When President Muhammadu Buhari wrote to the senate on May 5, 2017 to intimate the lawmakers of his medical trip to the United Kingdom, he might not have envisaged that his choice of words would cause unprecedented uproar not only in the senate chamber but also across the political and legal spectrum.

The letter reads: “In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), I wish to inform the distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London. The length of my stay will be determined by the doctor’s advice.

“While I am away, the Vice-President will coordinate the activities of the government. Please accept, the distinguished Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

Buhari said “while I am away, the vice president will coordinate the activities of the government.” This was a departure from the wordings of his previous letters to the senate dated January 17, 2017 and June 6, 2016 on same subject where he said the vice president would “…perform the duties of my office,” while he was away.

Kicking off the controversy, the senator representing Abia North on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Mao Ohuabunwa condemned the letter for not naming Osinbajo as acting president and asked the senate to discard it.

Ohuabunwa argued after the senate president, Bukola Saraki had read the letter was not clear on the transfer of power from Buhari to Osinbajo.

“Whenever the president transmits to the president of the senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them the written declaration to the contrary, such function shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.

“Mr. President, I don’t think in our constitution we have anything like ‘coordinating president’ or ‘coordinating vice president.’ It is either you are vice president or you are acting president and any letter (on transfer of power) should be unambiguous and very clear. So, I am saying that this letter really does not convey anything because ‘coordinating’ has no space or any place in our constitution.

“We have been having (receiving) letters like this in which he will tell us who is the acting president and we will know who to deal with as a senate. This is the highest legislative body of any country and if you are sending us a letter, it should be direct, unambiguous. So, I am saying that this letter, for me, is not right and maybe it should be sent back,” said Ohuabunwa.

But the majority leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, countered Ohuabunwa, saying the president had fulfilled the provisions of Section 145 of the Constitution by transmitting the letter.

“Let me say that the point of order raised by my colleague and the explanation that subsequently followed should not have been and my reasons are simple. I still rely on the first paragraph of that letter which Mr. President wrote to this Senate and read by President of the Senate and I will read Section 145.”

“Any other word in this letter or indeed anywhere else is irrelevant. I, therefore, feel that Mr. President has done what the Constitution requires him to do and I urge this Senate not to go ahead to discuss this because it is not an issue. We have the budget and so many other serious issues for us to discuss and Nigerians are waiting,” said Lawan.

“I think it is a very clear issue and what we should be guided by is the Constitution, and I think that it is clear. The letter has referred to the Constitution (Section 145) and there is no ambiguity in the Constitution. So, I don’t think there is any issue there. Let me first rule you out of order, Senator Mao,” said Saraki.

But that was not the end of the matter as legal practitioners and social media commentators joined the fray.

A professor of law, Prof. Taiwo Osipitan argued that ‘coordinating’ president is alien to the Nigerian constitution.

He said using the word ‘coordinating’ was a mere error on the part of Buhari, more so as the President had, in the past, used the word ‘acting President’ in similar circumstances.

“Ordinarily, there is nothing like Coordinating President in the constitution. He should be acting and he should be addressed as acting President. I believe it was a slip of the pen.

“This is not the first time that the Vice-President would be acting as President and having done it before as acting President, there is no difference this time. There’s nothing like ‘coordinator’ in our constitution,” he said.

However, he said it would have been unwise if the senate had rejected the president’s letter on the basis of his choice of word.

“I don’t think the Senate should have rejected the letter. There will be a lacuna which nobody wants. The Senate should be magnanimous and mature to interpret coordinating as acting. The first letter said acting; so, the senate should take it as a slip of the pen,” said Osipitan.

Three Senior Advocates in Nigeria – Prof. Taiwo Osipitan, Femi Falana and Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe – however, explained that the word used by Buhari was unimportant even though strange to the constitution of the country.

Another legal practitioner, Mr. Ifedayo Adedipe, disagreed with Osipitan saying the choice of word was not important as long as the President had written to the National Assembly that he would be away and transmitted power to the Vice-President.

“What we have is acting president. They may give it any name, but in reality and in law, the vice-president will act as the president once the president has written to the national assembly that he will be away.

“People like to play around with words and phrases but the reality is that once the President is not able to perform the function of his office, he will write to the national assembly, transmitting his power to the vice-president, who will then act as the president,” he said.

Human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana said the title of ‘coordinator’ does not limit the powers of Osinbajo.

“The description of vice-president Yemi Osinbajo as a coordinator in the letter transmitted to the national assembly by President Buhari is of no consequence as far as the constitution is concerned.

“In other words, by virtue of Section 145 of the Constitution, once the President transmits a letter to the effect that he is proceeding on a medical vacation, the vice-president automatically becomes the Acting President of the Republic.

“Indeed, upon his arrival in the United Kingdom, President Buhari confirmed that the country is in safe hands of the Acting President,” said Falana.

The issue also took a centre stage on the social media with commentators expressing diverse opinions.

One Uzoma John wrote: “Whether the President quoted in the body of his letter, supervising, coordinating, acting is irrelevant. What is relevant is “In compliance to Section145 (1)…” which gives the VP all legal and constitutional powers to act. If he didn’t quote that section then we will know. Even in acting capacity, he still consults the President. Please people, you guys should look for something else to do. This is not an issue.

Also, Augustine Akinyemi wrote: “Grammatical Senate! One just wonders if by common sense inference cannot be made between the two words ‘perform’ and ‘co-ordinate’ as relating to the functions of the Office of the President by the VP. Must everything that comes from the Presidency be criticized just because they could? We must thank the Senate President for being decisive for once on this matter else we will by now be having a constitutional crisis on our hand. Perhaps it is not too late to send the message to our Senators to up their performance in these last two years of the APC -led government or many of them face recall.”