Fewer events have generated as much anger and indignation during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure as the controversial pardon of his former boss, Diepreye Alamesigha, early last month. Yes, we know of the subsidy removal of January 2012 and the renaming of the University of Lagos by presidential fiat later in the year. But these were quickly or eventually reversed, perhaps because of the overwhelming outrage collectively expressed by Nigerians, especially in the first case. But I think that the reversals came because, in the scheme of things, the president could not really afford to fritter his political capital on these relatively insignificant issues.
The big game is still at large, his advisers must have calculated, so why allow these civic matters to lay your trap to waste. And what is the big game? Second-term tenure in the presidency come 2015.
Having come to power against the wishes of the power bloc in Northern Nigeria, and not sure of continuing acceptance in the other power bloc in the Southwest, Jonathan’s best bet remains the emerging bloc called South-South, his own political base, so to speak. But even that cannot be taken for granted, politics being what it is, and Nigerian politics for that matter.
In addition to an uncertain political climate, there are several bees buzzing in the bonnet. Henry Okah, an acknowledged leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, remained unsullied by the horse-trading that passes for politics, and was conceivably a person of integrity.
But Okah was in trouble. Having been arrested and put on trial for the 50th independence anniversary explosions at Eagle Square in Abuja, Okah’s political value hung in the balance. Some of his statements to the court were leaked to the press, which indicated that persons close to the president had allegedly tried to blackmail him, but there was no knowing how he stood with the people in the South-South, the political base he shared with the president. Only the president and his close advisers knew this.
Could the decision to pardon Alamesigha have something to do with the political calculus around Okah’s trial?
Look at this way. The militancy in the Niger Delta that grew out of the widespread state violence of the 1990s bred an astute sense of political awakening, which MEND did a lot to institutionalize, even with the travails of Asari Dokubo and, later, Okah. The emergence of politicians like Alamesigha, Jonathan, Peter Odili, and many others can be traced to this political awakening.
The same process explained the indispensability of this geopolitical zone to the calculations of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, in the run-up to the 2007 general elections: the Vice-Presidency just had to be zoned to the South-South. Jonathan, initially deputy to Alamesigha until the latter was impeached, arrested, and convicted for money laundering charges, progressed from that office to the governorship, then the Vice-Presidency, until circumstances thrust him into the President’s office. All in a little over three years.
Of all these figures, only Okah remained outside official politics. Whatever his current travails, he is certainly not without his own constituency. Jonathan has benefited most from the political fortunes of the region, in actual terms. His ascent to the office of the president is a historic feat, and points to the legitimacy of the case for the redress of the imbalances in Nigerian politics, especially as far as the Niger Delta is concerned.
It appears that there is not a single political camp in the region, even in the smaller zone that is Bayelsa. On the national stage, the menace of Boko Haram and the fallout of wrangling within the ruling party seemed to be weakening the president’s hold on the party’s bridle. His desire to contest the forthcoming election was heading for a dead-end. So, what to do? Okah’s trial looked likely to end in at least a conviction, and if this happened without a counterbalancing development, the hold on power would be weaker still, his influence in the Delta eroded.
And so came time to rehabilitate Alamesigha, the president’s former boss, a man reputed to be extremely influential among the leadership of the disarmed militant groups. When he returned to his base after jumping bail in 2006, the former governor was warmly welcomed by his people. He was not a suspect in a criminal case; he was a victimized defender of their rights. If the president was going to lose some of his influence as a result of Okah’s conviction, it would seem like the perfect idea to regain more of the same by getting an equally stalwart figure on his side.
Barely a week after the official pardon, Okah was sentenced in South Africa. The scandalous is old news.
Professor Adesokan, a published novelist, teaches literary theory at the Indiana University in the United States. He also writes a monthly column for Premium Times.