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Who is in charge of Nigeria? - by Reuben Abati


There are some rumours about some stories, but let me assure Nigerians that the president is okay. We spoke before he left this country and we have been speaking. So, discountenance any form of false rumours being spread by mischievous

characters in this country. I assure you that Mr. President is healthy," he stated. Jonathan, who said he even spoke with Yar'Adua yesterday morning, conveyed the president's greetings to the Muslim community and all Nigerians on the Eid-el-Kabir celebration, thanking them for their prayers. "This morning I personally convey Mr. President's personal greetings. We spoke yesterday and even up to this morning. After this time, I will even speak with him. He asked me to convey his personal greetings to all Nigerians. I want to thank you specially for your prayers for the president, your prayers for the government and your prayers for the country," he further stated.

This passage is taken from a news report in The Sun newspaper. While the intent is clear - to allay the fears of Nigerians over the well-being of their President and Commander-in-Chief, the unintended consequence has been the open declaration that Nigeria is at a crossroads. Our country is at such a moment that requires all patriots to focus on the country's best interests as laid down by its founding fathers not today's class of office holders.

Has Nigeria now been reduced to a country managed by proxy - run by telephone conversations from a hospital in Saudi Arabia? The ill-health of a president is something that should naturally appeal to our best human instincts and Nigerians are capable of that but they have been unable to separate their own realities from that of the Commander-in-Chief who speaks to his men on phone, and they in turn tell Nigerians what he has said. Nobody knows for how long he will remain in Saudi Arabia. Or when he will be strong enough to return to work. We now wake up everyday expecting to hear from either the Vice President or the Special Advisers on this and that or the Attorney General and Minister of Justice or any other government official including Presidential Assistants. In the President's absence, it looks as if a committee is running Nigeria with nobody actually exercising authority. How do we safeguard and inspire belief in our national security, investment drive and international repute under this circumstance - where no one is sure who exactly is in charge? It is an unfair way to treat a country of over 140 million people.

The President is human, and we wish him well, but his illness must not become an excuse for the shoddy conduct that we are witnessing. Before the President left for Saudi Arabia, he should have handed over properly to his Vice President. Rather than run the country from his sick bed, what he actually needs is time off to attend to his health. Even when he is discharged from hospital, he should proceed on a short leave to give him time to recuperate properly. It is a matter of accountability that he does not insist on running the country when he is distracted by ill-health. A weak President gives the impression that the entire country is weak. We are faced with a situation whereby most Nigerians today consider themselves stronger than their President. Strong persons don't feel inspired to follow a weak leader. The country is adrift. Imagine an enemy attack on Calabar through the Bakassi Peninsula, where is the Commander-in-Chief who will receive briefing from security chiefs and order a counter-attack? Who is keeping Nigeria 's secret security codes at this moment, if any?

Lyndon Johnson, former American President chose not to seek re-election because, amongst other reasons such as a poor poll rating and disunity within his own democratic party and the bungling of the Vietnam war- he had a heart ailment. He told his compatriots on March 31, 1968 that - "With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." He thought Americans deserved a President with a strong focus on ONLY the presidency and not the distractions that his personal circumstance was creating. Those were the words of a patriot. Lyndon Johnson was soon proven right. His health had been affected by years of drinking, heavy smoking and stress; the former president had severe heart disease. He had his first, nearly-fatal, heart attack in July 1955 and suffered a second one in April 1972, but had been unable to quit smoking after he left the oval office. He was found dead by Secret Service agents, in his bed, with a telephone in his hand. (The Age, 23 January, 1973, pg 1) ( Johnson Under Death & Funeral.)

President Yar'├ždua's condition was known before he left the country for Saudi Arabia. His doctors must also have made it clear that the treatment for acute pericarditis may require surgery or a prolonged period of rest after the treatment. Even in a family, when a member is going under the knife even for the most routine of surgeries, there are processes involved, some sort of handing over and possible last words. It is a prudent thing to do, more so, when this relates to matters of a sovereign. The position of a country's President is significant and serious. By refusing to hand over each time he travels abroad for medical reasons, President Yar'├ždua leaves Nigeria in a lurch. This time around, he has succeeded, through the management of this unfortunate but constitutionally envisaged development encouraged further speculations about a vacuum at the top and opened up the politics of succession where none exists. Under such a situation, it is a nightmare to manage public communication and understanding.

