Opinion: Who is the Presidency? By Reuben Abati

When last week, President Muhammadu Buhari decided to suspend the
Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and the
Director General of the Nigeria Intelligence Agency, Ambassador Ayo Oke
in order to allow unfettered investigations of both public officers, the
most striking immediate reaction was the SGF asking: who is the
Presidency? State House correspondents had accosted the then SGF as he
left a meeting with the Vice President. It is standard practice at the
State House for correspondents to lay ambush. Babachir Lawal obviously
did not know that he had been suspended from office.


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If the Vice
President knew, he did not tell him. Again, that is how the Nigerian
Presidency works. Once you fall out of line or favour due courtesies may
not be extended to you. I was instructed on many occasions to wait
until certain persons left the Villa, before issuing their sack
statements. I once announced the disengagement of an important public
official from the Presidential wing of the airport, as our aircraft
taxied on the runway en route France.

In Babachir Lawal’s
case, he was asked to react to something he knew nothing about. When he
sought clarifications, the correspondents told him that the Presidency
had suspended him from office. Anybody in his shoes would have been just
as shocked as he was. He was right there in the Villa, and nobody told
him there was a knife at his back. Besides, he occupies a very strategic
office. The SGF’s office is the engine room of the Presidency.

The Chief of Staff may be the political, administrative head of the
State House, but the engine of the Presidency is in the office of the
SGF. He is in charge of Council meetings, the Ministers must interface
with him, the civil service also, and he is directly in charge of more
than 30 government agencies and parastatals. No key government event or
appointment can take place without that office. Presidential power is
delegated and distributed. The office of the SGF arguably has a larger
share, in other words, in real terms, that office is probably more
influential than every other office in the Executive arm of government.

The problem with privileged people in government, holding political
appointments, however, is that they often get carried away. They forget
that they are mere agents, exercising delegated authority. The illusion
of power and the delusion of agents constitute one of the major threats
in the corridors of power.

But the delusion of relatives,
associates and wayfarers is even worse. I have seen ordinary relatives
of the President threatening to be powerful, and mere acquaintances
claiming to be in charge of the Presidency. It got so interesting at a
point that a colleague, who had a First Class and whose only dream was
to get a Ph.D in his lifetime, kept insisting that he would devote his
doctoral thesis to a study of the impact of informal agents on
Presidential powers and authority. If waka-pass characters in the
corridors of power can lay so much claim to power, there can be no doubt
that privileged persons with big egos would be worse.
At that
moment therefore when Babachir Lawal asked the question: who is the
Presidency?, he must have thought of all the powers and influence in his
custody and imagined himself as being indeed the main engine of the
Presidency. His response to the correspondents was actually a retort:
“who will dare take such a decision behind my back? I am the Presidency
and I have just held a meeting with the VP. You reporters don’t know
anything. You are telling the Presidency that the Presidency has
suspended him from office?” By now, a week later, Babachir Lawal must
have learnt one basic lesson about power.
The lesson is simply
that it is power that gives power, when power withdraws power, what is
left is powerlessness. For example, another person has since taken
Babachir Lawal’s place in acting capacity and there is nothing he can do
about that. Some other politicians are also already being positioned to
take over that office eventually, so far three names have been
mentioned- Ogbonnnaya Onu, Adams Oshiomhole and Olorunnimbe Mamora and
it looks like there is a serious hustle for that office. Nobody is
likely to reject the job if Babachir Lawal loses it. Meanwhile, the
Presidency continues to move on while Babachir Lawal is under
interrogation. In the last week alone, the suspended SGF should also
have learnt a few more lessons about human beings. He may no longer ask
that question: who is the Presidency? He is more likely to be asking:
who is Babachir Lawal?
But that is a private question. No matter
how concerned we may be, we can’t answer it for him. It is a kind of
question, manifesting in form of a cross which every person must carry
at certain critical moments in their lives. When he asked that other
question however: who is the Presidency?, Babachir Lawal, beyond his
egoistic slip, threw up something anagnoristic, which is of significant
public interest. I offer to attempt an answer to the question.

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The simple answer is that the President is the Presidency – office,
power and system unified in one person. Under the type of Presidential
system that we run, the President of Nigeria is more or less a
unilateral person. He is Head of State, Head of Government, and
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. His powers are derived from the
Constitution, under which he is elected and which he swears to uphold
and defend, and it is also subject to it, that he is expected to
exercise his powers. The idea of our American-styled Presidential system
is further hinged on the doctrine of the separation of powers.

This makes the President the custodian of Executive powers and provides
constitutional checks and balances on those powers through the
legislature and the judiciary. The Constitution requires the President
for example to seek the National Assembly’s approval for appropriation
and certain appointments, and grants the legislature the powers to
impeach the President or pass a vote of no confidence, although this
oversight power is hardly exercised. The Judiciary is constitutionally
independent, and whereas the Executive approves the appointment of
judges, it is not granted the powers to dictate to the judiciary.

