- By Bolaji Awoniyi
Things do not appear normal in Aso Rock, Nigeria’s version of the United States White House; at least not from the standpoint of the critics of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Their allegation this time is that some kitchen cabinet members are out to downgrade Mr. Buhari’s deputy.
Recently the President transmitted a letter to the Senate informing them he was going for medical checkup, and in it said that his deputy, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo would “coordinate the activities of the government”, and not the recognized phrase “Act on my behalf” he once used.
The letter, dated May 5, 2017 was the third he would be sending to the National Assembly this year. The first was on January 18 and captioned ‘Vacation’. In it the president had written, “While I am away, the Vice President will perform the functions of my office.” The second letter which was dated February 5 said that, “the Vice-President will continue to act on my behalf”.
While the wordings of the two previous letters did not raise suspicion, it was that of the third wherein the phrase “coordinate” was used that did. Critics of President Buhari, while making reference to previous letters, said that the presidency’s use of the word “coordinate” was a way by which “the cabals” intended to undermine the Vice President, making him inactive while the President was away.
Senator Mao Ohuabunwa was first to object to the “ambiguity” in the wordings of the President’s letter. “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 should be unambiguous and very clear,” Ohuabunwa said during a sitting of the Senate.
Senate Leader Ahmed Lawan in defense of President Buhari disputed Ohuabunwa’s objection by citing Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution which says: “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.”
A former minister of information and one of the principal delegate to the Constitutional Drafting of the 1994 Constitutional Conference, Ikeobasi Mokelu told this magazine that President Buhari’s use of the word “coordinator” was “constitutionally correct” and that Ohuabunwa’s objection to it stemmed from a “lack of understanding of what the constitutional provisions are.”
Citing Section 148, subsection 2(b), Mokelu said “Acting President Yemi Osinbajo is completely in charge of the administration of this country, not only the supervisory role, but directing roles and that is what this Section 148, subsection 2(b) is emphasizing, and the President in his consciousness decided to delegate this power to him and this is the only time in this country that such delegation of power is happening. Buhari is a democrat to the core.”
The allegation that the cabal was trying to downgrade the Vice-President may not be unconnected to the rumor that the presidency was being run by this same cabal, whom it is said are President Buhari’s trusted loyalists. Mrs. Buhari had in an interview with the BBC accused the cabal of hijacking the government.
Also the question asked by the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir David Lawal (himself thought to be a member of the cabal) when informed of his suspension by the press, “Who is the presidency?” gave credence to the rumor of the presidency being run by a cabal.
It has not helped that statements on national issues coming from the presidency have been conflicting, a recent example being who assents to the 2017 budget. The fact that the presidency was considering sending the budget to London for President Buhari to sign suggested that even though the President had transferred power to his deputy, it remained unclear to some cabinet members whether Vice-President Osinbajo was in charge of the presidency or not.
Senior Special Assistant to President Buhari on National Assembly Matters, Mr. Ita Enang told a television interviewer on May 18 that the President would assent to the budget and Vice-President Osinbajo “will take it up from there.” According to Mr. Enang, “The 2017 budget will be transmitted to Mr. President and the President will assent to the budget.”
A news article quoted the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed as saying, “We don’t know who will sign the 2017 budget”. Later the spokesperson to Vice-President Osinbajo, Laolu Akande tweeted the following: “Just so we are clear: when the time comes, everything is set, and he is satisfied, Ag. President Yemi Osinbajo will assent to the 2017 Budget”.
Even though Mr. Mohammed’s office had come out to deny the statement credited to him, saying that the minister was misrepresented, the ministry’s defense left further room for doubt. According to the minister’s special adviser, Segun Adeyemi, what Mr. Mohammed said was that, “When it is transmitted to the presidency, the issue will be addressed.”
Since the President before traveling had transmitted a letter to the Senate informing it of his trip, in the process handing over the government to Mr. Osinbajo there should be no ambiguity over who assents to the budget. As it stands, Mr. Buhari ceases to perform the functions of the President, which now falls under the office of acting President Osinbajo to perform.
For clarity, Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution 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 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.”
If there were no confusion within the presidency as to who was in charge of the government, there wouldn’t have been conflicting reports on who assents to the 2017 budget and Mr. Mohammed’s answer when asked who signs the budget would not be “When it is transmitted to the presidency, the issue will be addressed.” He would have clearly stated, “The acting President”.
Presidency sources informed this magazine that the confusion within the villa over who’s in charge was as a result of attempts by members of the cabal to downgrade the powers of the Vice-President in President Buhari’s absence. The source said members of the cabal were startled by the impressive performance of the Vice-President the last time President Buhari was away.
Fearing to lose grip of the government, they had tried to scheme out Mr. Osinbajo, but the source said President Buhari who has always insisted on following the dictates of the law have refused to make it easy for the cabal, and always insists on handing over power to his deputy anytime he was traveling.
The source said that the cabal had made attempt to transmit the budget to President Buhari to assent to but that the President had refused and asked that it should be given to Mr. Osinbajo. The source said that it was because of the stance of President Buhari that Mr. Enang recanted his earlier statement that President Buhari, and not Vice-President Osinabjo would sign the budget.
Writing in the Vanguard, Levinus Nwabughiogu said that in Nigeria, “sitting presidents are not usually known to be generous transferers of the powers of their office to their deputies; instead, they choose to delegate such powers to their Chief of Staff or a “Kitchen Cabinet” Minister.”
The cordial relationship between President Buhari and Mr. Osinbajo is the opposite of the above description. Never has the President failed to hand over power to Mr. Osinbajo, and so it is very clear that acting President Osinbajo, and not any cabal, remains in charge of the government while the President is away.
This article was originally published in Montage Africa magazine