On November 23, 2009, President Umaru Yar’Adua left for Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to receive treatment for a heart condition and he was never seen in public again. The late President’s long absence and his failure to transfer power during this period to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan led to a constitutional crisis.
During the period, angry Nigerians held protest marches against the long absence of Yar’Adua. Even a few sentences Yar’Adua purportedly uttered in a BBC interview from his hospital did little to calm tensions in the country.
In January 2010, after three months and amid growing concern at the power vacuum, the Senate hinging their action on doctrine of necessity finally handed power to Jonathan and made him Acting President. Yar’Adua later returned to Nigeria in February 2010, and was declared dead in May of the same year.
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, who was one of the senators at the forefront of moves to find an end to the power vacuum, shares his experience at the time with SUNDAY ABORISADE
What do you think about Nigeria’s democracy so far?
Democracy in my opinion is a work in progress action and an ongoing process in which, as you are going along, you make corrections along the way. And as you make corrections, the process gets better. I have had to state on some occasions that sometimes it looks like we want to practise democracy without being democrats. So, what we see is the traditional concept of people not being willing to accept criticisms even though they claim to be democrats. Diverse opinions are the hallmark of democracy. In a situation where people want to differ from your own thoughts and feelings and then try to oppress the people, either by harming or jailing them because they have power, then, that is not democracy, that is something that is antithetical to democracy. My feeling really is that we have to be doing these corrections along the way. At one point, we started getting it right, in which case a government that the people feel no longer represents their interest will be voted out of power. Once that takes roots, and that makes people to know that they can easily lose power, then, their concentration will be to do the will of the people.
On November 23, 2009, the then President Umaru Yar’Adua was flown abroad for treatment and the stay was later prolonged. What did you think about it at the time?
At that time, we were basically new in the Senate. I was in my first term. There were lots of confusion which came about from the fact that there was no information from the Presidency and the Federal Executive Council. There was no clear interpretation of roles and duties by those who were wielding power then. The Attorney General of the Federation then, Michael Aondoakaa, played a very major role in confusing Nigerians at that time about what was actually going on. In the midst of the confusion, what we did within the Senate was to form a group. Some of us who shared similar views about what was happening came together and called ourselves the Nigerian Interest Group. Eventually, we made Senator Bala Mohammed the leader of the group, while Senator Smart Adeyemi was our spokesperson. We were basically about 10 senators drawn from the six geopolitical zones of the country. The reason we called it the NIG was because we felt that the interest of the country should come first and that everybody should follow the provisions of the constitution. We formed, more or less, a pressure group within the Senate. We were meeting with the leadership of the Senate and I will add that Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who was at that time, the Deputy Senate President, was also an enabler of the group. We engaged the leadership of the Senate and lobbied our other colleagues so that we could speak with one voice at the end of the day. We actually wanted a situation whereby we would be at the right side of history.
Were you not afraid that you could be arrested or victimised by the cabal in power at that time?
We were actually changing our meeting venues. We were meeting in our private residences. We were actually afraid that we could be arrested. We went to that extent because there was no transparency in government. Everybody was in the dark because nobody knew what was happening. So what we heard were innuendos, rumours and fictionalised stories and so on. Those who knew the true position of things found it very difficult to be open up to Nigerians and it got to a ridiculous extent that if we started questioning and asking about the whereabouts of the President at that time, one would be accused of wishing him dead. It was a very difficult period for Nigeria’s democracy. Thank God that every other part of the country and the Governors’ Forum came together. The civil society groups, former Heads of State, elders and statesmen in Nigeria all spoke with one voice; it was something that helped us to get out of where we were. Essentially, the constitution never took into consideration the prolonged absence of the President. This is because those who drafted the constitution did not envisage that such a situation could arise. I am pretty certain that it was the experience at that time that made us to amend the constitution and it was passed overwhelmingly by everybody, including the state Houses of Assembly. This singular act makes it impossible for Nigeria to have such a lacuna again. That was why, when President Muhammadu Buhari also had his health challenge, they quickly transmitted power to the Vice-President and he became the Acting President.
Will you say the process of amending the constitution at that time was a smooth process or you faced some challenges?
It was actually a serious battle to get the entrenched interests at that time to agree that Goodluck Jonathan should become the Acting President. That is why I earlier described democracy as a system where you do self correction along the way and that helps you to have a better understanding of the concept of power of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The then President didn’t write to the Senate to state that he would be travelling and that the then Vice-President would be the Acting President while he was away. Did this occur to you as strange at the time or you didn’t really think about it?
At the time he went abroad, did it immediately occur to you that the situation could lead to a vacuum in government?
We didn’t anticipate any form of lacuna until the letter refused to come.
Many Nigerians at the time didn’t know the true state of health of the President. Were senators aware of his health status?
We were not privy to the health situation of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, we just didn’t want a lacuna at that time in government. Everything was shrouded in mystery and all that we had were rumours and we felt that for a country like Nigeria, we shouldn’t actually be running the country in an opaque manner, in a situation where a national budget was signed and we didn’t know who signed it or how it was signed. It was just a very difficult and sensitive situation that we felt shouldn’t have happened.
During the period, do you know if the President communicated with the Senate or the House of Representatives from Saudi Arabia?
At that time, there was no communication from the President but we got information that there was a letter to be transmitted and the presidential liaison officer, Abba Aji, came to the Senate. And when he was questioned, he said no such letter was transmitted to him. Some people suspected that he actually had a letter but that he decided to take it back. The truth of it all was that we did not know anything about the letter. I guess the dramatis personae, if interviewed now, could shed more light on what happened at that time. We were just out there feeling that Nigerians should not be subjected to the opaque system that was going on then.
