NORTH NOT AFRAID OF JONATHAN
Last Wednesday's return of President Umaru Yar'Adua after 93 days medical trip abroad has put paid to speculations over his whereabouts and long absence from duty. But the question on the lips of many since his return is: who is really in charge of the ship of state considering the acting role which the Senate conferred on his vice, Goodluck Jonathan? In this interview, former governor of Anambra State bares his mind on the unfolding development among other issues.
What is your take on President Umaru Yar'Adua's health crisis and his return?
Nigerians should thank God that their president is back. It would put all speculations by people especially members of the opposition to rest. The United States magazine which reported that Yar'Adua is dead has also been proved wrong. We are happy he is back and that while he is recuperating, his vice, Goodluck Jonathan should take charge until he fully recovers. But I want to commend the working relationship between Yar'Adua and his vice, Jonathan. Yar'Adua's sickness is not strange because every body can be sick. What we should be praying for is for him to recover and assume his responsibilities of leading the state. All this noise about Yar'Adua's sickness is the handwork of the opposition parties. So, I totally endorse the arrangement by Yar'Adua that while he is recuperating, his vice, Jonathan should act for him.
Let me present you with two situations to choose from. A man went on a business trip abroad and unfortunately the flight ran into trouble. The plane in a great turbulence crashed without a survivor. Another man has been sickly and decided to seek doctor's attention. Further medical tests revealed more complications than anyone including the patient had known requiring very costly treatments, longer stay in the hospital and great personal pains and suffering for the patient.
Which of these two gentlemen would have more hope for life than the other: the dead one, or the hospitalized patient? You don't need to answer me for the answer is obvious, as they say, while there is life, there is hope.
The joy of Nigerians today is that the President is alive though hospitalized and his doctors have continued to give the nation the encouraging news that he is responding to treatment and will get well soon enough to travel back to Nigeria. We cannot ordinarily question or doubt the diagnosis of an expert medical doctor nor do we have any reason to do so in the case of President Umaru Yar'Adua. But now we know our leader is alive though sick we can freely talk of his job and his responsibilities towards the people of Nigeria according to his oath of office. The Christian Bible says that the dead praise not the Lord.
It is true that the health of the President has had a divisive effect on the country. But Nigerians have united in regular prayers for the quick recovery of Mr. President. So we see that for the same sickness, we are both united and divided at the same time and that has been the major character of Nigerian democracy. We freely speak our mind on any subject. Some people may tell you that the sickness has been a setback for the country with reasons. But others will tell you that the President's Vice, who is now Acting President has been equal to the task in filling the gap actually created by President's absence.
So while one can say that most of what the President set out to do from the inception of his Administration have not been done owing to his protracted illness but there has not been a vacuum in the governance of the country because it is for occasions such as this that the constitution made provision for the office of the Vice President and that of Acting President which His Excellency, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has acquitted himself and performed creditably so far. Without the manner in which the Acting President has carefully but firmly handled the issues of the Executive office of the President, mischief makers who poised to make trouble and to benefit there from would have done their worst. But we should continue to be vigilant and thank God for taking control as we see Nigeria still remaining peaceful but not that of the graveyard.
Don't you think that the resignation of Mr. President would put an end to the matter in view of the fact that he appears incapacitated to perform the functions of the number one citizen?
To call on Mr. President now to resign because he is sick and according to you it appears that he is incapacitated will not be the right legal or constitutional solution. But if the President freely and willingly chooses to resign from his office, nobody can stop him. But everything must be proved. If you say he is incapacitated, you must follow the procedure laid down in Section 144 of the 1999 Constitution which requires the Executive Council of the Federation now headed by the Acting President to write to the Senate to say that Mr. President is certified to be so sick that he can no longer carry out his duties.
The Senate President will then put together a panel of seasoned medical experts including Mr. President's chief physician to examine the Council report as well as the present health of the President himself. If the medical experts agree that the President is incapacitated and can no longer function in his office, then the report shall be gazetted and Acting President Jonathan shall immediately become the President. So you see that this is not a child's play, it is a very big business and cannot be taken lightly because you are dealing with one's life and one's future for ever. Nor will anyone be so sure that the process of removing the President from office will be without crisis because he may have his own die-hard loyalists who may not just stand and watch their hero disgraced out of office. This, I think, is the main reason why the Acting President is very cautious in every step being taken in this regard.
It can make or break or mar or in some way affect the unity of the country. Let not Yar'Adua and Jonathan who are men of peace be factors in the threatening instability that is developing. I wish there is a way of bringing the President back home to Nigeria and to give him the opportunity to talk to Nigerians either to decide to continue with his duties as President. Or in the alternative, he may tell Nigerians that for the circumstances of his health failing him, he would no longer be in a position to continue to execute the office of the President and that he is thereby handing power over to Acting President Jonathan to continue in view of their joint ticket.
If this happens, President Yar'Adua will remain a hero of due process and rule of law, while the incoming President Jonathan will work so closely with former President Yar'Adua in the spirit of continuity of a PDP Presidential ticket. Of course, all my speculations here will go to nothing if the president becomes hale and hearty and ready to continue from where he stopped. No one can deny him his rightful position.
The constitution of Nigeria never made provision for the post of Acting President but Goodluck Jonathan has assumed that post. Don't you think it is actionable in court?