There are also certain independent bodies like the Electoral
Commission, the Federal Civil Service Commission, the National Judicial
Council and the Code of Conduct Bureau, which in the eyes of the law are
required to be free from partisan control. The President also cannot
take certain decisions without consultation. He consults such bodies as
the Nigeria Police Council, the National Defence Council, and the
Council of State, even if their advice is not binding on him. In making
appointments he is also required to respect the Federal Character
principle as stated in Sections 14(3) and 147(3).

The sum effect
of the constitutional powers of the President under the 1999
Constitution in addition to the residual and implied powers of that
office is that what we have in Nigeria at the moment is an imperial
Presidency, far more imperial than the imperialism of the American
Presidency contemplated and analysed in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr’s book
of the same title. Sections 5, 11, 157, 158, 215, 216, 218, 231, 305,
and 315 of the 1999 Constitution grant the President of Nigeria enough
powers to compromise the authority and impact of the other two tiers of
The exercise of so-called residual and implied powers
makes the situation worse. The President can hire and fire, enter into
covenants on behalf of the country, send police men onto the streets,
send troops to war and seek legislative approval later, he can give
national honours, grant pardon, spend money and seek approval within a
time-frame, insist on the declaration of an emergency, and act as he may
wish in the national interest.

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This imperialism is a throwback
to the monarchical nature of primeval societies. It is sustained sadly
by contemporary myths, the thinking that the President is a mythical
repository, a superhero- the man who has all the answers and who can do
all things. Other players within the system at all levels, be it the
legislature or the judiciary, the private sector or the civil society,
also actively promote this myth and concede to it. The result is that
power becomes centripetal. The people unwittingly submit their
sovereignty. The idea of the President as a savior is a sad re-imagining
of our democracy, which in full flight over-extends the symbolism and
powers of the Presidency and threatens to make the legislature and the
judiciary irrelevant and thus displaces the people from being partners
into consumers of government propaganda and tyranny.
By regarding
their Presidents or Heads of states as super-heroes, Nigerians place
them above democracy and short-change themselves. This has been our
dilemma since 1960. Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first and only Prime
Minister was the super hero who received the instruments of independence
from the British colonialists, but by 1966, he had led the country into
trouble. Yakubu Gowon, a soldier, took over. He was the super hero who
led the country through a civil war and held it together, but he was
soon shoved aside by another super hero, Murtala Muhammad, also a
soldier. From Muhammad to Obasanjo, the military held sway until 1979
when the military returned power to a civilian “super hero”, Shehu
Shagari. Shagari’s task was to prove that civilians could take charge of
their own affairs, but the civilians messed up and the soldiers
returned: Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, Abdusalami Abubakar, all super
heroes who deployed power in different ways. Fast-forward to 1999 and
the return to civilian rule since then.
What seems clear is that
the extent to which every Head of State and Head of Government exercises
Executive powers is a function of personality and the surrounding myths
and circumstances. President Olusegun Obasanjo was such a total
embodiment of Presidential powers every knee bowed before him. Those who
resisted him regretted doing so in one form or the other. If he had
actually insisted on a Third term in office, he could have possibly
gotten away with it. He understood the full extent of his powers as
President and he was not afraid to put those powers to test. He was
succeeded by Umaru Yar’Adua who became President primarily because some
powerful persons didn’t want some other people in that office and merely
to pacify certain interests but eventually illness and death truncated
President Yar’Adua’s potential.
President Goodluck Jonathan
became acting President and later President also as a superhero.
Nigerians used him to remind the North that in a Federation, no single
region is “born to rule,” and that all Nigerians have full rights under
the Constitution. The North never forgave Jonathan. In his case, he
seemed to have played into the hands of his opponents by refusing to use
Presidential powers to their fullest extent. He publicly declared on
more than one occasion that power should not be wielded like a whip. He
conceded a lot, some say too much to God, and to the opposition, and for
this reason, many courtesans of power in Nigeria have also not forgiven
him especially for being humble and for allowing power and office to go
in the opposite direction.
His successor is a war-hero, a former
soldier, who is not shy about being a Nigerian super-hero. He is
wielding power and using it. The only problem is that a fully imperial
Presidency creates its own contradictions, most of which the subject
teaches us, is internal and therefore far more damaging to the system
and democracy itself. Under no circumstance should an elected leader
appear more powerful than the people, and the checking and balancing
systems so vulnerable. The note-taking on this and the long-term dangers
in the context of Nigeria’s democratic process and experience is, for
now, a work in progress… Babachir Lawal, I hope I have answered your
question? I hope you now know who and what the Presidency is?

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