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REMOTE WORK: The Implications of Presidential Absence – And Solutions By Keem Abdul

Read Time:7 Minute, 22 Second

 

 

 

It was like de ja vu all over again. 

The recent comment by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Chief Ajuri Ngelale, to the effect that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu ‘can work anywhere‘ – in response to media inquiries about the President’s whereabouts during the past week, and the rationale for his lengthy stay outside the shores of Nigeria – has elicited comparisons to a similar response made back in 2009/2010 (during the tenure of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua). The Attorney-General of the Federation at the time, Michael Aondoakaa, SAN, had asserted – in reference to widespread concerns about the former President’s propensity for lengthy stays abroad, ostensibly for health reasons, that the President could ‘govern from anywhere‘. A few days ago, a more colourful (and legal) spin on Ngelale’s comment was given by Daniel Bwala, a former PDP chieftain, who cited Section 5 of the Nigerian Constitution to support his assertion that Tinubu could ‘govern the country from anywhere in the world’ – whether or not the Vice-President was also in the country. “Aso Villa,” Bwala added, “is not a block industry and the President is not a bricklayer.” 

At issue was the fact that not only did President Tinubu NOT return to Nigeria almost a week after the conclusion of his latest foreign engagement (at a special session of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, following from a bilateral meeting with top government officials in the Netherlands), his whereabouts were said to be ‘unknown’ – and officials in the Administration either wouldn’t tell, or, more ominously, didn’t know themselves! 

The reference to the Vice-President’s hypothetical absence from the country AT THE SAME TIME as the President’s (as mentioned by Bwala) is in response to further concerns raised by stakeholders on the news that VP Kashim Shettima had concluded plans to attend a conference in the United States during President Tinubu’s absence – and the propriety (if not the legality) of having BOTH the country’s two top elected leaders leave the country at the same time. 

On the face of it, there would seem to be nothing untoward about one or both of the country’s foremost citizens ‘working from anywhere in the world’ – certainly not in today’s world where ever-changing work paradigms and revolutionary technologies have enabled instantaneous connections across digital platforms that were unheard of a generation ago, and essentially eliminated the barriers of distance, time and space. 

But as far as a position such as the Presidency of a sovereign nation is concerned, analysts would tell you that there is such a thing as ‘optics’, and there’s also such a thing as the ‘power of symbolism.’ In some other scenario, optics and symbolism may not count for much, but the occupier of a country’s highest political office is no mere corporate hack or government functionary, no; he/she is the veritable custodian of the nation’s sovereignty, the guardian of its patrimony and commonwealth, the guarantor of its constitutional strength and resilience (and the viability and sustainability of the institutions that derive therefrom) as well as the protector of its territorial integrity. The measure of a President (at least in a democracy, such as Nigeria is currently running, however imperfectly) is not so much about the actions he takes in the discharge of his daily duties, but the perceptions he creates (in light of his high office) by his pronouncements on the key issues of the day, by his public conduct, by how (or whether) he projects the dignity of said office, by what issues he prioritizes, by where he goes on state or courtesy visits, and, yes, by his body language. Side by side with the image he projects for himself and his Presidency is the image he projects for his country in the comity of nations. 

Of course, no one can begrudge the natural tendency for any President (or King, or emperor, etc) to, now and then, seek an escape, however fleeting, from the location most closely associated with the exercise of his power. Uneasy, they say, lies the head that wears the crown. Leaders are human, too, subject to the vagaries of physical and mental exhaustion, and especially to the emotional rollercoaster that can be brought on by a moral dilemma demanding prompt executive action –  a scenario that was so well depicted in British writer Jeffrey Archer’s high-octane thriller, ‘Shall We Tell the President? ‘ The pressure is undeniably real, and by the accounts of many who have worked there or are familiar with the workings of the place, the Aso Villa is more than just a pressure-cooker, it is a veritable cauldron – from which it is probably necessary to get away from time to time in order to maintain one’s physical, mental and emotional balance. 

But what a President does in response to these pressures, where he goes to relieve them – and how this impacts on the running of government, as well as what perception it elicits in the public imagination – matters a great deal. At issue, as far as the current conversation is concerned, is not so much whether the President can ‘work from anywhere’, but what constitutes ‘anywhere.’ There seems to be a consensus, especially among stakeholders operating outside the corridors of power, that ‘anywhere’ does NOT include locations beyond the shores of Nigeria. This view was recently expressed with characteristic forthrightness by Deji Adeyanju, a lawyer and rights activist, who referenced the aforementioned optics – in respect of the President’s most recent trip abroad – as well as general issues of accountability. “Can you imagine the President of America disappearing for one week,” Adeyanju asked rhetorically, “or the British Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister of Canada, or the French President?” Adeyanju went on to invoke terms like ‘banana republic’ and the events in George Orwell’s famous satire, ‘Animal Farm’ to describe the likely consequences of such presidential absences, chief among them a potentially dangerous power vacuum likely to water the ground for palace intrigues should it become a pattern through the course of the administration – especially if it happens to coincide with the simultaneous absence of the second-in-command. 

Adeyanju’s reference to the President of the USA, in particular, is instructive. It is said that the American leader takes the White House (the Presidential mansion in Washington DC) with him  wherever he goes – especially when he’s on board the presidential jet, popularly known as Air Force One. While one may argue that the jet is only a vehicle, albeit a highly sophisticated one outfitted with all the tools and instruments of presidential power, the truth is that, thanks to Air Force One, the US President is able to ‘govern (his country) from anywhere’ – even up in the clouds. But to Adeyanju’s point, what the US President would probably NEVER do is govern his country from the borders of another country for any given period of time. 

What he does, instead (whenever the urge to get away from Washington DC without leaving America gets too strong) is to seek refuge in places like Camp David, a presidential retreat tucked away in a place called Catoctin Mountain Park, a forested part of the state of Maryland. At about 100km north-west of Washington, DC., Camp David is close enough for the President to quickly return to base in an emergency, but remote enough (at least in its ambience) to give him a respite from ‘the madding crowd’ and allow him to work in peace. Apart from Camp David, various US Presidents also maintain other work getaways scattered around that country. 

Perhaps now is the time for the FG government to also enable the culture of the Chief Executive ‘retreating’ to relatively quieter locations around the country, locations equipped with the amenities for the leader to do his work effectively while also recharging his batteries whenever the need to escape the cauldron of Abuja arises. This writer would like to suggest places like Dodan Barracks in Lagos, the former seat of power during the years of military rule (which is reportedly in disuse with the relocation of the federal seat of government away from Lagos). Of course, it may be necessary to change its name to one with a non-military connotation, perhaps  “CAMP BALEWA“, the principle stands.

Same as the Obudu Ranch Resort in Cross River State, and other such locations. They can easily serve as alternative Aso Villas for the President. 

Yes, the President can ‘govern Nigeria from anywhere‘ – and the wonders of digital technology have made sure of that. But the fact that one CAN do a thing doesn’t always mean that one SHOULD – especially if one happens to sit on a certain pedestal. 

In such situations, optics and symbolism – more than specific actions and their outcomes – are everything. 

 

 

 

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