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USAfrica: Is the job of Nigeria’s President “too big” for Buhari? By Chidi Amuta

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Dr. Chidi Amuta is the Lagos-based Executive Editor of USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica magazine, Houston

The dead farmers of Zabamari in north eastern Nigeria may have claimed a political casualty. They have dealt a further blow to President Buhari’s dwindling political capital. The mass murder of the farmers by a more emboldened Boko Haram has further heightened Mr. Buhari’s legacy of nationwide insecurity. If this were a realm with scientific opinion polling, by now the president’s job approval rating would have dived further south.

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On the scale of casualties in Nigeria’s new normal of copious blood -letting and human sacrifice, the Zabamari killings may not be so phenomenal. But in relation to the government in charge of today’s Nigeria, the audacious raid on the farmers was a direct assault on three critical planks of the President’s repeated commitments. His appeal to the rural majority of illiterate farmers and herdsmen up north as his critical base suffered gravely. His party’s identification of agriculture and food security as the basis of their entitlement to our attention has been badly shaken. Logically also, the truism that food security is central to national security especially in a republic over -populated by the poor suffered a devastating setback. Above all, the basic constitutional imperative that the security of life of every citizen is the primary obligation of the federal sovereign has been dealt a further devastating blow in a nation where serial state failure is emphasized by every new murder, every kidnap and every act of flagrant abuse of basic rights even by those entrusted with our protection.

Public reaction to this recent incident is part of a national outrage over incessant violent acts and rampant of insecurity. Across all the boundaries that unite and divide us, Nigerians have once again raised their voices to demand that the leadership rise to the occasion of protecting the citizenry from a worsening insecurity. Wole Soyinka, habitual gadfly of our tortured national conscience, has recently averred that perhaps no one in particular seems to have been in charge of the nation for all of 2020. Even the very consequential Northern Elders Forum has been more directly political in its response. They have suggested that Mr. Buhari should consider resigning from an office he viciously sought but whose demands now seem to have overwhelmed him.

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By far the most consequential voice has come from the National Assembly. A bipartisan and bi- cameral consensus has requested that the President should at least address the assembly on the wave of nationwide insecurity. Expectedly, this legislative pressure has been more vociferously championed by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with the significant nod of ruling party members including both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Following the initial assent of the Presidency to the request for a presidential address of a joint session of the National Assembly on the 10th of December, the nation looked forward to some insight into what is clearly a lingering national emergency. Suddenly, the presidency aborted the hopes. The president would neither address the National Assembly nor offer any explanations to an anxious nation.

Early speculations from insiders of the ruling party insinuated that the caucus of the opposition party had met the previous night and decided to heckle the president. 

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Other more outrageous propagandists insinuated that there may have been a plot to raise an impeachment motion on the floor of the Assembly after the address. None of these wild speculations seems founded.

The most concrete official excuse for the absence of the president from this much anticipated outing has come from Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, in his new role as both the nation’s chief law officer and some sort of political multi purpose jerry can. In Mr. Malami’s learned legal verdict, there is no law compelling the president to obey any summons by the National Assembly to address them on any subject. Beyond clanging his legal gavel on this contentious matter with annoying arrogance and majestic finality, the nation’s chief law officer proceeded to outline a novel presidential code of conduct on matters of national security. The president is barred from addressing the legislature on matters of national security because he may inadvertently divulge sensitive details of security strategies and operations that could jeopardize the cultic secrecy of national security!

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By the last account, the nation’s jurists and battalions of lawyers have since fanned out into conflicting formations to engage the Attorney General on the purely legal merits of his latest apologia for this unnecessary excuse for yet another embarrassing presidential absence from the call of urgent national duty.

