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Yar'adua: And we did nothing, By Reuben Abati

By Reuben Abati

Culled from www.ngrguardiannews.com - The Guardian online version of Sunday February 28, 2010

What we see is not as dangerous as what we do not yet know. This is probably the best way to describe the theatre of the absurd currently being played out in Nigeria with regard to the illness of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. And because what we do not yet know may prove to be truly dangerous, it is about time we began to draw the necessary lessons from President Yar'Adua's incapacitation, in the expectation that those whose moral authority has been so openly called to question will feel compelled to put Nigeria first. The Yar'Adua event was a tragedy foretold, but we all did nothing to prevent it. Nothing can be more tragic than the present season of uncertainty in which Nigeria has found itself. It is a complete mess, don't mind the fact that the Americans and the British are helping us to patch things together by trying to give Goodluck Jonathan the confidence that he badly needs.

Where were we all when Yar'Adua became President? I have heard the view expressed and I have also echoed that view that it is human to fall ill, and that certain other Presidents in other countries have been ill before Yar'Adua. The critical difference which we must stress is that Yar'Adua was ill before he became President. His condition was not concealed before he sought our votes. As Governor of Katsina State, he was out of the state for six months seeking medical help abroad. As Presidential candidate, he was perpetually struggling to show up on the campaign trail. We were all here when he travelled abroad and there were speculations that he had died, prompting former President Obasanjo to make that phone call: "Umoru, are you dead?". Obasanjo was deceiving other Nigerians, he was playing games with our future by insisting that only Umoru could succeed him. And yet we all agreed. Obasanjo's sick candidate won about 24. 6 million votes in the election. He didn't win by a narrow margin.

He won convincingly. Even if there have been concerns that the election was rigged, the INEC chairman sealed the matter by declaring that Yar'Adua was the most serious of all the candidates. He got more votes than more than half of all the 50 or so candidates put together. The man had hardly settled down in office before he began to travel abroad for medical care. He has been in and out of the country at least five times in the last two years for medical reasons. He was the sick President that everyone loved to crack jokes about. We did not take the connection between Presidential health and national security and stability seriously. The moment the National assembly realized that we had a sick President on our hands, that was when the members should have begun the necessary steps of protecting Nigeria. But our National Assembly is made up of unserious people. If the picture painted by Wale Okediran, a former member of that body in his novel, Tenants of the House is to be believed, then both the actions and the inactions of the National Assembly must be treated with suspicion.

We, the people, equally fell asleep. We enjoyed cracking jokes about the pigmentation of Yar'Adua's skin, or the coughs with which he punctuated every sentence. We did not see the need to worry about a possible tragedy. And now, the man is down, he is incapacitated and we are all protesting that the rule of law must be allowed to take its course. The Yar'Adua tragedy is a comment on the failure of the state. Because the Nigerian state has failed, it is possible for anyone to commit blue murder and get away with it. In handling the Yar'Adua health crisis, we have been building up a catalogue of illegalities, each illegality or moral failure is soon covered up, everyone latches on to what is expedient and we forget too soon. That is why it is possible for the Secretary to the Government of the Federation to say that the president had written a letter to the National Assembly reporting his ill health and desire to proceed on a vacation, only for a messenger in the Presidential palace to quibble about the same letter almost to the point of calling the SFG a liar, and up till this moment, the National Assembly has overlooked the exchange between Ahmed Yayale and Mohammed Abba-Ajji.

