A Nation in Coma: Beyond Constitutional Provisions

Nigeria is once again at one of those junctures where tripping over the precipice cannot be ruled out. At issue is the President’s serious illness, and increasing calls by some Nigerians for him to hand over the reins of government to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan. Militants from the Vice-President’s Niger Delta area have threatened to secede from the country if Jonathan is pressured to resign, as is being rumoured, so that another Northerner would succeed Yaradua, if he is unable to continue in office. The Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) recently joined the fray, warning that any attempt to force Jonathan to resign could push “the country down the precipice on which it currently and dangerously balances” (The Sun News Online, December 6, 2009).

Supporters of Jonathan anchor their position on section 146(1) of the 1979 Constitution which says: “The Vice-President shall hold the office of President if the office of President becomes vacant by reason of death or resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or the removal of the President from office for any other reason in accordance with section 143 or 144 of this constitution.” The ire of this group is further fired by reports that Yaradua has never formally handed over power to Goodluck during the numerous times he has been away for health check-ups, including in 2008 when he spent 17 days in Germany. They contrast this with George W Bush handing over power to Vice-President Dick Cheney on August 29, 2002, just because he had to undergo a routine health screening (colonoscopy) with important side effects.

Those said to be leading the move for Jonathan to resign to pave way for another Northerner to complete Yaradua’s term in case of his demise or inability to continue in office, appear to base their own arguments on the fact that under the PDP’s zoning arrangement, the South had taken its ‘agreed turn’ of eight years, so to prevent the North from completing its own ‘turn’, would be unfair and unjust

There are a number of important observations on this issue.

One, no one wishes the President death (or even incapacitation), as only God can give or take life. However death is an inevitability to all of us, and just as some people who are healthy make certain contingency plans against their own death (such as writing a will), when a President gets ill, it will not be out of place to have a national discussion of what happens in a worst case scenario. Scenario mapping and future strategic plans are important tools for ensuring that a company, organisation or society is not overwhelmed by unexpected developments. As the cliché goes, if you do not plan, you plan to fail. It is therefore wrong to accuse those discussing the issue of Yaradua’s possible demise or resignation of being enemies of the nation.

Two, an essential spirit of the Nigerian constitution is anchored on rules that will help the various federating nationalities to co-exist amicably. The letters of the law do not always effectively capture its spirit, hence you have conventions, traditions, and other supplementary arrangements such as the PDP’s zoning formula to help build the necessary trust, sense of justice and fair play among the federating units as envisaged by the constitution makers. In other words, while Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of USA might have been right that no “man has ever been hanged for breaking the spirit of a law”, it is equally true that advantages secured through a recourse to legalese tend in the long run to be a pyrrhic victory. Though the letters of the law trump its spirit in formal relationships, most people will prefer to deal with people, who, in selfless pursuit of justice and fairplay, are flexible enough to keep the spirit of the law, even if its letters, are not fully observed.

Three, despite its numerous shortcomings, the PDP – at least at the national level – has been able to respect its zoning principle. For instance, under the Obasanjo regime, the Senate churned out five presidents. However because that office was zoned to the Igbos, only Igbos ran each time a vacancy occurred. Thus we had Evans Enwerem (1999), Chuba Okadigbo (1999-2000), Pius Anyim (2000-2003), Adolphus Wabara (2003-2005) and Ken Nnamani (2005-2007). Under Obasanjo the post of Speaker of the House of Representatives was zoned to the North-West and produced Salisu Buhari ([Kano state], 1999-2000), Ghali Umar Na’Abba ( [Kano state], 2000-2003), and Aminu Bello Masari (Kano state, 2003-2007). The Yaradua regime has continued to respect the zoning principle of the party. The post of Speaker of the House of Representatives is for instance zoned to the Yorubas. Thus when Patricia Olubunmi Foluke Etteh, from Osun state, was forced to resign, only Yorubas vied to succeed her, ensuring that she was succeeded by Oladimeji Sabur Bankole from Ogun state. In none of these instances was there any talk of the deputy stepping up to the substantive position. This means that if we apply the principles of justice, fair play and tradition (zoning in this case), we should not be too dismissive of some people who argue that they too shall be allowed to complete their ‘turn’.

Four, while in the perception of some people from the north, the South has had its ‘turn’, it is not clear-cut that the Niger Delta, which is conscious of providing the bulk of the country’s wealth, sees itself as part of the political South. It is believed that they prefer to be treated as a special case. There is a fear that they may feel a certain conspiracy to deny one of their own a constitutionally enshrined right of acceding to the presidency just because they are not among the dominant ethnic groups. This could in turn heighten their sense of injustice, alienation and exclusion, with its implications for militancy in the region.

Five, the current quagmire raises a number of pertinent questions: If Goodluck Jonathan is made the president to serve out Yaradua’s turn; will it not be unconstitutional to prevent him from seeking a second term in office? If the letters of the constitution are enforced and he goes for a second term in office, will that not be regarded as treachery by the North, which has so far respected the zoning arrangements in the PDP? If on the other hand Jonathan is made to resign so that a Northerner will complete Yaradua’s turn, will we not be setting a dangerous precedent that explicit constitutional provisions could be disregarded at our whims? What will be the implications of any solution adopted for the PDP’s zoning arrangement and the current nation-building efforts? However this issue is resolved, it will be worth taking a long term perspective that will engender mutual trust.

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