For those who may be interested in Mr. Malami’s all too frequent extra legal interventions in presidential politics, his excuse for the latest presidential absence is yet another chapter in a familiar pattern of habitual political interloping. In a partisan framework, no one expects the Attorney General to be totally apolitical in his relationship to matters that concern his principal. But as the nation’s chief law officer, he is first and foremost accountable to the generality of Nigerians irrespective of their beliefs and party affiliations.  Because the rule of law is the basis of order in a democracy, the attorney general ought to be above thuggish roadside partisan frays. He must, in his utterances and general discharge of the onerous responsibilities attached to his office, reinforce the confidence of every Nigerian in the rule of law. It ought to concern Mr. Malami and his enablers that he has repeatedly fallen short of the lofty expectations of his office.

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The instances have been sometimes quite embarrassing.  For example, when the governors of the South West States rose in unison to establish their regional security outfit, Amotekun, I recall that Mr. Malami took recourse to his pre -eminent status to challenge the constitutionality of their choice. In spite of the clear constitutional provision that recognizes each state governor as the chief security officer of his state, Mr. Malami insisted that state and regional security outfits were unconstitutional. It took the combined legal muscle of the affected states and their legislatures to humble the Attorney General and emplace the security outfit. Today, Amotekun is real and the menace of Fulani murderous herdsmen and roving criminal gangs in the South West has diminished.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the recent ENDSARS protests, there were wild contentions among interested parties as to the real casualty toll at the Lekki Toll Gate. Mr. Malami’s contribution was to say that whatever casualties may have occurred were people probably shot by hoodlums! This outrageous and unguarded outburst led to calls for his resignation mostly from legal quarters across the nation. Even now, no one knows the extent of Mr. Malami’s involvement in the confusion enveloping the case of the embattled EFCC leadership. Some have blamed the plight of the embattled Mr. Magu on the Attorney General’s power grabbing syndrome. It would be appropriate in these circumstances for the Attorney General to protect himself and his office from unsavoury insinuations and unfortunate conclusions by rising to the lofty expectations of his high office.

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Beyond the obvious foibles of a clearly over politicized Attorney General, the latest ‘explanations’ of Buhari’s absence at a time of national emergency belongs in a different place. In an earlier instance during the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan, a similar summons was dispatched to Jonathan over matters of equally urgent national importance. Babtunde Fashola, then Governor of Lagos state and himself a distinguished Senior Advocate, stoutly argued that the summons was in order and adduced legal and constitutional reasons why Jonathan should honour it. In similar vein, the current Minister of State for Labour, also himself a Senior Advocate , argued then in respect of the Jonathan summons that the summons was in order as Section 89(1)(C) of the 1999 constitution  (as amended) empowers the National Assembly to “summon any person in Nigeria to give evidence at any place or produce any document or other things in  his possession or under his control”. We leave the legal brickbat to lawyers. The onus is on the Attorney General to battle his colleagues and convince Nigerians as to why an elected president should evade a summons to accountability by the nation’s parliament.

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On the political gravity of the matter on hand, purely legal arguments have no place. The National Assembly is the duly constituted legislature of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Its members sit as representatives of the Nigerian people. Their roles and responsibilities include legislating for the good governance of the nation. Most importantly, as representatives of the people, they mirror the sensitivities of their various constituencies. The joys and pains of all Nigerians are supposed to be mirrored by members of the Assembly. It is their duty to reflect and transmit these feelings to the executive especially the president. Therefore, if there is a matter of such grave national importance and urgency as the current internal security situation all over the country, it is only proper that the National Assembly requests the president to update them for the benefit of all Nigerians. There is nothing technical or legalistic about this most mundane of presidential responsibilities.

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Malami’s additional point of the need to protect the confidentiality of security information from the National Assembly is redundant and almost foolish. Any president worth his salt knows where to draw the line between an open televised address to the legislature and a briefing with the National Security Council for that matter. In any case, both chambers of the National Assembly have committees on the various arms of the security services where they are privy to sensitive security information. The Attorney General can exercise his freedom of opinion as a citizen, but he should not insult the experience of either the president or degrade the integrity and maturity of the members of the National Assembly.

