If you believe in the evolution theory, you are most likely to believe that the loud calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to “return or resign” happened just like that. You would believe the campaign was a naturally occurring phenomenon generated from a single “cell” of discontent before acquiring a life of its own. But if you believe in creationism and intelligent design, you would believe the campaign was carefully put together, well funded and well executed to achieve other purposes than publicly stated. You would argue that the campaign is by no means an accident. As the Igbo would say, when you see an antelope dancing by the roadside, the drummer is somewhere in the bush.
In truth, the only option being presented to Buhari was resignation. To ask somebody who was under doctors’ care to abandon the treatment table and rush back to office is quite similar to asking him to commit suicide. Buhari had said, weeks ago, that he was feeling well and eager to return home but he would have to take instructions from his doctors. If his doctors said don’t return and the campaigners said he should return or resign, you could argue convincingly that he was given only one option — resignation. Convinced that Buhari was not healthy enough to return, the campaigners were indirectly asking him to vacate power.
Now that Buhari has returned (to the disappointment of many), I can bet that the campaign will not stop. It is a case of “return and resign” not “return or resign”. Why should Buhari resign? He is too sick to lead Nigeria, I am told, and since Nigeria is bigger than him, he should put the country’s interest first and just resign and return to Daura, his hometown, for goodness sake. His sickness, I am further told, has stalled the progress of Nigeria. Someone even said Nigerian institutions are crumbling because of Buhari’s absence, and there was this growing narrative of a cabal running rings round Acting President Yemi Osinbajo such that he was unable to get things done.
On Twitter Nigeriana, we were made to believe that the country was at a “standstill” because of Buhari’s sick leave. Not only did government grind to a complete halt, everything went haywire. No single major decision could be taken by Osinbajo in Buhari’s absence, they said. All the things that required the attention of Buhari since he left Nigeria on May 7, 2017 allegedly remained pending. Nigeria was about to fall to pieces. There was only one question I kept asking those propounding the “standstill” and “cabal” theory: what single directive has Osinbajo issued in Buhari’s absence that has not been obeyed? Nobody told me. I don’t know why people were hiding this from me.
By virtue of section 145 of the amended 1999 constitution, the acting president is empowered to exercise ALL presidential powers. Osinbajo had full authority. That is the law. It is not a favour. It is not a suggestion. And the Osinbajo that I observed was exercising these powers. He signed executive orders that were carried out by agencies of government. He signed bills into laws and the laws are legitimate, legal and constitutional — to adopt the verbosity of the “learned profession”. He swore in ministers and assigned portfolios to them. He made appointments into agencies and nobody stopped him. This is not how power vacuum works. Correct me if I’m wrong.
What’s more, he appointed permanent secretaries and swore them in. Nobody stopped him. On top of it all, he ordered service chiefs to relocate to Borno state and I didn’t hear that they disobeyed. So where is the famous power vacuum? Okay, maybe I missed the point. Someone asked me the other day if I sincerely thought Osinbajo could reshuffle the cabinet and appoint new ministers. I said yes. He said: “Simon, you are deceiving yourself. Keep lying to yourself.” He didn’t know that I was not deceiving myself: Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as acting president in February 2010, actually reshuffled the cabinet. But asking Osinbajo to dissolve the cabinet just to prove he has the power is nonsense.
Let me now explain the way I understand power vacuum. In November 2009, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was flown out of the country on medical emergency. He did not transfer power to Jonathan, his VP. On previous medical trips, he did not transfer power either. In fact, his adviser on national assembly matters, Senator Mohammed Abba Aji, had told PUNCH, in an interview published on January 29, 2009, that the president “is not required by the constitution to write the Senate… The President is elected for a four-year term that includes every second of every minute of that period, whether he is asleep, on vacation, on leave or on a trip to the moon”.
As a result, Jonathan could not sign the 2010 appropriation bill into law. After a prolonged drama, some people travelled with the budget to Saudi Arabia and returned to announce that Yar’Adua had signed it. As the tenure of Chief Justice Idris Kutigi was coming to an end in December 2009, there was confusion on who would swear in his successor, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu. Jonathan believed it would be illegal for him to do so and did not want it challenged in a court of law. Kutigi had to swear in his successor. That is what you call power vacuum. We witnessed it first-hand as Jonathan declined to take so many critical decisions because power was not transferred to him.
Compare and contrast that experience with what obtained when Buhari was in the UK and you would have to wonder where the “standstill” idea was coming from. Buhari did a proper letter to the national assembly and said he did not know when he would return. What else do we want? Buhari has been accused of so many things — but I have never heard anyone accuse him of not delegating power to his deputy. In fact, his weakness, we were once told, is that he over-delegates to his deputy. And if Osinbajo had to consult with Buhari over some key decisions, how is that a problem? Were they at war? Are they rivals or partners-in-progress?
For the record, I was not against the “Resume or Resign” agitations. People have a right to voice their opinions. Nobody should be persecuted or molested for their views. It was wrong for the police to attack them. And the comical pro-Buhari protests were childish. Even a fresh idiot could see through the charade. But even if the “resign” movement was playing a political game, political games are legitimate in democracy. If PDP supporters are asking Buhari to resign, that is allowed in politics. It is no treason. APC came to power by demonising PDP, and PDP has every right to play a return match. APC is only getting a taste of its own medicine.
Meanwhile, if those under fire for corruption are joining the campaign to force Buhari out, that is also okay. Who wants to go to jail? If those who have lost out in the political equation want to see Buhari’s back, that is enlightened self-interest. Perfectly in order. My amusement, though, is that many people were tricked into the “resign” game without understanding that there is another game within the game. They thought it is a case of evolution. No, it is intelligent design. There is a growing coalition against Buhari for different motives. Buhari has stepped on too many powerful toes and forced too many powerful people to vomit what they illegally swallowed. It’s payback time.
The major lesson in this saga, though, is the issue of absentee presidents. How long can a president be away? The Yar’Adua impasse led to the amendment of the constitution: even if the president does not transfer power, the vice-president automatically becomes acting president after 21 days. The constitution cannot envisage everything, but experiences such as this can help in making the laws better. With the Buhari experience, I think our democracy is growing. The nation kept functioning in the president’s absence. Osinbajo did a good job. Buhari, in the national interest and for the sake of his health, should continue to give his VP a free a hand. Nigeria first, always.
By Simon Kolawole