Jonathan/El-Rufai: The impossible dream?

THE SUN Newspaper-Lindsay Barrett

It is now quite obvious that the season of improvident politicking has arrived. Dr. Jonathan has appealed to all Nigerians to give him a chance to work on basic reforms through the critical initial period of his assumption of Presidential authority in an acting capacity. Instead it is next year’s impending contest that has become the paramount concern in public response to political circumstances in the nation. As the increasingly outspoken Governor of Rivers State Chibuike Amaechi put it in Abuja recently, “Why are so many people suddenly discovering problems that have been buried for a decade, and making allies of their former adversaries?”

Amaechi was referring to events occurring in his own party the PDP when he responded to the presentation of an award for effective governance given to him by an Abuja-based newspaper. Although the occasion was billed as being impeccably non-political Amaechi’s short but pungent comments effectively reversed that perception at the end of the ceremony. This was not surprising because in Nigeria today there is hardly anything that happens that cannot be seen in the light of one political assumption or the other.

As a result some eminently improbable consequences have been attributed to the fallout from Dr. Jonathan’s recent visit to the USA. Most noticeably the reported reconciliation between two prominent former public officers and the incumbent administration is being speculated upon in remarkable ways. It is important that such speculations be regarded not only with the scepticism that they might appear to deserve but also with the reservation that Nigeria’s political experience so far has sometimes provoked. It cannot be said often enough that no one should take Nigeria’s political assumptions for granted and this is one time when such caution will be appropriate and enlightening.

The announcement that court cases instituted against former EFCC Chairman Nuhu Ribadu, and one time Federal Capital Territory Minister Nasir el Rufai have either been dropped or treated with less urgency than before has given rise to serious concern in some circles while also generating incredible allegations of intent in others. When el Rufai himself resurfaced in Nigeria a week ago the allegations of political intent took on surprising dimensions. In their most incredible manifestation these included speculation that the ruling party’s Presidential ticket next year could be made up of the Acting President and the returning Minister in either of two configurations; Minister in the lead and acting President as Vice or vice versa. To some of us who have persisted in assuming that there is some element of rationality in Nigerian politics such speculation might appear baseless if not totally unfounded.

However, several weeks ago, at the height of the imbroglio caused by President Yar’Adua’s absence from the country and shortly after Dr. Jonathan was installed as Acting President el Rufai, speaking from exile in Dubai, asserted that there would be nothing wrong with Jonathan running for the Presidency. With this statement el Rufai himself fueled speculation long before his return to the country that a deal was in the works that would restore his relevance as a factor in the Nigerian political dispensation. Many observers who have commented publicly on developments arising out of the apparent rehabilitation of the two former elite members of the Obasanjo regime have tended to attribute this to underground manipulations of their former boss. The truth however might be even more sinister. In the end while Dr. Jonathan must determine his own role in the politics of the nation’s future and the el Rufai factor appears to be an improbability at this time, nothing is impossible in Nigeria.

It is indeed strange that while Obasanjo was the first person to state that Dr. Jonathan was not eligible to stand for office next year he has now begun to shift his position. Such confusing behaviour is not new for the former President and the speculation fuelled by it is certainly par for the course in PDP politics. However there are some vital issues that must be considered in any speculation concerning the shape of the ticket for next year. The strategic objective of any such ticket would apparently be based on the perception that both el Rufai and Ribadu can marshal radical credibility in Northern Nigeria. This will be extremely important in granting legitimacy to a Jonathan candidacy based on the rejection of the regional zoning formula. To pursue this course it will however be necessary for Northern Nigerian support to be based equally on radical as well on conservative acquiescence.

At the grassroots both elements have legitimacy in Northern Nigerian society and any action that creates a conflict of interest between these forces will provoke a backlash of regional rejection rather than acceptance for a ticket that seeks to render any one element ascendant over another. There can hardly be any doubt that an el Rufai/Jonathan or Jonathan/el Rufai ticket would be perceived as having been crafted to build this special relationship. At the same time it is certain that the Northern polity would regard such a ticket as a herald of the regional leadership profile being put in place for the future. It is equally certain that a substantial proportion of the political community in the Northern states would regard this as an imposition rather than as a generic representation of the public will. It is this that makes the speculation over such a ticket appear to be based on fantasy rather than reality at this time.

However we must remind ourselves again that fantasy is not entirely irrelevant in Nigerian politics. The way we reached the situation that confronts us today in which the issue of whether Dr. Jonathan will be the party’s ticket bearer next year or not has become an important issue illustrates this assertion. The imminent return of Ribadu to the country has provoked some irrepressible anxieties among some of the most active political manipulators.

The actual return of el Rufai has served to generate perceptions and speculations that have increased these anxieties across the full spectrum of the political arena. This has coloured the public perception of the motivation behind a number of events that have occurred probably coincidentally but with impeccably timed percipience. The removal of Maurice Iwu as head of INEC and the misfortunes of PDP Chairman Prince Vincent Ogbulafor, who is faced with a criminal charge that apparently should have been filed several years ago, are just two of these events. There is an unfortunate tendency in Nigeria to forget the relevance of evidence and attribute some accusations against prominent persons as being formulated for reasons of political persecution.

This is one of the traits that have tended to undermine the credibility of the democratic impulse in the nation. It is interesting that el Rufai appears to have been relieved from such persecution by the terms he negotiated for his return without being arrested by the agency that had earlier declared him wanted. At the same time some prominent figures who just recently might have been advocating his arrest are themselves now being forced to seek similar reliefs in order to escape humiliation. This is neither surprising nor unexpected because whenever the political season gets underway in Nigeria fantasy becomes the currency of the day and impossible dreams suddenly seem to be more possible than ever before.


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