A serious legislature would have insisted on that letter being produced, failing which it would initiate impeachment proceedings against President Yar'Adua on the grounds of "gross misconduct." The National Assembly faltered and we all overlooked it. Then the same National Assembly decided that a statement on BBC amounted to a letter within the purview of Section 145 of the Constitution (which it is not), and it proceeded to pronounce Goodluck Jonathan Acting President and we all jubilated. Where is the letter that Yar'Adua should have written? Goodluck Jonathan began to act as President and we all queued up behind him, convinced that the Yar'Adua matter had been laid to rest. With the events of the last 72 hours, one clear lesson is that a nation that fails to do things right is bound to embrace crisis and water the seeds of its own destruction. Yar'Adua probably lost the gift of consciousness about three months ago. We all knew that the man was gravely ill, and yet when some charlatans reported that the man had signed Budget 2010, we all accepted it. The country has since then been operating a budget that may well be truly illegal but we are okay with that because it is convenient. So why won't a cabal smuggle Yar'Adua into the country in the night, and claim that the country can move on without the necessary questions being answered? Why won't anyone order troops to the Abuja airport without the Acting President knowing about this? Who ordered the troops out on Wednesday Feb. 24. That is a question that still has to be answered. The military hierarchy has issued a statement accusing mischief makers of trying to drag the military into politics. But that statement avoided the deployment of troops and who did it.

The military hierarchy says it believes in democracy and it has a duty to protect our democracy. It should prove that by telling Nigerians how solders ended up on the streets without the knowledge of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. That incident disgraces the Nigerian military and its claims to neutrality and professionalism. But can you blame Dambazzau and his boys? When the Jos crisis erupted, the Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed forces was in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Jonathan was not yet an Acting President or Commander of the Armed Forces. Who deployed the troops then? What Yar'Adua's incapacitation shows us is that a sick President who is not in a position to sign documents, treat files, and who cannot be seen by concerned visitors exposes his country to danger. For the past weeks, we have all shown great emotions about President Yar'Adua but this is no longer about him, it is about national security. The President's family doesn't get it. The National Assembly thinks this is about gerrymandering. No, it is about Nigeria and we didn't have to wait for Condoleeza Rice to remind us that this country is more important than individuals. We knew but we lacked the courage to act.

Where are we? We have a group of power-mongers who keep using the President's incapacitation to play the game of Ludo with Nigeria. They throw the dice, and they play what it comes up with, meanwhile they are buying time and privately pursuing their own unknown objectives. By Wednesday, they had issued a statement giving the impression that Yar'Adua was back and in charge, hence they referred to Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President. Turai Yar'Adua, the President's wife reportedly got carried away and started summoning Ministers and Presidential aides and for more than 24 hours she snubbed the same man who is supposed to be covering up for the President.

When that strategy failed, the same Presidency changed its stance telling us that Jonathan is acting President, "we are all under him," and Turai suddenly agrees to see the Vice President and his wife. But up till this moment, the Acting President cannot and has not been allowed to see the President. On this score, there has been unanimous condemnation. It needs to be added that although Nigerians voted for a sick man as president, they couldn't have expected that they would end up with a President who would turn the Presidential Villa into a maximum prison, and he the President would be thrown into solitary confinement. That Presidential Villa is public property. If Mrs Yar'Adua doesn't want her husband to be seen and she is not willing to subject herself to lawful authority, she should take her husband to their family house in Katsina.

The Nigerian Constitution says when a President is incapacitated, he is not fit to remain President. The test of incapacitation is left in the hands of members of the Executive Council of the Federation. The lawmakers had thought that members of that body will be honourable men and women; they didn't imagine that the Council will be filled with careerists who will serve husband and wife and bow and scrape just to protect their spoils of office. Only one person among the whole lot and that is Dora Akunyili has taken a principled stand. Weeks later, the bootlickers are still dancing on one spot. This is why the Yar'Adua tragedy is about all of us: the greed of the Nigerian political elite, the failure of institutions, and the desperation of housewives. Only God knows when last Yar'Adua uttered a word. But in his name, Nigeria is being throwing hither and thither.

