President Goodluck Jonathan – like former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua before him – is nothing short of a Nigerian-made emperor. Nigeria is an unformed, misshapen country. In such a location, personalities supersede institutions and personal power trumps the mandate of formal agencies and structures.
Lately, Mr. Jonathan has appeared intent on demonstrating the extraordinary reach of his imperial powers. Last week, a desperate former Governor Timipre Sylva reportedly breached protocol at a wedding reception in order to publicly shake Mr. Jonathan’s hands. That handshake was tantamount to a public act of surrender – and a plea for forgiveness.
Timipre Sylva succeeded Mr. Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa State. When Jonathan became president, Sylva seemed to forget that his predecessor, willy-nilly, had become a political god. Mr. Sylva operated as if his gubernatorial perch had any consequence when juxtaposed against the president. When Mr. Jonathan let it be known that he no longer wanted Mr. Sylva in the Government House in Yenogoa, the former governor thought he could hector his way to reelection. He traded accusations of corruption with Mr. Jonathan. He beat his chest and expressed confidence that he would earn a return to the governor’s seat, whether Mr. Jonathan liked it or not.
Well, the impish governor was thoroughly humbled. Not only was he stripped of his ambition to stand for reelection, he was also picked up by operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and charged with corrupt enrichment. A few weeks ago, EFCC officials – accompanied by reporters – arrived at his Abuja home. Their mission was to continue their fetish of humiliating him. Members of his household fibbed that he was not at home, but officials of the anti-corruption agency searched him out from a crevice where he was hiding. They EFCC then paraded their quarry – a subdued, cowering half-man – before gleeful press cameras.
Mr. Sylva has since shed his hubris. A model of penitence and humility, his haste to shake Mr. Jonathan’s hands last week was a symbolic capitulation. In the veritable sign language of Nigerian politics, the former president was saying to the man he once abused, “Oga, I pledge loyalty 110 percent!”
There’s a good chance that Mr. Sylva is corrupt as the EFCC – on behalf of Mr. Jonathan – has charged. Yet, anybody who understands Nigeria would know that the former governor’s troubles have less to do with what he reportedly stole than with his failure to realize that mere mortals don’t talk back – must not talk back – to an emperor!
Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State would do well to learn that lesson. Mr. Amaechi has emerged as one of the most visible and formidable faces of opposition to President Jonathan. Heck, he even floored Governor Jonah Jang, the president’s candidate to chair the Nigerian Governors Forum. In pugilistic terms, he’s managed to deal Mr. Jonathan a few telling – and embarrassing – body blows.
In the end, however, victory belongs to the emperor. It doesn’t matter who is right, only who has might. And it’s, without question, Mr. Jonathan. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The police answer to him. Agents of the State Security Service (SSS) are ever willing to please him. The EFCC is part and parcel of his personal arsenal. He has control over the richest purse in Nigeria. And he can – like many demigods – make and unmake many things.
If you’re an imperial president, then arithmetical abracadabra is easy as ABC. That’s why Mr. Jonathan was able to make the 16 votes Mr. Jang received in the Governors’ Forum election superior to Mr. Amaechi’s 19. Without uttering a public word, the president ensured that Nigeria’s aviation authorities stopped Governor Amaechi from taking to the air with his private jet. And now, Governor Adams Oshiomhole has had his flying privileges curtailed as well. Mr. Oshiomhole’s particular misadventure was to vote against the emperor’s candidate – and for the emperor’s foe.
Last week, I had a long conversation with a Niger Deltan who made no secret that he was proud, oh, so proud, that President Jonathan was using the powers of his office to teach upstarts like Governors Amaechi and Oshiomhole who was who. “Sentiments apart,” the man said, whilst clinging to his sentiment, “it’s not right that these two governors from the president’s geopolitical zone should be poking their fingers in the president’s eyes.”
My friend’s invocation of the regional context of the feud between President Jonathan, on the one hand, and, on the other, Messrs. Amaechi and Oshiomhole, got me thinking in a certain direction. There’s no doubt at all in my mind: the president will vanquish both governors. He will win, not because he is in the right – the jury’s still out on that question – but because, within Nigeria, he is a mighty, hurricane-grade political force.
In spite of that conjecture – perhaps, because of it – we ought to ask: What does President Jonathan owe his people, specifically, and what’s his broader debt to history?
Even if Mr. Jonathan spends a second term in office, his enduring legacy will hinge, I suggest, on his willingness and ability to nudge Nigeria to consider two central questions. The first has to do with the structure of the country. Nigeria styles itself a federation, but little in the way the country is organized and run justifies the name. Instead, with too much power locked up in the center and the president permitted to play god, Nigeria often resembles a kingdom, with Aso Rock as the one palace of power that counts.
It is in the interest of the Niger Delta – and of all Nigerians – to have a country whose claims to a federal structure are borne out. Mr. Jonathan may excite some Niger Deltans by his immoderate use of the intimidating muscle of his office to bring his political enemies to heel. But what happens when he’s no longer the president, and a president from a different geopolitical zone begins his own version of playing god? The Niger Delta’s oil-rich soil is soaked with the blood of martyrs who fought for resource control. Is Mr. Jonathan doing anything to enthrone a greater measure of accountability for the oil revenues generated from the Niger Delta? Is it right that future Emperors would have free passes to treat the oil resources as they wish, using them to reward friends or punish foes? What happens if – when – a different president shows scant regard for the sentiments of the people of the oil-rich delta? Is this president thinking of strategies for averting crushing poverty and bloodshed in his region?
The second question pertains to the nature of power and agency in Nigeria. If Nigeria is to come closer to achieving a national identity, then it must move in the direction of strengthening institutions rather than the continued cultivation of personal aggrandizement. The Nigerian police (as well as EFCC officials) should be able to arrest or prosecute any suspect, even if the target is the president’s best friend. The electoral commission ought to be able to conduct transparently credible elections at municipal, state and national levels. The judiciary ought to be able to inspire public confidence that the country is truly governed by the rule of law – and that the law is no respecter of persons, only of principles.
Those titillated by Mr. Jonathan’s imperial complex ought to realize that all Nigerians, but particularly members of minority groups, pay the price when we abide raw, rampaging power. If Mr. Jonathan is possessed of a sense of history, he would resist the temptation to throw his weight around. There’s a lot of work that a serious-minded president could do for Nigerians. Those who encourage the incumbent president to overuse or abuse his powers to further a vindictive agenda ought to be chastened by the transience of Mr. Jonathan’s tenure. And they as well as the president should remember that, at the expiry of the heady days of power, History inevitably shows up to reckon up a former president’s legacy, admirable or wretched.
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