by Abraham Ogbodo
I am a bit confused and somebody needs to talk to me now. Where exactly are we on the matter of the rechristening of Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, which happened last Tuesday t the Senate? Which, between these two names: ‘Acting President’ and ‘Coordinating President’ describes him in the current circumstance. I am seeking clarification because if others are forgiven, nobody will forgive an editor for using the wrong description for the head of state. And so, on my own, I had run through a lot of lexical entries to establish a definitional correlation between ‘coordinating’ and ‘acting’ and also find out if a coordinator and an actor could execute to become an executor.
It was tedious but worth the while in the end. Both words, in the context of their usage in the matter at hand, fall into the same lexical classification – adjective. They could also be used as nouns, verbs and adverbs. In fact, I could not discover any substantial difference outside the fact that both words are spelt and pronounced differently. Semantically, they are wired to convey almost the same meaning.
But why move an entire nation of 180 million people into this confusion of words and their meanings if same could be avoided by merely using ‘acting’ instead of ‘coordinating’? Is it to show that the President and his handlers understand words and synonyms? It reminds me of the position of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher whose name rhymes with confusion. The man had said in one context that much of the confusion in the physical and even spiritual worlds would be contained if men (and women too) would learn to apply the precise descriptions and notations in all situations.
Now, instead of talking sense we have been stuck in some senseless talk for more than a week because the Presidency refused to speak simple and correct English to the Senate. Amid the confusion, Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of law and the man in centre of the confusion, has however done something differently and beautiful too. He came down from his Olympian height to speak everyday language to we, the people of Nigeria. “Of course he handed over to me. Didn’t you see Section 145(1) in the letter oga sent to the Senate?”
Coordinating Vice President, I mean, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo has made the whole thing look as simple as abc! Given what he knows and where is coming from, I am tempted to advise we listen more to him than we listen to ourselves or Senator Mao Ohuabunwa, representing Abia North, who drew attention to the strangeness of the use of ‘coordinating’ and not ‘acting’ in the transmission of executive power from principal to a deputy in a constitutional democracy on the floor of the Senate.
In effect, Osinbajo who taught and practised law at the highest levels before becoming Vice President has decreed that no special knowledge is required to understand the constitution. Gbam! The oracle has spoken and noisemakers should therefore shut up. But I am getting more confused Prof. If the constitution is this straight forward for everybody to understand, why do some people still call themselves constitutional lawyers with a noble duty to interpret the document for the understanding of others? I mean, why are people like Ebun Adegboruwa still insisting on punishment for President Buhari for writing a bad letter to mislead the Distinguished Senators to act unconstitutionally? Or is it that you didn’t teach him how to interpret a constitution at the law school Prof?
All the same, I thank you very much Prof for the beautiful revelation that has liberated all of us from this age-long burden of collective ignorance. As we can see, these fellows called constitutional lawyers have been taking us for a ride. The constitution can be understood by all and sundry after all and the National Assembly should as a matter of urgency follow up with a legislation to criminalize the use of the appellation; ‘constitutional lawyer’ by any practising lawyer in Nigeria. Nobody should be allowed to claim a special understanding of a document that is written for the understanding of everybody. It is corruption to claim such nebulous status and the current anti-corruption regime of President Buhari of which Prof. Osinbajo (in whatever capacity, Coordinating Vice President or Acting President) is an integral part, has done so well to expose the fraud.
This settled, the other point to consider is the size of the Nigerian Constitution. Maybe that is where the problem really lies. Nigerians do not have the time to read big books especially now that existential issues have become even more paramount. I am therefore of the opinion that something should be done to compress the content, as well as the format to make the document more reader friendly.
We do not have to introduce complications into the simple things of life and make them difficult for ordinary people to understand. For instance, the first time I saw the American Constitution I described it as an abridged version and was actually searching beyond it for a substantive copy before a fellow told me to look no further for the statutory frame work that has sustained the American democracy for more than two centuries.
That is even America that operates a written constitution and where democracy is a much recent phenomenon compared to Britain. The latter had maintained some form of parliamentary moderation at a time the whole of Europe suffocated under absolute monarchy and long before the puritanical campaigns of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th Century to enthrone the supremacy of the parliament over the Crown. Yet, there are no hard rules compressed in a document as it is in Nigeria and America called British Constitution that dictate public conduct in the United Kingdom.
From their history and traditions, the British understand what is good for their society and they act accordingly. This is called sincerity of purpose, which is about the only lacuna in our public and private lives. Fill this gap and all will be well. Surprisingly, the British who govern themselves by sheer conventions without a written constitution came to Nigeria to load us with constitutions and between when they formerly entered in 1861 and when they left in 1960, they had created five constitutions in 1914, 1922, 1946, 1951 and 1954 – Lugard’s, Clifford’s, Richard’s, Macpherson’s, Lyttleton’s and Independence constitutions – to tie us down.
On our own after they had departed, we have added three more in 1963, 1979 and 1999 to reach a total of eight constitutions, all geared towards the same purpose of building a country where justice and peace shall reign supreme. This has remained a mere aspiration even after 57 years of independence, largely because we have only been inventing elaborate instruments for nation-building without creating a nation. We have strategy without structure, which is the definition of madness in simple management.
And so, the thing to do now is not these endless reviews and amendments of the existing constitution, which in anyway, will still generate as many textual interpretations as there are constitutional lawyers in Nigeria. Instead, we should agree to sit down in spite of some so-called Northern elders led by Paul Unongo and discuss a national structure that can make the set of strategies that we have imposed for nation-building a bit more meaningful.
That way, the man from Agbarha-Otor and another from Nembe or Oron may not have to care so much about how many medical vacations an ailing president observes in a year and how the President transmits executive powers to his deputy each time he is billed for vacation, because their eyes would be focused on locations and persons much closer and more relevant to their well being.
I return to the headline. The subtraction bar should be crossed to include restructuring in the mix and ultimately arrive at a more palatable national equation.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abraham Ogbodo/Guardian