What is incapacitation? Yes, Nigeria has not dealt with this situation before, but there are useful examples from other jurisdictions. Commonsense may also be useful. The Yar'Adua power bloc has admitted that Jonathan is Acting President (already they have defeated their purpose of bringing the President home, should they decide that he must return to Saudi Arabia, they will need to come up with new tricks). Step by step, they are bound to shoot themselves in the foot. The manner of President Yar'Adua's return further confirms his incapacitation. If he was resting after a long flight, a period of 72 hours is more than enough to shake off jet-lag. And if he is recuperating, should that prevent him from seeing the Acting President? Mrs Yar'Adua and the small clique who have access to the President are unwittingly giving the impression that the man has a contagious disease. Is he in quarantine? Does the First Lady wear gloves and overalls to be able to approach him? Presidential incapacitation is so dangerous to national security that the Americans had resolved not to play games with it since the case of Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Wilson had a stroke and his wife Edith seized the machinery of the Presidency; Wilson's Ministers and aides were not allowed to see him for the remaining 17 months of his tenure. Everyone took instructions from his wife. America has shown that in a modern society, that could prove fatal hence the 25th Amendment of 1967 which was introduced to cure the mischief of Presidential incapacity and to prevent such vacuum that could trigger instability. As recently as 2001 when the 9/11 incident occurred, the United States still took another look at Presidential succession to be sure that at no time is the Presidency of the United States uncertain. The Continuity of Government Commission imagined a scenario in which many leaders of government could be wiped out in one day and how to reconstitute the state machinery immediately and keep the Government going. Its second report was titled "Presidential Succession." It is an issue that Nigerians must focus on intently and redefine.

America takes itself seriously. Its leaders know that a vacancy in the Executive Branch or any form of uncertainty at the highest levels could prove fatal for America's interests in the world. We have all heard about the secret nuclear codes that are known only to the US President. It is equivalent to the deployment of troops in Nigeria or the management of the country's oil resources. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1967, it took exactly two hours eighteen minutes for Lyndon Johnson to be sworn in. When Reagan went to the hospital for surgery on July 13, 1985, he had to relinquish the Presidency to then Vice President George Bush from 11. 28 am to 7. 22 pm. Both Clinton and George Bush Jnr. have also had to deal with the threat of Presidential incapacitation.

On June 29, 2002, President George Bush Jnr handed over power to Vice President Dick Cheney for two hours to enable him sort out a colon surgery. The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 further drew attention to the crisis of presidential incapacitation and the implications for democratic stability. A weak president weakens a nation. The test of incapacitation is the ability to remain conscious. Roosevelt was in a wheelchair but that was not a problem: he was conscious and alert. Perhaps a useful study of Presidential incapacitation in the United States is Kevin McQueeney's "Incapacitation in the Oval Office: Presidential Disability," a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House Hotel, Chicago, IL, April 12, 2007.http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p196596_index.html. McQueeney demonstrates that early American Presidents also tried to hide their incapacitation and did not readily relinquish power, but that has since changed with increased media scrutiny of the Presidency. Nigeria should learn from best practices.

Is President Yar'Adua conscious? Is he in charge of his own affairs? Can he take decisions? Or he is at the mercy of his wife and a medical team? A President who cannot be seen by visitors, who cannot appear in public, and who cannot even talk to his people after a long period of absence is without any doubt incapacitated. If he is no longer in a position to decide for himself, the National Assembly has a duty to rescue Nigerians from the underserved punishment of seeing our country wobbling at the top. Our lawmakers must not assume that Nigerians will soon get used to the situation of having a sick man in the house, a wife who calls the shots illegally, and an Acting President who has to keep looking over his shoulders because he is not allowed to act.

The Nigerian Presidency at the moment is in a vague and indecisive mould. That is frightening. If there is any office where absolute clarity is required, it is at the Presidency which is so central to the democracy that we claim to run. The way forward is for the National Assembly and the Executive Council of the Federation to set in motion the processes for ensuring that Nigeria does not continue to suffer the effect of having a President who does not fulfil Hamilton's suggestion in the US Federalist Papers of "an energetic executive, one that is not weak." This should include relieving President Yar'Adua of his position. The real people on trial are the legislators.

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