In Sickness in Health: A President, a Nation a Constitution

by Sheyi Oriade

One feature, amongst others, which cements mankind’s claims to humanity and in some respects differentiates our species from creatures of the animal kingdom (some may disagree), is our capacity to display compassion and empathise with the plight of others in the midst of their trials and tribulations. Indeed, anyone who suffers from, or knows anyone who suffers from, an affliction of the body or the mind of any severity, will attest to how distressing and difficult such a trial can be for the one who suffers and for their loved ones.

Afflictions are never pleasant to bear; particularly when they manifest in the form of sicknesses, diseases, or illnesses. In such manifestations, rather paradoxically, they act like the principle of justice, in that, in their application and choice of target – they are of long reach and act in blindfolded fashion. They operate without apparent discrimination, afflicting small and mighty alike, without regard to their station in life.

It is no secret that the president of our federal republic currently endures a difficult personal trial of his own in the form of a severe body ailment(s). The treatment of which, has often necessitated his hospitalisation abroad. There can be no doubt that this trial is for him and his family, a very difficult and distressing one. And as such, in the midst of it, he elicits our compassion and occupies our prayers and has our best wishes for a swift recovery to robust health.

But given the frequency with which he has had to be hospitalised, other considerations naturally and inevitably (which in no way dilute our compassion for him nor undermine our claims to humanity) rise to the fore regarding his continued capacity to govern and his desire to remain in office. An office, the discharge of whose functions, are of such demanding complexity, as to test the resolve of the most able bodied of our citizenry.

Undoubtedly, those raising these considerations and questions about the president’s capacity to govern do so for a variety of different reasons and motives. There will be some who query his capacity to govern out of a sense of political ambition and calculation; others out of a sense of concern for his health; and others still, out of a sense of concern for the direction and wellbeing of the nation; and some, perhaps, out of combination of all or some of these motives.

However, regardless of the motives – compassionate or calculated – these questions are legitimate and must inform the current debate on the subject. For the president is a public servant who occupies the nation’s most visible and important public office; and thus must always be open to scrutiny, however unfavourable or uncomfortable or intrusive.

Thus, any attempt to stymie such debate is as unwise as it is misguided. So too, are attempts to tar those engaged in the current debate with accusations of ill-will or a lack of patriotism. There should be no confusion or conflation of the issues at hand. Debates are an essential part of democracies (even if ours is one more in name than in character). But be that as it may, Nigerians must be allowed and encouraged to ventilate their views freely on this and other topics of their choosing or interest.

But the current debate in order to retain its purpose must lead us in the direction of a resolution of the issue(s) under discussion. And in seeking such resolution, it has to be to the constitution that we first turn. For it is the template and touchstone of our democracy. As expected, it does provide a basis and a process for the resolution of the matter, as per S.144. But, unfortunately, it does so in a way which makes its provisions susceptible to the manipulation of politicians as to render its activation an exercise in futility.

For instance, which members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) will be willing to trigger off the process prescribed in S.144 of the constitution, when most, if not all of them, owe their positions to the president? Which of them would risk lifting their heads above the parapet and risk future retribution? When politics to them is about calculation and self interest? I doubt any. And certainly no lead will emanate from the Vice-President, who from all accounts, is a mild mannered man, in no way as ambitious as his predecessor in office; not a bad thing. In no circumstances, will he want to be seen or perceived as being eager to profit from the difficulties of his boss; nor would he like to provoke the ire of powerful political power brokers in the nation.

So herein we face a conundrum. What do we do? Do we appeal to the president to step aside, as some have already done and avoid activating S.144 of the constitution? And would he oblige? Or do we prevail upon the FEC to act beyond their narrow self interest and trigger S.144 into operation, regardless of its being manipulated? S.144 is not intended to be a fait accompli in any case. So no outcome ought to be predetermined.

But were the FEC to activate S.144, can we confidently expect the Senate President to act with complete objectivity in a process, from which he could emerge a key beneficiary? And do we really expect the president’s personal physician, as a member of the prescribed medical panel in the said section, to certify that his charge is not fit to continue in office? Or what happens if the medical panel is disagreed in their assessment of the president’s condition? But, in spite of these flaws, something (legal) rather than nothing at all needs to be done to resolve the issue. Wishing the problem away or that it resolves itself is simply not good enough.

Whatever the outcome of this saga, one thing, amongst others is clear; it is the fact that S.144 of the constitution requires a ‘surgical’ overview. It needs to be revisited in order to ensure that in future a more workable and objective process is put in place. The National Assembly will need to consider the inclusion of the Chief Justice of the Federation (or the Supreme Court) in the process. He, or they, should be the non-political non-partisan catalysts and arbiters tasked with setting the said process in motion and seeing it to its conclusion. Responsibility for empanelling a medical body and receiving and reviewing its report and recommending an outcome should fall to them and not to politicians.

In the interim, those nearest and dearest – politically, privately, and medically – to the president will have to decide whether it is beneficial to his health and recovery plans to be pinned down under the weight of the demands of his onerous office. Looking in from without, it would seem not. Clearly, key to their considerations and calculations will be the realisation that if he ‘walks the plank’ of resignation, there is no way back for him, should he make a full recovery. And this perhaps explains their hesitation at the moment. But whatever they do decide to do, they must think not only of his needs, but of those of the nation as well.

In the coming weeks or months, one hopes that the matter is resolved, either way, and in the best interest of the nation. Equally, one also hopes that during this period the president’s health will begin to mend for the better; be he in office or out of it. In the final analysis, however, when all is considered, it would seem much better to cling to life than to office.

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