By Festus Eriye
IN the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election results, then President Ibrahim Babangida famously declared that he and his junta were ‘not only in office but in power.’
He was responding to questions about what he intended to do about the large protests in parts of the country against the poll result cancellation.
His arrogant comments which were meant to send a chilling message of caution to the protesters, aptly captures the reality of life for some in the corridors of power. You may occupy a seemingly powerful office, but in reality exercise only limited power.
For Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, his place in the Aso Rock power equation was back as a talking point this week.
Controversy was reignited by President Muhammadu Buhari signing the amended Deep Offshore Act in London whilst still on his two-week private visit.
Pointedly, the bill was ferried him to him in Britain for assent by his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari – a clear reminder of the direction from which power still flows, notwithstanding the fact that the president is out of the country for all of three weeks.
In his absence Osinbajo has already presided over the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting – a duty Buhari would most probably have handled himself had he been on the ground.
For some, the symbolism in Kyari taking the bill to London for signature is another sign that the Vice President is increasingly marginalised.
Others are interpreting it to mean Buhari ‘taking back control’ of his presidency and clutching jealously to its powers.
Several weeks ago the issue was the transfer of certain social intervention programmes hitherto overseen by the Vice President’s office to the newly-established Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
Although Buhari in his Independence Day address explained that his action was informed by the need to institutionalise the programmes, conspiracy theorists were not convinced.
Their suspicions are understandable given that the changes were swiftly followed by an instruction to Osinbajo to always seek presidential approval concerning contracts in the agencies under his supervision. The VP’s office reacted that he had always followed due process.
His actions thereafter helped to quell the rumours of unrest in high places. Instead of sulking he would at every opportunity reaffirm his unflinching loyalty to his boss. If there were problems, he ascribed them to the machinations of ‘fifth columnists.’
The Vice Presidency is number two in the nation’s power hierarchy. It is a strategic office – powerful largely because its occupant becomes president if the incumbent dies or is impeached. The spare tyre metaphor is widely used to describe it. We saw that play out in the case of Goodluck Jonathan stepping into the shoes of Umaru Yar’Adua.
Aside this advantage of positioning, the Vice Presidency under our constitution can also be very limited in influence as its occupant is only as powerful as the incumbent president wants him to be. Buhari or any other president isn’t obliged to empower his deputy beyond what the constitution allocates to him.
The constitution puts him over certain organs of state like the National Economic Council (NEC), but that doesn’t automatically translate to being head of the economic management team. A president may choose, as Buhari did recently, to seek counsel from elsewhere.
As Vice President, Jonathan wasn’t very powerful or influential. In fact, legend has it that he was largely a passenger – sidelined in the scheme of things whilst in that role. Some governors, even from his South-south zone, related with him from the sense of his limited clout within the Yar’Adua administration. They would later pay a price for not treating him with sufficient respect as VP.
In the Fourth Republic, Olusegun Obasanjo’s deputy, Atiku Abubakar and Osinbajo have been the most powerful Vice Presidents – especially in their initial terms.
In Atiku’s case the humiliation he dished out to Obasanjo’s in his bid to get a second term had a telling effect on their relationship later on. This largely informed the former president’s concerted campaign to neutralize his erstwhile second-in-command.
While there hasn’t been the same sort of falling out between Buhari and Osinbajo, it is hard not to see parallels in reduced clout. Even in the sharing of appointments to his home state of Ogun, former Governor Ibikunle Amosun’s candidates have had a field day to the detriment of the most senior political office holder from the state.
But is history repeating itself? Are the VP’s political fortunes on the wane because some of those who have been hurt by his actions as Acting President are ganging up on him? We need weightier evidence before jumping to conclusions.
If there is no conspiracy as such, then did Buhari do something illegal by not transferring power to the VP whilst away for three weeks? What does the constitution require of him?
In September this year, Buhari in a reply to a suit querying why he didn’t hand over to Osinbajo when he embarked on a 9-day ‘private visit’ to Britain in April, argued that the constitution only required him to do so if his vacation exceeded 21 days.
The Presidency has also sought to defend the signing of the bill in London on grounds that Buhari can exercise his powers as president from any location on earth.
The same argument was made by former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa, when Yar’Adua suddenly disappeared and was rumoured to be in Saudi Arabia. When people asked who would sign the budget if passed, he retorted that it would be taken to him for signature as he could act as president from wherever he chose.
But even if Buhari has followed the constitution scrupulously, the optics don’t look right. The last time he was in the UK on medical leave, he sent back aides who had brought papers for his signature – telling them to go to the man who was in-charge. Perhaps, today Osinbajo isn’t Acting President as he was then.
Or, maybe the amended Deep Offshore Bill was time-bound and needed to be signed in a hurry, and only by the president, to meet some National Assembly requirement.
In the absence of clearer insight there is plenty of room for speculation as the intriguing ahead of 2023 kicks in.
Buhari and his advisers should also understand that legalese is not always adequate to explain away awkward moves in a political environment.