The latest letter by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly notifying the legislative arm of government, in accordance with Section 145 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended), of his trip outside the country and desire to transfer the instruments of executive power to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, is raising a lot of dust.
The controversy which is on the choice of words by the president to describe the functions of Osinbajo while he is away, has once again brought to the fore, the mutual suspicions among political players as outcome of the cut-throat intrigues and deadly power-play that go on within Nigeria’s corridor of power.
In the letter, Buhari informed the Senate of his medical follow-up trip and stated that while he is away, “the Vice-President will coordinate the activities of government,” a different phrase from his earlier letters in June 2016 and January 2017, where he said “the Vice-President will perform the functions of my office.”
Section 145 which Buhari referred to stated in sub-section (1) that “”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.”
It took the “eagle-eye scrutiny” of Senator Mao Ohunabunwa, for the attention members of the upper legislative chamber to be drawn to the new phrase that many observers alleged was a ploy by some powerful cabal within the presidency to reduce the influence of Osinbajo while Buhari is away.
The senator, while pointing to the danger of a “hidden intention” in the letter, said “I don’t think we have anything like coordinating president or coordinating vice-president in our constitution. It is either you are vice-president or you are acting president and any letter should be unambiguous and very clear.
“So, I am saying that this letter really does not convey anything because coordinating has no space in our constitution. You tell us this is the acting president and we know whom to deal with as a Senate. This is the highest legislative body of any country and if you are sending us letter it should be direct and unambiguous.”
Although the Majority Leader, Ahmed Lawan, in the ensuing debate, tried to douse the tension created by Ohunabunwa’s submission by saying whatever is in the letter that is in conflict with the constitution should be ignored, a position that Senate President Bukola Saraki supported, the arguments have further exposed the high level of distrust among major characters in government.
Outside the Senate, opinions of legal practitioners differ on the implication of the letter on the status of Osinbajo. Many argued that it was a deliberate pit dug to create a lacuna for some elements to benefit from while others said nothing is wrong with the wordings.
Lagos lawyer, Ebun Olu Adegboruwa SAN, who claimed that Buhari has not transferred any power by the content of the letter, even went as far as calling for the impeachment of the president.
But another Senior Advocate, Femi Falana, said the president has done the needful in the circumstance stressing that “once a letter has been transmitted by the President to the National Assembly that he is going to be away on medical ground, the vice president is automatically the acting president.
However a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED), said in a statement, “a cabal within the presidency is plotting to create confusion by its continuous interference with the decision of the President.”
The group said, “We are extremely saddened with the content of President Buhari’s letter where he neglected tradition and voice of sanity to dance to the tune of political vampires by importing a lexicon alien to our constitution.”
Ordinarily, since the letters of the constitution, which the Buhari correspondence is meant to fulfill, have expressly conferred on the Vice-President, the powers of executive authority in the president’s absence, the issue should have been laid to rest. But since the All Progressives Congress (APC) has not been able to coordinate its internal activities, many Nigerians read in the activities within and between government agencies, individual politicians and power groups.
This is indeed so because since the advent of the Buhari administration, the APC, according to political analysts, has been more of a house divided against itself than a government that has majority control in both the Council of State and the National Assembly.
Observers have however pointed to Buhari’s approach to government, which they said, has a tinge of military rigidness, the manner in which strange political bedfellows that made up the APC got together, the power-play between the internal forces and the escalation of the clash of regional political interests that has always been visible in Nigeria, as factors responsible for the division in the ruling party.
They pointed specifically at the yet unsettled dust that followed the emergence of the leadership of the National Assembly, which took up quality time when the administration was settling down and the current face-off between the executive and legislative arms and its negative impacts on smooth running of government.
Some consequences of these are the crisis trailing budget passage and the heat that is being generated through appointments to major positions in government, a development that party members across the country are complaining about but have no platform of redress because the machinery of party administration has not been functioning the way it should.
Perhaps the major fallout of the disunity in the party is the glaring division in the Buhari presidency, which the president’s letter has further highlighted.
Two major agencies of government, the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), have openly antagonized each other over the confirmation of the appointment of Ibrahim Magu as the Chairman of the anti-graft body.
The Magu affair, apart from signaling the peak of disagreement between the executive and legislative arms of government, also exposed a presidency that does not speak with one voice as both agencies acted in a manner to suggest that the boat has no captain to take charge and call the conflicting interests to order.
In the last two weeks, the Southwest leadership of the APC, a very important segment of the current power equation, has twice made public statements expressing its fears about the happenings within the corridor of power and the danger they portend for the polity.
Pioneer Interim Chairman of the party, Chief Bisi Akande, first sounded the alarm about those who “for political interests at the corridor of power are attempting to feast on the health of the president in a dangerous manner that may aggravate the problems between the executive and the National Assembly without realizing that , in the end, it could drag the entire country into avoidable doom.”
Referring to 1993, when a cabal that supposedly hijacked the presidency pushed the country to the edge of a precipice after annulling a presidential election, Akande said, “Those who wish to harvest political gains out of the health of the president are mistaken. This is not Nigeria of 1993. We are in a new national and global era of constitutionalism and order. We hope Nigerians have enough patience to learn from history.”
But apparently wanting to douse the tension created by the rumoured presence of some cabal at the Aso Villa and the apprehension that its existence is generating in the polity, national leader of the party, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, also in a public statement, said Nigerians “should not buy into the myth of some cabal at work. Dwelling in empty speculation on the existence of some mythic cabal is not what the country needs at present. From what I can see, the President remains at the helm and his policies are being implemented.”
In another breath however, Tinubu, the foremost Southwest political leader who is believed to have been given the short end of the stick after a victory in which he was a major contributor, confirmed that there are indeed those who are deliberately causing division among the allies that made the APC government possible.
He said, “By fomenting animosity among groups that have before now been allied, those who hold to the bankrupt politics of yesterday seek to thwart the President’s mission while claiming to support him. “Those who truly care about the President and the important work he must still do should not allow themselves to become the unwitting tools of these regressive forces.”
But many analysts are of the opinion that the Southwest power bloc is only concerned about the safety of Osinbajo and his guaranteed constitutional relevance in the face of Buhari’s obvious incapacity to discharge his functions as president while those within the Abuja power circle are suspected to be playing a game that would let them retain the levers of power in whatever circumstance.
While the games of suspicions go on within the government and the APC, the current issues of the president’s letter appear to have been settled in favour of the constitution as declared by the Senate President.
Addressing reporters after yesterday’s Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by Osinbajo, Information Minister, Lai Muhammed said the debate over the president’s letter was a needless distraction. According to him, “the operative word is Section 145 of the constitution which the president has already referred to.”