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Abati: The Jonathan Presidency (5)

By Reuben Abati, Lagos, Nigeria – Jan 2, 2011 – The major challenge that Acting President Goodluck Jonathan faced on his assumption of office on February 9, 2010, was indeed how to assert himself and consolidate his hold on power. He showed quite a surprising dexterity in this direction, confirming the clichéd view that you never really know the true character of a man until you give him power. In his maiden address, he had observed: “The circumstances in which I find myself assuming office today as acting President of our country are uncommon, sober and reflective”. Indeed.

It was the first time Nigeria would be saddled with a sick President who also chose to go AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave), thus creating a constitutional crisis. Jonathan added that “the events of the recent past have put to the test, our collective resolve as a democratic nation. I am delighted to note that our nation has demonstrated resilience and unity of purpose. Today affords us time to reconnect with ourselves and overcome any suspicion, hurts and doubts.” He promised that he would move the nation forward in a more determined manner, and that his administration would be committed to the goals of Vision 20-2020 – the plan to make Nigeria one of the 20 leading economies in the world by the year 2020.

He also talked about creating employment for the youths, tackling corruption, Niger Delta insurgency, the crisis in the power sector, and much later, about electoral reform and its urgency. Goodluck Jonathan’s emergence as Acting President helped to dispel the air of uncertainty that had overtaken the country, and reassure the international community that Nigeria was back on track.  The United States, Britain and the countries of the EU wasted no time in supporting the emergence of Jonathan as Acting President: the drift in Nigeria had caused so much anxiety about the stability of the West African sub-region and the implications for global security and human rights. But the more interesting part of this moment in Nigerian history was its exposure of the lower depths of the Nigerian character. The drama began with the first meeting that Jonathan chaired as Acting President.

Two weeks earlier, he had in an attempt to assert himself locked out Ministers who came late to the meeting of the Executive Council of the Federation. But on the said day of his first meeting, most of the Ministers were seated by 8.30 am. The meeting was scheduled to begin at 10 am.  At previous meetings during the 78 days of uncertainty, Dr Jonathan had reportedly sat in the Vice President’s chair, but on this occasion, he went straight to occupy the President’s seat, pointedly ignoring the Director of Protocol who tried to direct him to his usual seat as Vice President, and who had failed to usher him in as is appropriately required. He also personally ordered the Ministers to sing the National Anthem.  He also ordered two Ministers to offer prayers. The same day, the Acting President redeployed three Ministers: Mr Michael Aondoakaa Attorney General and Justice Minister became Special Duties Minister, Prince Kayode Adetokunbo, Labour Minister became the new AGF/Justice Minister and Alhaji Ibrahim Kazaure, Minister Special Duties was moved to the Labour Ministry.

It looked like a minor cabinet reshuffle but it was a strong power statement. It was actually a demotion of Aondoakaa who had been most vocal in justifying Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence and disregard for the laws of the land. Immediately after Aondoakaa’s redeployment, a truck load of policemen was sent to the Ministry of Justice to search his office! Many Nigerians wanted Aondoakaa sacked from the cabinet; there were also strident calls for a complete dissolution of the Yar’Adua cabinet. It turned out that in reshuffling the cabinet, Dr Jonathan did not even consult the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Vincent Ogbulafor, Chairman of the PDP, who had also been supportive of the Yar’Adua cabal would so complain. He would later be consumed by the emerging power tussle. But clearly Jonathan had served notice that he truly intended to take charge of power.

Previously, he had presided over meetings of the Executive Council, merely approving memos and limited expenditures, receiving dignitaries, and having to manage the Abdumuttallab incident in December, but now he was in charge. On February 10, he received a special envoy from the Government of Kuwait who brought a special message from the Emir of Kuwait. Fresh vitality had returned to the Nigerian Presidency, and at the time, there were talks that Nigeria should begin to move beyond President Umaru Yar’Adua. In the meantime, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan still occupied his old office as Vice President, in deference to the clause in his appointment that he could only act as President until President Yar’Adua returned, and  the latter had informed the National Assembly accordingly.

There was however a lot of pressure from the public as many Nigerians tried to set an agenda for the Acting President. They wanted the Jonathan acting Presidency to tackle the issues of power supply, the renewed conflict in the Niger Delta, or better still, energize the Yar’Adua seven-point agenda, and focus especially on electoral reform. There was also a lot of praise-singing in the form of general commentaries on how Goodluck Jonathan was such a lucky man who without putting himself up for any election in his individual capacity,  had found his way to the highest office in the land. Persons expressed the view that it is advisable to name one’s child, Goodluck, apparently forgetting that some other public officials named Lucky had been so unlucky in public office. In the face of the growing sycophancy over his name and emergence as Acting President, Dr Jonathan immediately announced that nobody should place congratulatory adverts in the media, or pay solidarity visits to Aso Villa, because “the country is at a critical juncture where we must begin to focus on the daunting challenges that confront us.” Still, this did not stop state governors, the leadership of the National Assembly and the leadership of the ruling People’s Democratic Party from visiting him. The Acting Presidne3t also personally invited to Aso Villa, a group of eminent personalities, mainly former Nigerian leaders, including General Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Dr Alex Ekwueme and Chief Ernest Shonekan. This was also a again, a clever power consolidation move: the former leaders identifying with Jonathan were more or less endorsing him. The same Jonathan that everyone treated shabbily hitherto had suddenly become significantly relevant.

But of this group, one person whose sudden claim to influence riled the Nigerian public was former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo had tried to benefit unfairly from the situation in the country by publicly disowning President Umaru Yar’Adua, more or less asking him to throw in the towel if he could no longer continue.   The Nigerian public is often so forgetful, and needs to be constantly reminded of historical details (many Nigerian schools no longer teach history!), but this time around, the people did not disappoint. They did not forget that it was in fact Obasanjo who imposed a sick president on Nigeria.

