Azubuike Ishiekwene: Nigeria’s acting president and the tough road ahead

It is not yet clear whether Nigeria’s acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, just wants to warm the chair of the presidency until his country’s next elections. But if he decides to sit back and shuffle files, he’ll certainly have adequate cover. He could insist, for example, that as a non-elected head of state, he lacks the clear authority to act. Or, he could point to the fact that his presidency was not garnered through the process of appointment—at least not in the strictest sense. (After all, the constitutional maneuvering that brought him to power was unprecedented.) Or, Jonathan may simply revert to that old saw about Nigerian power politics, that because he didn’t seize power through a coup, he therefore lacks the iron fist needed to usher in substantial changes. This last argument carries real weight, given the short amount of time till the country’s next election. (General elections in Nigeria were scheduled for April 2011, but in light of the unusual events of the past several months, the national electoral body may push them up to 2010.)

Indeed, Jonathan may look at the enormous thicket of problems to be cleared—ranging from the rolling blackouts that plague Nigerian cities, to the fragile peace in the Niger Delta, to the worsening state of corruption—and simply decide to tinker at the edges until his time is up. Because really, how much can an acting president do with a hobbled presidency, a divided cabinet, an uncertain future, and a ruling party that treats him like a usurper?

To make matters worse, a powerful cluster around the first lady, Turai Yar’Adua, succeeded in evacuated the country’s ailing president, Umaru Yar’Adua, from Saudi Arabia last week, wheeling him into the country like a thief in the night. Later reports indicated that Jonathan was kept in the dark throughout the whole operation, setting off public outrage as to how it was possible for Yar’Adua to be bundled into Abuja—protected by a contingent of soldiers deployed for the occasion—without the prior approval of the acting president, as is required by law.

Jonathan’s narrow political base appears to be a disadvantage, but it’s a welcome disadvantage. If anything, the fact that he owes his latest political ascension to pressures from civil society rather than the maneuvering of politicians should strengthen his hand. Sadly, Jonathan’s first real act as president—a decision to sideline instead of fire the attorney general and minister of justice, Michael Aondoakaa—was more a token of appeasement to high-level politicians than a signal to the general public that the acting president is determined to be his own man. Jonathan is setting himself up for trouble.

I have heard the argument that given the circumstances of his ascension to power, it was pragmatic politics for Jonathan to have redeployed Aondoakaa, instead of dropping him entirely. But Aondoakaa was perhaps the worst face of the Yar’Adua administration. At the time of his redeployment, Aondoakaa had lost the respect of both the public and his professional group, the Bar association. And Britain and the United States—two of Nigeria’s partners in the fight against money laundering and financial crimes—were also having serious difficulties with him. Unfortunately, though, by giving Aondoakaa a soft-landing, Jonathan sent a signal to politicians like him that, even under the new acting president, politics in Abuja would be business as usual.

In the weeks to come, it will be interesting to watch Jonathan handle the unauthorized deployment of soldiers last week (those brought out for Yar’Adua’s secret landing in Abuja), especially given the recent widely publicized reports of tensions within the military. Though the army chief, General Abdulraham Danbazzau, has denied claiming that he can only take orders from President Yar’Adua himself, Danbazzau can hardly justify keeping his job. He is damned if he authorized the deployment of troops without the prior approval of the acting president, and damned if he didn’t. One of the excuses for military intervention in the past was that the military was an “impartial arbiter,” only interested in “guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the country.” What happened last week suggests that the military’s high command has taken sides in the  battle between Yar’Adua loyalists and those favoring an interim executive, thus shattering the myth of the “impartial arbiter.” Anything short of the army chief resigning from his job would be similar to snipping the tail of the viper but leaving its head intact.

So, what can Jonathan do in one year or less? In his blog, “Great presidents, and why,” Jim Mendel ranks Harry S. Truman as one of his greatest all-time U.S. presidents, the others being Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Yet, Truman was the most unlikely of the trio. He had been vice president for only 82 days before FDR’s unexpected death. He was saddled with leading his country through World War II, but “had zero experience in foreign relations, had met neither Winston Churchill nor Joseph Stalin, and knew absolutely nothing about the Manhattan Project, the nuclear bomb.” Yet, his decision to drop the nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a painful but necessary end, and paved the way for him to introduce the Marshall Plan.

The point: that great presidents must have a spine, a value system, and a heart that does not waffle.

Three weeks after Jonathan came to office and made a nice speech about improving the power supply, stepping up the fight against corruption, introducing electoral reforms, and tackling the problems in the Niger Delta, I can’t feel the wind blowing at his back. All I see is a man in a fedora struggling to smile. Yet, it’s not as if anyone is expecting him to re-invent the wheel. In the area of power, for example, we need a minister who can inform the public on a weekly basis about what progress is being made, where, and how. Can we have a breakdown of which independent power producers will deliver what, where, and when? We need to know who is tracking the generator and diesel cartels and if the country is importing more or less of these items. That’s how we can measure if Jonathan is keeping his word on power.

On amnesty, his work is cut out for him. President Yar’Adua only extracted the amnesty part of the Niger Delta committee’s report and left the rest. Jonathan should order a white paper on the report and put all those now racketeering in the name of amnesty out of business. Does he expect to be taken seriously in the fight against corruption if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission remain as they are presently constituted? Yar’Adua may be relatively clean, but those who installed both him and Jonathan in office had a direct interest in permanently damaging the country’s anti-graft agencies. That was the only way they could secure their snouts in the trough. Jonathan cannot retain the present system and those in charge, while simultaneously claiming to be serious about revamping the fight against corruption.

Jonathan’s fiercest battle may be fought on the turf of electoral reform. Earlier this year, a federal high court in Lagos ruled that the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission, as it is presently constituted, is illegal. The commission is not only short the legally stipulated number of commissioners (nine persons), but the tenure of its current chair, Maurice Iwu, expired a year ago. It is untenable for Iwu to continue in office. The electoral reform panel, headed by a retired chief justice, has recommended strong points around which to discuss changes in how elections should be organized. Jonathan must act on the report. The true test of his sincerity will be measured, among other things, by the quality of the electoral system that he bequeaths to the country.

If, after all is said and done, Jonathan still prefers to remain a lame duck, he will have no one to blame but himself. Regardless, he can be sure that he will not be judged by how long he spends in office, but by what he does in the time he has. This is his defining moment.

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