On November 23rd, 2009, Nigeria's President Yar'Adua was rushed to Saudi Arabia for a medical emergency. It was later revealed that he had pericarditis, a hardening of the lining around the heart. His absence from Nigeria and a lack of forthcoming information on his condition or when he would return, created a power vacuum. An interpretation of the Constitution suggested that a formal letter from the President was necessary to temporarily transfer powers to the Vice President. This interpretation left the Vice President seemingly powerless to use executive powers and some citizens in outrage over the ensuing political confusion. However, in the over 75 days since the President went to Saudi Arabia, and after various court cases and judgments, it appears Nigeria's President may be ready to bow to public pressure and send a letter indicating intent to temporarily transfer executive power to his second in command.
Yar'Adua has repeatedly been rushed abroad for medical purposes to Germany and Saudi Arabia. This reality has resulted in repeatedly vocal complaints and questions about his capacity to lead the country. In 2008, he canceled a planned diplomatic visit to Brazil when his health made the trip impossible. He was flown to Saudi Arabia but the nation was told that he was there for the 'lesser hajj'.The lack of transparency led to criticism and questions about the constitutionality of prolonged Presidential absences due to Section 145 of the Constitution. Section 145 was interpreted to suggest that a letter is necessary from the President for executive powers and functions to be temporarily handed over to the Vice President.
Consequently, before leaving on a 2 week vacation in January 2009, the President made it known that he would issue a letter to legislators informing them of his absence. Although most Nigerians thought that this letter was transmitted, it now appears that the letter was never formally given to the legislative body. Instead, it was held in the possession of the President's adviser, who now asserts that the letter was never handed over because the President never took the vacation due to the death of an acquaintance.
Nevertheless, when President Yar'Adua was rushed to Saudi Arabia in November 2009, many called for him to honor their interpretation of Section 145 of the Nigerian Constitution. They expected him to inform the legislative body of his absence so that executive power could temporarily be transferred to the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. Many groups and influential individuals encouraged the President to formally declare Jonathan the acting President. The Senate equally requested a letter from the President informing of his absence. However, a court decision that the President is not obligated to formally inform the National Assembly of prolonged absences helped to clarify the Constitutional ambiguity of Section 145.
A TEMPORARY HANDOVER?
Although a High Court ruled in favor of the President and his supporters who asserted that Section 145 does not require a letter for the Vice President to assume executive powers, Yar'Adua is allegedly set to send a letter to the National Assembly. According to an adviser to the president, he will submit a letter by the end of the second week in February 2010 (by the 12th) specifying "medical vacation" as the basis for his absence. Speaking before Senators, the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Mohammad Abba-Aji stated,
"The Senate has resolved and the resolution has been transmitted and we all know the President to be a man who respects the rule of law; so I have no doubt in my mind that the President has never refused to comply with a law passed by the legislature, not to my knowledge."QUESTIONS REMAIN
In his statement, Abba-Aji mentioned that the president respects the rule of law, and it is true that Yar'Adua appropriated the term as a public mantra. Sadly, it remains questionable whether or not the President will indeed issue a formal letter to the National Assembly given that he never actually promised to do so. Although most Nigerians wish their President the best, it remains unclear whether he is capable of making any promises as he has not been seen in over two months.Furthermore, a direct challenge to a recent BBC interview and thus his capacity, has been left unanswered. Therefore, even though Abba-Aji's pronouncement was allegedly made on behalf of the President, it cannot be considered as fact until the President himself says so. Besides, there has been enough 'information' to come out of the Presidency in the last few months that has proven to be false, thus lending little credibility to Abba-Aji's statement, despite his intentions.
This disturbing reality - questions about Yar'Adua's capacity - lends itself to any letter that might be issued and signed by him. Already, there is a court case alleging that the 2010 budget introduced during the President's absence has a forged signature on it. Hence, it is likely that any letter supposedly signed by the President to the National Assembly will equally be questioned and rightly so as it remains unclear whether President Yar'Adua is in a position, healthwise, to perform such functions. And, if he is capable, then how long will he be gone for? Will this time be added to the almost 80 days he has been gone? The questions are limitless, but if he does transfer power to Jonathan, Nigerians will have an acting President whose wife is involved in a serious corruption scandal involving $13.5 million. For all that can be said about Yar'Adua, it cannot be said that he or his wife were caught trying to move large sums of money outside normal, legal channels.
ANAMBRA GUBERNATORIAL ELECTION
Finally, the President's absence has put in doubt the constitutionality of the recently held Anambra State gubernatorial election. The polls were thankfully non-violent, but featured irregularities that the federal government has already admitted to. But, most importantly, a court decision handed down the day before the election determined that its results would be illegal as the electoral body charged with administering the elections, INEC, lacked the required quorum of board members to function. According to the court's judgement, INEC requires 5 members for a quorum, but there are currently only 4 members. Only the President has the power to select that 5th member and since it is unclear whether the Vice President has executive powers*, the election and its results are unconstitutional. This court ruling therefore puts in jeopardy the results of the Anambra polls, subjecting the outcome to future litigation which will likely slow down the Anambra state government if such a legal challenge arises. The President's absence and the confusion over the Vice President's ability to function as an acting president has far reaching consequences that not only put the future of the Presidency in jeopardy, but the bread and butter issues of ordinary citizens.
It remains to be seen whether President Yar'Adua will indeed transfer executive power to the Vice President. A 'rule of law' President all the way in Saudi Arabia does not help the average Nigerian and the confusion this absence leaves in its wake only compounds issues. What is beyond confusion, nevertheless, is that the political disorientation Nigeria currently experiences will not soon abate.
* Although a federal high court ruled that a formal letter is not necessary to transfer executive powers, the matter is no final until the Supreme Court makes a decision.
From the Archives:
- Nigeria's President Absent During Crisis
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- Yar'Adua And The Continuing Heath Issue
- The Consequences of Yar'Adua's Mysterious Health