The Federal Republic of Nigeria has a substantive Vice President, but there are speculations that the Vice president cannot act as President. The Punch newspaper reports that the Vice President is even under pressure to resign because certain Northern groups insist that they cannot share their term of office with a Southerner, should the president become incapacitated. A Constitutional crisis stares us in the face with implications for ethnic tension. Those power-mongers who insist that President Yar'Adua is better off running the country despite his ill-health and that Vice President Jonathan must not be allowed to exercise any powers are the ultimate mischief-makers who should be called to order.

On Sallah Day, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan received Muslim visitors on behalf of the President. He was quick in reporting what his boss had told him on telephone from Saudi Arabia . Apparently, this is the kind of job that he is considered good enough for. When he is not receiving visitors on behalf of the President, or taking phone calls, he is sent to go and watch football at the National Stadium. Other persons are asked to perform Presidential functions. The other month, when the President went to Saudi Arabia and could not go to the UN Summit of world leaders in New York, he chose to send his Minister of Foreign Affairs. His Vice President should have been the man to go there. Again, when it became obvious that the President could not make it to the National Assembly to present the nation's budget before each arm of the National Assembly, he sent his Presidential Adviser on National Assembly matters, Mohammed Abba Aji to represent him. It is like sending a manager to a function requiring the presence of a member of the board of directors (someone with the burden of constitutional responsibility). Would it not have been better, and added more seriousness to the process if the Vice President performed the function? The presentation of the 2010 budget by the Special Adviser was a poor joke on the significance, even if ceremonial, of the budget presentation provision in the constitution.

I thought I saw something that looked like loosely-bound sheets on television (unlike the bound copies of old). Couldn't they have tried to bind the copies properly? Then the Presidential Adviser 'inadvertently omitted' the details and revenue estimates for the 2010 budget which he had to take back the next day. By the time he provided the forgotten part of the budget, commentaries had already been passed on the incomplete document that was originally presented. Obviously, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan had not seen a copy of the budget. While the contrived face-off between the House of Representatives and the Senate lasted, the Vice President made a statement in Kaduna that by next year; Nigerians will no longer have any need for generators for the purpose of power supply. If he had seen the budget, he would have not made that statement. For when the budget was then presented it turned out that it makes provision for the purchase of generating sets and fuel, perhaps lending credence to the arguments of those who do not think Jonathan is capable of taking the job. What kind of Vice President is he if he does not know what is going on in government?

As things stand, Nigeria is at the mercy of the President. He has no plans to resign. He is not planning to go on leave (annual or compassionate) either. And he does not intend to allow his Vice President take charge. Under Section 144 of the Nigerian Constitution, if the President is incapacitated and can no longer continue in office, it requires a two-third majority of the Federal Executive Council to so declare to activate the process of his removal from office which will involve the report of a panel of five physicians, including his own physician. A report having been prepared, the National Assembly can then act accordingly. But there is nobody in the FEC, all President Yar'Adua's appointees, who will dare make such a suggestion. The National Assembly has also ruled out the possibility of making any issue out of the President's state of health. In addition, Vice President Jonathan is scared so stiff, he wouldn't dare show any ambition; that is why his speech has been reduced to "we spoke" and "I am planning to speak".

Pericarditis on its own does not incapacitate a man. But if it is of a secondary source, and it is acute, it could result in a situation whereby the patient may not be able to climb the stairs or engage in minimally strenuous activity. The President's physician needs to provide exact and more detailed information about the President's condition. This is not something that can be hidden under the oath of secrecy that all Presidential staff reportedly swore to. Nigeria 's future and security are at stake. In Nigeria, the law is respected only when it suits the purpose of those in power. In President Yar'Adua's case, it is not even the law that is at issue; it is the need for best practice, and realising that the country cannot be run by remote control. The rest of the world cannot understand why we are so confused as a nation and it shows in the reporting of the President's ill-health by the international media.

Running the country by telephone from a hospital bed is a disservice to Nigerians. President Yar'Adua has a medical condition. We all know that and many Nigerians feel for him. Allowing him to bother about issues of governance in Nigeria under his present condition would in a manner of speaking amount to putting more weight on his heart. I am not a medical doctor, but for the sake of Nigeria, his doctors should take away his phones and allow him to recover fully. In the meantime, the President should formally request for a leave of absence: I recommend a month, and during the period, Goodluck Jonathan should be allowed to perform his constitutional role of taking charge until the President is strong enough to return to work. This is what decency requires. That is what the Constitution suggests. No proper organisation can afford to be at the mercy of one man; more especially when we all know that his medical problems are of a serious variety, requiring great care and intervention. Why contrive to play God and drive the man to death with worry and problems? For God's sake, can we get this basic appeal to humanity and civility right?

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