PoliticsNews & AnalysisNigeria: The battle for Goodluck's ear


Posted on Friday, 28 October 2011 14:54

Nigeria: The battle for Goodluck's ear

By Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos

With a reform team in place, President Goodluck Jonathan faces an array of opponents and vested interests who can stop policy change in its tracks and further slow Nigeria's economic development. His success depends upon whose advice he listens to.

Almost five months after his election, President Goodluck Jonathan remains a deeply perplexing politician. There are those smiles, the tribally hats and above all there is the seemingly effortless rise to the presidency of Africa's most populous land. None of this seems to help understand the nature of Jonathan's mission and its chances of success.

For many, one way to understand the man is to look at who has Jonathan's ear. Is it the determined figure of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who returns to the finance ministry (that she left under President Olusegun Obasanjo) with enhanced powers and a successful stint as managing director of the World Bank? Okonjo-Iweala will need Jonathan's full backing if she is to curb the abuses that undermine Nigeria's economy. At least one one presidential ear will have to be tuned fully to Radio Ngozi.

The pulchritudinous oil minister Diezani Allison-Madueke, who is said to have a special claim on one presidential ear, is harder to read. A former minister of steel and minerals development, Allison-Madueke has attracted massive enmity from within the oil industry and the interest of some of the country's investigative journalists. Some activist groups have urged the government to investigate their claims, but the government's deafening silence raises public concern.

A third group vying for contention is led by the political fixer Tony Anenih, a cheerleader and enforcer for every regime – military and civilian – since the late 1970s. Anenih delivers votes and dispatches political opponents at will. He is an indispensable political ally in his bailiwick of Edo State and the Delta region. A veteran of Sani Abacha's kleptocratic junta, Anenih is implacably opposed to reform and accountability. So why did Jonathan hire Anenih on his campaign team and what influence will he wield in government?

To many, there is something mysterious, almost other-worldly about Jonathan, the man who rose without a trace.

Nasir el-Rufai, a key member of former President Obasanjo's economic team, insists that "strong leadership" is one of the key conditions "for success in any public service assignment", and questions Jonathan's determination. However, assessing the reformers' chances requires some understanding of jonathan's motives. To many, there is something mysterious, almost other-worldly about Jonathan, the man who rose without a trace. to the faithful this lightning elevation of a boatmaker's son to the presidency is proof of a divine plan; to the critical there is simply less to Jonathan than meets the eye.

Basic as they are, much is riding on these questions. Its natural resources and demographics, let alone its relentlessly entrepreneurial people, mean Nigeria is almost certain to overtake Egypt and South Africa as the continent's biggest economy. Then there is its diplomatic clout. This year Nigeria supported two military interventions – in Côte d'Ivoire and Libya – against regimes accused of slaughtering their own people. In both cases Nigeria's re- gional power has been enhanced by its support for the new regimes.

Two multibillion-dollar reform programmes have been set in train: one that seeks to bring in private companies to resuscitate Nigeria's excruciatingly dysfunctional power sector and another to render its oil and gas industry accountable and manageable. There, one of the main prizes is to refine all Nigeria's petroleum products locally and start to supply the regional and eventually the continental market.

Both projects would revolutionise the economy, creating vast new revenue streams and thousands of new jobs. If Jonathan's government succeeds, he will be the man who turned Nigeria around. But with continuing frustration in the oil-rich Niger Delta and the blossoming of an insurrectionist movement in northern Nigeria, the cost of failure would be immense.

New power minister Barth Nnaji described the electricity sector in the country – at least before he took over the portfolio – as the "headquarters of confusion". Others say that the confusion extends far beyond the power sector. Confidence in the police and the national security apparatus is at an all-time low following a series of bombings in Abuja and the northeast for which the Boko Haram Islamist militia claimed responsibility.

The government is struggling to push the Petroleum Industry Bill through the National Assembly, which has stalled its progress for almost four years. Now, only a vastly watered down version will survive. The banking industry, having narrowly avoided collapse in 2009 due to collusion between bankers and politicians, is yet to recover fully. Central bank governor Lamido Sanusi, who took unprecedented action against some of the financial malefactors, is now determined to keep the sector under close watch.

Nigerians have their own measures and may judge Jonathan quickly: they want substantive improvement in the reliability of the electricity supply. They want to see the end to the parcelling out of oil licenses under the table. They want to see serious investment in roads, railways, ports and airports to make the economy work properly – and to take precedence over recurrent government expenditure, which currently stands at 74 percent of the national budget.

Nigerians want to see police and intelligence services that use brains rather than brute force against insurgent and terrorist groups. They also expect to see some heavyweight politicians in the dock for corruption. In August, the NGO, Human Rights Watch, released a damning report on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, noting that at the time of its compilation "not a single politician was serving prison time" for corruption.

