‘How Senate saved Nigeria from constitutional crisis’

By Joseph Onyekwere (Lagos) and Terhemba Daka (Abuja)   |   11 May 2017   |   4:34 am  

Buhari had in his correspondence to the upper chamber of the National Assembly last Sunday informed the chamber that he was heading for another medical vacation in London, the United Kingdom.

Controversy a needless distraction, says govt

By ignoring the content of President Muhammadu Buhari’s letter intimating it that the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, would be “co-coordinating the affairs of government” in his absence and subsequently declaring the number two citizen as Acting President, the Senate has saved the country from a major constitutional crisis, lawyers say.

In deference to Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), Buhari had in his correspondence to the upper chamber of the National Assembly last Sunday informed the chamber that he was heading for another medical vacation in London, the United Kingdom.

Essentially, the constitutional provision under reference only recognises an acting president. So, the action of the presidency created tension in the polity and further fuelled the insinuation that a cabal was hell-bent on preventing Osinbajo from effectively holding forte for his principal.

Stakeholders note that the federal lawmakers saved the nation from a repeat of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua saga where politicians were falling over themselves to call the shot at the topmost echelon of government.

However, ‎the Federal Government has described the uproar as “a needless controversy.” It said the arguments over the content of the president’s correspondence were “just a distraction,” urging Nigerians not to allow themselves to be swayed.

Fielding questions over the status of Acting President Yemi Osinbajo after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting yesterday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, told State House correspondents “it is a needless controversy. It is just a distraction. The sentence opened with ‘in compliance with Section 145(1)’. Any other word used is not relevant.”

The latest letter makes it four of such since his inauguration on May 29, 2015. In a January 2017 correspondence to the Senate on this same health issue, Buhari had stated that his deputy was to “perform the functions of his office”, but the language changed this time raising the suspicion that a clique in Aso Rock may have perfected a plan to hijack the reins of power in his absence.

The views of some legal practitioners were sought on the development. A Port Harcourt-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Beluolisa Nwofor, admitted that a major constitutional crisis was averted. He recalled the Yar’Adua incident where former President Goodluck Jonathan was fought by a powerful cabal bent on thwarting his ascension following almost a similar scenario. He noted that the development threw the entire nation into an avoidable chaos.

His words: “It is not a good thing to try to circumvent the constitution. The law is very clear on that. In the absence of the president, the vice president acts. You cannot say it is a coordinating president because those words are not in the constitution. You cannot import things that are not there. So, the Senate acted very highly.”

Another senior lawyer, Chief Niyi Akintola (SAN) described the decision of the chamber as unassailable. He said: “The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is very clear on this issue. There is no provision for coordinator in our constitution but what we have therein is ‘Vice President’, ‘Acting President’ and ‘President’. Therefore, the position of the Senate on the issue is unassailable.”

Stating that the lawmakers’ stance was in order, an Abuja lawyer, Abubakar Sani, contended that the president’s letter could not override the constitution because it is supreme.

“The controversy is unnecessary. The language used by President Buhari in the letter is irrelevant. The provisions of Section 145(1) of the Constitution will govern and they are very clear about the designation and functions of the vice president. In the circumstance, he becomes the acting president,” he added.

Corroborating his colleagues, Chief Bolaji Ayorinde (SAN) said the wordings of the letter were irrelevant. He noted that the law actually holds sway. The letter, Ayorinde stated, was just information that under the section in question, someone is at home to work in his place. He noted that it could have only be a serious controversy if the president had not cited the provision in his correspondence.

Former secretary of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Emeka Odogbolu, in the same vein commended the Senate and argued that there was no issue since the president’s letter referred to section 145.

He said: “The implication of that section leaves the Senate with no other conclusion than to arrive at the conclusion it got to yesterday. And that section does not describe the form of the letter but says once a letter is transmitted, talking about the president’s inability to act, the vice becomes the acting president. It is not within the powers of the president to do otherwise. Once he invokes section 145, the inescapable conclusion is that the vice president becomes the acting president, irrespective of whatever the content of his letter is. So, the Senate did what is right and the presidency has no choice over it. The senate’s action is very commendable!”

To former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), the argument about the wordings of the letter was a distraction by politicians.
“The nomenclature used by the president to describe his deputy does not matter. What matters to the average long-suffering Nigerian is good governance. Will the Acting President create jobs, provide water, roads, electricity, food, etc? This is what is important,” he stated.

Another legal practitioner, Mr. Olu Daramola (SAN), said by referring specifically to the section, the clear intention of Buhari was that the vice president assumes office as acting president.

“Therefore, the word coordinator has not in any way whittled down the power of the vice president to exercise the powers of the president,” he noted. But Lagos lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, held that the letter was not in line with constitutional provisions.

He argued: ‘’The constitutionally created office of acting president has been circumscribed by the president,” maintaining that the Senate lacked the power to pronounce Osinbajo as acting president without a resolution of both chambers of the National Assembly.

According to him, the implication of the correspondence is that the occupant cannot make appointments or sack while the president is away. “He cannot discipline any erring minister and his powers are limited in policy decisions as a coordinator of government,” Adegboruwa added.



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