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By Olusegun Adeniyi
Acting, according to Wkipedia, which is what most Nigerians rely on these days, “is an activity in which a story is told by means of its enactment by an actor or actress who adopts a character” while an “actor (often actress for female) is a person who portrays a character in a performance.” Again, according to Wikipedia, Acting can also mean “temporarily doing the duties of another person” and some of the examples cited are: Substitute, reserve, fill-in, stand-in, caretaker, surrogate, stopgap, transitional etc.
While we all know about Hollywood or to come back home, Nollywood, where Acting is the main profession, it would seem that under the All Progressives Congress (APC) government of ‘Change’, Acting has moved beyond the big screen to important government offices. That our country has been reduced to the world of make-believe can even be seen from the Aso Rock excitement over the photograph of President Muhammadu Buhari and some APC leaders at a lunch table in London. A Twitter post by my brother, Abubakar Ibrahim (an award winning writer and journalist, by the way), captures the drama: “When sighting your president becomes international headlines, you know you have issues.”
Meanwhile, a WhatsApp message I received last week reads: “Acting is the main job in Nigeria today. The man who runs the country is an Acting President ably supported by the Acting Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). Then you have the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); Acting Director General, National Intelligence Agency (NIA); Acting Executive Secretary, National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS)…”
The ‘WhatsApper’ took time to list several agencies of government that are currently being headed in acting capacity—from the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) in the critical power sector to NAFDAC in food and drugs administration. Yet, there is an ironic twist to the metaphor of ‘acting’ in Nigeria that is not lost on discerning observers: most of the people in such positions, no matter how glorified, tend to actually ‘act’ or put up a show either to justify their role or impress on the approving authority/audience that they deserve the more substantive positions.
However, against the background that leadership is about having the authority and confidence to take tough decisions, the uncertainty created by holding a job in acting capacity will quite naturally affect judgement calls. In the particular case of Nigeria, it is very clear that Acting begets Acting and that perhaps explains why, in the federal government today, there are too many “Acting this” and “Acting that”, essentially because the president could not, for more than two years, appoint substantive heads to those positions.
Whatever the gloss being put on the state of the nation, it is difficult to vouch for both accountability and productivity when the person holding a job is doing so under an indeterminate Acting capacity. Anne Joseph Connell, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, captures the situation aptly when she argues that “agencies without confirmed officials in key roles will be less likely to address important problems and less equipped to handle crises”. That is because, according to Cornell, with acting officials lacking sufficient authority, “nonpolitical workers will have insufficient direction. In this context, careerists may not know what to do or may be unmotivated to invest needed effort, which contributes to bureaucratic inactivity.”
There are also legal dimensions to the issue of holding a critical appointment in acting capacity that we have not even considered despite the fact that there are lessons to learn from other climes. For instance, in March this year, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling in the case, ‘National Labor Relations Board v. SW General Inc.’, held that the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA) prevents a person who has been nominated to fill a vacant office requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Glover Roberts Jr. said the responsibilities of an office requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation “may go unperformed if a vacancy arises and the President and Senate cannot promptly agree on a replacement.”
The drama leading to the case started in January 2011 when President Barack Obama nominated Mr Lafe Solomon to serve as the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel and it was returned by the Senate in 2013 following expiration. But in May of the same year, Obama submitted the name again before withdrawing the nomination later in August. Within the intervening period, SW General, a company that was deemed to be flouting labour laws, filed a suit that since Solomon himself was not holding the position of General Counsel in substantive capacity, any pronouncements and sanctions from his office should be void and of no effect. Interested readers can look up the case online for the rest of the story.
Given the foregoing, I support the idea of the presidency seeking the intervention of the Supreme Court on the issue of executive appointments with specific reference to that of the EFCC Chairmanship as well as the question about whether the legislature can initiate projects in the appropriation bills. Such rulings by the Supreme Court will not only enrich our democracy, it will settle the question of who has powers to do what and end the annual bickering that delays the passage of the national budget. There is also an urgent need to put a closure to the uncertainty at EFCC. But that will still not resolve the political logjam created by the long-term absence from the country of President Buhari.
However, the choices we make in our country, or put differently, the ones being made by our elected representatives on behalf of the people, are turning us into a huge joke before the civilized world as Nigeria becomes a vast theatre of the absurd. Just yesterday, against the expectations that the Senate, the highest legislative body in the country, would rise above their limitations to take account of the issues of the moment while voting in their Constitutional amendment process, all we got were immunity for themselves and elevation of their former presiding officers into the membership of the Council of State. But Nigerians were not surprised.
In many ways, the country has been reduced to no better than a jungle which then explains why the Freudian suggestiveness of Senator Shehu Sani and Mrs Aisha Buhari (both of who recently described Nigerians in animal metaphor) is not without foundation. For days, a Minister and the Executive Secretary of an agency under him fought dirty in the public space before the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecutions, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, told us that the anti-corruption agencies now whimsically defy the authority of the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister who ordinarily has Constitutional oversight over all prosecuting institutions of state. No doubt, we are in a season of anomie.
Incidentally, while majority of ordinary Nigerians have abided by the essential African norm of praying for those in distress, and have genuinely been beseeching God to intervene on whatever ails President Buhari, I don’t think it is wise for his handlers to push their luck with provocative utterances laced with subtle threats. That some APC leaders and Governors now embark on daily pilgrimages to London for lunch-table photo-ops does not address the challenge of power vacuum in Nigeria despite the best efforts of the Acting President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo who, I must admit, has done very well under a most difficult circumstance.
Whichever way one looks at it, what obtains today is a laughable situation where President Buhari, cast in the mould of a medieval overlord, stays in London, where he takes photographs with selected politicians and public officials from Nigeria, while the acting head of our constitutional republic is marginally ruling from Abuja. The president is either on medical vacation in which case he is allowed to get well or he returns home if he is strong enough to play the politics of appearance. But such is the level of systemic dysfunction and hypocrisy in our country that one “descendant of Shimei” (evidently not mindful of his head) even asked me yesterday whether a photo-shoot in London for the consumption of Nigerians back home does not violate the recent “decree” on local content from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture!
To come back to the main issue, we cannot run an effective presidential system with so many vacant but strategic positions. Apart from the psychology of insecurity on the part of the acting incumbents, there is the more crucial fact that their actions in those positions can be legally questioned in future while the veracity of decisions taken under such circumstance would remain tentative. But on a more positive note, the implication could also be that perhaps our presidential system is overstaffed hence the need to leave so many positions either vacant or filled by some acting seat warmers. Maybe we should start with “restructuring” these positions if they can remain either unfilled or under acting leadership for so long without mortal damage to the system.
Finally, let me make it abundantly clear that while I remain critical of the current situation in the country, I have issues with some of the opposition politicians who are using the ill-health of the president not only to mock him but also to make insensitive and incendiary statements. It is not right even as I call on such people to stop playing God. But to the extent that there is no Constitutional provision for dual-presidency, or for out-sourcing the job for which one was elected to another person, I do not know for how long the current situation in Nigeria can endure.
Therefore, the 2019 presidential election cannot come quickly enough. We need a sure-footed president who knows what to do in office. As for me, I have already made my choice: It is Monica Ambrose all the way!