The controversy over Buhari’s letter to the National Assembly

BEFORE proceeding on his current medical vacation, the duration of which he informed the Senate would be at the behest of his doctors in the United Kingdom, President Muhammadu Buhari named Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as the coordinator of the affairs of the government. In his letter to the Senate President, the president said: “While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the government.”

If any mischief was intended, it was swiftly noted by the Senate, which wisely and quickly corrected the import of the strange term “coordinator” and asked the vice president to take full responsibility as Acting President, as specified by the Constitution. Thus, an unnecessary furore amongst the various political camps and interests in the country was averted. Although the attitude of the Federal Government as revealed by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, is that the controversy was a mere distraction since the letter invoked Section 145 Sub Section 1 of the Constitution, that is certainly not the case.

On the contrary, the controversy generated by the president’s letter to the Senate should be seen as a reflection of the people’s sensitivity to matters that  suggest any form of political sleight of the hand. The controversy also reflects the palpable mistrust amongst the country’s several political constituencies and interests which any administration intent on nation building must appreciate in its bid to build and reinforce trust in the country. It would be futile, not to say foolhardy, for the administration to expect a tranquil, sedate response from the people when it had suddenly and needlessly stirred the hornet’s nest.

Earlier this year when the president travelled to the UK for a similar reason, he had done the proper thing by naming the vice president Acting President as the Constitution required, and this action was generally lauded across the country. It therefore beggars belief that, this time, a different language was deployed in couching the president’s request before the Senate, even if it invoked the appropriate section of the Constitution. We believe that it was this change of language that constituted the needless distraction, not the controversy that naturally trailed it. If the Senate had not rightly staved off the repercussions that could trail the wrongly worded letter by doing the right thing and naming Professor Osinbajo as the Acting President, the polity could have been unduly heated.

The Senate really deserves commendation for this singular act of political correctness. It did not leave matters to fester. We also think that the executive should learn from this experience not to take the polity for granted, especially in matters regarding its public conduct.   It is crucial for the executive arm of government to be sensitive to the subtle feelings and inclinations of the people and be proactive both in responding to them and in meeting their yearnings. The controversy which trailed the letter to the Senate was just what was needed for the executive to wake up and change its attitude to a Nigerian public that is politically savvy and sensitive.

The attitude of papering over obvious cracks in the country’s political wall by pretending that they are not there is not helpful in advancing the country along the path of political sophistication. On the contrary, we think the helpful disposition is to confront these fears and mistrust courageously because the first step in solving a problem is recognising that there is one. It is therefore right that the controversy which trailed the letter to the Senate did the job of alerting the authorities to the latent and manifest fears and anxieties of the people. The lesson is that they ought to strive to take the appropriate action at all times.