Nigeria is once again enmeshed in a deep constitutional and power crisis that, if not quickly and amicably resolved, would precipitate the collapse of the country’s young (a ten year old is still a child) democracy. Unfortunately, none of those involved in the crisis is wise (or bold) enough to fully understand the situation and act selflessly to save the country.
Nigeria now has two presidents: one substantive and the other in an acting capacity. The substantive was not feeling too well and had to be evacuated for treated in a foreign hospital. The National Assembly, after playing hide and seek for more than 70 days, controversially relied on the president’s interview with the BBC to empowered the vice to assume powers as acting president until the substantive president returns and communicate to them accordingly. As the acting president was settling down for business and the legislatures were boasting and beating their chests for having saved the country, the substantive president was dramatically brought back into the country under the cover of darkness and escorted to the seat of power under heavy military security.
Quite interestingly, this was done without the permission or even knowledge of the acting president and commander-in-chief. As far as the ‘hawks in power’ and military are concerned, their commander-in-chief is back and the ‘so-called acting president’ can go to hell. Unfortunately, Nigerians and some members of the National Assembly feel otherwise but appear incapable of doing anything. The governors also added to the confusion recently by insisting that Yar’Adua remains substantive President while Jonathan remains acting president. They choose to forget or ignore the maxim that there cannot be two captains in a ship. It was the legendary Leopold Senghor who once scoffed at the idea of sharing power between a prime minister and president insisting that it was not possible or feasible in Africa. The presence of both presidents in Aso Rock raises several questions, but for me the most crucial is the one that has to do with who exercise of the very important office of commander-in-chief? Perhaps a short historical excursion will help us appreciate this question better.
Nigeria in the First Republic practised the British model of parliamentary democracy that shares power between the president and commander-in-chief whose functions are mostly ceremonial and the prime minister who is the head of government and chief executive. Following the charade that was the 1964 federal elections, the President and Commander-In-Chief, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose duty it was to call on the leader of the party that wins a majority in parliament to form a new government, claimed he could not, in good conscience, call on Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to form the government. Nigeria was thus thrown into a constitutional crisis that lasted for three days during which there was no government in Nigeria. But even before the results of the elections were announced, Azikiwe had invited the head of the Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Welby-Everard to find out if the military will back him, he being the constitutionally designated “Commander-In-Chief” of the armed forces in the case of a showdown with the prime minister. Aware of the surreptitious moves by Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa also reached out to the military and reminded them that their loyalty must be with him as the head of government. Of course, the military authorities sided with the Prime Minister no thanks to counsels from mostly British personnel in and outside of the country. That of course, castrated the president and left him with no option than to either accept to a compromise or take the honourable path of resigning his position on moral grounds. But since resignation is an alien practice in Nigeria nay Africa, he chose to hang-on and did agree to a dubious compromise that exacerbated, rather than resolve the problems thrown up by the illegitimate elections. The prime minister also, instead of relying on political pressure and the support of the military to sustain get him reinstated, could have approached the courts to help resolve the crisis.
This open courting of the military by the duo of Azikiwe and Balewa exposed the military, as it were, to the highly tempestuous Nigerian political environment and only succeeded in making the military, in the words of Billy Dudley, “ultra-sensitive of the blurred boundary lines separating the ‘military’ from the ‘civil’ and the ‘legal’ from the ‘political’” and made it (the military) increasingly aware of its power to influence or even displace the political authority. It was not surprising therefore that a year afterwards, the military acted to bring to an abrupt end the insufferable government. Much as the military was blamed for over-stepping its boundary, it was clear that its intervention became inevitable the moment it was drawn into the crisis and forced to take sides. The conclusion from that sad event is that both Azikiwe and Balewa deliberately or inadvertently helped to subvert the very constitution they both swore to uphold and defend.
Almost 47 years after, and with just 10 years of wrestling power back from the military that has held the country hostage since then, our leaders are again back to their old ways of knocking on the lion’s den and dragging it out to officiate in the fight between two rams. When has it become the practice and duty of the military to cordon off the airport and take over the capital city just because a president is returning from an overseas trip? Who issued such directives and why must it be kept secret from the acting president and commander-in-chief who should be the one to issue such directives in the first place?
The drama playing out in Aso Rock does not portend well for the safety and stability of our new found love (democracy) at all and shows us as a people who do not learn from history. The substantive president was stealthily rushed back home and straight to Aso Rock even when he is clearly incapable of governing. Maybe to demonstrate to the acting president and the National Assembly who was really in charge, he, or at least his aides, ordered the deployment of fully armed military units to the airport and major streets in the capital city to wait on him as he disembarks the plane and drives majestically to the presidential palace without the knowledge of the acting president? Not done yet, he issued a statement to the effect that he was back and wasted no time in putting the acting president in his rightful place by referring to him as the vice president in total disregard of the National Assembly who empowered him. It took widespread international protestations for him to beat a retreat and recognise his vice as acting president. In all these, the Senate and House of Representative pretended they did not know what was happening. None of those that matter seems to be asking the very important question of where the military had to be dragged into the fray to settle political scores. For now, it remains to be seen how two presidents would coexist in Aso Rock at the same time and without engaging in the legendary fight of two elephants.
But since our so-called elected representatives have decided to bury their heads in the sand while the hawks in the presidency toy with the future of the country, they must be reminded that when the men in khaki struck, they may well be the first victims. God help Nigeria.
Christopher Akor lives in Ibadan