By Jide Akintunde for Financial Nigeria
After spending 40 days on medical vacation to the United Kingdom, as of February 28th, the date for the return of President Muhammadu Buhari remained uncertain. Indeed, his sojourn in the UK was ill-defined from start. In his constitutionally-mandated letter to the Senate President Bukola Saraki and House of Representatives Speaker Yakubu Dogara, informing them about the trip, Buhari said he was leaving for 10 days. But between Thursday, 19th January when he departed and Monday, 6th February, the date he said he would resume work, was 11 week days.
Although this discrepancy has hardly been recognised in public commentary, the original duration of President Buhari’s vacation serves as the preface to the confusions about his trip. The true state of his health has not been publicly declared, and his absence has left a power vacuum. According to the constitution of the Federal Republic, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo can act as president until Buhari’s return. However, the ability of Osinbajo to function as Acting President is subject to political intrigues and a lot of self-restraint.
President Buhari stated in his letter that he was proceeding on a “short leave” as part of his annual vacation. While in the UK, he would “undergo routine medical check-ups.” But a sense of medical emergency was conveyed by his hurried departure on Thursday, instead of a day later – which would have brought the duration of his vacation in consonance with his resumption date.
Two days after Buhari failed to return to Abuja to resume work as scheduled, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said in a statement to the media that the president was “well, hale and hearty.” But because of the reputation of Mr. Mohammed, his assurance on Buhari’s health quickly translated to the very opposite meaning. Fake news about Buhari became rife. He was proclaimed dead or incapacitated on social media. The wild denunciation of Mr. Mohammed’s “alternative facts” included his misnaming, yet again, as “Lie Mohammed” instead of Lai Mohammed, in a resurgence of his reputation as a master propagandist.
The confusion about Buhari’s health is part of the systematic demystification of the president who has continued to act remarkably different from what he was reputed for before he assumed office in May 2015. He was held to be an honest man. But since his inauguration, he has made an inconclusive declaration of his assets. His anticorruption campaign has victimised opposition figures, while previously indicted public officials – who have yet to clear their names – are ranking members of his cabinet. No reason other than his need for an extensive healthcare – which may include a lengthy period of recuperation and review – can explain, or justify, the indefinite extension of his holiday.
But if we accept official information on his wellness, using foreign medical service to access “routine medical check-ups” means President Buhari is pandering to privilege. This is also a contradiction of the image he had cut, before becoming president, as a man completely comfortable with modesty. A hefty bill for the treatment of the president is expected to be paid from the public treasury. Also expected is that public disclosure of the amount would not be made. Most mindboggling is that in 2016, budgetary allocation of N3.87 billion was made for the State House Medical Centre. On 18th August, the Punch newspaper reported online that drugs and “essential facilities” were lacking in the clinic, which serves the president, the vice president, their families, staff and a handful of other privileged Nigerians. Little surprise, then, that the facilities there are unfit for “routine” medical investigations of a septuagenarian president.
These acts are accustomed in the standard play of the corrupt leaders President Buhari purports he is different from. His anti-corruption is thus smoke and mirrors. The country is experiencing nothing close to public probity – or leadership by good personal example – as he promised during the campaign.
President Buhari fulfilled the constitutional requirement of transmitting a letter about his absence to the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives. This paved the way for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to function as Acting President, according to Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution.
While there is no statutory limitation to the presidential power exercisable by the Acting President, the notion that he can in reality exercise full presidential powers is dubitable. Nigeria’s democracy seems to require the allocation of top political offices among the geopolitical zones to maintain a delicate balance of power. Further to that, what initially was the internal arrangement of the Peoples’ Democratic Party to rotate the award of its presidential ticket on a rotational basis between the South and the North has been adopted by the ruling All Progressives Congress. These imperatives create untenable situations when the vice president from the South has to act in lieu of the president from the North; and reasonably vice versa.
A team of loyalists and the kitchen cabinet of President Umaru Yar’Adua did all they could to frustrate then-Acting President Goodluck Jonathan from exercising presidential powers when Yar’Adua was incapacitated by ill-health in 2010. President Buhari has his own appointed cabal who delineates consequential presidential power that can be exercised by Acting President Osinbajo. For instance, when US President Donald Trump called to speak with Nigerian president on February 13th, the call was routed to London for President Buhari to speak with him. Very regularly, state matters have been taken to him to decide in London, whereas the Acting President is constitutionally mandated to act in his place.
The Acting President has to exercise self-restraint in carrying out functions of the president. Given that his decisions can be easily reversed by the president when he returns to office, the incentive to act is removed. Even as President Buhari was reportedly set to reshuffle his cabinet in December, and with hundreds of executive and board positions in public institutions remaining vacant, Osinbajo will refrain from completing the appointments that the Nigerian president uses to emplace his loyalists who would be in the system after his presidency. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan eventually sacked the cabinet appointed by President Yar’Adua in March 2010 after months of intrigue and only when it became apparent that Yar’Adua’s condition was irreversible.
The constitutional provision for Acting President is half-hearted. Although the constitution is clear about the transfer of presidential powers to Osinbajo, he will continue in the physical office of the Vice President. But power and office have to unify for either to be effective.
Nigeria will probably not have effective governance at presidential level until May 2019. There is no constitutional limit to how long Buhari can remain as president without the assurance of good health. As long as he is alive and refuses to resign, Osinbajo will remain Acting President with little space to exercise presidential power. This scenario is unchanged by Buhari’s return from London but without the physical fitness to discharge the functions of the president. And in any case, it is now a matter of months before electoral politics and campaign for the 2019 general election kick in. The norm is that governance takes the back seat during this period.
Addressing the lacuna
The lacuna that has been created by Buhari’s absence makes little difference, because of the inaction that has characterised his administration. He delayed the appointment of his ministers for more than four months when he assumed office in May 2015. In 21 months of being president, he has visited very few states, and he has acted grossly insufficiently in addressing both economic and social problems that have bedevilled the country. He has engaged from a distance both the Niger Delta militancy crisis – which last year reduced oil output from around two million barrels per day to one million, exacerbating the impact of low oil prices on the economy – and the agitation for a separate sovereign state of Biafra.
It speaks to the lack of vigilance by the electorate for two of the last three presidents to become infirm within two years of assuming office. President Yar’Adua died in office. The prayers of the nation are for President Buhari to recover and return to office. But to forestall recurrence of these experiences so often, a constitutional amendment, which makes it mandatory for a presidential candidate to publicly declare his or her recent health report before the election, should be enacted. Falsification of the report should be an automatic ground for impeachment of the president.
However, the task of preventing a presidential power lacuna should not be left entirely to the legislative arm of government. The civil society should begin to make moves for major debates by the key presidential candidates as part and parcel of the campaign season. Such debates – at least two of them – should be exerting enough to expose both intellectual and physical inadequacies of the candidates. The electorates should also reject candidates who cannot campaign by themselves but rely on surrogates to campaign on their behalf like it happened with Yar’Adua in 2007 and Buhari in 2015.
It should be an embarrassment to the electorate that two of the last three presidents developed health issues that prevented them from performing their presidential functions when the causes were not accidents. The electorate bears the brunt of such power vacuum and should be more vigilant during future elections.
Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria. He is also Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum. Article was first published in the March 2017 edition of Financial Nigeria magazine.