26 July 2007

Nigeria: Is Obasnjo Still Calling the Shots in Nigeria?


Nairobi — I was in Nigeria earlier this month.

It was my first time in the country since the inauguration of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua following the election universally believed to have been flawed in all ways. If the truth be told, all political parties rigged elections where they could.

But the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the ruling party, had more powers and better opportunities to rob people of their mandate due to a partisan Electoral Commission. In spite of PDP's power, it could not outdo incumbent governors in opposition zones such as Lagos, Kano, Zamfara or Abia States. They used their popularity and advantage of incumbency to checkmate the PDP machinery and retain power.

Nigerians may be aggrieved and bitter, but not many are willing to die for any politician because there are no fundamental differences among them apart from 'I want to chop too'. They do not bother about policies that could emancipate Nigerians from poverty and want.

Two factors complicate the situation. One, the country is resigned to the fact that Yar'Adua would probably have defeated two of his strongest rivals. Two, his personality as non-confrontational made many underestimate him and turned the spotlight on outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had orchestrated his nomination and presided over his anointment.

There was and still is great anger at the former president. Many people refuse to accept that Yar'Adua, barring an unlikely decision to nullify the election, will be president for the next four years.

Talking to the chattering classes of media pundits, NGO activists and opposition-sympathetic politicos, one could think Obasanjo is still the tenant at Aso Rock. Every decision or non-decision is analysed as if Obasanjo is driving from the back seat. In part, Yar'Adua's stoic silence in the face of public pressure makes him vulnerable to the accusations of being a puppet of the former President.

Nigerians are so used to militarised leadership where things are done 'with immediate effect' and by executive fiat that they think Yar'Adua is indecisive for taking time before nominating a Cabinet and making senior appointments in drips and drabs.

But rewind to 1999 - it took Obasanjo time to exert control over Government. In fact, not until his second term did he have full control of his administration. Unfortunately for Yar'Adua, he does not have four years to wait. However, he will not act in the way Obasanjo's critics would like.

They want him to go after Obasanjo. This would not be wise given the power balance in the PDP. A president who does not know where the cutlery is cannot start inviting people to dinner! But like it happened between Obasanjo and those vested interests that brought him to power, what goes round comes round.

Yar'Adua will sooner than later enforce his footprints on the administration and the party that brought him to power. The first Cabinet will not be his personal 'A' list. The list of special advisers and key parastatal appointments may be more indicative of his policy thrust and political direction.

Obasanjo's so-called 'dream team' did not come into Cabinet until his second term, but most of them were key advisers or heads of parastatals. Obasanjo should have known better - government by proxy does not work in Nigeria. However, the elixir of power is difficult to shake off. Its hangover effect on ex-Presidents is more deadly.

It is not just the pathologically anti-Obasanjo elements in Nigeria who believe he is the power behind the throne and look for him under every executive bed. However, evidence shows that Obasanjo, too, is suffering from this grand delusion. It is the Executive Withdrawal Syndrome.

For now, Yar'Adua can enjoy the unusual convergence between the two. His bad decisions and failure or inability to make decisions can be blamed on Obasanjo's pressures, and the good ones interpreted as evidence that he is becoming his own man! I read adverts and news reports warning Obasanjo to leave Yar'Adua alone.

It is unrealistic to expect the PDP and the former President not to attempt to influence Yar'Adua. That is what politics is all about. But to assume that a president is nothing but a creation of his sponsors is to turn politics into a game of zombies. If Obasanjo is the only one putting pressure on Yar' Adua, that is the only pressure he will respond to.

However, if the grieving democrats exert their own pressure, they may be surprised at the potential influence they could wield. Issues on reform of the electoral process, the constitution, freedom of information, transparency, accountability and independence of the judiciary could be important entry points.

The pressure for reform should not be left to the political class alone because most of them have lost credibility. A broad coalition for change needs to be built to exert pressure on the political system. It should comprise civil society, NGOs and mass movements such as labour, youth, students and women.

But people are too obsessed with Obasanjo and baying for his blood, and daring Yar'Adua to wield the sword. This may actually have the unintended consequence of Yar'Adua taking as his default shield the mantra that it is good for him to be permanently underestimated by his opponents.

As long as they blame Obasanjo, he may have room to do what he wants. It is not good for political accountability that the president is not held accountable for his action or inaction because people are too obsessed with the former president! Yet Yar'Adua's inaugural speech dared the country to hold him responsible and promised to "lead by personal example".

The writer is the deputy director of the UN Milenniun Campaign

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