Trying to solve a succession crisis in the ruling party, Buhari weighs in with a powerful suggestion for waivers but ends up creating constitutional issues. Vincent Obia writes
It was a seemingly patriotic proposal. President Muhammadu Buhari was intervening to break a logjam in the succession debate in his All Progressives Congress, following the imminent expiration of the current executive committeeâ€™s tenure. Buhari suggested waivers for the APC National Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, and other members of the National Working Committee, to enable them seek another term without necessarily resigning their posts. The president said it was meant to suture divisions in the party. But the waivers have raised constitutional questions.
The NWC members were elected on June 13, 2014 for a four-year tenure. But towards the June 13, 2018 deadline for the emergence of a new leadership, the party faced a leadership crisis, stoked by attempts to elongate the NWCâ€™s term. In apparent attempt to solve the problem, Buhari proposed the granting of waivers to the Odigie-Oyegun team.
Buhari told the APC National Executive Committee meeting on Monday in Abuja, â€œWith the present state of the party and based on the report submitted by the technical committee, it is important to focus on how to move the party forward by avoiding actions detrimental to the interest of the party.â€
The president was commenting on the report of the technical committee headed by Plateau State Governor Simon Lalong, which was set up to address the tenure elongation issue. The report reaffirmed Buhariâ€™s earlier position at the fifth NEC meeting on March 27 that the committeeâ€™s February 27 decision to extend the NWCâ€™s tenure by a year was unconstitutional.
However, sounding a note of caution about the likely result of the strict application of the APC constitution, Buhari stated last Monday, â€œConsidering that politics is a game of numbers, we must not be a house divided against itself and must try to note, appreciate, and accommodate our differences as far as the law permits.
â€œUpon my review of the report, my position is to ensure that the party toes the path of unity, legality and cohesion and not that of division. â€œTherefore, I am stressing that we should strengthen our internal democracy by organising the partyâ€™s congresses and convention where election of National Executive Committee members would be held. This will automatically end the cases filed by members seeking orders of court compelling the party to hold its congresses.
â€œI also believe that the current executives should be free to vie for elective positions in the party if they so wish as permitted by our party constitution.
â€œHowever, considering the provision of Article 31(1) (iii) of the APC constitution which requires any serving officer desirous of seeking re-election to resign from office 30 days before election, I am not sure of the practicality of present serving officersâ€™ ability to meet this condition.
â€œAccordingly, the party may consider granting waivers to party executives at all levels so that they are not disenfranchised from participating in the elections should they wish to do so, provided this does not violate our rules.
â€œNecessary waivers should also be extended to executives at the ward level, whose tenures may have elapsed and, indeed, to anyone knocking at our doors from other political partiesâ€¦
â€œIn this circumstance, the party should officially issue a statement on the above waivers so that our house may be full. We all must not be ignorant of the times, and the journey that is ahead of us.â€
Accordingly, Lalong announced the waivers, an effective soft-landing for the Odigie-Oyegun NWC, after the less than an hour gathering, described as the shortest ever NEC meeting by APC. In arriving at the decision, the governor said, â€œWe looked at the issue extensively and did wider consultations and arrived at a point where we considered not only the legal point, but also the political options available.
â€œThat is why we came to the point that, if we are going to conduct that election within the time available, then the concern shown by other members on the issue of disenfranchisement and allowing others to contest was very genuine. We also considered the opinion of the president and we arrived at the point that it is constitutionally valid to conduct congresses.â€
But the waivers do not sit well with the APC constitution. The partyâ€™s constitution states in Article 31(1), â€œAny party office holder interested in contesting for an elective office (whether party office or office in a general election) shall resign and leave office 30 days prior to the date of nomination or party primary for the office he or she is seeking to contest.â€
It, however, provides for waiver in Article 31(2), â€œSubject to the approval of the National Executive Committee, the National Working Committee may in special circumstances grant a waiver to a person not otherwise qualified under Article 31(1) of this constitution if, in its opinion, such a waiver is in the best interest of the party.â€
But the constitution says, â€œA person may be granted a waiver only on condition that: â€œHe or she has not been convicted by any court of competent jurisdiction for any criminal offence.
â€œHe or she has applied for waiver in writing to the National Working Committee of the party through his/her appropriate Ward, Local Government Area/Area Council, State, Federal Capital Territory and Zonal Committee.
â€œHe or she has signed an undertaking to uphold and implement the manifesto of the party in the event of winning the election.â€
With an elective convention expected to hold before June 13, when the tenure of the current NWC will expire, it is hard to see how the NWC members cannot meet the constitutional requirement of resignation 30 days in advance of election when there is over 60 days to the terminal date of the Odigie-Oyegun tenure. APC has yet to fix a date for its convention, but many party sources have confirmed that it would be in June.
And there appear to be enough room for the party to fulfil the 21-day notice to the Independent National Electoral Commission legal requirement before the elective convention and congresses.
Besides, the APC constitution says to be granted waiver, a member must apply to the NWC, through his ward, local government, and state chapters of the party. Last Mondayâ€™s waiver for Odigie-Oyegun and others, which effectively exempts them from prior resignation, obviously circumvented this constitutional procedure.
Even though APC decides to hasten up things to keep the 30 days resignation time, any election before June 13 would favour Odigie-Oyegun and other members of the NWC with the best conditions for victory. They will have ample room for preparation while new entrants walk a tightrope, which would invariably lead to compromises to the further advantage of the incumbents.
It appears Buhari had just opposed tenure extension for Odigie-Oyegun to placate certain key elements in the party, while proceeding with his resolve to hand the national chairman another term.
Many believe there is no effective opposition to Buhariâ€™s candidacy in APC ahead of 2019. Yet, the suspicion at the forefront of every mind is that the president, who formally announced his second term bid last Monday, is sidestepping the APC constitution to reinforce his own political ambition. This is a dangerous temptation for a party suffering an image problem and struggling with a lot of internal dissensions.
It is obvious that the waiver gamble is not in the best interest of the party.
The waiver sets off palpable alarm bells. It will certainly not appease the National Leader of APC, Bola Tinubu. The former Lagos State governor had influenced the emergence of Odigie-Oyegun as national chairman, but both men later fell out. Recent public spats between them appear to express the depth of the quarrel and the seeming irreconcilability.
When on March 27 Buhari rejected tenure elongation for Odigie-Oyegun at the fifth NEC meeting, Tinubu hailed the position in a statement titled, â€œThe president has spoken,â€ which he personally signed.
Tinubu stated, â€œPresident Buhariâ€™s action saves the party from a serious legal turmoil. If the elongations were deemed illegal, then all subsequent party actions, including the nomination of all of our candidates for elective offices, might also be of questionable legality.
â€œSuch a predicament would constitute an unnecessary and a mortal blow to the party and its role in promoting progressive governance in Nigeria.â€
He added, â€œToday is a good day for those who cherish democracy and legality. His action will also strengthen the party by allowing party members, including present incumbents, to seek to contribute to the party by vying for executive offices as they see fit.â€
The waiver may seem like a deliberate attempt to spite Tinubu. The former governor has a sizeable following in APC, especially in the South-west. The zone has the second largest number of registered voters, after the North-west, and its votes are crucial in any party or national election.
Buhari has laboured long and hard to project himself as a man of integrity, who is tough on indiscipline and corruption. The former military Head of State has also tried to project himself as a democrat who abides by the rule of law. But the current waiver controversy seems to cast a slur on that image. And indications are that fewer and fewer Nigerians may be inclined to see the president and his party as respecters of constitutional rules.