Bola Bolawole: When Osinbajo acted as President…

Bola Bolawole: When Osinbajo acted as President…

Thursday, February 11, 2016 4:39 pm


Osinbajo

Osinbajo

By Bola Bolawole

Last week, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo had the opportunity to act as President and Commander-in-Chief in the absence of substantive President Muhammadu Buhari, who had attended, in London, an international conference on Syria. After the meeting, Buhari stayed back to enjoy a six-day holiday, during which period it was speculated he would also undergo medical check-up. The short holiday ended last Wednesday and the president returned, preparatory to resuming work the next day Thursday the 11th.

There are two sharply divergent ways of seeing the short stay of Osinbajo at the helms, the first since this government mounted the saddle on May 29, 2015. One is to see the vice-president as having creditably discharged the onerous duties of the top job of president without scandals and or controversies trailing him. He did not rock the boat; meaning that he could be expected to continue to enjoy the confidence and support of his boss. This way, the president will not be afraid to step out again in future and leave his second-in-command in charge. There had been instances of bosses being unable to go on holidays because they were not sure what to expect from their deputy. There also had been cases of Ogas who attempted to trust their deputy but had to hurriedly cut their leave short to snatch power back and restore parity, as it were.

A seamless operation, the type that we witnessed last week between Buhari and Osinbajo, could be evidence that both men run “One Presidency” and that the line of authority is clearly defined and respected by all. It could also mean that the president is minded to follow the constitutional order as opposed to the hideous practice of presidents and governors who side-track their deputy to hand over power to trusted Commissioner, Chief of Staff or even their spouses! This is why many deputy governors have been described as glorified errand boys or spare tyres that are hardly utilised by many governors. Personally, I have witnessed situations where a governor travelled outside but effectively transferred power to the Secretary to the State Government or someone else while the substantive deputy governor was left in the lurch.

There is, however, something good for all of us to take away from what happened: That Buhari not only went on holiday and handed over the reins of power to his deputy, he also did the constitutionally right thing by transmitting a letter to the National Assembly to that effect. In other words, he left no one in doubt that he trusted his second-in-command to actually act as president; he also tied the loose ends. This was what the late President Umaru Yar’Adua failed\neglected or was unable to do as a result of his illness before he was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment that threw the country into avoidable constitutional crisis.

Another way of assessing the vice-president’s performance in his six days as acting Number One, however, is to say that it was not only drab but also uneventful. I am not aware of any important statement made by Osinbajo in the six days he was in charge, if, truly, he was in charge. Or was this another “fidihe”, a make-believe, the kind Williams Shakespeare called “all sounds and fury, signifying nothing”? Except that the news media carried the report that Osinbajo was acting president, no one would have known that he was. He did not “shake” anything; he did not even assert or announce himself.

What could the matter be? Timidity or was the man not sure of himself? Is it that there was nothing he would have loved to do differently if he were the president? Perhaps, he was minded not to rock the boat, reasoning that one good turn deserves another. Because while he was away, the president still made all the news form far-away London, hugging the headlines while the acting president carried on incognito back at home. No single important statement that caught anybody’s attention from Mr. Acting President. He should have put a phone call through to Alexander Haig, the egregious Secretary of State to the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. When Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981 and was wheeled into hospital for surgery, Haig wasted no time in announcing “I am now in charge!” – even though he was not the vice-president who, constitutionally, was the prescribed authority to step in for the injured US president! While no sane person expects Osinbajo, a Pentecostal pastor and level-headed pro-democracy activist, to filibuster, there are those who still felt that he should have ignited some “action” rather than allow drabness becloud a whole six days at the helms of affairs.

Well, I have only tried to argue the motion for and against; like we used to do in school debate. Readers, feel free to take your choice! There is, however, something good for all of us to take away from what happened: That Buhari not only went on holiday and handed over the reins of power to his deputy, he also did the constitutionally right thing by transmitting a letter to the National Assembly to that effect. In other words, he left no one in doubt that he trusted his second-in-command to actually act as president; he also tied the loose ends. This was what the late President Umaru Yar’Adua failed\neglected or was unable to do as a result of his illness before he was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment that threw the country into avoidable constitutional crisis.

As our own presidential system matures, this should be the sure way to tread. A presidential (and governorship?) ticket is not complete without a running mate. Like the famous African-American politician, Jesse Jackson, once said, “a bird needs two wings to fly”.

Yar’Adua’s inability to transmit a letter to the National Assembly informing it of his trip outside the country and stating unambiguously that the then vice-president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, would act in his absence, created a lacuna that was exploited for selfish reasons by enemies of our renascent democracy. The political class dithered and the ship of state floundered before it was rescued by a last-minute “doctrine of necessity” crafted by the Senate to smuggle Jonathan into office as acting president. Buhari, therefore, acted well. Our democracy is growing and we are learning useful lessons.

In presidential systems that have matured, there is no controversy about the vice president stepping-in in the absence, for whatever reason, of the president. According to Wikipedia, eight United States of America presidents have so far died in office (four were assassinated and four died of natural causes); in all cases, including that of a president who spent only one month in office, “the VP took over the office of the presidency as part of the United States presidential line of succession”. In cases where presidents had to resign, as in the Watergate scandal, the VP had also taken over. In the case of the failed assassination attempt on Reagan mentioned earlier, the person who stepped in was not the loquacious Haig but the then VP, George H.W. Bush.

The VP is very important in the US presidential system – and that is how it should be in all presidential systems properly so-called. He is not an unused spare tyre that no one need bother about. Indeed, he is seen as “president-in-waiting” or alternate president because they know he would step in once the president for whatever reason is unable to continue in office. So, careful considerations are always given to who is chosen to be VP. Candidates as well as political parties expend great efforts in making this choice because the electorate also considers the suitability of the VP to function in the office of president when electing a president.

As our own presidential system matures, this should be the sure way to tread. A presidential (and governorship?) ticket is not complete without a running mate. Like the famous African-American politician, Jesse Jackson, once said, “a bird needs two wings to fly”.

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