NEARLY a month of lull after his return from medical vacation to London on March 10, 2017, questions about President Muhammadu Buhari’s ill health resurfaced on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Abuja, and across the country, reviving imageries of him reportedly being vegetative, totally incapacitated, and even dead.
That day, the president was absent from the weekly meeting of the Executive Council of the Federation, commonly referred to as the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which he presides as the head of the Government of the Federation.
Accounts in the media say the council members, mainly Ministers of the Government, while expecting the president to come into the council chambers, were taken by surprise when the National Anthem, at the prompting of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, began to play.
As is normal in human endeavours, subordinates usually engage in banters and exchange of pleasantries before resumption of meetings, especially when the head of the gathering has yet to come in. And that was their past time that Wednesday.
Thus, the Anthem played, and immediate order and decorum restored, Prof. Osinbajo took over and presided at the meeting.
As the council members dispersed at the end of their deliberations, State House correspondents confronted the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, with two questions rolled into a single sentence: Where was President Buhari, and why did he not attend the FEC meeting? The follow-up question was equally probing: Had the president taken ill again?
You could imagine Mr. Mohammed, who may or may not have seen the president that day, figuring out what to tell the highly inquisitive reporters, who seemed only interested in Buhari’s health condition, and not what the FEC discussed and decided for the overall good of the polity.
It wasn’t surprising that the minister almost sounded apologetic, and repetitive in trying to explain why the president was not at the meeting.
Muhammed said: “Clearly, when we came in this morning, Mr. President was not in the chambers but the Vice President did preside over the council meeting. Understandably, that has sparked a lot of controversies and imputations in the mind of people.
“I just want to make this clear; Mr. President is in town. Mr. President is attending to other issues. Mr. President looked at the agenda (of the meeting); it was a very light agenda and decided that the Vice President should preside.
“It’s not unusual for the kind of interest that is shown, especially given the fact that Mr. President was away for a while on medical treatment. We are not surprised that people will be wondering, is he ill again?
“He is not ill, he is not sick. I am sure that later in the day ortomorrow morning, he will be back in the office. I just want to clear that misconception.”
It’s not compulsory for the president to attend all meetings of the FEC, and he doesn’t need to explain to the entire country, but perhaps, only to the FEC members, the reason for his absence.
Indeed, the 1999 Constitution (as amended) does not mandate the president to be present at every meeting of the FEC, nor place a burden on him to explain his absence at such meetings.
Section 148(2)(a-c) spells out the gathering, and the functions of the Executive Council of the Federation, as follows:
“(2) The President shall hold regular meetings with the Vice-President and all the Ministers of the Government of the Federation for the purposes of-
(a) determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies of the Government of the Federation;
(b) co-ordinating the activities of the President, the Vice-President and the Ministers of the Federation in the discharge of their executive responsibilities; and
(c) advising the President generally in the discharge of his executive functions other than those functions with respect to which he is required by this Constitution to seek the advice or act on the recommendation of any other person or body.”
Where in the above quoted Section 148 of the Constitution is it stated that the president must attend all meetings of the FEC, and when he’s unable to attend, he must give reasons for his absence?
It’s even a stretch to assume that all Ministers of the Government must attend the FEC meetings, as indicated in the Constitution in Section 148(2): “The President shall hold regular meetings with the Vice-President and all the Ministers of the Government of the Federation…”
This is not possible in any human affair, and certainly not in the FEC meetings, which we expect the president to always attend, and when he’s unable, he should offer reason(s) to us for his action.
Supposing the president was attending to other state matters of equal importance, at the same time that the FEC meeting is scheduled to hold, will he divide himself, or abandon the other engagement to be at the meeting?
That’s why the Constitution creates the office of the vice-president, who acts as head of government in the absence of the president. This situation played out very well during President Buhari’s medical trip to the United Kingdom in February/March – Prof. Osinbajo became the Acting President of the Federation.
Actually, the Information Minister made allusion to this scenario when fielding questions from the State House correspondents. According to him: “It is not unusual, even if Mr. President is hale and hearty and everything is going on well, for the VP to come and preside over meetings of the Federal Executive Council.
“The fact that Mr. President is not in the office does not mean that he is not working. I have just been told that the Secretary to the Government is already with him in the residence working. So, the fact that you did not see him in the office does not mean that he is not working at all.”
We shouldn’t expect President Buhari to be 100 percent fit from his undisclosed ailment. After all, he has signaled seeking further medical attention in the nearest future. Similarly, we shouldn’t revive past indiscretion of continuing to play up his indisposition whenever he’s absent from office or at public engagements.
Nonetheless, speculations about his health condition, and the interest or anxiety it creates in the minds of Nigerians will only albeit when he discloses the nature, and extent of its seriousness to the public. And it’s about time he did that!
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.