Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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In the beginning of Presidential system in Nigeria, we had an almost perfect pair. Both President Shehu Shagari and Vice President Alex Ekwueme were civilized gentlemen. The former was an experienced, consummate politician while the latter was an experienced professional architect and accomplished intellectual with a chain of degrees in various disciplines.
All through their four years of presidential voyage (1979-1983), we never heard of any fight between the two most powerful men in Nigeria. The fact that they had barely known each other before politics put them in the same cage did not matter at all. They carried out the business of government as if they were Siamese twins.
I find it significant that the military intruders who shot their way to power in the evening of 1983 did not cite any squabbling between the President and his Vice as one of the reasons for their putsch. It was a perfect union which even the military fault finders admired.
The Americans who had over two hundred years of presidential practice ought to have learnt a lesson or two from Shagari and Ekwueme. The relationship between American Presidents and the Vice has always been a bumpy one. The worst so far in recorded history is that between President Andrew Jackson who threatened to kill his Vice President, John Calhoun. Andrew Jackson was a street fighter who had been involved in over 100 duels before becoming President. In this fight over state taxation laws, he threatened to “secede the head of John Calhoum from the rest of his body”. Given his antecedents, all Americans took the threat as credible.
In Nigeria, the first tussle for power between the President and his Vice took place under the President Ibrahim Babangida. Incidentally, Nigeria was then under the military, an institution that prides itself about discipline, hierarchy of command and authority. Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe was appointed the Chief of General Staff when General Babangida took over power from General Muhammadu Buhari. Babangida jettisoned the traditional caption normally reserved for his office as Head of State, preferring to be known as President. As Chief of General Staff it was assumed – even by Ukiwe – that he was the Vice President.
Soon, the reality dawned on him that he was expected to play second fiddle not only to Babangida but to General Sani Abacha and Domkat Bali as well. Such issues as who was to come first at military/national ceremonies became so contentious that they threatened national stability. Later still, the issues surrounding Nigeria’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) exploded, turning the disputes over protocol to juvenile pranks. I remember interviewing Ukiwe in Kano at the time over the contentious issue with Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf (now late) and Kabiru Yusuf for the Triumph newspapers. He was emphatic that the government had not taken the country into the OIC.
By 1986, the bubble finally went burst. Things fell apart and the center could not hold any longer. Ebitu Ukiwe the respected Naval Officer, popularly known as the Sea Lord lost out in the power game. He left the military and government under very controversial circumstances. But the worst was yet to come.
The most publicized case of a President engaging his Vice President in a brutal fight in broad daylight is that between Olusegun Bosanko and his vice, Atiku Abubakar. They were elected into office in 1999 for a period of four years on the ticket of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. In certain political circles, it was assumed that Bosanko would play the Statesman like Nelson Mandela, serve only one term and leave the stage when the ovation was highest. And as the party prepared for its presidential primaries, pressure started piling up on Atiku Abubakar to run against his principal. Most state governors who controlled the delegates at the convention were rooting for Atiku. A clash between the President and his Vice was eminent. Also inevitable was the fact that given the trend of unfolding events, Atiku was going to humiliate his boss.
Suddenly and for inexplicable reasons, Atiku made the fatal mistake of chickening out of the race which remains the best chance he ever had in his colorful political career of becoming President of Nigeria. What he got in the bargain was the vengeful anger of his principal.
The politics of the second term of the Bosanko presidency was defined by what happened in the days preceding the PDP primaries of 2003. Bosanko felt insulted by the gumption of his Vice to oust him out of office. Worst still, he felt humiliated that he had to go and beg a man whom against all odds he brought on board to become his Vice President. Early in the life of his second term, he started clipping the wings of Atiku.
Bosanko further compounded his own political problems. Midway in the life of his second term, he conceived of and started the process of rewriting the Nigerian Constitution. This elaborate process, spiced with juvenile tricks, was to serve no other purpose but to grant him a third term as President of Nigeria. Some people even expressed the fear that his hidden agenda was to make himself a perpetual President of Nigeria.
The third term issue further worsened the relationship between the President and his Vice. If before now they had played a game of cloak and dagger, their fight was now in the open. Atiku openly denounced his boss in very vitriolic terms. Bosanko responded by depriving him of his duties, perquisites, staff – even his drivers and security personnel. He unleashed his attack dogs on Atiku who booed him at Federal Executive Council meetings and smeared his name in the media with wild and salacious allegations. As far as Obasanjo was concerned, Atiku was a dismissed Vice President and he thought he had taken adequate steps to accomplish that. Atiku did the wise thing by going to court where he got the protection of the law, even of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
On the surface, his successor, President Yar’ adua had a smooth relationship with his Vice, Goodluck Jonathan. Later revelations however exposed the façade. They did not enjoy the best of relationships. Before Yar’ adua became terminally ill, Patience the talkative wife of Goodluck Jonathan complained that her husband was occupying a sinecure office had been reduced to a newspaper reader in the Villa.
Then as it became clear that Yar’ adua was a very sick president, the evidence of an unhealthy relationship between the President and his Vice became so glaring that the whole country was almost engulfed in a constitutional cul-de-sac.
Nigerians felt relieved when President Buhari came on board with a suave, politically unambitious Vice President. He demonstrated his loyalty to the President in the days of the Presidents illness in the first term when he spent months on admission in a UK hospital. Now in their second and final term, our newspapers are becoming awash with stories reminiscent of the Obasanjo Atiku days.
Nigeria deserves to be spared the agonies of the old tactics. We will lose nothing if the glamourous and harmonious relationship between Shehu Shagari and Ekwueme is replayed.