By Obi Nwakanma
Last week, Reuben Abati, presidential spokesman issued a full threat to those who are canvassing the impeachment of the president. He cautioned them against “treason.” Dr. Abati is wrong. You’d think that as former fire-eating newspaper columnist, the man who now speaks for the president would know the difference between the felony of treason and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Speech is protected under the Nigerian bill of rights. It is one of those rights we fought for; why we chose democracy over tyranny. Those who are calling for the impeachment of the president cannot be accused of treason because they are expressing political thought and conscience.
It is one of the guarantees of democracy that the president can be constitutionally removed if he goes through the process in the National Assembly. Those who call for the removal of the president have a right to mobilize against this president in the National Assembly, and if their campaign gathers momentum, and the National Assembly impeaches the president, they would be within their rights.
They are however prevented from crossing two fundamental boundaries: they cannot deploy any means other than the constitutionally defined method for the removal of the president. In other words, they cannot remove the president by a violent means or by a secret plot leading to military takeover. They cannot deploy the use of coercive force in compelling any member of the National Assembly from taking an impeachment vote for instance.
The constitution outlines the process, and indeed legitimizes the impeachment of the president or any head of government if such head of the government – be it at the federal or the state levels – has been investigated by the senate, and by the proceedings of the two chambers of the Nigerian National Assembly. It is thus with utter disbelief that one reads Rueben Abati’s use of the threat of “treason” to dissuade those who seek the use of constitutional means to oust the president. The question is not whether the APC as a party can mobilize to impeach the president.
It can, and it has the backing of the constitution. Two things however are currently at play here: General Obasanjo’s letter on which the APC anchors its partisan grouse has laid a number of accusations on the doorsteps of the current president. The key and really more serious accusations include (a) that the president has authorized the training of a Black-Ops group of snipers to assassinate his political opponents leading on to the 2015 elections, and (b) that the President and the government he leads must account for the allegedly missing revenue from Nigerian oil sales.
These are weighty accusations deserving of investigation, and if indeed there is any truth to the allegation that the president is misusing his authority and power, it is incumbent on the National Assembly to impeach him. Reuben Abati therefore cannot threaten citizens of Nigeria exercising their rights with treason. He must understand the limits of presidential power. Although the constitution grants the president enormous and indeed wide-ranging powers, one of such powers is not the power to be court and jury. It is not up to the president or his spokesman to determine who has committed treason. The laws of the land are quite specific about the nature of judicial authority, and the role of the courts, and even the meaning of treasonable conduct. A coup plotter is involved in criminal conduct. A political campaigner seeking the use of the legitimate constitutional framework, including the petitioning of his representative in parliament to seek the constitutional removal of the president is within his rights. It is democracy at work. Under the democratic mandate, there are two ways to remove a president: through the ballot box or through the process of impeachment. A president that oversteps his power and misuses the power guaranteed by the constitution, or fails to uphold the constitution he swore to protect can be put through the impeachment process, and can in fact be impeached by the parliament of the land and the heavens will not fall as a result. A president who no longer enjoys the regard, trust or confidence of the people can be impeached by the National Assembly.
The impeachment clause however is not a frivolous clause. It cannot be misused. Which brings me to the question of the party calling for the impeachment of the president: they are yet to establish any grounds for which the president should be impeached. It is incumbent on Dr. Jonathan’s adversaries to provide clear proof that the president has misused his authority and that he no longer enjoys the confidence of a majority of Nigerians who elected him in the first place. Any moves against him might therefore backfire, and the blowback might lead to recall proceedings against those legislators who initiate the impeachment ploy.
To be clear, this statement is not a defence of the president, but it is important that Nigerians consider the following: the president of the federation is the executive authority of the land, he is not the final or absolute authority. The president for example cannot authorize the arrest of anybody, it is the duty of prosecutorial authority to do so. In other words, it is not the duty of the president to investigate and prosecute corruption.
It is the duty of those constitutionally empowered to investigate corruption in government and prosecute same based on hard evidence. The president can only be liable if he (a) interferes and shows unseemly disregard for established process in a bid to either protect himself or an associate under investigation (b) The president is directly or indirectly linked to misdemeanor, and (c) he directly authorizes, in disregard to process, the use of government resources to further his personal interest. But the president cannot bear the responsibility of a corrupt government alone. He can bear the responsibility of his executive mandate which is only one branch of the entire government.
The two other branches – the legislature and the Judiciary bear equal responsibility, and the president is not at the head of these branches. Did the president for example circumvent the law to establish a private army of snipers? That certainly should be investigated. But if the president authorized the Nigerian Army to establish a Sniper Squadron by the recommendation of the General Staff of the Army, does that amount to misuse of authority? No. It will amount to misuse of the power of the presidency if the president issues a direct order to his Army Chief to use such a force for his personal political goals. It is also the responsibility of the Chief of Army under such an illicit order not to carry it out, because clearly, each office is empowered by law to act within its own authority. Just because the president is Commander-in-chief, does not make him Chief of the Army. But has the president crossed those bounds? That is the question. The rule of law is clear: the president cannot be impeached on the mere whims of his adversaries. There must be grounds for his impeachment otherwise it’d amount to political caprice by the APC.