President Muhammadu Buhari. PHOTO: STATE HOUSE
Despite the hullaballoo about his vacation, President Muhammadu Buhari is not about to resume work soon. We are now in the unique era of an Acting President. So far since he started acting for the big man, there has been no great drama or earth-shaking upheaval. We are lucky, despite the economic downturn both the President and his deputy appear united in their quest to do a good job. There seem to be a perfect chemistry between the disciplined soldier and the ascetic professor of law. It does not mean that trouble may be far away. That depends mostly on how long the President is away from his job for the Power-Game has other actors who may not share the two men’s sentiments or have patience for the dictates of the Constitution.
It is always assumed that when the President is not around to exercise his functions, then the Vice-President becomes the acting President. However, when President Umar Yar’Adua became ill, we realised that the Vice-President cannot just walk into his office and assume duty. It was then the National Assembly under the leadership of the durable Senator David Mark (former governor, former minister and former exile) came up with the Doctrine of Necessity that allowed us to make Jonathan the Acting President with full powers. He did use it, making the scattering of the cabal his primary and immediate assignment. Luckily for us, the occasion of acting President Yemi Osinbajo has been less dramatic.
The position of deputy to the Head of Government was not formalised into the Nigerian system until the coming of General Murtala Muhammed in 1975. That year, it was announced that Muhammed was the Head of State and General Olusegun Obasanjo, who was given the post of Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, was his deputy. The attempt to create strict hierarchy within the junta became complicated when the Chief of Army Staff, Yakubu Danjuma, was promoted to the rank of a lieutenant general while the Minister of Defence, Ilya Bissala, remains a major-general. Theoretically, the armed forces were supposed to be under the purview of the Ministry of Defence with Bissala as the supervising minister. This palace rivalry was adduced as one of the reasons for the attempted coup of February 13, 1976 during which General Muhammed was killed. Bissala was later executed, along with other officers, for his alleged role in the botched coup.
However, when the Second Republic Constitution came into force in 1979, the position of Vice-President was clear. He was next in hierarchy, if not in power, to the President. However, as long as the President is alive and in good health, few people bother about the Vice-President.
Who was next in line was not always constitutionally clear during the First Republic. Originally, it was assumed that Muhammadu Ribadu, the Minister of Defence, was next in line to Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa. Ribadu was also deputy to Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the ruling Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, and Premier of Northern Nigeria. After the death of Ribadu, it was assumed that the new Minister of Defence was now the number two in the government. Then on January 15, 1966, the Prime-Minister was kidnapped from his residence in Lagos and there was a need for a new prime-minister.
In the wake of the coup, the remaining ministers met at the residence of the Minister of Defence in Doddan Barracks, Ikoyi. The British High Commissioner had sent a message that his government was ready to send troops to support the Nigerian government if there was a formal request from an acting Prime-Minister. The President of the Senate, Dr. Nwaifo Orizu who was supposed to formally appoint the acting Prime-Minister, did not do so. He was acting for the ceremonial President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was then on vacation in the Caribbean Islands. Without the emergence of an acting Prime-Minister, the rump of the Balewa cabinet formally handed over to the commander of the army, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, ushering in Nigeria’s first military government.
Like Tafawa-Balewa, Ironsi too never had a clear number two. So was Gowon, though Admiral Akinwale Wey, the commander of the Navy, was presumed to be number two. When Major-General Muhammadu Buhari became our military ruler in 1983, the new junta followed the example of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime and Tunde Idiagbon became the number two. However, the situation was to change again under General Ibrahim Babangida where Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, designated as number two, was however expected to remain only as a dignified valet. Ukiwe would not allow that and he gave way to Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, a naval officer who knew the virtue of silence. It was not surprising that Aikhomu was clearly upstaged by the devious General Sani Abacha who was to supplant the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan in 1993.
Being Number two to General Abacha was a risky promotion as General Oladipo Diya was to find out. He was later succeeded in that delicate office by General Abdulsalami Abubakar who ultimately succeeded Abacha. It was Abubakar who handed over to Obasanjo in 1999.
We need to be thankful to President Buhari for following the constitutionally laid down procedure of transmitting power to the Acting President. This is to show that our democracy is maturing and can withstand the test and turbulence of inclement weathers. It is also a confirmation that the President has infinite confidence in his deputy. I can just imagine what the scenario would have been if this were 2005 at the height of the bitter struggle at the Aso-Rock Villa between President Olusegun Obasanjo and Vice-President Atiku Abubakar.
I am not sure too if any governor has done this since 1999. Indeed, during the Second Republic, there were only two instances. In 1980, Governor Olabisi Onabanjo of Ogun State formally handed over power to his deputy governor, Chief Sesan Soluade. He was on admission at the Lagos State University, LUTH, for an operation. It was the same LUTH that admitted Chief Adekunle Ajasin, the governor of Ondo State for an operation in 1981. Ajasin was old and the Acting Governor, Chief Akin Omoboriowo was not in good term with his boss. Then rumours suddenly swept Akure, the Ondo State capital, that the old governor was dead and well-wishers trooped to Omoboriowo’s residence to congratulate him as the new governor. The deputy-governor was forced to come on the radio to debunk the rumour. It was one of the preludes to the 1983 bloody crisis in Ondo State.
Buhari is lucky that unlike Ajasin, he has developed a perfect rapport with his deputy. In Africa, that is not always the case for many presidents especially in the bye-gone era of the Africa Big Men when the president reigns for life. For them, nobody dare ask Kabiyesi when his tenure would end, or suggest that His Excellency has a deputy. We also know that Kabiyesi cannot go on leave nor can he be permitted to stay away from duty for a long period. He is regarded as super human and when he is ill; it is treated as a security matter.
Today, our Kabiyesi who lives in Aso Rock Villa is subject to the Constitution and we take him seriously when he says “I belong to everybody.” Buhari has shown he is human after all. Despite his heroic struggle for power and his great striving to improve the lots of his countrymen and women, not everyone is satisfied with him. On Monday February 6, there were demonstrations in several cities of Nigeria, including Lagos and Abuja, by angry citizens who are unhappy with his handling of the nation’s economy. What they are saying is that Buhari is our Kabiyesi who art in Aso Rock and we have a right to air our grievances about his policies. He is our Kabiyesi with a fixed tenure who is bound by the Constitution of a free and democratic society. He is the leader of the Republic.
In this moment of private anxiety over his health, we cannot but wish him well praying that Providence will grant him the favour to retire from that singular office and enjoy the bliss of confortable pension like some of his predecessors. But now, he is the President of the Republic and there is nothing wrong if his full health status is revealed to the public. After all, as Buhari primary employers, the citizens of Nigeria, deserve full disclosure.