Hurry up, Jonathan – by Reuben Abati [Opinion]

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May 15, 2010


Hurry up, JonathanBy Reuben Abati

IT is very easy in a Presidential position in Nigeria, nay Africa, to get carried away with the ceremonies of office, to be largely overwhelmed by the fawning attention of sycophants and opportunists, and as the intensity of this increases, the man of power begins to imagine himself a superman, and he soon forgets his primary assignment and begins to enjoy the office for its own sake and what it can bring. It is both a practical and psychological pitfall, the drama of which has been played out all too often in many African states, to the great discomfort and disadvantage of the people. It looks like President Goodluck Jonathan is beginning to fall into that pit. He needs to watch his steps.

During the inauguration of a new Federal cabinet in March, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan as he then was, seemed to have demonstrated an awareness of this same pitfall when he promised that his government will “hit the ground running.” He charged the new Ministers to come up with blueprints within two weeks and that this will be formally presented to the Executive Council and defended. That speech was full of excellent sound bites. In it, the Acting President also promised to focus on certain key areas of governmental activity: electoral reform, the war on corruption, the Niger Delta crisis, and the power sector. To show his determination, the then Acting President also took personal charge of the power portfolio with a promise that his government will ensure regular electricity supply in the country as a matter of urgent priority.

Although there was still so much uncertainty surrounding his Presidency, with the former President Umaru Yar’Adua still in the background on a sick bed, and reports of selective sightings of the ailing President, Jonathan’s emergence brought fresh hope and helped to stabilise a drifting polity. With Yar’Adua’s death on May 5, and Jonathan’s assumption of full presidential powers on May 6, whatever doubts that may have existed about the legitimacy of his government were neatly resolved. But since February, and given the events of the last few days, there is no indication that President Jonathan intends to “hit the ground running.” He seems to have hit the ground dancing. He should watch his footwork. Where are the blueprints from the Ministers? Three months have gone already, when will Jonathan start working? He should read the mood of the Nigerian people more carefully, the ordinary people, I mean. They are impatient.

In three years of the Yar’Adua presidency, not much transformation took place as the people continued to search in vain for the same democracy dividends they have been looking for since 1999. They were distracted by tales of Presidential illness, and the wanton irresponsibility of the professional political elite. Jonathan has enjoyed so much public goodwill because he is the beneficiary of the change that the people wanted. Any kind of change would do, and that is why not so much capital has been made out of the fact that Jonathan was in fact a part of the Yar’Adua government as No 2 man. Jonathan is expected to run a Presidency that is driven by a policy of “business unusual.” A Presidency that works as if it is under the pressure of time, and it is; a carefully focused government whose only priority is service delivery within the short period available, and a man at the top who inspires fresh confidence because he knows what he is doing.

Early signs indicate that Jonathan may find it difficult stepping up to the game. He has fallen so early into the error of doing business as usual. He is the ultimate pacifier. He seems determined to run a government of the Godfathers. Every man who imagines himself to be a custodian of the Nigerian legacy, even only a portion of it, seems to have a share of his government. Nothing has been more sordid than the silly politicking that has so far attended the appointment of a new Vice President. For comparison, Dr. Jonathan should look towards Britain where a major political situation has been resolved so decently within a matter of days, without any disruptions and the country has moved on. A general parliamentary election was held (no ballot snatching, no violence… no iwuruwuru), the result was a hung parliament and a coalition government had to be formed (in Nigeria, that could have resulted in bloodshed), Gordon Brown resigns (if he were a Nigerian, he would have found a way of getting some MPs to cross-carpet to the Labour Party), the LibDems align with the Conservatives, David Cameron emerges as Prime Minister (born in 1966; IBB are you there?) and Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister (born in 1967: IBB, you see?), and almost immediately a new cabinet is announced. Britain is moving on. It is possible to say that the circumstances are different (no Prime Minister died in Britain) but we are dealing with the same issues: change of government, management of processes and leadership; while Nigerian flounders, the British have again shown us how a modern government should run.

For a whole week, the country was held hostage by speculations about who should be the next Vice President. We have been treated not to a decisive and prompt choice by the President, but to the activities of all kinds of powerful individuals and groups: The Governors Forum, the Northern Senators Forum, Northern Emirs, the Yar’Adua family, General Theophilus Danjuma, and General Olusegun Obasanjo all associated with the nomination process. The Northern Senators Forum was divided over the issue and the Governors reportedly resolved that one of them must become the Vice President. The Middle Belt was up in protest and some characters from the North West claimed that if the Vice President did not emerge from their geographical zone, Nigeria’s unity could be threatened. There has been no talk about quality or merit. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo goes to Katsina to pay a condolence visit and he reportedly told the Yar’Adua family that President Jonathan will sustain the late Yar’Adua’s legacy. How does he know that?

