The Delphic letter
The letter that President Muhammadu Buhari sent to the National Assembly on May 7, 2017 indicating his desire to go to the United Kingdom on a medical vacation is generating both healthy and unhealthy remarks. The reason is because the letter is Delphic; it is capable of being interpreted in more ways than one; it is ambiguous. But the President had written letters before citing Section 145 of the 1999 constitution and there was no furore. The section states: “Whenever the President transmits to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.” Why, then, did anyone see something wrong with this last letter? The President referred to section 145 of the constitution but added that while “I am away the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the government.” Eyebrows were raised because in the past the President always specifically stated that “the Vice President would perform the functions of my office as Acting President.”
Senator Mao Ohuabunwa (PDP Abia North) was quick to notice the semantic difference in the wording of the letter. He rightly pointed out that there is no room in the Constitution for the Vice President to be a “Coordinator” other than the Acting President when the President is away. Without any recourse to legal punditry it is possible to say that once the President had mentioned the relevant Section 145 everything else said in the letter was superfluous and irrelevant. Senate President, Bukola Saraki, handled the matter with legislative deftness by limiting debate and declaring that the Vice President is now the Acting President. That has settled matters for now but the matter deserves, for the purpose of our continuing dialogue on the state of our democracy some interrogation and with some introspection.
It is entirely possible that Buhari did not see the wording of the May 7 letter as significantly different from the earlier letters he had written on the same subject. It is also possible that he did not think that if there was a difference in the wording of the letter that there would be any raising of eyebrows. It is also possible that the President may have considered the monotonous repetition of the same words boring and decided to give that section a little twang of his own, some linguistic flavouring even though we know him to be a plain-speaking man who is not a connoisseur of linguistic niceties. But it must be acknowledged that presidential communication may sometimes go through several wedding cake layers of intermediaries and spin experts for the purpose of delivering the message as the boss wants it or be seen to want it. But in every case specificity or, better put, clarity is more important than even the remote possibility of an ambiguity. It is the former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who left for our everyday utilization the immortal words: “With words we govern men.” Whether the word giver is a public or private sector person, those words he gives must be understood the way he, the word dispenser, intended. When there is room for misinterpretation then there is a communication failure.
In our governance lexicon, the word “coordinator” had reared its ugly head before. President Goodluck Jonathan had appointed the Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala aka Ngozi Wahala, as the Coordinating Minister for the Economy. That position apparently put her in a situation that she could, and apparently did, regard herself as primus inter pares (first among equals), an expression that is often used for the British Prime Minister. Other Ministers resented the arrangement and derisively called her behind her back “Deputy President,” meaning that she was the de facto second in command. She did not get the cooperation she expected and Jonathan did not get the results he wanted. But in this case the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, is not a minister; he is not an equal of the ministers so as the Acting President he is not first among equals; he is not simply a coordinator of government activities even though he may coordinate. He is the Acting President who when he is in that position has the same powers as the substantive President. He is also the Acting Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. If we settle these issues now our democracy will be the better for it. Calling the Acting President a coordinator is an attempt at a demotion and we may wish to note that it is not a distinction without a difference.
The other day, the Personal Assistant to the President on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie, used the metaphor of the axe and the wood and came to the faulty conclusion that the Presidency is not like the man with the axe who, alone, does the job of splitting the wood. As I said in my column a few weeks ago – and it bears repetition – the Nigerian Presidency is, all things considered, a one-man show. Other persons may play “waka-pass” parts but the Nigerian president is the main event, the iroko tree, the big masquerade, the behemoth, the dragon and the leviathan. That is why the competition for that office is always ferocious and violent because there is an excessive concentration of powers in one man’s hands. He alone holds the axe with which to split the wood. Everybody else is holding either a pen knife, a kitchen knife, a pair of scissors or a razor blade. None of these inferior items can split the wood. They can only cut carrots, tomatoes, ugwu leaves or water leaf, nothing more. Secondly, Nigeria’s democracy institutions such as the parliament, the courts, the press and civil society are generally weak and sometimes complicit in such a manner that the tiger is often able to roar without restraint and even feels able to proclaim its tigritude as well. This excessive concentration of powers in the President and the Federal Government is part of the continuing debate on how to find the right mix of powers and responsibilities for each tier of government so that Nigeria can function fluently.
However, we must note that politicians everywhere sometimes choose to communicate in a manner that leaves room for speculation and uncertainty but also guarantees that, when the chips are down, there is an exit route for them. David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, in an article in that newspaper of March 13, 2004 had done a piece on Senator John Kerry. Kerry had sought to be President of the United States but didn’t get there. But he got something else as compensation, Secretary of State to President Barack Obama’s government. But as a Senator, Kerry was famous for making statements of naked ambiguity. At the end of the Gulf War, Kerry was one of the Senators that spoke on what lessons could be learnt. He said: “There is not a right or a wrong here. There was a correctness in the President’s judgment about timing. But that does not mean there was no incorrectness in the judgment other people were making about timing. Again and again in the debate it was made clear that the vote of the U.S. Senate and the House on the authority of immediate use of force on January 12, 1991 was not a vote as to whether or not force should be used.” During the Somalian war, the Senate thought there was a clear choice for the U.S. but Kerry rose to the occasion and put his excellent ability in obscurantism on parade. He said: “The choice for the United States of America is not between two alternatives only: staying in or getting out. There are many other choices in between which better reflect the aspirations and hopes of our country.” This is as clear as mud.
Buhari’s May 7 letter that bore the imprint of needless equivocation is uncharacteristic of him. His speeches are always simple and straightforward and devoid of either rhetorical pomposity or puzzling neutrality or Delphic exuberance. He is always able to say what he wants to say because that frankness, that ability to convey his stand on any issue, is his defining imprimatur. To be fair to him he lacks the despicable duplicity of many Nigerian politicians. That is why word mavens seem to hang on to the paralyzing suspicion that while the defect in the letter had nothing to do with punctuation, syntax or grammar, it certainly has something to do with something else: politics. On the face of it, there was no need to create any room by way of ambiguity for people to seek to find out if there was any other meaning, intended or unintended, about the letter. Lack of clarity can be fingered for that. Clarity would have deprived the letter of the prevailing coat of suspicion.
There is an enormously consequential question to all these. This is it: Is this the beginning of the instalmental dilution or diminution of the powers of an Acting President? Since one bad habit is capable of leading to another and gaining traction the public outcry is a worthwhile endeavour. The public’s show of concern is not necessarily because it distrusts its President, No. it is largely because the dignity of the Presidency can be compromised if the dignity of the Acting Presidency is compromised. Secondly, if there was a hidden motive – and I am not saying there was one – there will be from now onwards a diminishing appetite for such exertions in the near or far future. And the Presidency will be the ultimate beneficiary irrespective of who occupies the office at any particular time.