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Abati: The Jonathan Presidency (6)

Reuben Abati, Lagos,Nigeria – Jan 8. 2011 – THE various forces that had resisted Dr Goodluck Jonathan’s emergence as Acting President showed their hands fully with the return of President Umaru Yar’Adua. This included to start with, the protest by the Northern political establishment, prompted obviously by the Yar’Adua cabal, that allowing a Jonathan Acting Presidency could result in Presidential power being taken away from the North whereas the North needed to complete its eight-year turn under, as it turned out,  a controversial zoning/rotational principle.  This marked the beginning of a long, drawn out debate over Jonathan’s eligibility for Presidential office. Ordinarily this should not have been an issue. President Yar’Adua had returned to the country and under the terms of the “doctrine of necessity” that brought Jonathan to power, Yar’Adua only needed to notify the National Assembly of his return and then continue in office. But no one saw Yar’Adua in public. 

No letter to the National Assembly came from his office either. Jonathan could only in any case, hold office till May 29, 2011, that is till the end of the Yar’Adua four-year tenure. But those within the political class who thought that after being allowed to spend more than a year in office as Acting President, Jonathan could be tempted to seek election as President in the 2011 general election immediately began a campaign to stop him, incumbency is after all, a dreadful factor in Nigerian politics.  They argued that the status quo in terms of power sharing should not be altered: with the South West having spent eight years (1999- 2007) in the presidency; the North should also be allowed to complete eight years, in other words, Jonathan whatever happened, should not nurse the idea of ever becoming President in 2011.

Every step that was taken by the cabal and the Northern power mongers was informed by this resolve. A propos, there were attempts to choose a Vice president for the Acting President, notably by the self-styled Yar’Adua “political family.” The story then was that the “cabalists” were in the process of recommending as Vice President someone from the sick President’s Political zone, and two prominent names were Isa Yuguda (Governor of Bauchi State) and Saidu Dakingari (Governor of Kebbi state), both President Yar’Adua’s sons in-law, which says something about the character of the Nigerian political elite and the personalisation of power. Other names included Adamu Aliero, the then Federal Capital Territory Minister.  But it was not just the North and the Yar’Adua cabal laying claim to power and seeking to check the Acting President, the Governors’ Forum also insisted that whenever a Vice President was chosen he must come from the ranks of Governors. This personalization of power, or what Mathew Hassan Kukah calls “themyownisation of power” (Democracy and Civil Society in Nigeria, Spectrum, 1999) is the bane of Nigeria’s development process, and it came to the fore most poignantly during the dark season of instability occasioned by Nigeria having a terminally ill president. For public figures trapped in this bind, nothing matters except personal ambition and so it was. 

While Jonathan faced resistance on the national stage, there was also some resistance to his ascendancy in the South South region, his main political constituency. By emerging as Acting President, Jonathan had become a major political player in the South South and therefore a big threat to the political ambitions of existing power-brokers in the region. Of what use is a President without a political base?

This is a major consideration in Nigerian politics as Obasanjo learnt with bitterness in the run up to the 2003 elections, forcing him and his political strategists to construct a political base in the South West, which due to its artificiality has now almost completely collapsed. One major supporter of Jonathan in the South South was Chief Edwin Clark, the leader of the Niger Delta Leaders, Elders and Stakeholders Forum, but some of the Governors were said to be against him. Two of the five serving Governors in the Niger Delta reportedly funded the legal protests against Jonathan’s declaration as Acting President and also held meetings with the Yar’Adua political family. It was revealed then that a South South Governor gave 21 Senators $100, 000 each to encourage them to scuttle the motion proposing Jonathan as Acting President. Clearly, there were political stakeholders in the South South who preferred to stay with the Yar’Adua political camp. One key referent was the issue of loyalty and the politicians hedged their bets carefully. By the end of February, the newspapers were already reporting that there was no love lost between Jonathan and Timipre Sylva, Governor of Bayelsa state.

The rallying point for all the anti-Jonathan forces was the sudden return of President Umaru Yar’Adua. And there was a deliberate attempt to shut out the acting President. He was not allowed to see his boss. The First lady, Turai Yar’Adua also refused to see him or offer him any information about the President’s condition. Apparently to deceive the Acting President, a week before his boss was smuggled into the country, the President’s Chief Physician< Dr Salisu A. Banye, had written a letter to the Acting President, dated February 17, telling him: “This is to inform His Excellency that the President has been receiving treatment for his pericarditis with a remarkable improvement since our arrival on 23rd November 2009. He has however been confirmed by a team of medical specialists to have developed episodes of chest infections that necessitated his isolation and intensive therapy. He is now recuperating and will be discharged from the hospital as soon as advised by the medical team. He has specifically instructed me to convey his gratitude and best wishes to you and the entire people of Nigeria.” This letter was written at about the same time that the Executive Council of the Federation was under pressure to invoke Section 144 of the Constitution and accordingly begin the process of declaring the President incapacitated and unfit to rule. 