In every manner, President Jonathan gives the impression that he is yet to take charge of his office. He should hurry up. He should appoint as Vice President, a man that he can work with, not someone whose only interest is politics and the 2011 general elections. The Governor of Kaduna State, Namadi Sambo has been named Vice president designate, but the Governors Forum is said to have imposed on him on the President. The dirty politicking over the appointment of the Vice President already exposes the dangers in the zoning arrangement and Nigeria’s fragile unity. By allowing every matter to drag, Jonathan slows down his government and loses momentum.

When will his initiative on electoral reform begin? What is his blueprint for the Niger Delta? When will the construction companies begin the task of providing needed infrastructure in that region? Or if that is not possible, what structural and constitutional reforms does he want to push through to resolve existing conflicts? On corruption, is he really interested in the anti-corruption war or he is out to use the anti-corruption agencies to settle conflicts within the ruling PDP? These are not the key signals coming out of the Jonathan Presidency. His handling of the appointment of the Vice President can only further divide the PDP. Those whose names have been touted and who have been busy lobbying for support may become new enemies of the president and the new Vice president and do their utmost best to thwart the administration’s efforts. In more serious societies, where there are equally divisive issues as in Nigeria, a Vice president would have been announced immediately and all mischief-makers duly neutralised.

The excuse is that the appointment of a Vice President needed to wait until the one-week period of mourning ended. See what a difference a week can make? A country does not fold up because its leader dies. The national interest must always prevail. President Yar’Adua has been well-mourned (the burial, the holiday, the tributes), even if I consider most of it all downright hypocritical. All the people who used to criticize Yar’Adua suddenly became his praise singers. They spoke not of legacy, but legacies (Je-su-s Christ!), and how he was such a statesman and a great leader. Two weeks ago, they complained about his being a sick man and the vicious pro-Yar’Adua cabal that was holding the country hostage. Why do people play politics with everything? The same people who are now praising Yar’Adua in death have immediately turned to Jonathan. He is now their leader, the boss, their Commander: the same man they all ignored a year ago! One Governor even put out a paid congratulatory advert describing Jonathan as a visionary (“bright vision,” the advertorial said!). But Jonathan himself is enjoying it. In between mourning the late President (we are told Nigerians do not realise how close the two were – how they lie!), the man finds the time to pay a courtesy call (that is what it is) to the office of the President. He arrives, surrounded by aides, including the Chaplain of the Presidential Villa who prays for a few minutes (obviously casting out demons and principalities probably left behind by the departed President!), and then Jonathan sits on the Presidential chair, posing for photographs which made front page news the following day. Very big story! According to reports, the new president spent thirty minutes in the new office. I imagine that valuable Presidential time must have been spent checking out the window blinds and the rest of the furniture with fawning aides muttering: “Congratulations, sir,” or probably clapping. It was like a school boy trying out his new school uniform and inviting the town to come and see him. He then leaves the Presidential office and returns to his present quarters to receive visitors. As soon as the mourning period ends, (it has) Jonathan jets off to Rivers state on official visit, and his wife goes off to Delta state for another state function – all of which is business as usual. Will President Jonathan please hurry up?

He seems to ruin his case further by allowing his aides to make the mistake of putting out the word that he intends to run for presidency in 2011. It is a piece of information, whether denied or downplayed, that may sabotage his administration from the very beginning. And where does that leave all that promise about electoral reform? Yes, he has every right to aspire to be President, but should that become or be perceived to be the main mission of his one-year administration? Whatever he now does will be considered a calculated attempt to ensure the fulfillment of his ambition. And yet what the people want is real change: change in their circumstances or a momentum in that direction. Something has changed however: President Jonathan’s wardrobe. He now oscillates between the Ijaw gear, the Arewa cap and the complete Yoruba agbada. One of these days, he will get round to the Igbo red cap, the Tivi black and white cap, and the Efik/Ibibio wrapper. No chance for the Koma people in that wardrobe arrangement, I think. But can President Jonathan just please, hurry up and focus on the important issues of national interest, the same issues that he himself has identified to start with?

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