Presidential Powers and The Vice President – Reuben Abati

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President Muhammadu Buhari recently set up an Economic Advisory Council, to replace the country’s Economic Management Team. He also moved some departments and agencies of government to the new Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. I don’t see why this should become a source of agitation and frustration for some Nigerians. The Economic Advisory Council is chaired by Professor Doyin Salami, a seasoned intellectual.  The members are persons of great technocratic ability with a track record of achievement as economists and policy wonks. The Council will meet every month and meet with the President every quarter. The Nigerian economy can certainly benefit from new ideas and perspectives. It is also refreshing to see the President put together a team that is not made up of party members, dead woods, or sycophants. Each member of the Economic Advisory Council inspires confidence. There is a consensus that the President got it right with the list. What the Advisory Council needs is the President’s support and an enabling environment for it to be able to make a difference. How do we achieve double-digit economic growth? What are the fiscal and monetary policies that can position the Nigerian economy differently, for better performance? What do we need to do to reduce unemployment? What kind of injection does the real sector need? The Council can also help generate robust discussions within the government on key issues that affect all of us. It is also a good development that the President is personally taking charge of the economy. The Council will report to him directly. I don’t have a problem with that.

I also like the idea of a new Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. Such a sharply-focused Ministry should serve as a strategic hub for the management of the many disasters that keep occurring across the country. The missing link in existing efforts is the lack of coordination and synergy among various agencies and between the states and the Federal government. This ministry could help send a signal that the Nigerian government now intends to place a higher premium on human lives.  It is about time the country took disaster management and humanitarian care more seriously.

I expected many Nigerians to focus on the value of these two initiatives. Instead, what I hear is a disturbing conversation about how both amount to an “enemy action” to whittle down the influence and authority of the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. Previously, the Vice President was the chairman of the Economic Management Team and the National Economic Council. The first is an ad hoc administrative structure focusing on the economy; the latter is a statutory, constitutional body. I do not share most of the views that have been expressed, or the obvious attempt to politicize what in reality is within the authority of the President.  Afenifere says for example, that the “office of the Vice President has been rendered useless, impotent and irrelevant.” How? Just because the President sets up an Economic Advisory Council and created a new Ministry to ensure greater service delivery in a critical area of national concern? The Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) says Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is being “maltreated” and “that the unconstitutional stripping of Prof. Yemi Osinbajo’s official attributes amounts to …continuous humiliation of Christians in high positions of the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.” There you go. Nigerians are always quick to play the ethnic and religious card. Some other commentators claim that they see the hands of an anti-Osinbajo cabal in the matter. At least one Pastor has prophesied that the cabal will fail.  Others have argued that certain forces are determined to stop Vice President Osinbajo just in case he is nursing a 2023 Presidential ambition. Persons have been named who have been pencilled down as the VP’s likely replacement. The various conspiracy theories seem suspicious.

Of course, I know that there is never a shortage of mischief-makers in the corridors of power. The relationship between Presidents and Vice Presidents and between Governors and their Deputies has also always been quite tricky in Nigerian politics. Should the President become incapacitated or he is removed from office, the Vice President replaces him. He is thus just a step away from the office.  Deputy Governors stand in the same regard to the Governors in the states. With the kind of politics that we play, Governors and their supporters always keep an eye on the Deputy Governor. If he shows any sign of disloyalty or ambition, all the hawks within the system will go after him and ensure that he is removed, marginalised or humiliated. Presidential politics is worse. The Presidency is clearly the highest office in the land, it is the home of even more vicious intrigues. And indeed we have had cases in the past of conflicts within the Presidency, between the President and the Vice President. Many will recall how the relationship between President Olusegun Obasanjo and then Vice President Atiku Abubakar deteriorated rapidly after the 2003 Presidential election. The Presidential Villa practically became a war zone. All kinds of opportunists cashed in on this and there was never a shortage of salacious tales emanating from the Villa, from faceless persons casually referred to as “sources within the Presidency.”

Those “sources” are at work again. But we all need to learn from the past. A divided Presidency short-changes the people. Many will also recall the travails of President Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. There was a deliberate attempt to frustrate him by those who did not want him as a successor to the late President whose tenure was defined majorly by the politics of illness and death. When President Yar’Adua left the country for medical treatment, there were persons within and outside the Presidency who insisted that VP Jonathan would not be allowed to act as President.  It took the intervention of men and women of reason and the National Assembly for the letter and spirit of the Constitution to take effect. When VP Jonathan became President, he chose Arc. Namadi Sambo, then Governor of Kaduna State, as his Vice President.  Arc Sambo and President Jonathan had a good, rancour-free working relationship, but that does not rule out the fact that certain mischief-makers tried to come between them.