Other medical experts immediately took on Dr Banye and argued that there was no way President Yar’Adua could be said to be recuperating. In some other climes, a thorough investigation of that entire drama would have been conducted and people like Dr Salisu Banye would have been summoned to give evidence and the Medical and Dental Council would have asked him pointed questions about how he seemingly mixed medical practice and politics, creating a funny alchemy that more or less raised public doubt about the medical profession. Where is Dr Banye these days, by the way? Is he still writing medical reports? 

The lie was soon exposed albeit the Yar’Adua cabal was more pre-occupied with sustaining it. For more than two months, this group led by Turai Yar’Adua and a few loyal Ministers (their number reduced as soon as Jonathan became Acting President!) took the Nigerian public on a roller coaster ride of deception. They organized a pro-Yar’Adua propaganda machinery meant to convince the public that the man was alive. Pro-Yar’Adua rallies were held in Abuja. Newspaper advertorials were published reminding the public of the great achievements of Yar’Adua. There were also reports of selective sightings of the President. On one occasion, there was a story in the papers that he was planning to attend Friday service at the Abuja Central Mosque. Nobody saw him, although the presidential convoy was driven around the city. Then, there was another story about Yar’Adua being sighted in the gardens of Aso Villa playing with his grandchildren! Some characters reportedly saw him and they confirmed this to be true, including a cousin who drank tea with him! And there were rumours that the President would soon show up in public. Many of the Governors and traditional rulers who helped the Yar’Adua cabal to sustain that charade are today also patronizing Dr Jonathan. But nothing demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Nigerian elite more than the ugly involvement of religious clerics in that Yar’Adua saga. 

In April 2010, after four months of a needless hide and seek between the Nigerian people and their sick President, Nigerians were told that Muslim and Christian clerics had visited and seen Yar’Adua in Aso Villa! The Muslim clerics, including Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmad, and the Chief Imam of Abuja, Alhaji Ustaz Mohammed told Nigerians that they not only saw Yar’Adua, they also shook hands with him, and prayed with him. The four Christian clerics were the then Catholic Archbishop of Abuja and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) President John Onaiyekan, founder of the Living Faith Church (Winners’ Chapel), Bishop David Oyedepo, former Aso Villa Chaplain, Professor Yesufu Obaje, and Throne Room Trust Ministry Pastor Emmanuel Kure. The Muslim clerics said they met a Yar’Adua that was recuperating. The Christian clerics declined comments. The public was outraged. Professor Itse Sagay, the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) and the Afenifere Renewal Group, among others, immediately protested that this was yet another illustration of the use of religion to achieve political ends. Again, this is one of the predictable features of Nigeria’s underdevelopment; religious leaders like traditional leaders are often invited by political figures to endorse nonsense and they are ever so willing.  Nigerians were not only disappointed, they felt insulted, but ironically this has not stopped them from trooping to the same churches and mosques to listen to the same clerics who are yet to make a clean break with that ugly past by telling Nigerians exactly what they saw. 

        In the midst of all of this, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan managed to hold on to the reins of government. The “allied forces” against him were not only playing politics, they were also engaged in psychological warfare; they were determined to break his spirit. Even the general public was skeptical: Jonathan’s image was that of a weak, self-effacing man who suddenly found himself at the centre of history by just being lucky. Everyone had a small piece of advice for him including roadside mechanics. But whatever the people thought about his inner strength, they were all resolved in one regard: that the laws of the country should be upheld and that the Yar’Adua cabal had taken the country for a ride for too long. It was around this period that Balarabe Musa, former Governor of old Kaduna state and a Northern progressive issued a statement insisting that Yar’Adua should be impeached, and that it was time the Yar’Adua shadow stopped hovering over Jonathan. Indeed, President Yar’Adua had become a shadow. 

     Jonathan was unflappable. He still chaired the meetings of the Executive Council of the Federation, signed bills into law, and received dignitaries. In his inaugural speech as Acting President, he had referred to the “goodwill and understanding” of the international community. As Acting President, he enjoyed the support of this critical constituency, particularly the United Kingdom, the United States and the EU. In March, Jonathan set up a Presidential Advisory Council chaired by former Defence Minister, Lt Gen. T.Y. Danjuma. It had been his call to manage the violence in Jos in March 2010, with 400 people dead. He fired Yar’Adua’s National Security Adviser, Sarki Mukhtar and appointed General Aliyu Gusau to take charge. Smart  move. Jonathan was playing  a game of chess with his opponents, and with the likes of Obasanjo, Danjuma, and Aliyu Gusau behind him, in addition to the international community, and the Presidential Advisory Council, he was about to checkmate the enemy. But the high point in that game came when Acting President Goodluck Jonathan was invited to the United States by President Barack Obama in April 2010, to attend the Nuclear Disarmament Summit along with other world leaders. This was a turning point for the Jonathan Presidency.









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