Nigeria: the race to mend the nation

By Patrick Smith

Posted on Wednesday, 1 September 2010 09:53

Propelled into the presidency by the demise of his

predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan says he is determined to tackle the

crises in electric power, ?the corrupt oil and gas industries and the

broken electoral system.

For the first time in decades, Nigerians are looking forward to a presidential election next year in which the result looks wide open. A combination of events means the old political scripts have been torn up and Nigeria’s ageing political barons have been taken by surprise. For younger Nigerians this is a welcome prospect that offers the possibility of a new politics less dominated by the three regional power centres in the north, west and east.

It is uncharted territory, which is exhilarating for some and unnerving for others. Goodluck Jonathan’s ?arrival in the presidency at Aso Rock on 6 May after the the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua the previous evening will be a catalyst for some sweeping changes in national politics. Most importantly, as the first representative of the South-South region to hold the presidency, Jonathan has become a voice for ?Nigeria’s minority groups as well as the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Naturally cautious, Jonathan began his tenure with a paean of praise to his predecessor and an attempt to set out his own agenda: “The departed ?President took far-sighted, courageous and nationalistic decisions on the big issues that mattered most. For him, sectional and narrow interests were never to be tolerated,” Jonathan said. In an effort to carry some of Yar’Adua’s ?supporters, he added: “We had big dreams and big plans laid out … we shared thoughts on great ideas.”?

Reform or run??

With presidential elections just a year away, Jonathan faces two competing and perhaps contradictory impulses. Does he use his elevation to the presidency to pursue a radical agenda to reform electric-power provision, the state oil company and the electoral system, after which he would stand aside? Or does he conclude that such a programme is far too ambitious in the short term and instead put all his efforts into a run for the presidency next year on a strongly reformist ticket??

A voice from ?the South-South

Every inch the modern governor, Rotimi Amaechi nearly skipped to the podium, then proceeded to tell the packed assembly hall at the University of London that “80% of the militants in the Niger Delta are common criminals.” Amaechi’s 90-minute barnstorming speech on 10 May, delivered with the cadences of an evangelical pastor, was more campaign rally than learned discourse – much to the relief of the assembled academics. In Nigerian politics since 1988, Amaechi’s day job is to run Nigeria’s richest oil province, Rivers State, and preside over an annual budget of over $1.2bn. Outside of the office he is studying for a master’s degree at London University.

Carrying himself with a natural politician’s charm, sporting an open-necked shirt and a broad smile, Amaechi finds the pomp and ceremony of the governor’s office an anathema. Unconcerned about security in what used to be Nigeria’s highjacking capital in Port Harcourt, Amaechi frequents local bars and restaurants: “That’s where I’m going to meet the people,” he says. But his robust views about the Niger Delta crisis and how it should be addressed would create a furore if expressed by a Hausa politician from the north or a Yoruba in the south-west.

When criticised by an activist for travelling to London so soon after President Umaru Yar’Adua’s death on 5 May, Amaechi dismissed the point, saying: “I was closer to Yar’Adua than you would ever have been.” He scarcely conceals his contempt for civil society groups in Nigeria which he regards as mostly “money-making operations”. A staunch opponent of the amnesty agreement negotiated last October by President Goodluck Jonathan and his predecessor Yar’Adua, Amaechi said he favoured “enforcement and restoring the rule of law”.

He believes that the amnesty in the Niger Delta will hold until next year’s elections. “We are where we are,” he told The Africa Report, arguing that if political violence returns to the Delta then it would be the state governor’s responsibility. Meanwhile, his government is embarking on a massive operation to demolish shacks in the Waterfront district of Port Harcourt, plans which are heavily criticised by human-rights organisations such as Amnesty International. Amaechi dismisses his critics as ill-informed. “They do not even know how many people live on the Waterfront, they have no knowledge of the criminal gangs that operate there.”

Much of the initial advice given to Jonathan was to face down the vested interests that have benefited from the corruption and bureaucratic inertia around the power companies and the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Others argued that the most Jonathan could hope for in the time available was to launch a thorough-going reform of the political system: establish a genuinely independent national electoral authority and some accountability in the financing of political parties. Pushing through electoral reform could make Jonathan a national hero but would also make him some powerful enemies, especially among the barons of his own People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

All of Jonathan’s options look difficult. Over the past year, as President Yar’Adua’s health worsened, Jonathan balanced his ambition and growing concerns about the power vacuum with due respect for the ailing leader and his entourage. To many it looked like weakness and indecision, but the shift started in early March when Jonathan, in the constitutionally ambiguous role of ‘Acting President’, formed a Presidential Advisory Council which includes political heavyweights such as General ?Theophilus Danjuma, Mohammed Dikko Yusufu, Emeka Anyaoku and Bamanga Tukur.

