Needless Hullabaloo Over Buhari’s Letter – By Ehichioya Ezomon


PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s latest letter to the National Assembly, intimating it of his desire to proceed on medical vacation in London, has added yet another word, “coordinate,” to the political lexicon of Nigeria. That’s on the lighter side.

On the flip side, the letter threatened a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the political debacle of 2010. But for the quick intervention of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, it would have been out of control.

An obviously innocuous letter was misconstrued as downgrading the office of the Vice President to that of a “coordinator.”

The letter reads: “In compliance with Section 145(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), I wish to inform the distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London. The length of my stay will be determined by the doctors’ advice.

“While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the Government. Please accept, the distinguished Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

Because of the word, “coordinate,” the letter soon took on a life of its own, threatening to lead the nation down the bumpy road of 2010 when the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua was ill abroad and some unnamed “cabal” reportedly manipulated the system to prevent then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from assuming the office of Acting President.

President Buhari, after his return from medical leave on March 10, confessed that he had never been so sick, and that he needed more rest and a follow-up examination in the weeks ahead.

  In the intervening period, he skipped several public engagements, especially the weekly meetings of the Executive Council of the Federation (FEC). This prompted the calls for him to go back to London for more medical attention.
  Therefore, on May 5, the President wrote a letter to the leadership of the National Assembly to that effect: an indefinite medical leave. It happened that in the letter, Buhari semantically deviated from his previous letters on the same subject matter.
  Whereas, in previous letters of June 6, 2016 and January 17, 2017, respectively, as reported by the online news portal, PREMIUM TIMES, the President indicated that, “While I am away, the Vice President will perform the functions of my office,” the contentious letter states that, “While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the Government.”
  This set off a chain of reactions, first in the Senate where the letter was questioned, and then in the public domain where many called for Buhari’s head either through resignation or impeachment for alleged “gross misconduct” in breach of the Constitution.

Commenting on letter read at plenary by Senate President Saraki, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa raised a point of order, noting that Buhari did not name Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as Acting President.

Suing for the letter to be returned, Ohuabunwa said: “Mr. President, I don’t think in our Constitution, we have anything like ‘coordinating president’ or ‘coordinating vice president.’ It is either you are Vice President or you are Acting President and any letter (to that effect) should be unambiguous and very clear.”

However, the Majority Leader, Ahmad Lawan, rose in defence of Buhari as having fulfilled the provisions of Section 145 of the Constitution (which he read), by transmitting the letter.

That section states: “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 unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them the written declaration to the contrary, such function shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.”

According to Lawan: “Any other word in this letter or indeed anywhere else is irrelevant. I, therefore, feel that Mr. President has done what the Constitution requires him to do and I urge this Senate not to go ahead to discuss this because it is not an issue. We have the budget and so many other serious issues for us to discuss and Nigerians are waiting.”

At that stage, Senate President Saraki intervened, and ruled Ohuabunwa out of order.

“I think it is a very clear issue and what we should be guided by is the Constitution, and I think that it is clear. The letter has referred to the Constitution (Section 145) and there is no ambiguity in the Constitution. So, I don’t think there is any issue there. Let me first rule you out of order, Senator Mao,” Saraki said.

This intervention saved the day for Nigeria, and prevented another constitutional crisis such as ended in 2010 in the adoption of the principle of “doctrine of necessity.”

The question is: What was the rationale for Senator Ohuabunwa’s “point of order” in the face of President Buhari’s recourse to Section 145 of the Constitution in the letter to the National Assembly?

If his intention was altruistic – genuinely borne out of patriotic fervour – he, nonetheless, never thought through its unintended consequences.

Are we not allowing emotions to rule our sense of reasoning, understanding and judgment, and our thoughts beclouded by narrow interests?

To “coordinate” (verb and noun), which Senator Ohuabunwa quarreled with, means (1) “to organize the different parts of an activity and the people involved in it so that it works well,” and (2) “to make the different parts of your body work well together.”

As rightly argued by Lagos lawyer and varsity lecturer, Mr. Shakiru Eletu, what’s the duty of President Buhari (or any other president) if not “to coordinate the affairs (activities) of the government?”

In an interview with Vanguard, Eletu, who described the debate over the letter as “unproductive controversy,” said: “What the president does normally is to coordinate affairs of government and, if he is passing such responsibilities over to his vice, it means he is handing power over to him.”

Interestingly, since Acting President Osinbajo has been imbued with the power to coordinate the activities of the government, he has assumed a de facto status, dropping any inhibition to the performance of his duties.

For instance, when Donald J Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, 2016, the lot fell on President Buhari, who was still in London on medical vacation, to congratulate him and subsequently had a one-on-one telephone conversation with him.

But since Mr. Buhari asked Mr. Osinbajo to “coordinate the activities of the Government,” the Vice President, as Acting President, had the honour to congratulate newly elected president of France, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, on his victory at the May 7 poll.

Apart from that, Osinbajo has also restored the commencement time for FEC meetings to 10am, which was changed to 11am by President Buhari after his return from London on March 10.

Do the critics of the Buhari letter thus discern the difference between “acting in my office” and to “coordinate the activities of the Government?”

But while we knock heads over the letter, Acting President Osinbajo has moved on, testifying to his closeness to the President when he visited Katsina last week and had audience with the Emir of Katsina, Abdulmumin Usman.

His words: “I feel very much at home in Katsina. More so, because this is the state of the President who has taken me as a brother. In fact, the President has taken me as a son in the way he treats me.

“The amount of responsibilities President Buhari has given me shows he seriously believes we can live together as brothers.”

Can we dispute this testimony? Let’s move on, too!


Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.



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