My view is that Professor Yemi Osinbajo would rank as one of the most influential and visible Vice Presidents that Nigeria has had since the return to civilian rule in 1999. With the possible exception of Atiku Abubakar between 1999 and 2003, he has been able to engage the public and connect with the people in a manner no other Vice President before him, did. This probably explains why there has been so much concern about his place in the Presidency, and his relationship with his principal. It also explains why he may attract envy and criticism. I like the fact that he has been very calm and dignified in the face of it all.  He has refrained from making any statement that may convey the impression that he also believes the narrative that some persons, wielding long knives, are out for him. He has not shown any desperation in the face of speculations that he may be removed, nor has he responded to any suggestion that he is under pressure to resign. His media team has not over-reacted. I commend him for his tact, and for staying above the fray.

However, one person who is convinced that the Vice President’s office is truly under siege told me the other day that Professor Osinbajo should go to court. Why would he allow the President to take away his powers over the management of the economy, including bodies of which he is statutorily the Chairman? I laughed. I told the person that the Vice President will do no such thing.  He has no special powers of his own except powers delegated to him by the President, and even that is entirely at the discretion of the President.  It is not impossible that many of the persons who are protesting that the Vice President is being marginalized are also under the illusion that there is a power-sharing arrangement between the President and the Vice President of Nigeria. No. There is no such thing. Even the VP’s Chairmanship of the National Economic Council, under Section 18 of the Third Schedule is at the pleasure of the President; in any case, the Economic Council, like the Economic Advisory Council, and many such bodies is merely an advisory body. There is only one President of the Federation. He is granted so many powers under the 1999 Constitution, the Nigerian President is almost a constitutional monarch. He is the country’s chief economic manager.  He is the “head of state, the Chief Executive of the Federation and Commander-in-Chief of the Federation” (Section 130(2). Whereas in defining the powers of the Federal Government, the Constitution vests legislative (Section 4) and judicial powers (section 6) in institutions and not individuals, Executive Powers (section 5) are vested in the person of the President. It is as follows:

“5(1): Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the executive powers of the Federation

(a)   shall be vested in the President and may, subject as aforesaid and to the provisions of any law made by the National Assembly, be exercised by him either directly or through the Vice-President and Ministers of the Government of the Federation or officers in the public service of the Federation”

In other words, the Vice President exercises executive powers only as delegated by the President. The manner and extent to which he does so is at the entire discretion of the President as provided in Section 148 (1): “The President, may in his discretion, assign to the Vice President or any Minister of the Government of the Federation responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation, including the administration of any department of government.” The operative phrase here is “may in his discretion”.  And for the benefit of those wondering whether the President acted rightly by setting up an Economic Advisory Council, Section 151 of the Constitution refers – to wit: “The President may appoint any person as a Special Adviser to assist him in the performance of his functions.”

This, to the best of my knowledge, is the position of the Constitution on how the Vice President stands in relation to Presidential powers. In the eyes of the Constitution, the buck stops at the President’s desk. His government fails or succeeds strictly on the basis of the choices that he makes. He is not first among equals. He is the boss. The Vice President is at best his number one aide and adviser. The circumstances, however, under which the Vice President can replace him or act on his behalf are properly spelt out in the same Constitution. It is not for nothing that the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal in a ruling on the 2019 Presidential election recently declared that the Vice President is an ‘appendage.”

When I canvass this view, I am told that I don’t understand the politics that is currently going on in the Villa. My suspicion is that the people who are playing politics are the people latching on to the announcement of an Economic Advisory Council or the revelation that the Vice President must take directives from the President (which is not a problem by the way), to project their own fears onto the national screen- namely their ethnic interests, religious sentiments and personal interests. They do so in rather hyperbolic terms. Just as there are persons threatening to march on the Villa “to defend our VP”, there are those who are seizing the moment to launch personal attacks on the Vice President.

Those who claim to be defending him may be expressing their admiration of him – it is clear he has followership and a constituency behind him – but they should be careful not to damage his politics and his relationship with his principal. There is definitely also a lesson here for the President and the Presidency. Perception is everything. Given Nigeria’s politics of suspicion, even the most innocent of gestures could create wicked problems; hence, the government must always think ahead and communicate with greater clarity. Flipside: it is definitely clear that Professor Yemi Osinbajo’s followers want him to be given more responsibilities, not a demotion. They don’t want him to be used and dumped, no matter what. Off the books, beyond legalese: address this perception problem. Above all, something must be done about those so-called “reliable sources” in the Presidency. I never liked them. They only make things difficult for everyone.