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, 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.
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.
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 government.
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.
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.
Dr. Reuben Abati was spokesperson and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.