THE drama, intrigue and uncertainty over President Umaru Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence from duty are unlikely to abate even with the latest judicial pronouncement.
On Wednesday, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Daniel Abutu, ruled that Vice President Goodluck Jonathan could exercise executive powers in the absence of the President. But in holding that the exercise of such powers could only derive from an assignment or delegation by the President to the Vice President, the Chief Judge ended up resolving nothing in the nerve-wracking matter of the President’s virtual abdication of his duties.
Since November 23 last year, President Yar’Adua has been in Saudi Arabia, for urgent medical attention. His absence has spawned rumours and elicited genuine concerns about the vacuum in power in the Executive branch of government. To rebut the intense rumours of his death, President Yar’Adua took the contemptuous step of addressing Nigerians via a two, or three-minute interview that was scarcely audible on the British Broadcasting Corporation radio service three days ago. He said he was recuperating.
So deep is the nation’s cynicism that there are doubts about the authenticity of the interview. Of course, such cynicism is understandable. It would have been otherwise, if the President was interviewed on video and aired by a Nigerian network station. The effort at managing the rumour-mill was ineffectual.
At a time of very critical national and international developments, the Nigerian government has barely had a voice, and even when it spoke it was barely authoritative, or not taken seriously. All this arose because President Yar’Adua clearly breached the provision of section 145 of the 1999 Constitution by which he would have transmitted to the Senate and the House of Representatives a written declaration of his inability to discharge functions of his office on health grounds. In that situation, the Vice President would become the Acting President.
The ruling by Justice Abutu addresses sections 5 and 148 of the Constitution, but not s. 145, which is a specific provision dealing with the temporary absence of the President. Thus, the power vacuum remains. The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is AWOL – absent without official leave. The President’s conduct is invariably a major threat to our collective security and democratic enterprise. In any eventuality, the country has no Commander-in-Chief, a perilous situation that can be readily exploited.
Many Nigerians and the world at large are at a loss just why President Yar’Adua and his clique of advisers and handlers are mismanaging an otherwise straight-forward process. They have turned the President’s ill-health into a national affliction, as though the country could not move on without its ailing President. We wish him speedy recovery and there are many more well-wishers out there. But the risk is palpable that President Yar’Adua is losing the sympathy and goodwill of the people.
The Presidency is not a personal enterprise. The mandate which President Yar’Adua received in the April 2007 elections, flawed as they were, was on the basis of a joint ticket with the Vice President. And the latter office was created and specially provided for, to take care of situations such as the country now finds itself.
Perhaps without meaning to, President Yar’Adua’s conduct of not handing over to the Vice President makes the insinuation inevitable that he is spiteful of his deputy. In some other quarters, it has also raised serious concerns about ethnic fissures. And yet, infirm as he is, if President Yar’Adua had handed over to his deputy, the former would lose neither perk nor privilege. Nor, would power be deemed to have slipped from the North, where Yar’Adua hails from, to the South, which is the incumbent Vice President’s half of the country.
Nigeria is floundering, and the world is not taking us seriously. It is this grim realisation that has informed the number of dramatic measures seen so far this week. On Tuesday, prominent civil society figures including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka held peaceful rallies in Abuja, and then marched on the National Assembly, demanding positive action to arrest the drift, by ensuring that the Executive branch has teeth and muscle.
Unfortunately, the response of both the Senate and the House of Representatives are potentially unhelpful. By inviting the Secretary to the Government of the Federation to brief it on the state of health of the ailing President, the Senate created the laughable impression that it is not fully apprised of President Yar’Adua’s absence for more than seven weeks, without notice, but with deleterious effects on the polity.
On the other hand, the House of Representatives should perish the thought of sending some of its members on a mission to Saudi Arabia, to ascertain the true health status of the President. It is a potentially wasteful trip that is unlikely to yield any information or knowledge better than what can be assumed in the absence of a cogent medical bulletin. Doctors in Saudi Arabia cannot be compelled to release information on the President. The latter, in the BBC interview, which yielded little assurance, says he will return upon certification by the doctors. Until then, the country has to move on.
What is happening now provides a unique opportunity for Nigeria to reassert its constitutional democracy, or to be trod underfoot by monarchical pretensions. At the beginning of his presidency, Yar’Adua proclaimed himself the “servant-leader”. Let him serve the people through the Constitution. Let him lead by example that is grounded in the supreme law of the land. Nigeria is in the lurch and President Yar’Adua has a number of options. One, he should board a plane and return immediately to his duties, whether he is well or unwell.
Or, two, he should communicate forthwith to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, stating his inability to discharge his duties, and thus formally vesting the Vice President as Acting President – until he, Yar’Adua, is well enough to resume his duties as President. Or, three, because of the recurrent bout of ill-health, which conveys the distinct impression that he is not just sick but sickly and may therefore suffer a relapse as has happened since 2007, President Yar’Adua should spare the nation further agony and anxiety. He should simply resign. Failing that, the Senate should weigh the country’s interest as overriding, and take such actions as advised by the constitution.