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The death of the President and its aftermath

By Awa Kalu


Far too many people may naively think that the death of former President Umaru Yar’Adua has cooled the political temperature which was substantially elevated because of his ill health. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Taken in turn, it is clear that the reverberations from his demise will continue until at least, the 2011 elections have been concluded. The most immediate consequence of his eclipse is the reconfiguration of the power equation which has always pitched the North against the South and vice versa.

The death of our erstwhile Prime Minister in the first republic in the wake of the 1966 coup d’état was in no small measure, responsible for the counter-coup which in turn led to the death of our first military head of state – Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi.

In addition, the civil war that followed has not been extricated by historians as one of the immediate consequences of the death of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and a host of others who similarly died in the wake of the first military coup d’état. What about the death of General Murtala Mohammed? Only the deaf will ignore the undeniable din and clamour that followed after he was shot. What of General Sani Abacha’s death? Perhaps, only a peep into history will unravel the immeasurable proportions of events that trailed his life and death. The long and short of it is that none of our Presidents who died in office left us quietly. This may be attributed to the substantive and even some intangible trappings of the office of President, at least in Africa.

It has for instance been argued by the great Prof. Ben Nwabueze, SAN that “splendour is indeed a feature of the lifestyle of African Presidents. Personifying the state, …they dress themselves up in uniforms, build themselves palaces, bring all other traffic to a standstill when they drive, hold fancy parades and generally demand to be treated like Egyptian Pharaohs”.

The learned Professor further postulates that “the government of the federation is organized around the President. With certain exceptions and restrictions, the Constitution invests him with the entire executive power of the federation, and what is more significant, makes it exercisable by him in his discretion as a personal ruler, uninhibited by the artificial separation between nominal and real authority whereby powers legally vested in one person can only be exercised by others”.

Late President Yar'Adua

It is the learned Professor’s view that “unlike his predecessor under the Constitution of the first republic, the president under the new Constitution is no figurehead who takes no executive decisions or actions except through or as advised by others and who therefore bears no responsibility whatever for governance. On the contrary, he is an executive president in every sense of the term, required to bring his Judgement to bear upon every issue presented for decision and upon the content of all advice offered, and to accept responsibility for decisions and actions of government”.

He further explains that ‘the executive president as a single individual combines the effective powers of the cabinet, the head of government and the individual ministers with the symbolic authority of the head of state in the first republic’.  His point of clarification is that “this attribute of a single authority does not require that the president should administer the government alone and unaided. He is by the express terms of the Constitution permitted to act either directly or through the vice-president and ministers or officers in the public service of the federation”.

What emerges from the foregoing is that the office of the president is indeed quite powerful and can be used to affect the life of the people for good or for ill. In life, for instance, President Yar’Adua conceived a seven-point agenda anchored on the rule of law as his mantra. Quite laudably, even if on a shaky legal platform, he orchestrated the famed amnesty for militants in the Niger Delta which has by the way been replicated in the neighbouring or contiguous Abia State. He deployed his enormous powers to alter substantially, the tenure of federal senior civil servants at the level of Directors and Permanent Secretaries.

In that connection, it became the norm for any person who had been a Director or Permanent Secretary for upwards of eight years, to retire compulsorily, ostensibly to make way for sprightly and younger elements thus, energizing the civil service. Policy implementation after all, requires vigour. However, whether this new policy is arbitrary or a rule of thumb and whether it has statutory imprimatur, has as yet not been clarified.

The importance of the Presidency became more illuminated by the events that followed the late President Yar’Adua’s period of ill-health. Although there are threadbare provisions of the Constitution which ought to have taken care of the exigencies of that period, our normal recourse to obduracy on matters of law restrained us as a nation from taking the steps dictated by such constitutional provisions. The calculus thrown up by the late president’s slightly prolonged ill health seemed incapable of easy resolution before the President eventually died.

Clearly, President Yar’Adua’s ghost will be around for a little while. Upon his death, Dr. Goodluck  Jonathan was sworn in by His Lordship, the Chief Justice of Nigeria as President. Luckily, there has been no debate about the propriety or impropriety of that momentous event unlike the previous occasion on which the present Chief Justice was sworn in by his departing predecessor.

President Jonathan

It is remarkable that it was late President Yar’Adua’s ill health that occasioned that event. On its own, the swearing in of the present Chief Justice by his predecessor allegedly had the trimmings of the “doctrine of necessity”. The real invocation of that doctrine in the bowels of the National Assembly, without equivocation, brought to an end a constitutional saga that seemed intractable thus, translating the then Vice-President Jonathan to an acting President. He became President in his own right at the fullness of time.

What followed is part of the aftermath of President Yar’Adua’s death, the nomination and confirmation of the erstwhile Governor of Kaduna State as Vice-President. Immediately the former Governor mounted a more elevated saddle, the erstwhile Deputy Governor of that State was sworn in as Governor. As at the time of writing, a Deputy Governor for Kaduna State is being awaited. What is indeed remarkable is that amid the threats of mayhem, fire and brimstone, a significant adjustment in the power equation both at federal and state level has take place, rather seamlessly one would hope, thus validating the impression that given a chance, the Constitution can work.

Democracy, as the saying goes will then deepen. By way of elaboration, a new President as has been said, has emerged without much ado. In respect of Kaduna State, it seems that all is not yet very well. The development in that state arose because of the emergence of the then Governor, a Muslim, as the new Vice-President. His former Deputy, now Governor, who is a Christian, waved the olive branch to those who reckon that Kaduna State should only be governed by a Muslim. ‘Card carrying’ Christians should have no say in the affairs of Kaduna State at least at gubernatorial level in the calculations of those who think that way. The Daily Sun (vol. 16 No. 1767, Wednesday, May 26, 2010 reports the rejection of the nominee for the position of Deputy Governor by the State House of Assembly.

According to the newspaper, ‘The battle over who becomes the State’s deputy governor took a different dimension yesterday, following refusal of the House to acknowledge receipt of the communication sent to it by the governor over the nomination of the deputy governor designate.’ The paper recalled that it had ‘exclusively reported the resolve by the House not to confirm the State’s Finance Commissioner and deputy governor designate, Alhaji Muktar Ramalan Yero, as deputy governor, as a way of registering their protest over his nomination especially on the grounds that it negates the existing zoning arrangement in the State’. With this development, it has to be said that the issue of zoning is becoming far too dominant in the consciousness of Nigerians in matters relating to election or appointment to certain offices at national and state levels.

We need to recall that there is an ongoing debate as to whether the President is ‘zonally’ qualified to contest elections in 2011.  On account of the feeling in some quarters that the presidency had been zoned to the North for eight years reckoned from 2007, the office of president they argue, would have no vacancy for a non northerner until 2015. In that calculation, President Jonathan’s ascendancy would be held as merely fortuitous and not related to the expediency of zoning. Consequently, the debate has been galvanized by whether or not President Goodluck Jonathan should contest as of right for the office of President in 2011.

Having regard to the fixation on zoning, this column will examine in greater detail, the constitutional dimensions, if any, of the now controversial issue of zoning. Furthermore, an attempt will be made to reconcile ‘zoning’ with the constitutionally recognized principle of ‘federal character’.


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