Soon after his assumption of office in 2007, Yar’Adua’s mother, his wife and sister had gone to Ota to thank Obasanjo for making him President: one of those funny signs of the underdevelopment of Nigeria’s democracy! Given the crisis that enveloped the nation, Obasanjo tried to explain that he was told Yar’Adua was fit enough medically to be president and that he had no reason o doubt the medical report. The truth is that Obasanjo was poorly treated by the Yar’Adua administration. As soon as Yar’Adua settled down in office, the first thing he did was to castrate the Obasanjo group or whatever remained of it in power. With time, Obasanjo kept a low profile. But with Jonathan now Acting President, Obasanjo suddenly became more visible, and began to show up again in the corridors of power rather frequently. There were protests that Jonathan should not turn his Acting Presidency into an extension of the Obasanjo Presidency. Obasanjo had also handpicked Jonathan as running mate to Yar’Adua in the 2007 Presidential election!

The Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) in fact considered it necessary to issue a statement advising Obasanjo not to meddle in Jonathan’s affairs! In its words: “CNPP is worried that Chief Obasanjo, if allowed to meddle in the Jonathan presidency, might halt genuine electoral reform, the Niger Delta post-amnesty programme and revamping of infrastructure that collapsed under Obasanjo. Now that we are out of the woods, or so it seems, we reason that what Nigerians do not need at this time is (sic) the leprous fingers of Chief Obasanjo to pollute the subsisting fragile peace of the graveyard. He should therefore be barred from Aguda Lodge so that our acting President can take his decisions independently.”

But Jonathan’s big problem was not his association with Obasanjo. He tried to focus on the assignment. Two days after assuming office, he swore in 17 new permanent secretaries whom he advised, instructively to “eschew corruption.” The following week, the 37th summit of ECOWAS which had been postponed twice due to Yar’Adua’s ill-health was finally held and Jonathan was elected ECOWAS Chairman. He made a strong speech deploring “undemocratic change of government in the West African sub-region” – given his own circumstances, this was not exactly an innocent statement as there were fears in Nigeria of a possible military take-over. He also arranged a meeting of the principal staff of the Presidency in an attempt to unify the team.  Within a week, he met with the steering committee of the Federal Government National Integrated Power Projects (NIPPs). Jonathan was obviously under heavy pressure. Many Nigerians wanted the Executive Council under his watch to take a firm decision in line with the Constitution, on President Yar’Adua’s continued absence, by declaring him incapacitated, and for the National Assembly to commence impeachment proceedings.

As public clamour in this regard intensified, the leadership of the ruling PDP decided to travel to Saudi Arabia to see the President. The Governor’s Forum also sent a team. In response to public outcry, the Federal cabinet also decided to send a six-man delegation to Saudi Arabia to thank the Saudi King for keeping the Nigerian President and looking after him at the expense of the people of Saudi Arabia (many Nigerians thought this was an assault on Nigeria’s sovereignty), and to use the opportunity to see the President. The delegation never got a chance to see the President.

On February 24, the power game suddenly changed when President Umaru Yar’Adua was smuggled into the country, back from Saudi Arabia, under the cover of darkness. It was the boldest move so far by Mrs Turai Yar’Adua and other members of the Yar’Adua cabal, and their crudest act of desperation.  Although there were reports that the Acting President was informed at the last minute of the President’s return, he was kept completely in the dark. Security men were deployed to the airport to receive the President without the Acting President’s knowledge or approval. Patrick Obahiagbon of the House of Representatives argued like others, that this was in breach of section 213(1) of the 1999 Constitution. The intention was to raise doubts about the legitimacy of Jonathan’s acting Presidency; what followed was a season of intrigue. Yar’Adua was taken away from the airport in an ambulance but no one saw him or could ascertain the state of his health.

The following morning, the spokesman to the President, Olusegun Adeniyi issued a statement in which he said: “After being discharged by the team of medical experts overseeing his treatment in Saudi Arabia, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua returned to the Presidential villa…early this morning. While the President completes his recuperation, Vice President Jonathan will continue to oversee the affairs of state”. The reference to the Acting President as Vice President was noteworthy. President Yar’Adua returned to the country, two weeks after Jonathan was empowered to take over power,  a day after the Acting President had sent a list of nominations to the National Assembly with regard to appointments of Chairman and members of the Code of Conduct Bureau. He had also just sent a draft bill of the 2010 budget for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for accelerated passage by the Senate. Yar’Adua’s return practically threw the country into another round of uncertainty.

The extent of this became clear when the February 24Wednesday meeting of the Federal Cabinet could not hold. It was meeting time as usual, but the Council Chambers had been taken over by President Yar’Adua’s bodyguards. Jonathan’s body guards were chased away.  The Ministers arrived but they waited for over hour, waiting for either Yar’Adua who had just arrived to chair the meeting or Jonathan, the Acting (Vice?) President.
Around 11 am, Yar’Adua’s BGs (as they are called) were withdrawn, and there was a fresh announcement that Dr Jonathan would preside over the meeting. He did not. Instead, he sent the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) to announce that the meeting had been “postponed till further notice.” Yar’Adua’s return had halted Jonathan’s attempt to assert himself as Acting President, but it also marked the beginning of an intense power struggle between the Yar’Adua cabal and the pro-Jonathan, civil society backed group, again a demonstration of elite recklessness. What exactly were the issues at stake beyond power for its own sake? And how did the Jonathan group, as well as civil society respond to the obvious attempt by the Yar’Adua cabal to place narrow personal interests above the common good?

To be continued.

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