The extra-constitutional elephant in the room
Nigeria recently underwent what I like to call a constitutional crisis of clarity. The President left the country on yet another medical holiday and sent the required letter to the National Assembly. In spite of the clear wording of the constitution on what happens on receipt of the letter (i.e. the Vice-President becoming Acting President until the President sends another letter informing the legislature of his resumption), mischief makers pounced on the phrase “coordinating the activities of government” and suggested that the powers of office were yet to fully vest in the now Acting President.
It is probably a carryover from the long, dark days of military rule that so many people gave more weight to the president’s letter than to the constitution. The military president was supreme, so people still expect the civilian president to be supreme, not the constitution. One is of course not unmindful of the political subtext to the legal powers that the Acting President has. For, while the constitution says the Acting President shall discharge the functions of the President’s office until the President returns, there is the question of the limits beyond which there will be no political support for his actions; will he, for example, be able to fire the suspended Secretary to the Federal Government if indicted by the investigation into the alleged mismanagement of IDP funds? Or is this, politically at least, a matter that only the substantive president can attend to?
This raises again the question previously asked by this writer, of just how long the Acting President scenario can continue, especially if the result is a lame duck at the helm of affairs. There is no indication of when President Buhari will return from his medical leave – there is as yet no clarification on what he is receiving treatment for or the prognosis over the remainder of his term of office. Will he continue to have periods of convalescence quickly followed by return trips to the UK for subsequent rounds of tests and treatments?
Many will contend, as the Arewa Consultative Forum is reported to have very recently done, that there is an Acting President in place and that concerns around the President’s health or fitness to complete the remaining 2 years of his tenure are misplaced. The regional considerations underpinning this position are understandable. Our political system assigns a higher priority to the origins of office holders than to their competence. Indeed, the noises from the president’s region of origin are that if he is unable to contest for re-election in 2019, the presidency must be ceded to another person of similar origins, ostensibly to complete the 8-year period to which the region is entitled.
The circumstances are similar to the Yar’Adua/Goodluck succession and highlight the absurdity of our apparent recognition of a zonal presidential system de facto, but not de jure. Perhaps it is time to write zoning into the constitution. Not for the benefits that it will bring to us ordinary people, for there are virtually are none whatsoever, but for the stability that avoiding these recurring crises will bring. Ordinary Nigerians thrive in spite of their public officials, not because of them and life is challenging enough already. When politicians stoke tensions, dither on policy and “heat up the polity” (to borrow their cliché), they create even larger obstacles for us to scale and cause us more hardship.
The danger of the current situation is that we may end up with 2 lame duck heads at the top of the Federal Executive, where so much power is concentrated. We have one who is too ill for the rigours of office and is subject to manipulation by the members of his inner circle and another who is effectively limited to window-dressing ‘executiveness’ for fear of rocking the boat too much in the absence of a substantive mandate. This means that many key issues, to the extent that they are ‘controversial’, may not be addressed in a timely fashion, nor turnkey policies effected if they stray too much from what is believed to be the vacationing President’s style or wishes.
Our developmental issues are too severe for 2 years to be frittered away in this manner, so let us write zoning into the constitution. Let us have a rotational presidency across the 6 geopolitical zones and agree on the order of rotation. Our ruling class has not risen above primordial sentiments and neither have we. There is no point pretending that we have – we are unlikely to do so for a long time to come. So, let us remove these distractions from focus, so that the politicians have less to waste everyone’s time arguing about, and they can focus on giving us electricity, schools, infrastructure (not wheelbarrows or plastic kegs) and healthcare. Or at least get out of our way and not destroy the individual gains we make with their perennial bickering over whose turn it is to preside over the sharing of the proceeds of oil from the Niger Delta.