Yar'Adua and Jonathan: United in distrust

THE GUARDIAN Newspaper-Levi Obijiofor

THE past two weeks have been particularly confusing and unnerving for many Nigerians. Everyone is asking the same question. Now that President Umaru Yar'Adua has been dragged from his sick bed in Saudi Arabia and flown back into the Presidential Villa for obviously cosmetic reasons, is he still capable of serving as president? We have a president who is trying to recover from his medical condition but his radical supporters don't want the man to rest. They want him to return to his desk, not considering whether he is in good health or in fragile health.

Everyday, the flaws of presidential politics in Aso Rock get more and more exposed. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan is trying to impose his authority in order to prevent Yar'Adua's maniacal handlers from driving the bus known as Nigeria into an abyss. Consider this: two weeks since Yar'Adua returned secretly to his homeland, Nigerians still don't know what is going on in Aso Rock. No one knows for sure whether Yar'Adua is conscious or unconscious. Yar'Adua's handlers won't even let the acting president to see his ailing boss. What is it about Yar'Adua's health that they are hiding the man from everyone? If Yar'Adua is fit to return, he should also be fit to meet with Jonathan.

Since Yar'Adua left Nigeria on November 23, 2009 for medical treatment, only very few people can claim they have seen him or spoken to him or touched him. In November last year, Yar'Adua left Nigeria in controversial circumstances. In February 2010, Yar'Adua returned in an even more conflict-ridden fashion. He arrived in the dark, was taken to his ambulance in the dark and driven to his presidential residence through dark streets. That manner of reception constitutes an indignity for a president. When Yar'Adua left for Saudi Arabia , we were assured by his special assistants that the man travelled on a routine medical check-up. None of his aides described Yar'Adua as an ailing president because so much emphasis was placed on the words "routine medical check-up".

Yar'Adua and Jonathan are two leaders united in distrust of each other. Jonathan is in a more serious dilemma. Everyday he watches the unfolding political scenario in bemusement, unsure how to handle the volatile situation. It's odd, isn't it? Two weeks since Yar'Adua returned to Abuja , Jonathan can't even see his ailing former boss, no thanks to the creative excuses manufactured by Yar'Adua's handlers and his missus. It's all about suspicion and distrust in high places. If Jonathan gatecrashes the security cordon placed around Yar'Adua, all in the attempt to show his sympathy, he would be accused of engaging in disruptive behaviour. Worst still, if Jonathan goes hard against all those people who have been zealously guarding Yar'Adua, Jonathan could trigger a chain of events that might turn everyone - the nation and the people struggling to appropriate political power - into perpetual losers. Yar'Adua's aides and Jonathan are locked in a power play. Each side is staking a claim to the presidential throne but each side is also mindful of the dangers of putting forward their right foot wrong. We have to pity Jonathan. He is a product of medical and political circumstances. But even the elements won't let him rest.

Everyone except Yar'Adua's fanatical supporters is expecting Jonathan to make a difference, to make their lives worthwhile and to give Nigerians something they couldn't get during the eventful two years of Yar'Adua's presidency. But does Jonathan have the capacity and the courage to be his own man, to take decisive actions? This is the big puzzle. Only Jonathan can answer that question. No amount of political rhetoric would satisfy the public. Nigerians want a pragmatic president, not a president who sleeps on the job. That president should be able to articulate clear-headed policies without relying on disused former leaders.

The evolving politics of regionalism is more than likely to give Jonathan some presidential nightmares at best or headaches at worst. The Acting President is standing on a delicate plank. He could fall off either on the right or left hand side of that rocking presidential chair. A North African proverb says it is dangerous for anyone to juggle knives in the dark. Jonathan is already juggling knives in the day and in the night. Can he also juggle knives while asleep?

Owing to the murky nature of Yar'Adua's arrival and the darker plots that preceded his return, Jonathan had little knowledge that Yar'Adua, the man who previously wore the title that Jonathan now wears in a modified version, was being dragged home apparently against his personal wishes and ambition. Presidential aides have a way of turning their bosses into executive zombies. This was precisely what happened to Yar'Adua two weeks ago.

It is now obvious that those (I hasten to use the newly popularised word "cabal") who forced Yar'Adua back home were not concerned about the man's health but about their desire for him to govern from his sick bed. No one talks about Yar'Adua or the confusion in the country without reference to the evil plots of the "cabal" advising Yar'Adua. The problem is that, without sighting Yar'Adua physically or hearing from the man, no one can say whether Yar'Adua is fit enough to take decisions or whether his fanatical advisers have turned the man's vegetative state into an advantage.

Yar'Adua's surprise return has opened up two bitter fronts in the politics of Aso Rock. There is the old brigade comprising fly-by-night politicians who want to retain their grip on power by any means possible. There is also the new team symbolised by Jonathan, who wants to move quickly to stamp their authority before Yar'Adua rises from his sick bed. While everyone has been making loose references to Yar'Adua's "cabal", no one has had the courage to identify members of that "cabal". What is a cabal? The Chambers Dictionary defines a cabal as "a small group or council united for some secret purpose, especially political intrigue". Is Yar'Adua's "cabal" a group of masked men and women? If they are known, the people who know them should identify them.

Since Yar'Adua's return, some vocal members of the Executive Council of the Federation, some senators and members of the House of Representatives, and some members of the public have been suggesting how the "cabal" should be treated and how the nation should relate to Yar'Adua. We have incongruous voices that are sure to add to Jonathan's bewilderment. Jonathan is beginning to act. It's a slow process but his initial decisions will define how he plans to govern, as well as whether he is a brave man or a man who lacks courage.

The decision taken by Jonathan this week to appoint a presidential advisory council which is expected "to provide alternative inputs into policy formation, promote good governance in the areas of power, economy, security, infrastructure, social sector, the electoral process, and the fight against corruption, among others" has already polarised public opinion. Indeed the gulf between pro-Yar'Adua aides in the presidency and Jonathan's supporters has been widened by this decision. While the idea of a presidential advisory council might appear commendable, what must be criticised vigorously is the membership of that council and the responsibilities assigned to the council members. First, the membership of the presidential advisory council is unwieldy. With a membership of no fewer than 24 men and women, the council is most likely to be encumbered by diverse ideological and political differences, not to mention disparate personal egos and interests.

Second, the task description for the council members appears to duplicate the roles already being performed by ministers, special assistants and presidential advisers. There are also other questions that are yet to be answered. How long would the members serve in the council? Would the members be remunerated? If so, how would council members be paid? Finally, the notion that Nigeria cannot move forward without the direct and indirect involvement in government of certain retired and ageing military and public officers is disingenuous. There are some members of Jonathan's presidential advisory council who ought to remain in retirement because they have nothing new and productive to contribute to the government. It is in this context that I would argue that Jonathan has taken a good decision but he has also, without realising it, weakened the ability of other members of that council to succeed.


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