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Abati: The Jonathan Presidency (9)

By Reuben Abati, Lagos, Nigeria – Jan. 17, 2011 – The 1966-70 civil war was among other things, a response by the Igbo nation to the excesses of the political North. Between 1993 and 1999, the opposition to the North’s continued stay in power was also part of the sub-text of the pro-democracy struggle by aggrieved Yoruba and other progressive forces in the country. The North lays claim to having a much larger population and geographical space than other parts of Nigeria. It controlled more than 50% of the seats in the House of Representatives in the First Republic and in every other Republic since then, has maintained a simple majority over other Nigerian ethnic nationalities in the Federal parliament. Up till 1999, the North had always won all Presidential elections and formed Government at the centre. Between 1966 and 1999, it also produced all the military Heads of State except two – Aguiyi-Ironsi (6 months, 15 days) and Obasanjo (3 years). Even the Obasanjo first era could be considered a period of northern rule as he completely subordinated that administration to the whims and caprices of the north.

As at 1999, the north had produced nine Heads of State/Governments. Most official positions that are considered strategic had been held since 1960 mostly by Northerners. Strategic national institutions have also mostly been located in the Northern part of the country: the Defence Academy, Ajaokuta Steel Mill, Defence Industry, the Federal Capital Territory etc. Major national positions were also held by the North. The first time a Southerner held the position of Minister of Internal Affairs, after 1960, for example was in 1993, when Alex Ibru was appointed to that position.  Before independence, J. M. Johnson held that position from 1957 -59 under the colonial authorities, but before Ibru in 1993, there had been 17 Ministers of Internal Affairs all from the North!

Other positions dominated by Northerners included Minister of Defence, Minister of Mines of Power, Managing Director of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), Chief Passport Officer of the Federation, Head of Immigration,  Chief of Staff (Army), Registrar, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, Executive Secretary, Nigeria Universities Commission. A few positions including the Head of the Nigerian Navy, Minister of Justice/Attorney General of the Federation and Chairman of the National Electoral Commission were reserved for Southerners. Major General David Ejoor, one of the three Southerners who occupied the position of Chief of Army Staff before 1994 once pointed out that “since the fall of Ironsi, the North has maintained absolute control of the Army.”

In all of these, the minorities who had been agitating for recognition and equity since 1958 were completely underserved and marginalized, despite the fact that the Niger Delta which produces the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, that is crude oil, after the collapse of the agricultural sector, is a minority region. Perhaps Northern domination would not have been possible if the other groups, particularly the other two major ethnic groups: the Igbo and the Yoruba had not been equally guilty. Other Nigerians have had cause to complain about the arrogance and clannishness of the mainstream Yoruba elite. There were also complaints about how Igbos dominated the Nigerian Railway Corporation (out of 431 members of staff, 270 were Igbos), when an Igbo, Dr Ikejiani served as Chairman of the Corporation. With Raymond Njoku as Minister of Transport, the story was the same in the Nigerian Ports Authority as at 1963. These details and more are contained in a document titled “A New Deal for Western Nigeria” being a broadcast by Premier of the Western Region, Chief S L. Akintola on March 11, 1964, including a statement by Yoruba leaders of the NCNC.  

The three major ethnic groups (Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo) have always related with each other therefore on the basis of mutual distrust, and this perhaps explains the disunity in the land, but another dimension of this political division can be traced to the vexed issue of class alienation. When the professional political elite of whatever ethnic colouration hanker after power, they do so ostensibly on behalf of the group/nationality, but mainly what is being protected is the interest of a few individuals or mafia or a cabal. Northern domination of political power in Nigeria up till 1999 curiously did not result in economic progress or educational success for the majority of Northerners, rather its by-product has been wider alienation and impoverishment in Northern Nigeria. Hence, when certain persons claim to be defending the interest of the North, the question to ask is: which North? Whose North?

Nonetheless, by 1993, the annulment of the June 12 Presidential election won by a Yoruba, Chief MKO Abiola, by a Northern-dominated military establishment ignited protests across the country which united progressive elements among both minorities and majorities. The sustained objection was not only against military rule, but also Northern domination of the political space. Nigerians began to talk more boldly about the need for power rotation and the zoning of presidential power, in accordance with the principle of Federal Character in the Constitution, and to grant marginalized groups within the polity and other ethnic nationalities a sense of belonging.  The emergence of two Yoruba candidates in the 1999 Presidential election was in acknowledgement of this demand. For eight years, with Obasanjo in the saddle, the North considered itself out of power, even if many Northerners played prominent roles in that administration.

Power calculations in Nigeria tend to focus more on the ethnicity of the holder of Presidential authority. In fairness to Obasanjo, within eight years, his administration drew a new map of power and influence, although certain elements in the North felt that he owed his position to their support.  With Yar’Adua’s emergence as President in 2007, the North found itself back in the saddle and its irredentists saw their region being in power till 2015. Yar’Adua’s ill-health and eventual death threatened that calculation, and hence the desperation to stop Jonathan from becoming President of Nigeria in 2011. A Jonathan Presidency in 2011 could lead to an eight-year tenure ending in 2019, which would then mean that the north would have been out of power at the presidential level, for a total of 171/2 years between 1999 and 2019. The South South seeing Jonathan’s emergence as a necessary demystification of the domination of political power by majority ethnic groups in Nigeria rose, almost in unison in his support. But in 2010, this did not stop both the Yar’Adua cabal and northern irredentists from adopting all kinds of strategies to stop Jonathan from even contemplating the idea of an Ijaw man, a minority, hoping to be president of Nigeria!

