Buhari’s letter: Creating a Constitutional crisis where there is none

By: Faeren Kuanum Terrence

The wordings of the letter conveying President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to travel to the Uk for medical treatment has sparked a controversy.

From fears that the president may sneak out of the country without informing the National Assembly, the emanating issue after the president has observed all the processes for him to proceed on the medical vacation including transmitting a letter to the National Assembly as well as informing the citizenry has transmuted into a hullabaloo on the literal meaning of a certain phrase in the letter.

The angst has to do with the aspect of the letter which says the vice president will coordinate the activities of the government while the president is away.

And for this, all manners of interpretations have emerged to the extent that some have called on the president to resign saying he has by that comment breached the Nigerian Constitution and (you won’t believe this) annulled the office of the vice president.

Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a lawyer, even suggested that the use of the phrase constitutes immense damage to the Constitution and requires a no less drastic measure as commencing impeachment proceedings against the president for the infraction to be addressed.

‎He says this is because the function of a coordinator of government activities does not equal that of an acting president in that the former is a person of equal status with others, do cannot make appointments or sack anybody while the President is away, cannot discipline any erring minister, is limited in policy decisions, and “has no power of control over the ‘Cabal’ to whom the president has handed over power, albeit illegally.”

“In all, he says, “the National Assembly should commence impeachment proceedings against the President for gross misconduct.”

But the lawyer, to paraphrase a Bible passage, can be said to be exhibiting zeal without adequate knowledge on the subject matter.

A careful and disinterested look at the letter would reveal  both the zeal and lack of depth to the interpretation given.

This is what the letter says, ” In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution  (as amended) I wish to inform the Distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London. The length of my stay will be determined by the doctor’s advice.  While I am away,  the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the Government.”

We can see clearly that even from the opening phrase of the letter, the President makes no pretense about his resolve to abide by Constitutional provisions and had even made the point that his actions are guided strictly by that provision.

If the president had intended to be dubious, nebulous or evasive as is being insinuated in the message he intended to convey, he would have known better than to make the Constitution his guide and would have completely left out constitutional provisions in the letter since he is not in any way compelled to do so.

It is amazing how a clear matter-of – fact case of respect for the rule of law is now being twisted to look otherwise just to score a political point.

Sections 145 which the president cited states thus:  ‘Whenever the President is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, he shall transmit a written declaration to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to that effect, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, the Vice President SHALL perform the functions of the President as Acting President.’‎

The phrase which caused the uproar should therefore not have done so as the writer of the letter had made it clear where he derives his powers from to so act and even if he by default goes ahead to say anything to the contrary he should simply have been ignored as he cannot approbate and reprobate at the same time.

But that is not even the case here as the constitutional provision which the president relied on to go on medical provision cannot be exercised in part. So, for anybody to input meaning that goes against the spirit and wording of the letter is outright mischievous.

Even if one agrees without conceding that the President had not expressly stated that the vice president should step forth and run the affairs of the country as ‘acting president’, how does that amount to a declaration that the office of the vice president is no more?

The farthest this line of argument would have been stretched was to have said that he continues in his role ‎as vice even in the absence of the president,  the added non existent  implication is therefore puerile and without legal basis.

‎This leads to the issue of calling on the National Assembly to commence impeachment proceeding on the president for alleged gross misconduct.

The truth is that while the interpretation of gross misconduct is inelastic, the framers of the Constitution did not intend it as a joke or a tool for use by mischief makers like Adegboruwa and his cohorts want to have us believe .

‘Gross’ as the word connotes here is the qualifier that magnifies the misdeed to the proportion intended by the framers of the Constitution which does not exist here. And in this case, even if the letter could be said to have shied away from addressing the VP as acting president, pray, where is the gross misconduct here?

The mere transmission of a letter to the National Assembly to intimate it of the president’s intention to travel and the recourse to a constitutional provision in the same letter, is enough proof that the president respects the Constitution and is well aware of the demand when he is not available.

If any one was in doubt, the best thing to have done was to have cross checked the wording of the section of the Constitution cited and hold the President to account on that basis if and when he goes against that provision.

Looking for loopholes in areas where the weight of the law would suffice is like saying that the letter by the president carries more weight  than the Constitution.

‎But every lawyer knows that even where there is that intent and such comes into conflict with the ground norm,  it is the Constitution that holds sway.

It is therefore assumed that by citing section 145, the president has done the appropriate thing which in this case is the recognition of the vice president as the acting president so the issue of whether he can sack or appoint anybody does not arise. He needs not sack anyone except some people are planning  to sack members of the Federal Executive Council to perfect another sinister agenda.

If a president dies for example, it does not matter whether he stated when he was alive that the vice president should take over from him or not as the Constitution has made that explicitly clear who should take over

The same applies to the current situation where the President has to be away. One wonders what the hoopla is all about then.‎

At this juncture, one can assure all concerned that there is no constitutional crisis in the country.  It is those that are out to make political capital out of the current situation that are seeing a constitutional crisis when there is none.

So the call on the National Assembly to reject the President’s letter does not arise. If anything, it would even create more chaos than the storm in a tea cup interest the letter is generating now because if that happens, it would be assumed that the President had travelled and left the country without transmitting a letter to the national Assembly which will set the tone for a constitutional crisis the end of which no one can tell.

Kuanum is a forensic expert and assessor with the Global Amnesty Watch Foundation, contributed this piece from Lagos.


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