That triggered several changes, starting with the sacking of Yar’Adua’s National Security Advisor, Abdullahi Sarki Mukhtar and his replacement with the intelligence veteran, General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau. Jonathan then appointed a new cabinet on 6 April with a pragmatic mix of bankers, political bruisers, military officers and a ?female oil minister and close ally, ?Diezani Allison-Madueke.

Gentlemen’s agreement?

Just a month later, with the announcement of Yar’Adua’s death on 5 May, Jonathan took the full reins of power and was sworn in as president. The succession pressure started almost immediately. And in what looks like a clumsy misstep, the special assistant on national assembly matters, Cairo Ojougboh, told a press conference in Abuja on 11 May that [Jonathan] “will contest and he should contest, and ?personally, I will vote for him.”

The ensuing furore prompted a clarification from Ojougboh insisting that he was speaking purely in his personal capacity and represented no one else in the ruling PDP, least of all ?President Jonathan himself.

The firestorm around Ojougboh’s statement was because of his cavalier dismissal of a gentlemen’s agreement within the ruling PDP that its leadership should rotate between six geopolitical zones in Nigeria, three in the mainly Muslim north and three in the mainly Christian south.Under those rules, the PDP’s presidential candidate next year should come from one of the northern zones, and Jonathan should either step aside completely or revert to his previous role as vice-president to wait for a shot at the presidency in 2015 when it would be the south’s turn.?

However, to a politician already ensconced in the presidency at Aso Rock, five years in Nigerian politics is an extraordinarily long time.

But Nigeria is less predictable than South Africa. Until recently, the grip of its three major ethnic groups – Hausa in the north, Yoruba in the west and Igbo in the east – looked unassailable.Nigeria’s disparate minority groups (more than 300 distinct languages are spoken by its 150 million people), have struggled to push their agenda in national politics. Lacking a coherent voice, the minorities made pragmatic alliances with one of the three juggernauts.

That began to change with the growing resonance of the conflict in the Niger Delta and demands for ?resource control. At the same time, calls grew louder for a national conference in which all Nigeria’s ‘nationalities’ would have a voice in shaping a new constitution.

Although the prospect of such a radical redrawing of Nigeria’s basic law rattled the establishment, shrewder politicians such as Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua made some concessions on constitutional reform and revenue sharing in the Niger Delta. Both men also hand-picked Jonathan as a running mate for Yar’Adua in the 2007 elections as another concession to the South-South.

The pdp, a reform roadblock?

Now, at the start of Jonathan’s presidency, there is an opportunity for much more change. His decision not to re-appoint the much-criticised Maurice Iwu as head of the independent national electoral commission is the first step to a revamping of the body under acting- chairman Solomon Soyebi. A bevy of foreign and local consultants are mapping out a restructuring of the commission that would make it less partisan and more accountable.

Removing the commission from the grip of the ruling PDP at the national and state level is critical to the holding of free and fair elections. Yet anyone pushing through such reforms will come up against fearsome opposition from the PDP hierarchy and most of the state governors.

President Jonathan can expect growing scrutiny of his own political ambitions. His appointment of the low-profile governor of Kaduna State, Namadi Sambo, as vice-president on 13 May was widely seen as confirmation of his plans to run for the presidency next year.

In fact, the race remains wide open. His best chances in the mounting political maelstrom may be to run a fast-moving, decisive and, above all, reforming administration, unswayed by mainstream politicking in the coming months. Meanwhile, a cluster of wealthy and well-connected candidates are already jockeying for the PDP presidential nomination, which is due to be decided at the national convention in November.

First onto the blocks was former military leader General Ibrahim Babangida, who has the money and networks to dominate the contest. But to many Nigerians, Babangida’s legacy should rule him out: he was the leader who annulled the 1993 elections won by Moshood Abiola, ushering in the disastrous military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.

There are several other prominent politicians in the frame, such as former Kaduna State Governor Ahmed Makarfi or Kwara State Governor Bukola Saraki. Then there is Jonathan’s national security advisor, Gen. Aliyu Gusau, who has come out of the shadows recently.

From the reform-minded younger generation, there is the former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nasir el-Rufai, who returned to the country just before Jonathan was sworn in as president. El-Rufai, a northerner, could run himself or help corral support from the north for Jonathan.

Whatever the decision about the party’s candidate in November, the state governors and the barons that run and finance the PDP will battle to control the outcome. They believe that more is at stake now than at any time since independence 50 years ago.

This article was first published in the June-July edition of The Africa Report.

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