First, both the Yar’Adua cabal and the political North, having failed to stop Jonathan from becoming President, insisted on choosing Jonathan’s Vice President for him.  The idea was to appoint as Vice President, a man who would be a good candidate of the North in the 2011 Presidential election while Jonathan serves either as Vice President or waits till the Northern power brokers who had always decided who became Nigerian president made up their minds. Some of the names that were touted at the time included the following: Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed; former Kaduna Governor Ahmed Makarfi; Sokoto Deputy Governor Mukhtar Shagari; Jigawa Governor Sule Lamido; Ambassador to South Africa Gen. Buba Marwa; Niger State Governor Aliyu Babangida, Bauchi state Governor, Isa Yuguda, Gombe State Governor, Danjuma Goje, and Katsina Governor, Ibrahim Shema.

The Northern Senators Forum (NSF) later endorsed former Kaduna State Governor and Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance Ahmed Makarfi for the post. Other proposed candidates included Senators Ibrahim Idah (Kastina), and Umaru Argungu (Kebbi state), and the then National Security Adviser, Gen. Mohammed Aliyu Gusau. The Governors Forum which had increasingly emerged as a key power broker insisted that the Vice President must come from among its ranks.  There were also indications that the 19 Northern states had resolved that the Vice President must come from the North. The leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was soon compelled to issue a statement stating that the VP would come from the North but that the Northern PDP should allow the President to make his own choice.

The second strategy adopted by the political North was to inflate sentiments about zoning and rotation of political power. There were arguments that it was the turn of the North to produce Nigeria’s President from 2007 to 2015. Members of the public and the opposition dismissed this as an internal arrangement within the PDP while PDP members could not make up their minds whether this was a “gentleman’s agreement”, or a clause in the party’s Constitution. Indeed, article 7.2 of the party’s constitution deals with zoning and rotation of power, but then there is nothing in the 1999 Constitution forbidding any Nigerian from seeking elective office. It was interesting seeing the political North whose domination of political power had prompted debates on rotational Presidency for more than 30 years, now claiming to be a victim. The subject of zoning is of course an old one in Nigerian politics (see Anthony A. Akinola, Rotational Presidency, Spectrum Books, 1996) but in 2010, those who argued in favour of the north included Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, Mallam Adamu Ciroma and  Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Education, Farouk Lawan.  The matter soon ended in court with an Abuja High Court ruling that zoning/rotation is provided for in the PDP Constitution. The court was however silent on the superiority of the Constitution, that is the grundnorm with regard to fundamental individual rights.

The third step that was taken by the Northern political establishment was a meeting of the 19 Northern Governors in July 2010, where 10 of them voted for zoning, eight against it, and one abstention, although the Northern Governors Forum also further resolved that President Jonathan had the constitutional right to seek the party’s nomination in accordance with section 131 of the extant Constitution. Clearly, this was subtle blackmail, and another advertisement of desperation.  A fourth step was later taken and this was in the form of a resolution under the auspices of the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF), managed by Mallam Adamu Ciroma at which other Presidential aspirants from the North: General Ibrahim Babangida, Bukola Saraki, and Aliyu Gusau decided to adopt their colleague, former Vice President, Abubakar Atiku as consensus candidate of the Northern PDP.  The decision was purportedly taken by a committee of nine “wise men”. In his acceptance speech, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku said: “I commend the Consensus Committee for this endorsement and for their sacrifice, their patriotism, their commitment and their integrity. They have made an important contribution to the unity and stability of this country.” The truth is that the so-called consensus only further pitted the North against the South and highlighted the ethnic undercurrents of Nigerian politics. It reinforced the politics of Godfatherism and the pretension of minority groups seeking to dictate political choices to the rest of the community. (see Reuben Abati, “Atiku, consensus politics and the North”, The Guardian, November 26, 2010).

In the face of all these, President Goodluck Jonathan remained unperturbed. His supporters and other concerned stakeholders including the media took on the zoning debate, with emphasis on the next Nigerian President being a person of merit and quality and not a champion of narrow, ethnic and class interests. President Jonathan appointed as his Vice President, not any of the names that the cabal sought to impose on him, but the then Kaduna State Governor, Namadi Sambo, a Northerner, an architect and businessman, a reticent, self-effacing, conveniently obscure personality, who would not pose any threat just in case Jonathan made up his mind to run for President – a clever choice Thus, Jonathan chose his own Northerner. On June 8, he appointed Attahiru Jega, Professor of Political Science and Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, Chairman of the Independent national Electoral Commission- the first Northerner to occupy that position. If anything went wrong with the 2011 general elections, for the first time, a Northerner would have to take the blame!  

The same day, Jonathan got the National Council of State, comprising former Presidents and Heads of State, to decorate him with the highest honour in the land, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), a kind of endorsement even if most self-serving. (see Reuben Abati, “How Jonathan Got His GCFR”, The Guardian, June 11, 2010). On June 28, President Goodluck Jonathan launched a Facebook page through which he enjoined “Nigerians to give me the privilege of relating with them without the trappings of office.” This made Jonathan Nigeria’s first digital President, but it was also a subtle campaign strategy. (see Goodluck Jonathan, My Friends and 1 : Conversations on policy and governance via facebook. Lagos: GDP Associates Ltd., 2010). By August, there were speculations that President Jonathan enjoyed the support of the United States seeking stability in the Niger Delta as a means of securing US strategic interests in the country. US Secretary of State and other key US officials visited Nigeria. In August, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Odein Ajumogobia was also a guest of the US Secretary of State. In September 2010, Dr Jonathan formally declared his interest in the 2011 presidential election, citing his achievements in office. How did that play out? And what are the achievements he talked about?  

To be continued

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