In 2009, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s two-month absence highlighted difficulties with Nigeria’s presidential succession.
President Yar’Adua left the country on medical leave without vesting Presidential powers on his Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. To manage the situation, the Senate, in collaboration with other senior government leaders applied the extra-judicial ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ which empowered Jonathan to assume the Presidency. Crisis averted.
But in 2017, there is once more cause for concern.
Nigeria's inability to handle political uncertainty has been a salient feature of our democracy, and one that rears its head in almost every administration. Sometimes the fault lies with political actors – Obasanjo's Third Term Agenda in 2006/7, at times with political institutions – Yar' Adua's illness in 2009. Despite these lessons from history, the issue of Presidential succession has resurfaced once again, this time for President Buhari.
Fake news aside, the President is clearly undergoing medical treatment abroad. However, the Nigerian political machine is already in full gear as it looks towards the Vice President. But this is only the first stop. There are issues beyond the President's current illness, issues more fundamental to the office of the President – regardless of who is in power. What lies ahead are questions around the place of the Vice President and the familiar constitutional dilemma of risk-proofing the Presidency.
The dilemma is simple: what happens if a Nigerian President becomes incapacitated or dies? The answer is obvious. But what happens if, for any reason, both the Nigerian President and Vice President become incapacitated, die or resign from their positions? You would be correct if you said the Senate President assumes the reins, specifically for three months, during which a National election must be held. You'd be wrong if you assumed that the Speaker was in the line of succession.
Though this scenario appears far-fetched, it may not be. The Vice President has already reacted to what he classified as fake news that he is under pressure to resign, potentially giving room for the Senate President. Realistically, some interest groups, conscious of the repeat of a power switch to the South, may consider the Senate President a better fit, with the option of a snap National election to field a Northern candidate. With this in mind and the potential political uncertainties that go with such transitions, it might just be time to amend Nigeria’s Presidential line of succession beyond the Senate President, as opposed to requiring a snap National election.
What the Law Says
The Nigerian Constitution has two provisions when it comes to presidential succession, but they deal only with the Vice President and Senate President. While the Vice President succeeding to the Presidency is a given, Section 146 (2) of the Constitution gives the Senate President the powers of the Presidency for a three-month window. As mentioned earlier, a general election must be called before the window elapses.
Two problems persist. Firstly, only under exceptional circumstances would the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) be able to call and deliver a general election within three months. It poses a serious political risk. Secondly, there is a theoretical constitutional weakness. Under Sections 131 and 65 of the Nigerian Constitution, the President must be at least 40 years old to run for office and the Senate President, at least 35. However, a Senate President who is old enough to run for Senate and becomes President based on the current succession would be barred from running in the snap election if he is not yet aged 40.
This risk is sufficient to create a realignment of political networks and crisis; a breeding ground for state looting, and desperate attempts at last-minute constitutional amendments. It is possible that governance would cease, political networks will divide, and the Nigerian polity will pay the price. As fanciful as all this may appear, we would be remiss not to prepare ourselves for a younger generation of leaders who could fall within this anomaly.
Across the Atlantic, the United States covers presidential succession with the 25th Amendment. There, all cabinet positions are named after the Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore, and the order establishes a long list of who takes over the Presidency without the need for a snap election. The Secretaries of State (equivalent to Nigeria’s Foreign Minister), Treasury, Defence, and Justice are the highest ranking four. The United States even goes further with the role of the ‘Designated Survivor’, a cabinet official mandated to reside at a physically distant location when senior members of the Presidential succession line are attending public events, given the risk of an attack.
Such level of preparation is anathema in Nigeria. In Nigeria, we would face a serious crisis which could leave room for other officers such as influential Governors, Party leaders, or even worse, the leadership of the Armed Forces, to lay claim to the Presidency while voters ostensibly prepare for an election.
Even in the United Kingdom, the appointment of four senior posts within hours of Theresa May’s tenure is in stark comparison to the seven months it took Buhari to name his cabinet. It is a reminder not just of the need for certainty and clarity at the top of government – a point lost on Nigerian politicians – but of the premium national leaders place on ensuring that the governance is never left to doubt or chance.
Not so simple
Nevertheless, it is worth conceding that good intentions sometimes lead to unintended consequences, especially in politics. Adopting the United States approach in identifying cabinet positions as part of a clear Presidential line of succession would symbolise a political power shift. It could encourage presidential aspirants to explore ministerial routes to the top job, rather than through the Senate and State governorships, as is the case at present. This would introduce a striking similarity to the British Parliamentary system.
It could mean key ministries such as Petroleum Resources and Power will need to be led by political heavyweights capable of serving as President. As a matter of fact, while past occupants of key ministerial positions have been political heavyweights, the Senate and State governors have traditionally held more influence as political routes. It is unclear whether any change to this arrangement would be a positive or negative for the nation.
Nigeria may have survived coups, a constitutional crisis and a civilian democratic succession, but we need not wait till an emergency before we address potential risks. For all the bright minds and impressive leaders we have had in government, it took an ailing president to acknowledge the doctrine of necessity. We don’t need a Vice Presidential crisis before we plan the steps ahead.