— President Buhari’s letter to the Senate has opened a debate. Some persons are of the opinion that it wasn’t properly worded, that what the letter made the Vice President was a mere coordinator not an Acting President.
Is this true?
First, let’s look at President Buhari’s letter to the National Assembly.
“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. Please accept, the distinguished Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”
– President Buhari’s letter to the National Assembly
Now let’s dissect the wordings of this letter with the scalpel of the Constitution, the highest law of the land.
1. Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended states thus: “Whenever the President transmits to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.”
Pause. Read that section again. Have you? Because most people who are making a mountain of the President’s letter are those who are neglecting to grasp the import of this section.
All the president’s letter has to say or needed to say or required by the Constitution to say is that he will not be available. The letter has no power to say what the Vice President will become in the president’s absence; the constitution has already said that.
Any such letter from any president is simply to state that the president will not be available to discharge his duties and why. Buhari’s letter above did that. Any other thing is superfluous. But as usual, we are distracted by the superfluous.
Whatever the president’s letter said the vice president will become is null and void if it is not in tandem with the constitution. In the absence of the president the Constitution is clear on who will take over and in what capacity. It is the Vice President that will take over as Acting President. QED. The president has no constitutional powers to name any other person or group of persons to take over; he also has no powers to assign a nomenclature by which the Vice President will be called in his absence. The constitution says he will be known as “Acting President”. Period.
We are giving the letter too much importance. The letter cannot override the constitution. No law in this country can override the constitution. So assuming without conceding that the said letter is at variance with any section of our Constitution, the letter will be null and void and the Almighty Constitution will prevail.
2. We are not in the Yar’adua era anymore. The Constitution has been amended after that saga. Section 145 now has a new subsection 2. Let’s look at it “In the event that the President is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mention in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the National Assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of votes of each house of the National Assembly, mandate the Vice President to perform the functions of the office of the President as the Acting President until the President transmit a letter to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives that he is now available to resume his functions as President.”
That’s it. The letter is not that important anymore. In the absence of the President, with or without him transmitting a letter to the Senate, the Vice President will eventually be mandated to Act as President. Point is, don’t lose sleep over a letter. The Yar’dua days are long gone.
3. Please go back and read the President’s letter to the Senate as captured above. Done that? Good. Now, to be fair to the President, is there really anywhere in that letter he said that the Vice President will assume the office or carry out the functions or take the title of a coordinator, whatever coordinator? Check again. The truth is, the letter never said that. The president knows he has no power to say that. If he had said that it would have been null and void as I pointed out earlier. But the truth is Mr President never said that in his letter. Please.
“While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of government” is different from saying he will be a coordinator not an Acting President.
The President even said in his letter: “In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), I wish to inform…” The President’s letter directed the Senate and Nigerians to the Constitution to get the full meaning of his letter. Why are we refusing to go there? The President by referring us to the constitution in his letter, agrees that the words of the Constitution are more powerful than the words of his letter. If anyone is just trying to construe words out of the letter while refusing to look at the words of the Constitution concerning the issue, then such a person is just being mischievous for political reasons. Or maybe it’s just deliberate and willful ignorance.
3. And yes, one of the functions of the President is to coordinate the activities of government. It’s in the Constitution.
See what section 148(2)b says, look out for the word “coordinate”: “(2) The President shall hold regular meetings with the Vice-President and all the Ministers of the Government of the Federation for the purposes of-
(b) CO-ORDINATING the activities of the President, the Vice-President and the Ministers of the Government of the Federation in the discharge of their executive responsibilities”.
So, if the Vice President assumes the office and functions of the President as Acting President he is also mandated by the Constitution to be “Co-ordinating the activities of the President, the Vice-President and the Ministers of the Government of the Federation in the discharge of their executive responsibilities”.
You see, so much ado about nothing.
In a country where governors travel without transmitting powers to their deputies, where a sitting President shut down this country when he went for medicals abroad, President Buhari should me commended for always transmitting powers to his Vice. You might have your issues with the Buhari administration but we should never miss opportunities like this to teach ourselves the ropes of governance and the law.
First Baba Isa (FBI) is a Legal Practitioner and writes from Abuja.