ALEXANDER OKERE writes that the circumstance surrounding President’s recent trip to the United Kingdom has caused a furore over constitutionality, morality and accountability.
Last Thursday’s visit to the United Kingdom was not President Muhammadu Buhari’s first foreign trip. In fact, the President has so far travelled to as many as 33 countries since June 3, 2015, according to an exclusive report published by Saturday PUNCH on April 20. But it is the first time he has left the country in a manner that left millions of Nigerians looking askance at the Presidency. Buhari had shortly after inaugurating some projects executed by Governor Kashim Shettima in Maiduguri, the Bornu State capital, jetted out of the country to the UK where he was expected to spend 10 days on a ‘private visit,’ as claimed by his handlers.
However, two days into the trip, he came under fire for not transmitting a letter to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives informing them of his inability to perform his official duties and transferring power to Vice President Femi Osinbajo to stand in as acting President, as enshrined in Section 145 of the Constitution. Section 145 states that, ‘Whenever the President is proceeding on vacation or 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.’
In the President’s defence, his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, while making reference to Section 145 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, stated that the President’s action did not contravene the law. Shehu also averred that Buhari had the capacity to preside over the affairs of the country from “anywhere.”
“The President can exercise authority from wherever he is as he is currently doing. This is a relatively short absence. If you check Section 145 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, you will see that the law is only infringed upon when such absence extends to 21 days,” the media aide was quoted to have said on Saturday.
But the opposition Peoples Democratic Party described Buhari’s action as condemnable, accusing him of allegedly abandoning governance when the nation was under the weight of “grave security and security challenges,” a claim the Buhari Media Organisation, in a statement signed by its Chairman, Niyi Akinsiju, and Secretary, Cassidy Madueke, said reflected the opposition party’s tendency to drag the country into needless controversies as President Buhari “is the first President to start adhering to the constitutional provision on the transmission of letters to the National Assembly whenever embarking on vacation.”
The National Publicity of the PDP, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, had added, “The import of this relegation of Section 145 is also a clear absence of a constitutional command structure which leaves our nation at the mercy of the extremely corrupt, vicious and anti-people cabal. Such dereliction at the high levels emboldens bandits, bolsters insurgents and fuels cruel acts such as extra-judicial killing, illegal arrests, detention of innocent citizens, constitutional violations, attack on institutions of democracy as well as reckless looting of our national treasury by members of the cabal because they know that ‘nothing will happen.’”
Speaking on the legal implication of Buhari’s journey out of the country without a correspondence to the National Assembly, Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), had said, “Having regard to the facts and circumstances of the controversial private visit, President Buhari is deemed in law to be on vacation or leave of absence for 10 days. Whether the President is on vacation or not is not in dispute, but that he is unable to discharge the functions of his office for 10 days.
“The official claim that the President is not on vacation has failed to address the constitutional implications of the privacy of the visit of the head of the Federal Government which is administered on the basis of accountability and transparency. Under the current democratic dispensation, the movement and activities of the number one public officer in the country cannot be shrouded in secrecy.”
However, other pundits argued that concealing the real purpose of the President’s trip had given room for many Nigerians to believe that he might have travelled on health grounds. They also raised concerns that the secrecy surrounding the trip could be a move by the inner caucus of the Presidency not to lose grip of its influence.
A lawyer, Mr. Chuks Nwachukwu, said that Nigeria was not a country to be ruled by proxy or governed from anywhere out it, adding that the nation could not be led by an “absentee President.”
Nwachukwu said, “He (Buhari) said private visit; we don’t understand what his private visit means. If you are going on a private visit, then you are taking leave from governance. The equivalent of that is that you are going a vacation and according to the Constitution, you ought to transmit power.
“You know that when he transmitted power (in the past), Osinbajo was able to do a few things; he was able to effect the sack of (a former Director-General of the Department of State Services, Mr Lawal) Daura. So, I see the cabal controlling the President having a rethink; they do not want to lose their grip on power and relevance for any reason.”
In a telephone interview with Saturday PUNCH, another lawyer, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, said that the controversy over the issues might not be unconnected with the question the President’s decision not to formally inform the National Assembly of his trip would pose, given that a similar situation had generated a problem during the administration of the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, when the former President was reported to have travelled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in 2009 and failed to transmit a letter stating nthat he had transferred presidential power to his deputy.
Oshoma explained, “Sub-section Two was added to Section 145 because of the Yar’Adua crisis where we had a lacuna and the National Assembly had to resort to the Doctrine of Necessity. But in this case, I have listened to Garba Shehu saying that the President can act anywhere outside this country, provided that it is not more than 21 days.
“No. That is not the intendment of Sub-section Two; the intendment of that sub-section, like it happened in Yar’Adua’s case, is that if he (Buhari) is away for 21 days and there is no document to that effect, the National Assembly can empower the Vice President to act in his stead.
“But I wonder; the President has been transmitting letters (in the past) and he is going away for 10 days. There should be somebody in charge.
“It doesn’t cost him anything to inform the National Assembly that he will be away for 10 days. He doesn’t even need to state whether he handed over to the Vice President or not; once he informs the National Assembly that he is travelling for a number of days, immediately, the Vice President acts.
“So, let us not stand other Constitution on its head; it is clear enough. Nobody is saying that the President should not travel but the proper thing should be done.”
Furthermore, the lawye stated that the development had left a gap open to speculation about Buhari’s health due to misinformation.
“In the absence of information, rumour takes over and when rumour starts to fly, even intellectuals are turned to conveyor belts. By filling in this particular gap, it will not be out of place to say that the President went for medicals in London.
“What is that unofficial or official visit that will be so discrete that Nigerians should not know about when the President is very powerful, going by the Constitution? The buck stops at his table,” Oshoma said.
He added, “The President is going away for 10 days and the government that wants to do things differently, that preaches change and wants to take the country to the next level cannot inform the people about what the President is going to do. It is a fact that the President had been to London for medicals and the (election) campaigns are just over; it is easy to put one and two together and conclude appropriately that the President went for a medical checkup in London.
“But maybe the government decided this time round not to disclose this because this had been a recurrent decimal and because of the backlash that he had consistently received against the promise he made in 2015 that none of his cabinet members will go abroad for medicals and he was the first person to breach that promise.
“So, maybe it decided to keep quiet this time round and also take us for a fool, knowing that Nigerians would complain and those that would defend the President would defend him and that the less information Nigerians are given, the better in order to keep them guessing.”
For the Executive Director, Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, Rev. David Ugolor, the President’s action smacks of a lack of accountability to Nigerians and was characteristic of African leaders.
Ugolor said, “I think is all part of the culture of not being accountable to the people of Nigeria and this is not very good when leaders try to raise credibility questions by actions that potentially could send a signal that there is no respect for the citizens. Otherwise, if this was properly managed, there would not have been any problem.
“African leaders are the only ones that can easily leave their countries and be able to govern their countries from wherever they are. You saw what happened to Algeria; a sick man was contesting an election even when he was not (physically) able to that.”
“So, it is only associated with Africa and this is really unfortunate; and this is the reason we are faced with a huge development challenge because of a lack of accountability. For me, Buhari should live above this.
“Considering where he is coming from and his credibility before the Nigerian people, he should try as much as possible to avoid creating tension. If I were him, I would have handed over to the Vice-President who he has worked with very well and nobody would question whether he spends 10, 20 days anywhere,” he added.
However, as the President is expected to return to the country on Sunday, many Nigerians share a common belief that his action may have set a precedent pregnant with implications for the future.
Culled from Punch