There were insinuations at the time that a cabal was using the President’s ill health to their own advantage and hiding his health status from Nigerians. How true was this to your knowledge?
In the absence of transparency there would be rumours. There must be transparency in government and this means that we need to know where we stand at any time. A country needs a Head of State at any time, either the President himself or an Acting President. A situation where the country was adrift and we never knew whether we had a President or not or whether he was active enough or inactive was not good enough. The Vice-President couldn’t act because he didn’t have any form of power. We actually felt that we should not have allowed a lacuna in government.
There were also insinuations that some people in the cabal were forging the President’s signature at the time, did the Senate attempt to investigate this or did the Senate find out anything about this?
We could only investigate contents and the source of a document that was communicated to the Senate. In this case, none of such communication came to us.
At a time when Nigerians heard that the President was really down, there was a BBC interview purportedly granted by the President at the time. What did the Senate make of the interview at the time?
It has been some time now but I know it happened. However we were more concerned about the transparency of governance. That purported interview elicited all manners of reactions. A lot of people believed it was another person’s voice and not that of Yar’Adua. No country can run on the basis of a non-observance of its own constitution and rules. When that happens, the leaders of such country have potentially laid a foundation for anarchy. Once people believe that there is nobody in charge of the country, then there would be confusion. The country would then not be safe. Anybody can make an attempt to take over power; even foreigners can invade the country at will. It was not just a very good period or a very good scenario for the country at that time. We have all learnt lessons from that and I think the lesson is that we amended the constitution to ensure that there would be no specific time that the country won’t have a leader at the helm of affairs.
According to the constitution, in such situations, it is the Federal Executive Council that should come out to state that their principal is incapable of discharging his duty. What do you think about this section of the constitution as it could be difficult for cabinet members to describe their boss as incapacitated even if they know he is?
That part was there but we also felt that it was a part of the constitution that made an assumption of fidelity to the constitution by those who were members of the Federal Executive Council. Today, it is very clear to everybody that an appointee of somebody cannot just wake up and declare his principal incapacitated. That part was not amended. We left it as it is.
According to the constitution, the health status of the President should also be ascertained by health professionals in such a situation. Why didn’t the Senate implore the Federal Executive Council to do that?
Inasmuch as the National Assembly should exercise its powers, we cannot in every document try to anticipate or assume that we don’t have enough fidelity within us. We may just find that a time will come in this country when that can happen. There are fundamental rights that every citizen enjoys. One of such is the right to privacy, so it is the right of a person to make their health status public or not. So, balancing the rights of an individual to that of his office is what made us not to go there. The assumption is that anybody who rises to the post of being President of Nigeria, also has those qualities of being able to put Nigeria first. So, if their ailment or ill health would make them not to be able to serve Nigeria properly, they ought to do the needful by resigning their position.
Eventually, it was a former Minister of Information, Dora Akunyili, who was brave enough to speak out about the President’s condition. What did you make of her bravery at the time?
Akunyili was an amazon; she had gone through so many things and she just couldn’t continue with the charade that was going on. I think a lot of people, especially Nigerians, commended her for her bravery. Some Nigerians equally condemned her. I remembered when she appeared on the floor of the Senate following her re-nomination and she was questioned, the Senate Whip at that time, accused her of eating with the Yar’Aduas and then turned round to stab them in the back. That is human nature and that also showed our fixation on personal relationship rather than putting the state well above our personal feelings.
The Senate later had to intervene and vote that Goodluck Jonathan should be sworn in as the Acting President to solve the problem using what was called the Doctrine of Necessity. Could you tell us more about how that came about?
There were meetings between the leadership of the National Assembly, the then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, and the Governors’ Forum before we came up with the Doctrine of Necessity.
We learnt that the Senate was under pressure not to declare Jonathan as the Acting President, where was the pressure coming from?
I am not aware that there was any pressure from outside. Our group (NIG) was actually in the forefront of the struggle and we were pressurising the executive. We were mounting pressures on them that somebody needed to be in charge of the country. Since no information was given by those who claimed that the late President Yar’Adua was still healthy, we carried on with our struggle. I remembered that there was a statement made by one of them that he (Yar’Adua) could rule from anywhere in the world. Essentially, what was motivating us was Nigeria not being left to drift around.
What options were being put forward by those against the swearing-in of Jonathan?
What they were saying was that the man (Yar’Adua) transmitted a letter to the National Assembly but we didn’t see any letter. They were insisting that he could rule from any part of the world.
Do you think the drama around the issue was mere politics or there was more to it?
I think some people were just desperate to remain relevant in power, with or without the President.
If Jonathan had not been sworn in, what do you think would have happened?
That one was in the realm of speculation and I don’t think I would want to go there. I don’t really want to speculate because at the end of the day, the country rose above all those petty interests.
Why didn’t the 6th Senate consider changing the constitution so that in future if our President is indisposed and didn’t write to the Senate for a transfer of power to his deputy, the constitution would easily take care of the matter? Why didn’t the Senate consider doing that?
The amendments captured everything. We don’t have to put everything inside the document. What the amendment did was to state that within a certain space of time that the President is not in the country, automatically, the Vice-President takes over. We don’t need to state that the President ought to transmit a letter. In other words, if a President knows that he is going to be outside the country beyond the number of days stated in the constitution, that President will also know that automatically, the Vice-President becomes the Acting President; we don’t need to swear him in.
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