There is nothing actionable about Jonathan assuming the office of Acting President. Of course, any lawyer can go to court over that but he may not go far. Even section 145 of the same 1999 constitution made provision that whenever the President transmits a letter to the Senate President and Hon Speaker of the House of Representative that he was going on leave or vacation, the section provides that the Vice President shall in the President's absence be the Acting President till the President returns and takes over his office after writing another letter to the leaders of the National Assembly. So, we shouldn't say that our constitution made no provision for Acting President. Another thing is the wrong reading of that section 145 of the constitution. Instead of 'whenever the President transmits a letter' which is what the constitution says, you find some saying 'whenever the President travels' which is not found in the constitution. Whenever the President transmits, is discretionary while whenever the President travels is compulsory which compulsion is neither intended nor is it constitutional.
Are you suggesting a constitutional review following the inadequacies of our laws in situations like this?
It should be pointed out that no constitution anywhere in the world is perfect. Even the United States constitution of much more than 200 years has recorded more than 25 amendments. As new issues and new problems arise, they create room for fresh amendments, and this is exactly what is going on now in the National Assembly. But it is not exclusively National Assembly affairs. States are also going to play their own role. The constitution requires that at least two-thirds of the 36 states must approve the amendment by at least one-quarter of the members of the State Houses of Assembly before it becomes law. So, the die is cast and all concerned must rise to the occasion and discharge their civic responsibility.
Observers are of the view that the delay in Jonathan taking over from Yar'Adua was as a result of the fear by the North that their turn of holding on to power for eight years is being threatened.
I never saw any action or inaction on the part of the then Vice President Jonathan which showed any delay on his part to take over from President Yar'Adua. In fact, there wasn't any move then for the VP to take over from Mr. President. The National Assembly was more inclined to empower the VP as Acting President under section 145 of the constitution. So, if there was any delay it must have been on the side of the National Assembly which must follow due process and make sure they secure the necessary majority vote to carry out their mandate. Ordinarily, democratic processes and procedures are very often so slow that it has been observed that if death comes from democracy, many will be immortal.
Furthermore, I wouldn't have thought of the North being afraid of Jonathan in the question of succession. In the first place PDP as a party has a 'gentleman' agreement' or zoning formula by which power rotates between North and South. So far I have not seen Jonathan manifest interest to vie the 2011 election as PDP flag bearer to make the North become afraid.
Nor do I know if PDP will in their discretion 'zone to un-zone' as the late KO would put it. We will wait and see. What is fair and what is equitable is for the North to be allowed to complete their eight years in power. When the time comes for that decision and if Jonathan remains Acting President, or he has become President, in either capacity, he would be leader of the party (PDP), and it will be in his position to tell Nigerians 'which way to go' as the song goes. A school of thought contends that any attempt by Jonathan to contest the presidency would be resisted by the north?
It is true that the North-South zonal rotation of the Presidency was the innovation of the PDP, but all other political parties have so far adopted the arrangement to their advantage seeing that the 'gentleman's agreement' has worked well, and should be allowed to work again in the interest of peace and fairness to all sections of the country. As I have said earlier, Jonathan as the Acting President has not publicly manifested interest in running for the Office of the President in the 2011 election. If the intention is so far in his mind, then we must wait until it manifests publicly. You can't question a man who has a thought unspoken.
But one thing I believe is that Acting President Jonathan must be having sleepless nights not about how he will run in the 2011 election, but rather what he can do now to satisfy and pacify the seeming insatiable vocal minority opposition groups in the country. I pray that with God and goodluck, Jonathan will leave behind a good track record of achievements and I believe it shall be well.
While this confusion lasts, there is this apprehension in some quarters that a coup detat is possible given the in- house power play among those that claim to be the power blockers.
I really do not see the confusion you are referring to. Nor do I see the apprehension in any quarters of any impending military action in this country. We have heard the military heads recently appeal to their officers and rank and file to imbibe the democratic values and form of government which now is the norm virtually all over the world. It is based on such sentiments that our military hierarchy condemned in its entirety the recent military coup in Niger. Such condemnation also came from the new ECOWAS Chairman, the Acting President Jonathan as well as from African Union, European Union, the United States, the United Nations and others.
With the world-wide condemnation of Niger Republic's military misadventure, how shall we be reducing ourselves to the level of following a bad example from such a small country next to us. I don't think we should be worrying over things like that now. Nigeria is a leader anywhere, any day and we cannot now go back to begin to follow bad examples in small countries that have looked upon us for leadership.
There is also this apprehension that should Goodluck Jonathan dissolve the federal Executive council, it would bring bad blood in the polity, while some people feel that he cannot perform optimally if he continues with Yar'Adua's cabinet?
It is always the prerogative of the President or in the present case the Acting President to choose people to work with. In doing that the President considers many factors including: qualification and work experience of those sought to be appointed. Furthermore, compatibility with the President of prospective appointees is very vital in making for harmony and to avoid unnecessary frictions and confrontation. Individual good habits and character are good assets for the cabinet which usually is a closely-knit group.
Even when there is disagreement inside the cabinet, it is not usually publicised outside. Cabinet members don't play to the gallery, nor do they act like local champion. Rather, in all matters of government policy, the whole cabinet close ranks; they rise and fall together. Some may say that this principle applies more to parliamentary than presidential system, but I say it is mere semantics. The Acting President must choose those he feels he can work with. No one should be imposed on him. Many recommendations will be made but he does the final selection. He will succeed or fail depending on the quality of those he has chosen to work with.
He will be advised to avoid gold diggers and those who see themselves as already successful business men before entering governance. Such people hardly draw a line between government resources and their private enterprises. Government is not a place for doing business but an opportunity to serve the people and develop the communities. I remember the case of former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme of the Second Republic during the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in which I also served as a special assistant.