Uproar, as Buhari tags VP ‘co-ordinator’ in letter to NASS

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There was uproar in the polity yesterday over wording of the letter President Muhammadu Buhari sent to the Senate on his medical vacation, in which the President said that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo “will co-ordinate the activities of the government.”

President of the Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki, however, intervened on the Senate floor to stave off a constitutional fuss by quieting the agitation by senators over wording of the letter.

Senior lawyers who spoke on the issue yesterday overwhelmingly backed the Senate President, affirming that transmission of the letter on the basis of Section 145 of the Constitution automatically transmitted powers to Osinbajo as Acting President.

A senior Presidency source also played down the uproar in the Senate as he affirmed that Osinbajo will exercise full duties as Acting President.

The reassurances nonetheless, a non-governmental organization, Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED) saw the depiction of Osinbajo as “coordinator of government affairs” as a reflection of the undying determination of a “cabal” in the presidency to sustain its influence.

Buhari’s latest Senate letter

President Buhari’s letter intimating the Senate on his medical vacation had noted that the vice-president would coordinate the affairs of government in his absence. It was a departure from his previous letters in which the President had specifically stated that the vice-president would perform the functions of his office.

In his letter to the Senate dated 7th May 2017, Buhari had said:

“In compliance with Section 145 {1) of the 1999 constitution (as amended),  I wish to inform the distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London. The length of my stay will be determined by the doctors’ advice.

“While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the government. Please accept the distinguished Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

June 2016 letter

In the letter to the Senate on his second medical vacation in June 2016, the president wrote:

“In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 constitution as amended, I wish to inform the Distinguished Senate that I will be away n a short medical vacation from 6th-16th of June 2016, and while I am away, the Vice President (Osinbajo) will perform the functions of my office. “Please, accept, as always assurances of my highest esteemed consideration.”

January 2017 letter

In his letter to the Senate on his third medical vacation that commenced in January 2017, the president wrote:

“In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 constitution as amended, I wish to inform the Distinguished Senate that I will be away n a short medical vacation from Monday, January, 23 to February 6th, 2017 and while I am away, the Vice President (Osinbajo) will perform the functions of my office.

“Please, accept, as always assurances of my highest esteemed consideration.”

Ohuabunwa picks holes in Buhari’s letter

As Senate plenary commenced yesterday Senator Saraki, who presided read out notices among which was the letter from the president intimating the Senate on his medical vacation.

Once the letter was read, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa (PDP, Abia North) upon a point of order objected to sections of the letter which he described as vague on the ascendancy of the vice-president.

Observing that there is no provision in Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) designating the vice-president as coordinator of the government in the absence of the President, Senator Ohabunwa submitted: “Mr. President, I don’t think in our Constitution we have anything like co-ordinating president or coordinating vice-president. It is either you are a vice president or you are acting president, and the letter should be unambiguous and very clear.

“So, I am saying that this letter does not convey anything because ‘co-ordinating’ has no space or any place in our constitution. We have been having letters like this. This is the highest legislative body of the country, and if you are sending us a letter, it should be direct, unambiguous. So, I am saying that this letter for me is not right and maybe should be sent back.”

Lawan tackles Ohuabunwa

Responding, the Senate Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, dismissed Ohuabunwa, as he enjoined his colleagues to jettison his stance on the claim that the Senate did not have time for frivolity.

“Mr. President, let me say that the point of order raised by my colleague and the explanation that subsequently followed shouldn’t have been, and my reasons are simple,” Senator Lawan said as he affirmed that Section 145 specified that power was automatically transmitted whenever the President writes a letter on a medical vacation.

“Any other word in this letter or indeed anywhere else is irrelevant. I, therefore, feel that Mr. President has done what the Constitution requires him to do and I urge this Senate not to go ahead to discuss this because it’s not an issue. We have the budget, and so many other serious issues for us to discuss and Nigerians are waiting.”

Saraki rules: 

“I think it is a very clear issue and we should be guided by the constitution, and I think that it is clear, the letter has referred to the Constitution, and there’s no ambiguity in the Constitution. So, I don’t think there’s any issue there,” Saraki said as he ruled Senator Ohabunwa out of order.

Eminent lawyers react, back Saraki

Among the senior lawyers who agreed with the Senate President yesterday were Yusuf Ali, SAN, Augustine Alegeh, SAN, Babatunde Fashanu, SAN, and Norrison Quaker, SAN.

Reacting to the development, Alegeh, a former national president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA said:

“The moment the President sends the letter as required by the Constitution, the Vice President assumes the position and will be in charge of government work. Nothing should be in conjecture as to the language used in such letter,” he said.

Ali, on his part, said:

“To me, the moment the President sends the letter to the Senate indicating he is going somewhere; the Vice President takes over automatically. The letter means or indicates that he (President) will not be around, the VP takes over in an acting capacity. Once he does that, automatically the VP becomes the Acting President, no interpretation can be given to it.”

Fashanu said “The emphasis is on conveying that intention to the Senate, not his directive to the VP who takes over automatically upon such letter being written to the Senate under Section 145,” he said.

Quaker said: “Once the letter is transmitted to the Senate, it is a constitutional requirement. Whether he used co-ordinating or Acting President, the Vice President automatically becomes the Acting President and steps into the shoes as the acting president and no longer performs as the Vice President.”

Ozekhome differs

The argument of the senior lawyers was, however, rejected by another senior lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN who affirmed that there was no constitutional recognition for a term as co-ordinator for national affairs. He said:

“There is nothing like “Co-ordinator of National Affairs” in our Constitution. That is a strange importation of an unknown term into our Constitution.”

“Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution specifically refers to “Acting President” who “shall perform the functions of the President as Acting President “  whenever “the president is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office.”

“President Muhammadu Buhari may have used the term jokingly, to represent one who is fully in charge in his absence. Certainly, it is not legally or constitutionally correct, “he stressed.

He, however, asked the National Assembly to allow the matter to lie low.

It’s desecration — AIED

The non-governmental organization, Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED), however, saw the as a desecration of the office of the President and a complete aberration.

In a statement issued on Tuesday by its Director of Research and Publicity, Comrade O’Seun John, the group accused the ‘cabal’ within the presidency of plotting to create confusion in the country by its continuous interference with the decision of the President.

According to AIED: “We are extremely saddened with the content of President Buhari’s letter where he neglected tradition and voice of sanity to dance to the tune of political vampires by importing a lexicon alien to our Constitution. While we are aware of the unambiguous provision of section 145, we are frightened by signals such as this on the peace and unity of our country.

“The new designation of Professor Osinbajo can only be interpreted to mean that President Buhari does not trust him enough to act as the President in his absence. With this reality, we are now forced to ask: who does President Buhari truly recognise as the Acting President?

This act has put paid to any form of doubt that the powers controlling the affairs of the country have greater influence and perhaps, control than the vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo” the statement read.Vanguard

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