THE continuing absence of President Muhammadu Buhari from the country on medical vacation in London should ordinarily not be a cause for concern. This is because the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria already envisages and provides for such a development in Section 145 through which power devolves to the vice president as Acting President whenever the president transmits a letter to the National Assembly that he would not be available to perform his duties. President Buhari obviously complied with this provision as he duly transmitted a letter to the National Assembly in respect of his medical vacation and it is also the case that the vice president has since then assumed duties as the Acting President. Yet, there is a need to interrogate the implication(s) of this particular provision of the Constitution in the light of the misgivings expressed by many on account of the manner in which governance has proceeded under the watch of the Acting President.
It has to be recognised that Section 145 of the Constitution is in place not only to prevent a lacuna in governance in the event that a president is on vacation or is unable to perform the duties of the office, but also to ensure that Nigerians know where the locus of power resides at every point. Ordinarily, all power resides with the president and the vice president is there to assist him. But where the president is unavailable as stipulated by Section 145 of the Constitution, the power devolves to the vice president, such that the Acting President becomes the locus of power and government activities. Indeed, to emphasise that there would be only one locus of power at any point, Section 145 further provides thus: “…until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such functions shall be discharged by the Vice – President as Acting President.”
It is clear from this section that the constitution does not provide for the president and the Acting President at the same time. Rather, the Acting President comes into view because the president is on vacation or is otherwise unable to perform the duties of the office, in which case the Acting President position ceases as soon as the president is back, which would be when “he transmits … a written declaration to the contrary” to the National Assembly. In the absence of such a written declaration, the Acting President continues to be in charge and it would be erroneous to continue to pretend that the president is in charge under such circumstances.Unfortunately, this has been the situation since President Buhari embarked on his medical vacation.
We have seen government officials appearing at public functions to represent a president that is no more available officially. The truth is that the constitution recognises only one presidency presided over by the president and, in his absence, officially by the Acting President. A situation in which officials go about pretending that they are representing the president who is officially unavailable does not accord with the constitution and does not give the right impression about a unified presidency and government. All duties to be performed by the president are now the preserve of the Acting President and officials representing the Presidency and the government ought to speak now in the name of the Acting President. It is incongruous for the government to speak of both the president and the Acting President.
The fact that there is an Acting President in place means that the president is still officially on leave or vacation and is therefore unavailable. Unfortunately, it is not just other government officials that are falling into this error, as the Presidency itself recently released greetings by the president to Nigerians on the occasion of the Eid-el-Fitr celebrations. Yet, nobody has officially informed Nigerians that the president is back in office or has transmitted a written declaration to that effect to the National Assembly. This is to introduce confusion into governance as Nigerians are left with doubts about the true state of things. Even where and when the Acting President performs all the duties, Nigerians are not oblivious of the fact that he is still operating on behalf of the president, but how that is coordinated should be behind the scenes, instead of unleashing on Nigerians the untenable situation of both the president and the Acting President.
This incongruity was well displayed in the instance cited here as the Acting President could no more greet Nigerians for the Eid-el-Fitr celebrations because the greetings of the president had been released in spite of the fact that it was indeed the Acting President who received the Muslim delegation to the Aso Rock Villa and he was the one in office to officially respond to the celebrations. There is therefore the need to streamline things and ensure that government officials know the full implication of having an Acting President, such that a stop would be put to the continuing confusion of deploying the office of the president – where he is officially on vacation – and the position of Acting President together. The Acting President officially speaks for the Presidency now until the president returns and there should be no unwholesome intrusion to create governance problems by further introducing the president into the governance structure under an Acting President.