A spectrum of interests

Jonathan knows about the people's expectations. When he declared his intention to run for the presidency he promised "a new era of transformation" and has stuck to that theme. But standing in the way is an array of powerful people and vested interests ranging from the mildly malign, who try to maintain a dysfunctional but profitable status quo, to the outright political gangsters, who are determined to block reform efforts that would fight the criminality undermining the national economy.

Before taking up the post in mid- August, finance minister Okonjo-Iweala reported that she had received threats from unnamed "vested interests" uncomfortable with her reformist agenda.

Many believe that attorney-general Mohammed Bello Adoke is working to undermine the government's anti- corruption commission and the Federal Inland Revenue Service. Adoke is also proud of the revenue generated by negotiating apparently lucrative settlement deals with multinationals such as Halliburton and Siemens that have been indicted in grand corruption cases.

At the same time, Nigeria's powerful state governors have strongly opposed the new Sovereign Wealth Fund, insisting that in a federal system, the states should be allowed to determine what to do with their savings. Since the weak government of Jonathan's predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the governors have substantially increased their political influence.

Similarly, the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have also greatly increased their political reach at the expense of the presidency.

For now, Jonathan has little choice but to listen to the governors and the National Assembly members. If he wants a serious reform programme to succeed, he will have to devise a way to face down the professional politicians and party hacks.

The newest recruits to the establishment are former Niger Delta militants who surrendered as part of a 2009 cash-for-weapons amnesty. Many of them have relocated to Abuja, where they pursue state contracts. Jonathan's entourage has tried to pacify them with deals, lest they resume the insurgency that halved national oil production.

The forces fanning the flames of these extremist activities are fired not by any 'jihadist' agenda as much as by the failure of governments

Much less clear is how Jonathan intends to tackle Boko Haram, which is not looking for state handouts so much as political power. It accuses the Jonathan government of being tone deaf when it comes to the concerns of northern Nigerians and is gathering support because of deteriorating economic conditions, according to newspaper columnist Salisu Suleiman. "The forces fanning the flames of these extremist activities are fired not by any 'jihadist' agenda as much as by the failure of governments at all levels to create economic opportunities," argues the journalist.

Vice-president Namadi Sambo, the highest-ranking northerner in the government, does not seem able to command either goodwill or respect from power brokers in the north. Not only will Jonathan have to listen harder to the voices of the northern dispossessed, he will also have to persuade some credible northern activists and politicians to join his administration if he wants to forestall a growing rift.

Business unusual?

Substantive progress could be made in tackling these ills, but to do that Jonathan would have to provide political support to the emerging reform team. The most prominent of them is Okonjo-Iweala, who now presides over a super- ministry of the economy. She is joined by Akin Adesina, the new agriculture minister and a former vice-president at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Adesina has promised to bring accountability to the state's importation and distribution of fertiliser and other farm inputs.

But former president Olusegun Obasanjo tells The Africa Report that it is not enough just to assemble reformers around an issue and hope that will be enough for progress to happen. "They have got a team – but that team has to be harmonious. It has to be led. It has to be monitored. Ngozi might have an idea, it will be good. Sanusi has shown what he is doing with the banks. Maybe he talks a bit too much, but he knows what he is doing. Akin Adesina knows what he is doing. But all of this has to be blended together. Akin cannot do it alone. How do we break into markets in Britain, in Asia, in the US? There is nowhere where there has been a great leap forward in agricultural progress without it being led from the highest office."

As the new trade and investment min- ister, former Goldman Sachs employee Segun Aganga will now oversee the management of the Sovereign Wealth Fund that he helped establish. Omobola Johnson, appointed to the newly created information and communications technology ministry is a former managing director of Accenture. Award-winning central bank governor Lamido Sanusi is pushing a new generation of reforms in the financial sector, and is working closely with the new reform-minded director general of the Securities and Ex- change Commission, Arunma Oteh.

These technocrats form the Economic Management Team coordinated by Okonjo-Iweala, which is meant to drive reform. Also on the team are billionaire cement plant owner Aliko Dangote and veteran investment banker Atedo Peterside. Impressive as this team may be, they will need wholehearted support from Jonathan to push through key re- forms against vested interests.

Expectations of Jonathan's success are subdued, according to Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, director of the Lagos-based Centre for Public Policy Alternatives. He argues that Jonathan "is more a child of circumstance than he is a political giant."

Others insist it is still early days and point to the fact that this is Jonathan's first and only full presidential term, so he can push through policies without worrying about short-term political fallout. He has at least got a reform team in place, and, if he wants to act, he will have to turn up the volume on Radio Ngozi.

Last Updated on Friday, 28 October 2011 16:13

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