Who Is The Presidency? –Reuben Abati

Who Is The Presidency? –Reuben Abati
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, Ambassador 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.

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

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).

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

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.

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.

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.

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.