The tradition of absence at sensitive moments would seem to have become part of the unique style of the Buhari presidency. At critical moments in national life when Nigerians expect to hear from the president, he has remained absent. In extreme cases, the president has had to be literally cajoled and dragged to the podium to address Nigerians in moments of national hurt or anxiety. Recent instances include the incoherence and protracted silence in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Then came the recent ENDSARS protests when Nigerians waited for weeks to hear from their president as the nation literally burned. Even where those utterances were extracted from the presidency, they were largely devoid of empathy or the kind of content that inspires a nation in an hour of need.

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At other times, Mr. Buhari has been content with maintaining a worrisome aloofness from public life. Yes indeed, he does keep a few scheduled appointments in his office. He receives guests, holds meetings and generally observes some sketchy schedule. But the general absence of the leader where and when the people need or expect him most has become a palpable trade mark of this presidency and also a burden to his reputation.

Understandably, Mr. Buhari’s personality does not quite conduce to the general requirement of an ‘in your face’ chief executive. This president is the quiescent, a bit withdrawn, ascetic type. There have been speculations in the busy Nigerian rumour mills that age and health may have taken a toll on his energy level and presence of mind. I don’t believe these lazy insinuations. If indeed the president has any health limitations that militate against the effective discharge of his duties, I believe he will be the first to inform the nation and do the needful. For as long as that has not happened, the sensible thing is to assume that the president is merely being true to his personality.

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What seems to have created the impression of presidential ineffectuality under Buhari is a certain clash between the man’s personality traits and the requirements and demands of the executive presidential model. The US -type executive presidency that we have badly cloned assumes a leadership role profile that is a bit more activist than a Buhari personality would allow. In that model, the president is first and foremost a fellow citizen in a republican sense. He should be one of us. He is required to be in our faces all the time.

He is supposed to do the things that ordinary people do – work out in the gym, occasionally stop by a fast food joint, pay surprise visits to some restaurants, visit with the unexpecting common villager, be seen with family and friends, indulge his leisure hours like all of us and pray when he has to. In times of tragedy, the president, as one of us, is supposed to shed tears on television, mourn with the bereaved and rejoice with the triumphant. The modern presidency is made for the television age. If you can not mount the stage of frequent public outings, talk even when you do not feel like and confront irritating reporters with instantaneous responses. With the modern presidency, the national universe is a moving stage. He has to move with it or the public will  boo him off the stage!

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In addition to these, the president at work is supposed to function like a corporate chief executive officer who appoints a cabinet promptly, follows a target driven programme of policies and projects, makes decisions based on science and logic, not impressions. Above all, he is meant to be father of all, an icon of national unity, uniter in chief, not divider in chief. His administration should look like Nigeria as we live it, not a template of his nativity or provincialism.

Measured against the best parameters of his office and the system that we have adopted, it is easy to deduce why president Buhari continues to fail in the expectations of most Nigerians. In his distant style, he will indeed have difficulty rising to the lofty heights that his office warrants and the myth that his past reputation once invoked. The constrictions of his biography and basic orientation are in tragic opposition to the imperatives of his job description and the lofty heroic expectations activated in the hearts of many.

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There is an inherent political danger in this clash between a limited personality and the great expectations of a big job. When an elected leader is quiescent and apparently absent in most instances, the tendency is for ambitious lieutenants and organized power cells to chip away at the unmanned slices of presidential power. At best, mendicants and quislings in the place of power begin to adulterate the quality of governance under guise of protecting the throne. The distance increases between the president and his office. The atrocities of minions are sometimes ascribed to the sovereign himself. In the process something strange is born. Because a democratic society sees and recognizes only one elected president, most attempts by an aloof president to reassert his power lead inevitably to illiberal tendencies or even autocracy. Almost invariably, an absentee president enthrones either  an uneventful reign of ordinary things or, at best, the tyranny of absence.

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