Last week’s admission by President Muhammadu Buhari that the sacking of the boards of the National Open University of Nigeria and the 12 Federal universities that were established by the administration of his predecessor, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, was unconstitutional was commendable. President Buhari was reported to have made that known while speaking at the All Progressives Congress National Executive Committee meeting held at the party’s National Secretariat in Abuja
He was quoted as saying inter alia: “We gave a blanket order which we had to rescind when we said all boards are suspended or dissolved. We had to go back and lick our vomit in terms of university boards because we found out that according to their laws, they cannot choose vice-chancellors unless the boards sit down, interview prospective candidates who want to be VCs. So, there is nothing wrong in saying sorry and going back on your decision. So, we said sorry and allowed all the universities to continue with their boards. But for the rest, eventually, we will make it. So, please, try to bear with us as we reflect on where we found ourselves.”
One thing that is hard for many of our leaders to do is admit that they were wrong. It is even more difficult when the leader is a retired army general. Therefore, for Buhari to admit, apologise and rescind the decision is commendable. He even deserves more commendation for using an expression like: “We had to go back and lick our vomit.”
However, we need to ask an important question: With the avalanche of lawyers working closely with President Buhari, how did this avoidable error happen? First of all is that the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. No doubt, he will have a team of lawyers as advisers and assistants.
Beyond that, there are two ministers of education, one of whom is a former vice-chancellor of a university, who should know that the President does not have the power to sack the board of a federal university. Then, there are senior lawyers who are also ministers like Mr Babatunde Fashola (SAN), Minister of Power, Works and Housing; Mr Udoma Udo-Udoma (SAN), Minister of Budgeting and National Planning; the late Mr James Ocholi (SAN) was the Minister of State for Labour and Employment until his death early this month. The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, also read law. There may be other lawyers who are ministers that I may not readily remember now.
But the icing on the cake is that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who is next to Buhari, is not just a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, he is also a professor of law.
All these are the experts and professionals around the President who should have the knowledge of the procedure for removing the vice-chancellor or the board of a university at their finger tips. But the second question is: “Did the President consult them before taking that decision?”
One would expect that if they were consulted, even if they were not sure what the provision of the constitution on such a matter at that material time was, they would have asked him to give them some hours to consult all the relevant laws and then get back to him. That way, that error would have been avoided.
The third question is: Does Buhari seek the advice of the experts he appointed? Or does he still see ministers as “noise makers” the way he described them last year when he was asked why it was taking him too long to nominate his ministers?
Buhari has some of the most intelligent, most read, most knowledgeable, most experienced and versatile people in his team. Starting from his Vice-President, Prof Osinbajo, Buhari has a sound team. But it does not look like he makes adequate use of the experts around him. It seems Buhari has not yet realised the potential in the people around him and the power of using his team optimally rather than relying on his ability and know-how.
One thing that is obvious is that from the Vice-President to the ministers, there is some restraint in speech and in action. Even some ministers who are known to be talkative and publicity-conscious are hardly heard making any point on national issues. Some ministers have not been seen or heard on the media saying anything since their inauguration. One wonders if they exist as ministers at all. Everybody seems to be cautious not to say or do something that the President may not like.
At 73 years old, the President is not a young man. As a result, he cannot have the energy of a man in his 30’s. No matter his good intentions, he cannot do all the work alone and hope for success. As a retired soldier, he has expertise on military matters, but not on law, education, medicine, economy, communication, and other specialised fields. That is why ministers and special advisers exist in governance.
Beyond deputising for the President, what is the role of the Vice-President in this administration? He is well-read. He recorded enviable milestones while working as the Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of Lagos State. At 59 years old, he is also much younger than Buhari and therefore more energetic. He is an asset to the President.
The same thing goes for the ministers. Rather than the ministers looking as if they are afraid to talk or act to avoid incurring the displeasure of their principal, they should be given as much freedom as possible to make them more effective.
This is not just about making a mistake on the sacking of boards of some universities. It goes beyond that to make us ask questions about the way Buhari makes use of his aides. These aides earn good salaries. They were provided for in the constitution because the framers of the constitution believed that they would add much value to the smooth and successful running of government. Indeed, if Buhari makes effective use of them, he will get more results and the nation will be the better for it.