “Whenever the President transmits to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.”
Although that enabling constitutional provision is clear on the matter, the president’s letter had described the vice-president as ‘coordinating’ in his absence. The word ‘coordinating’, invariably sparked off fearsome debate. The first salvo was fired right inside the hallow chambers of the Senate by Mao Ohuabunwa, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senator representing Abia North senatorial district. He had been recognised to take the floor as soon as the president’s letter was read at the plenary.
Ohuanbunwa must have inadvertently spoken the minds of some of his colleagues and, indeed, a teeming population of Nigerians when he drew attention to the word ‘coordinating’ as used in the letter. Not only did he demonstrate that the president’s letter was a little bit cryptic as it tried to avoid directly naming the vice-President as acting president, he also clearly indicated that the word was in bad taste. From then on, a debate was ignited, with all manner of people speaking for and against the wordings of the letter.
As the debate would not subside, the president’s handlers, including Lai Mohammed, the minister of Information and Culture, made frenetic moves to calm the troubled waters. The minister described the debate as a needless distraction, while taking refuge in Section 145 of the constitution which he clearly said the president had already referred to in his letter to the Senate.
The minister was right. What he did was a smart way of dousing the flames of tension that had been building up on the controversial wording. As stated earlier, Section 145 of the 1999 constitution is clear and unambiguous on the issue of acting president when all the conditions are met. The section states that in such situations, once formal communication is transmitted to the upper chamber of the National Assembly by the president, power automatically shifts to the vice president pending the president’s resumption.
In that case, all the president needed to do was to formally enter a correspondence on his vacation to the Senate. The president does not need to mention either the word acting or coordinating to fulfill the constitutional provision of the empowerment of the vice-president to step in as acting president. The vice-president will function as acting president until such a time a counter-correspondence is transmitted to the Senate by the president.
This is a simple expression of the constitutional provision that empowers the vice-president to step into the shoes of his principal in the event of the principal’s inability to perform his constitutional role. But it appears that there could be some individuals, a cabal or both, in the villa who were simply just being mischievous by inserting the word ‘coordinating’ into the president’s correspondence to the Senate. Otherwise, all they needed to do was to copy and paste the president’s previous letter to the Senate, while adding a new date.
Therefore, by inserting ‘coordinating’, they wittingly sent a signal that Osinbajo was merely a coordinator. What they probably did not take cognisance of was the fact that once they referred to the constitution, any other thing that follows is not relevant as it is automatic that the vice-president becomes acting president. The whole charade occasioned by the ‘Coordinator’ tag the president assigned to the vice president in that letter illuminates our political leadership’s predilection to complicate even the most simple, straightforward tasks of leadership. Otherwise, pray tell, why would a vice president not simply ‘preside’ as the official title indicates, rather than ‘coordinate’?
But beyond the furrore caused by the choice of words in the letter, Osinbajo has undoubtedly demonstrated in body language, action and words that he is not an excessively ambitious human being or vice-president for that matter. That is why he refers practically everything to the president. It seems the cabal may not be comfortable with him because they don’t want him to take the shine off the president.
Recall that this same cabal was very much uncomfortable early this year when the president first went to London on medical vacation and stayed away for 50 days at a stretch. During this period, the vice-president, acting as president, acquitted himself creditably. This was very visible to even a layman. Throughout the period, the cabal was scared stiff that Osinbajo’s popularity had soared to high heavens.
It is probably in realisation of this that Osinbajo had to humble himself so much during his recent visit to Katsina State, the homestead of the president, where he told the Emir of Katsina that President Buhari treats him like a son. This is humility taken too far. No wonder some people have unmistakably pointed it out that the vice-president needn’t be too subservient simply because he wants to stave off controversy from his person.
However, in the wake of the president’s latest trip to London, a number of successive events may have given an indication that the president’s camp is, indeed, fretting and jittery because of the fear of the unknown which has been variously described as the greatest fear that could assail a person’s sensibilities. To start with, the president’s latest exit from the country coincided with a shakeup in the military’s command structure. And as if that was not enough, the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), met in Kano last week and took a surprising stand on the issue of restructuring the country. The NEF also vowed to resist any move to undermine the current administration on account of President Muhammadu Buhari’s ill health.
Furthermore, the NEF warned that “the ship of state” must keep sailing uninterruptedly until Buhari returns. According to the forum: “We are aware that attempts are being made to exploit the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari to achieve dubious political goals. We, therefore, warn those seeking an undeserved political advantage to desist. The North is conscious of its obligations, as well as rights, and will discharge and defend same without reservations.” The forum said it backed the “genuine” restructuring of the nation, adding that the North was never at any time opposed to the move.
The warning may have been informed by some developments at the seat of power, Aso Rock, which the group described as “attempts to exploit the absence of the president to achieve dubious political goals.” One of these goals is suspected to be the restructuring of the polity. The forum went on and on and lashed out at real and imagined enemies who they said were exploiting Buhari’s absence to cause the breakup of the country.
This is obviously an overkill. The issue of restructuring has been on the front burner of national discourse from Independence in 1960. Ironically, it is the same people now crying wolf that have been working assiduously to truncate any move towards that direction. But like they say, Que sera, sera. What will be, will certainly be.
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