By Ochereome Nnanna
SECTION 145 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, (As Amended) has this to say about the power of the Vice President in the absence of the President:
“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”.
Because of the cynical nature of Nigerian politics which is sadly rooted in religion, ethnicity, sectionalism and familial interests (factors that corrupt and debilitate our constitutional democracy), a constitutional enactment as precise and self-explanatory as the Section 145 is still made to seem hard to grapple with.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who has done very well in respecting the Constitution by transmitting such letters to the leaders of the National Assembly on each of the two occasions he went abroad to tend to his health problems, however, introduced confusion into the issue when he said Vice President Osinbajo would “coordinate” the activities of government in his absence.
The President was heavily criticised for this strange definition of the status of the Acting President, though it hardly matters since it is the Constitution, not the President that defines roles played by everyone in our democracy.
This is the second regime in which our President had to be taken out of the country for an extended stay out of power. When the case of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua took place late in November 2009 he did not transmit any letter as Buhari does. By February 2010, murmurs over a power vacuum became cacophonous and Yar’ Adua’s handlers caused the British Broadcasting Corporation to air an “interview” he granted to show he was not incapacitated. Nigerians would have none of that. An “interview” was not the same thing as transmitting a letter as the Constitution demands.
Based on this need to end the power vacuum, the Senate on Tuesday, 9th February 2010, invoked a “Doctrine of Necessity” (which is not found anywhere in our constitution) and conferred Acting President on Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.
A brief look at Acting President Goodluck Jonathan and Acting President Yemi Osinbajo shows some dramatic differences in how each embraced his new status. Jonathan and Osinbajo share a similar streak of being mild-mannered and seemingly apolitical, which were probably the qualities that made them attractive as vice presidential picks. However, when Jonathan became Acting President, he was more emphatically assertive than what we have seen of Osinbajo so far.
For instance, Jonathan was appointed Acting President on Tuesday 9th February. On Wednesday 11th February, he presided over the Federal Executive Council and sacked the Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Chief Mike Aondoakaa (SAN), who was a very outspoken votary of President Yar’Adua. Aondoakaa had bluntly opposed the appointment of Jonathan as Acting President. Jonathan also appointed Mohammed Adoke (SAN) as Aondoakaa’s replacement and released the sum of $2 billion to states and local governments from their share of the Excess Crude Account.
The same thing cannot be said of Osinbajo. He appears to have maintained the Buhari cabal’s expectations of him as a mere “Coordinator”, taking care not to do anything that President Buhari might see as an act of “disloyalty” to him. You know, in Nigeria, loyalty is not to the nation. It is to the leader and his well-known political interests which a cabal is always on hand to hold in trust for him because their own interests are involved.
Osinbajo has always been the chief diplomat of the Buhari government. He played a central role in quieting militancy in the Niger Delta and cooling the Biafra protests. He is playing the same role in reducing tension after the recent hot exchanges between Biafra separatist agitators and some Arewa Youth who spoke bigger than their mouths by issuing fellow citizens a comedic “quit notice”.
But Osinbajo has not been able to swear-in ministerial nominees cleared by the Senate for over four months now. It took a letter of authority that ailing Buhari sent through his Minister of Budget for Osinbajo to sign the 2017 budget. If he cannot swear-in already cleared ministerial nominees, can he be expected to drop or appoint new ministers like Jonathan?
The Nigerian people did not tolerate the continued attempt by Yar’ Adua’s cabal and his wife, Turai, in running the government once Jonathan became Acting President. But in Osinbajo’s tenure as Acting President, ministers are reportedly going behind his back to take files to Buhari in London, though other reports indicate that the President is in no position to look at any file. Buhari also issued an Id el Fitri Sallah message to Muslims in Hausa, instead of our lingua franca, the English language.
There are bold evidences that Buhari is not really absent from power and that Acting President Osinbajo is not really exercising the full powers of the Presidency as the Constitution demands. This amounts to a measure of power vacuum, which was absent in Jonathan’s time as Acting President.
How long can this go on? What can Osinbajo do about the quit notice the Benue State Government issued Fulani herdsmen who are not ready to abide by the newly-passed anti-open grazing Act, which Minyetti Allah have vowed to resist? The case has been brought before the Presidency. What can Osinbajo do if diplomacy fails?
It is a pity that in Nigeria, the office of the President, which belongs to the nation, is stolen by the President’s family, friends, tribesmen/women and regional hawks, thus holding the nation to ransom and miring everyone in a morass of political impasse.
That is the situation we find ourselves under the rule of two presidential incumbents.