15 February 2010

Nigeria: Mr. Jonathan, You've Little to Lose And Everything to Gain


Lagos — Last week's resolution by the National Assembly to admit the written transcript of the infamous presidential interview with BBC as a written declaration within the intendment of S.145 of the Constitution was I thought, quite a stretch.

But it did calm things down somewhat - not a bad thing at all since the polity was clearly overheating and it was feared, could lead to a military takeover. The fact is, when you look at it objectively, the Senate got creative in its thinking; you've got to give it to them. After all, the Supreme Court also, in trying to do substantial justice, sometimes gets creative in its judgments. The Rotimi Amaechi 'win' of a gubernatorial election he never contested is a case in point.

The more important thing, in my view, was saving the country by putting an immediate end to the three month charade of a President still in control of government. It had reached a crescendo and there's no telling what could have happened next. And so, the National Assembly took the lazy way out. It was either that or run the risk of the President being declared incapacitated by the Executive Council of the Federation the following day when Dora Akunyili's attempt to invoke S.144 of the Constitution was billed for another try - and based on gathering momentum of public opinion in its favour, not to mention her colleagues who most likely did not want to be caught on the wrong side of history, looked like it would carry through. I suppose as well, it was an easier sell than trying to muster the numbers needed for an outright impeachment of the President.

But. There are some loose ends and they need to be tidied up. What happened last week can only buy us temporary reprieve. In buying that temporary relief, we may have set a dangerous precedent. Could this be a carte blanche we have given the Senate? To get 'creative' at the slightest or no provocation? To unleash the doctrine of necessity (much like that of the rule of law was used to beat us about the head by the Yar'Adua government, so much so that it lost all meaning) every time it needs to get round a 'difficult' situation?

Also, we are left with the very curious scenario of having an Acting President who has no Vice-President because he is the Vice-President, or more correctly he reverts to that position in the event his boss recovers and returns to office. With no Vice-President in place, there is no one to delegate less substantive or ceremonial but nonetheless important tasks like receiving foreign dignitaries, attending launch events and the like. Given that this administration has very serious catching up to do in terms of its 7-Point Agenda as well as the time wasted over the last three months because of the presidential hide and seek game, surely a situation where the Acting President is now put in the odd situation of carrying out both presidential and vice-presidential duties cannot be government's best foot forward?

There's also the vexed issue of ethnic and religious balancing generally agreed to be required at the top levels of government. The North, as well as Muslims, may well feel unrepresented in Aso Rock. The choice is now whether to wait endlessly for President Yar'Adua or face the new reality and demand his resignation or impeachment or the ministerial invocation of S.144 of the Constitution, paving the way for a Muslim Vice-President from the North. A no-brainer really.

We either have a Constitution or we do not. Of what use are its provisions if they will be jettisoned at will or if following them will require political liver not possessed by the relevant actors?

The seeming success of the Senate and House resolutions should not lull us into complacency and make us forget that it was bad governance that got us into the logjam in the first place. We must keep pressing for reforms in governance and demand for example, that those who have been guilty be sanctioned. For example, former Attorney-General Michael Aondoakaa's soft landing sends the wrong signals even if it seems politically expedient.

More important is that Jonathan must develop and hone a strong sense of history and use the time left of this administration to drive a process for lasting change. He has little to lose and everything to gain. He should remember that General Murtala Mohammed, warts and all, made a lasting impact even if only on our national psyche in six months. Thirty four years after his assassination, his six-month tenure is still a bench mark for one of the rare instances of great leadership in the country. The Buhari/Idiagbon regime, guilty though it was of gross violations of human rights and intolerance of opposing views with harsh sanctions to boot, is still remembered today (albeit through rose tinted lenses) as a regime which brought and enforced sorely lacking discipline to the country. This, in spite of the fact that they only spent 20 months in power before they were toppled by another military coup.

Acting President Jonathan has about 15 months to go before handing over power to his successor. That's more time than Murtala Mohammed had and less time than the Buhari/Idiagbon regime; that is to say, going by those examples, he has ample time to make a difference and effect positive change at any level of governance - political, social or economic.

Even if Mr. Jonathan is hampered in terms of political considerations he can and should distinguish himself through for instance, active engagement of key stakeholders in the public and private sectors, aggressive pace of implementation of existing programmes, especially power and the Niger Delta time bomb. More, he must distance himself and Aso Rock from corrupt persons, especially those who had over the last two and a half years gained unrestricted access to the seat of government when they should ordinarily have been cooling their heels in jail.

The argument has been canvassed that it would be inhuman to impeach or declare incapacitated a sick President. Really? Then what is our Constitution for? If anything, the fact that there's not been so much as a whimper ( of either protest or agreement) from the President since the events of February 10 leads one to the irresistible conclusion that there must be some truth to earlier reports that he is so ill he's not aware of his immediate environment. Besides, the argument conveniently overlooks the fact that the President up till now has treated the Nigerian people whom he professes to serve as a Servant Leader most contemptuously during this period, so much so that there was open talk of a military takeover. If that is not inhuman behaviour then I don't know what is.

It's time to lay sentiments aside, move on and do the right thing. The points marshalled by Professor Akunyili in her ill-fated memo remain valid. S.144, as argued by some, has definitely not been overtaken by events. If anything, there are now even more compelling reasons for invoking its provisions. The nation deserves closure on the absence of the President and his inexplicable three month silence (the BBC audio interview achieved nothing; in fact, there are those who swear it was a paid actor the world listened to).

What would be more inhuman, indeed inhumane, would be to expect that President Yar'Adua, should he make a recovery, come back to a job which had taken such a terrible toll on his health in the first place. With the final lap of the administration evident, a lap that demands greater rigour and push than the earlier laps, who's to tell that this might not be the lap that would finish off the man?

One more thing. A word for Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, SAN as begins his tenure as Attorney-General of the Federation. He must move quickly to restore public confidence and trust, now at an all time low, in that very battered office. The return of sobriety, common sense, decorum, elegant articulation and expression of views and self, transparency, accountability and yes, intellectual rigour to that office would be a welcome breath of fresh air. As would setting and actually achieving a clear agenda for the Justice Ministry.

So, Mr. Jonathan, what are you waiting for? You've little to lose and everything to gain.

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