While President Buhari Was Away, By Steve Azaiki
To me, a key point overlooked in the agitation against President Buhari’s medical vacation was whether there was an acting president who was effectively in charge. Answering that question, and indeed ensuring that the acting president was truly and effectively in charge, would have done more to deepen our constitutional democracy…
It would have been Nigeria’s greatest national surprise in recent times if the ill-health and consequent overseas medical vacation of President Muhammadu Buhari was not politicised. From the initial, genuine empathy and expression of get-well messages, the gears shifted first into low-level partisan mockery by some who sought to validate their pre-2015 presidential election claim that Buhari, then a candidate, did not appear strong, or healthy, enough to shoulder the tasking responsibilities of running a country now more complex and with far more complicated issues than were present when Buhari was military head of state from December 1983 to August 1985.
More than 90 days into President Buhari’s latest medical leave, the politicisation of his continuing absence was in full bloom. This was notwithstanding the non-breach of any legal or constitutional provision governing a president’s absence from duty. To dramatise the politicisation, some self-styled Concerned Nigerians under a banner, #OurMumuDonDo, launched a #ReturnorResign campaign, in protest against the president’s continued stay in London for medical attention. Not surprisingly, a counter protest was also launched, but a violent clash between the opposing campaigners was averted, although the police had teargassed the #ReturnorResign protesters, to forestall, they said, the hijack of the protest by hoodlums.
I wholeheartedly endorsed the position of the Senate, while reacting to the #ReturnorResign campaign. The Senate said that the president should be left alone, as he was not in breach of any law or the Constitution. The president had done the right thing by transmitting a letter to the Senate president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, intimating them of his medical leave during which time the Vice President would assume the role of acting president. It was the third such official absence from duty with notice since the president came into office on May 29, 2015, although in terms of duration, the latest medical vacation, which commenced on May 7 and ended with the return of the president to Abuja on Saturday, August 19, is the longest.
The 1999 Constitution, as amended, does not stipulate the length of time that the president, or a governor, may be away on leave, medical or otherwise, provided there is compliance with the requirement of notifying the Assembly of the leave, together with handing over to the vice president, or deputy governor, as the case may be. I am sure many among us will recall the aberration in the earlier part of the current democratic dispensation when one or two governors, on account of differences with their deputies, refused or neglected to hand over to these deputy governors while they were away on leave. One instance that caused a lot of uproar was that of a governor who bypassed the deputy governor and was purported to have handed over to the speaker of the state House of Assembly, even when the deputy governor was in situ.
The other point to note is that the notice of vacation/leave/absence, once transmitted, continues to have effect until the president or governor, upon his return from the leave, transmits another letter to the lawmakers, notifying them of his resumption of duty. We saw that play out on March 10, this year, when President Buhari returned from his second medical leave. At the time, the runway of Abuja Airport was closed to traffic, and the president landed in Kaduna from where he took a helicopter shuttle to the Presidential Villa in Abuja. He arrived on a Friday and was received by the then acting president, as well as other dignitaries. But it was not until the next working day that the president wrote to the National Assembly, informing them of his return and resumption of duty. The process was seamless, and there was no vacuum either in leadership or in governance.
So, what was the grouse of the campaigners against the president’s absence? Those who tried to draw an analogy between the earlier indisposition of Buhari and that of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua clearly misfired. The basis of the assertion lies in properly contextualising and understanding what became known as the Doctrine of Necessity propounded by the Senate in 2010, to fill a potentially anarchic power vacuum in the presidency. Gravelly ill, President Yar’Adua had been in and out of the country for medical attention, and even when he was in the country, he had become largely incapacitated.
…the situation of President Buhari was not the same. There was an acting president. Visitation teams that had gone to see President Buhari in London – and those teams included the acting president who made an overnight journey – reported that the ailing president was recuperating. In other words, he was not incapacitated…
Then, Yar’Adua was ferried abroad, and both he and his handlers, who infamously were referred to as the cabal, wilfully neglected to hand over to the vice president, to perform the role of acting president. Yar’Adua’s handlers had played on the fact that if he did not hand over to the vice president, then he (Yar’Adua) was deemed to be in charge and no one else could trigger a power transfer. But it was all a ruse, as insider leaks revealed Yar’Adua’s dire medical condition. And the country was in stasis. To arrest the drift, the National Assembly on its own invoked the Doctrine of Necessity that, given the circumstances of Yar’Adua’s absence from duty, and the non-transfer of powers to the vice president to function as acting president, the National Assembly would recognise the vice president as acting president. It was a masterstroke of the Sixth National Assembly.
But the situation of President Buhari was not the same. There was an acting president. Visitation teams that had gone to see President Buhari in London – and those teams included the acting president who made an overnight journey – reported that the ailing president was recuperating. In other words, he was not incapacitated. In that case, his removal from office, through the constitutional mechanism of a medical board convened on a resolution of the Federal Executive Council, was unwarranted.
To me, a key point overlooked in the agitation against President Buhari’s medical vacation was whether there was an acting president who was effectively in charge. Answering that question, and indeed ensuring that the acting president was truly and effectively in charge, would have done more to deepen our constitutional democracy than the legally and constitutionally baseless campaign for Buhari to either return or resign from office. Was the acting president in control? Were the institutions of government and governance up and running?
It should be borne in mind that one of the most important pieces of legislation to be passed each year by the National Assembly – that is, the Appropriation Act – was signed into law by the acting president. He was also in charge when the vacancy in the position of chief justice of Nigeria was formally filled. The acting president convened and presided over meetings of the Federal Executive Council; he made key appointments in the bureaucracy, including most recently those of permanent secretaries, and a number of vacancies in federal agencies have been filled. The service chiefs took instructions from the acting president, in particular, restrategising the war on terror in the North-East. The acting president also attended summits outside the country in fulfilment of the country’s international obligations. Under his guidance, the economy was being managed steadily out of turbulence. So, what was it that he should have done as acting president that he had left undone?
One other point to make about the #ReturnorResign campaign is that it glossed over the moral and therefore restraining influence that President Buhari represents. Considering the widespread misbehaviour in the public space in recent years, the anti-corruption disposition of President Buhari has brought about palpable restraint in the wanton pillaging of public resources. Aside from the institutional mechanism to tackle graft, plus the use of enforcement agencies, the fact of Buhari’s presence (he remained de jure President throughout his medical vacation) serves as a stern reminder that the season of business as usual is over.
We saw how, even after leaving office, President Nelson Mandela remained a huge moral force in South Africa. On his deathbed, when it was medically impossible to bring the grand old man back to breathing life, South Africans held endless vigils, wishing him well – because they desired the symbol of moral authority to stay alive. Let us look inwards and see how we can tap into President Buhari’s moral authority, while ensuring that our constitutional democracy is at work, addressing exigencies of the moment as well as the larger issues troubling the Nigerian Project.
Steve Azaiki is a former secretary to the Bayelsa State Government.