(Vanguard of Sunday December 24, 2006)
This Season of Love is going to witness one of the most ugly confrontations this country has seen for years. I can predict the confrontation but I would not know who would blink first. The gladiators are the Vice President on the one hand and the President and his team on the other. The issues are straightforward – Vice President Atiku Abubakar is by the provisions of the Constitution the man without whom the President would not have been President. Not because Atiku is Atiku, but because the President cannot run without a vice president, just as the Governor cannot run without a deputy governor.
The presence of the President and the Vice President is, therefore, a requirement of the Constitution. Section 142 makes it clear that they shall belong to the same political party as at the time they are presented for election. But once there, what should the situation be? Can the President lose his position as President if he quits his party or can the Vice President’s position be declared vacant if he quits the party under whose platform he assumed office? This is what this Season of Love is going to put up with when before Christmas or definitely by the first few weeks of the New Year those who are the storm troopers in the Peoples Democratic Party line up their weapons of war against the army of the Vice President who by what happened in Lagos on December 20 seemed to have parted ways with the PDP by accepting to run for President on the ticket of the Action Congress (AC).
There is a background to the story. The President and the Vice President came to power in 1999 on the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In 2003, they also won the election on the same ticket. A lot of water passed under the bridge and the Vice President lost favour with the President. So shattered was the relationship that the public has been entertained with material which ought to have been left in the archives of government for many years to come. Don’t forget that government has the Official Secrets Act which makes the people know only what the government wants them to know.
Keeping the secrets of government secret has always been the motto of those in office. And looking back, it is only when another government comes that what had been hidden in the files comes out, especially when the government that left was in the bad books of the one that succeeded it. But since 2003 when the President returned to power with his deputy who had called the shots comfortably between 1999 and 2003, things have changed. Mr. President insists that he is the boss and that everyone else must know it and accept it. He cannot be faulted here because the Constitution benches the Vice President until the President goes on leave, or is otherwise incapable of performing the functions of his office.
Because of the humiliation the President was said to have suffered in 2003 when he sought to return to office, he decided to put the Vice President where he belongs, on the reserve seat. And so, very systematically, the powers given to the Vice President during the first term were removed, and by the end of last year, his hold on the party was finally destroyed through a re-engineering process which saw his supporters schemed out of control of the party machinery. The Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM) which had been the soul of the party pulled out of the party and finally, with other groups, emerged as the Action Congress. Although everyone knew that the Vice President was more at home with the AC than the PDP, it was going to be a question of time before the fowls would come home to roost.
The PDP itself had metamorphosed into a political party in which the President had become the sole reference point. The changes in its constitution at its convention mid-December point to no other conclusion than that the PDP has become the personal property of the President in or out of office, and forever. It was during the build-up to the convention in which Katsina State Governor Umar Musa Yar’Adua was nominated the party’s flag-bearer for the 2007 elections that it became obvious that the Vice President would have to seek his fortunes outside the PDP if he really was interested in going for the top post. To castrate him in the PDP, he had been suspended from the party for a period that would see the entries for office close before his case would be revisited. And going to court to question the action of his party did not pay off.
The advisers to the Vice President must have told him to stay in office and seek his mandate to rule Nigeria through any of the other political parties. So, the Vice President sat there at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos on December 20, just one day to the close of entries for the presidential slot, and watched as he was nominated the flag bearer of the Action Congress. In spite of the fact that no other candidate indicated interest in the office, the party went into the routine of voting to ensure that Atiku had more Yes than No votes from the 774 local government areas that were said to have been represented at the convention.
But what will the President do? That is the question. He can do what the Constitution says or take some other step which would be questionable. The questionable step would be to declare the seat of the Vice President vacant, as many have been advising. The argument goes like this, “The President is entitled to the loyalty of those who work with him, including the Vice President. For some time now, the Vice President has openly disagreed with the President, even openly criticized government policies and programmes. He has no moral reasons to stay in office where he is making no contributions and where he only accesses material with which to undermine the government he should be part of sustaining and supporting.”
But the truth is that the President has no power to declare the position of Atiku vacant. If he does, he will be creating a constitutional crisis because Atiku would insist on remaining in office while he seeks a court’s interpretation of what the Constitution provides. The Jigawa State Governor left the ANPP with his cabinet and members of the House of Assembly. But for the fact that the members of the House could say there was a crisis in the ANPP, their seats would have been declared vacant. But there are strict provisions for removing the Governor and the Deputy Governor, and President and the Vice President from office.
There are four routes open to the President or the Vice President to quit office. In the first place, in the case under reference, the Vice President can take the personal decision to resign. If he must survive the criminal charges hanging on his neck, he must stay put in office and pursue his political dream. Until a court finds him guilty of a criminal offence, which cannot happen while he enjoys immunity from arrest and prosecution, he can go on to campaign for the office he seeks, hoping that the people will have the final say.
The second way out of office is if he dies. May God spare his life to help grow our democracy. The third way out of office for him is if he is declared unfit to continue to do his work. The proof for this is professional and it is not for the executive to pick the medical team that will establish a claim of incapacity. The final and most appropriate route out of office is through impeachment by the National Assembly.
But so unpopular is the PDP now among lawmakers who feel shortchanged that they would be waiting for an opportunity to have their own pound of flesh. Some loose-mouthed person was even telling me when this point was being discussed that it was easier to impeach the President than Atiku. I will not spend time on the claims but it must be understood that the impeachment option, if it must be grounded on the fact that Atiku quit PDP for AC, must accommodate the change of parties as a gross misconduct.
This Christmas Season coincides with the Greater Beiram festival, which should see Muslims and Christians looking upwards for guidance from on High. We need prayers so that those who are involved in campaigns to seek the mandate of the Nigerian people for the various positions will remember that those who started what we have adopted for growing our lives here did not have to kill and maim and destroy what they laboured for because they wanted to be councilors or Honourable Members of the House or Distinguished Senators or Executive Governors. Merry Christmas.
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 250 – 253; Lagos, 2008).