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A needless controversy

WEEKS after he returned from his second medical vacation in London President Muhammadu Buhari was hardly seen in public. Apart from the day he arrived in the country following his long absence that started as a ten-day vacation, President Buhari was only to be seen twice or thereabout in public thereafter. On one of these occasions he attended the Jumaat prayers in the presidential mosque while the other occasion was to attend the Federal Executive Council meeting. The next time the president would be seen at the mosque he was already set for his latest medical follow-up trip to London. After the initial appearance at the FEC meeting, he would miss the next two meetings in a row. His absence from public was all the sign Nigerians needed to know that all was far from well with the president and they were quick in, again, taking up their previous call for full disclosure of his health status.

As the president increasingly skipped public engagements and a confused public was given different reasons for his absence, so did concern and speculations about what could be wrong with him increased. Images of the president on his brief entries from isolation showed him as painfully emaciated. He had also lost most of his hair. All of this further increased call for him to go and take care of his health. Even though he had on his return to the country in March indicated that he would again be returning to the United Kingdom for further health check, the president did not seem keen on doing that thereafter. It would seem like Buhari preferred to stay back in the country and undergo whatever treatment he needed while ‘resting’ in the privacy of the Villa than return to the UK. But the constant badgering from Nigerians following his ill health-induced rest definitely hastened his decision to return to the UK for ‘follow-up’ treatment. The irony cannot, therefore, be lost that the clamour that forced him back home from his long medical vacation which had led many to conclude that he was incapacitated was what again forced him back for further medical attention.

It would seem that all the while the controversy about his health raged, all the president needed to do to douse the tensed atmosphere this created was simply to explain his situation and hand over the reins of governance to  Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo. Otherwise, up until the time he decided to leave for the UK on his latest trip President Buhari cut the image of a power-obsessed leader that would rather hold on to power by all means possible and at the expense of his health than handover to his deputy. Many Nigerians saw this apparent hankering for power as the cruel machinations of the so-called cabal of close associates and kin who surrounded the president and had held him hostage. At the time he finally left for treatment about a fortnight ago the president hardly had a choice in the matter. The heat for him to go had indeed intensified. But no sooner had he left than it became obvious that another can of worms had been opened by the very letter he wrote to the Senate intimating it of his decision to be away on follow-up treatment.

In the letter that was prefaced by reference to section 145(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as Amended), the president announced he would be embarking on ‘medical follow-up’ to see his doctors in London. While away, he says in the letter, the Vice president would ‘coordinate the activities of the Government’. But his use of the word ‘coordinate’, perhaps the entire quoted clause, is what many Nigerians saw as a red flag that got them debating the actual meaning of the president’s letter. For critics of the president, his choice of words left too much room for ambiguity that could be the precursor of both anticipated and unanticipated trouble. In the light of what many Nigerians already saw as the reluctance of the president, under the influence of the so-called cabal, to temporarily cede power to his deputy following persistent ill-health, the language and tone of the letter was seen as a deliberate attempt in linguistic obfuscation. Attention was first drawn to this aspect of the president’s letter by Senator Mao Ohuanbuwa of the PDP (Abia North).

The senator pointed out in the senate that the Nigerian Constitution that Buhari alluded to in his letter has no position for a ‘Coordinating President’. Senator Ohuabunwa was countered by Ahmad Lawan, the Senate Majority Leader, who said the president’s choice of words had no bearing on the intent of the relevant section of the Constitution that conferred Acting President status on the Vice President. The debate has since then gone back and forth. To be sure, in the three letters between June 2016 and May 2017 the president has so far written to the Senate to transmit power to his deputy, this is the first in which he would use the word ‘coordinate’ to describe what the Vice president would do in his absence. He previously used ‘perform’ in the same context. Senator Ohuabunwa and others who supported his stand on the letter might well be right to point out the ambiguity created by the president’s choice of words in his third letter. Their concern could be understood against the backdrop of the alleged scheming of the cabal around the president.

Indeed, others who read bad faith into the couching of the letter’s language could be very right. But having pointed out this potential cause of trouble they have, on behalf of other Nigerians, served timely notice on those agents of confusion who may be nursing dangerous thoughts about the president’s letter. Without splitting too much hair, Nigerians should realise that it is not the president’s choice of words that activates section 145 of the Constitution by which power is transferred to an Acting President. As far as that section is concerned the president’s use of language is immaterial. What counts is what the Constitution says and by invoking Section 145 of that document in his letter to the Senate, President Muhammadu Buhari has willy-nilly activated both the spirit and the letter of that section of the Constitution. His deputy thus becomes Acting President.

Although lay men and women before the Nigerian law, ordinary Nigerians need not suspend their understanding of the import of the president’s invocation of section 145(1) in favour of any arcane or recondite interpretation by our learned brothers and sisters, especially those of the inner bar, that may already be sniffing at the juicy briefs locked in fanning the embers of a phantom constitutional crisis. Let’s not gratify the greed of those learned crooks feeding fat off the nightmare that is Nigeria’s democratic practice.



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