Dissecting the Jonathan Presidency
By Reuben Abati
NIGERIA has a new 'acting' president courtesy of the action taken by the National Assembly to resolve the terrible impasse into which President Umaru Yar'Adua had thrown the entire country by refusing to transmit a letter to the National Assembly in line with Section 145 of the Constitution. There is no doubting the fact that 'expediency and pragmatism' informed the decision but in passing the resolution by both Chambers of the National Assembly, the rule of law was jettisoned; the action it must be said had absolutely nothing to do with the law.
Nigeria was faced with a desperate situation; desperate tactics were adopted to save the situation from descending into sheer anarchy, what with some misguided elements in society already mouthing the nonsense that such times called for military intervention. What was done on Tuesday was not a resolution per se, it was a revolution: it was a case of the National Assembly, conniving with the Vice President, the Governors and a vocal section of the civil society, to do what seemed expedient. Nigeria needed to be saved from drifting, from the rush of uncertainties, it needed to be rescued from the hands of a cabal that had taken hold of it - but at what cost?
Establishing a constitution-driven society requires that both chambers either use the case of expediency to change the law or execute same through observance of the constitution. We cannot fumble and wobble our way out of the constitutional quagmire we have found ourselves through the irresponsibility of those taking care of a sick president, who from all accounts, was in no state or faculty to take the necessary steps as provided for by the constitution at the time of leaving office.
Nigerians have embraced the situation and found it acceptable because it serves our purpose; because it seems to be the only way to check the intrigues of those who were misinterpreting the law and making the presidency seem more important than the country itself.
While we look the other way and ask those who are protesting that violating the Constitution to save a desperate situation will create more problems in the long run, we should do a prompt reality check. It is as follows: the development in the National Assembly on Tuesday came about as a result of our collective helplessness. President Yar'Adua and his aides had continued to insist that he is well and capable of running Nigeria from anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the man has allegedly been in a Jeddah hospital since November 23. Nigerians do not know the exact truth about his state of health. He and his family and megaphones have held the country to ransom and have now been beaten at their own game.
This however should not be the end of the story. We cannot proceed without resolving what happened or is happening to our president. The logjam from which we think we have extricated ourselves may be further extended and the Constitutional crisis that we think we have side-stepped may be blown full scale in due course. It is better in matters such as this, therefore, to insist on first principles. The National Assembly had to act ultra vires by interpreting the Constitution to suit its purpose. The word transmit in Section 145 suddenly was stretched to cover the BBC interview by President Umaru Yar'Ă§dua. To all intents and purposes, that BBC interview belongs to the BBC.
It is not the property of the Nigerian government, not an official communication; it was not in any way directed to the National Assembly. To resolve this impasse by relying on the BBC is to submit our sovereignty to a foreign media - How did the BBC secure such an interview when the Nigerian Security Service, National Assembly, Federal Executive Council, Secretary to the Federal Government and indeed key staff members of the kitchen cabinet and the presidency could not gain access to him?
The appropriate thing for the National Assembly to do should have been to insist on the President sending a letter to the National Assembly asking to go on vacation to attend to his health. What then was the purpose of the meeting with Senator Muhammad Abba Ajji, "the presidential letter courier" last week? Where is the letter he promised? There were reports that David Edevbie, the President's Principal Private Secretary had travelled to Saudi Arabia to bring the letter, the same way he took the Appropriation Act to Saudi Arabia for presidential signature. At what point between last week and Tuesday this week, did it become impossible to get the President's signature or thumb print, therefore compelling the National Assembly to suspend the Constitution and act expediently?
No man can be more important than the country. Not even the President. By refusing to obey the Constitution, the President has committed a major breach. He has by his inability to sign a letter, confirmed his incapacitation. Why didn't the National Assembly insist on the Federal Executive Council acting as directed in Section 144 of the Constitution? What has been proven now is that it is alright in certain situations for the Constitution to be subjected to the force of circumstances. Nigeria has never had the experience of a President going AWOL. It became a testy situation because of the failure of the professional political elite to behave properly. The National Assembly has not yet resolved the Yar'Ă§dua issue.
On this debate rests the unresolved issue of a signed Appropriation bill. To accept that the president was in no way able to sign a letter confirming his leave of absence is to raise a fundamental and grave issue bothering on possible forgery and outright criminal deception carried out and executed by the presidency.
However, clearing the mess that had been created and strengthening public confidence in the rule of law should be Dr. Goodluck Jonathan's first assignment in his new posting. This would mean his addressing the issue of President Umaru Yar'Adua's ill health. As Acting President, albeit the product of a democratic coup, willed into reality by overwhelming public consensus, he must direct a delegation immediately to go to Saudi Arabia to establish the true location of the missing President, his true circumstances, his true state of health, the bills that he has incurred.
There are reports that the President's family prevents people from seeing him. They cannot do that. They must be told that the Nigerian President belongs to the Nigerian people. We should have a right of access to him and the right to pry into his private life. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan must give appropriate orders for full and detailed information about President Yar'Adua. Our national security is at stake. Besides, who is picking up the huge bills that the president must have chalked up in the last 79 days? If it is the Nigerian taxpayer's money that is being spent, then the people's right to know must be protected.
Did anyone take special notice of the fact that the same day Goodluck Jonathan was declared Acting President by the National Assembly, the first official visitors he received were the American Ambassador and a special envoy from President Barack Obama. They were in Abuja, waiting. Ambassador Johnnie Carson brought a special message from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He also met with some stakeholders, including Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ojo Maduekwe, and note this: former President Ibrahim Babangida! Who are the other stakeholders that the Americans met? Carson talked publicly about Nigerians upholding the Constitution but it is not difficult to establish where America's interest in the matter lies. Two weeks earlier, Mrs Hillary Clinton and EU leaders had signed a statement expressing concern about the uncertainty in Nigeria. They warned that Nigeria is too strategic in the West African region to be allowed to disintegrate. Imagine 150 million people spilling into our neighbouring countries as refugees. It would be worse than Haiti and Somalia combined. America and the rest of the international cannot afford such risk.
Then, there is the crude oil factor. With MEND declaring that it would not do business with Goodluck Jonathan because he lacks authority, the relative peace that had been achieved in the Niger Delta faced the real threat of derailment. MEND had put the oil multinationals on notice that the next round of offensive will be an all-out war. That won't be in America's interest either. With Goodluck Jonathan now acting President, the thunder has been taken out of MEND's sail. In the end, the Tuesday revolution was not merely about Nigeria's interest, there were external interests actively involved.
America has always showed up at interesting times in the life of this nation. Recall that the day MKO Abiola died, the Americans were in town. The day Goodluck Jonathan was declared Acting President, the Americans were again in town, standing by as events unfolded. Jonathan did not help matters when he addressed the nation looking as if he was at a funeral. He looked too glum for a man who had just been made Acting President! Did the Americans apply, as they say, subtle pressure? If this had been a better-managed country, we wouldn't have needed the Americans and other external interests to push us.
Acting President Goodluck Jonathan may have no more than a week or two months in office, since the Senate has made it clear that President Yar'Ă§dua will assume his position, the moment he returns to the country. It is worth stating however that President Yar'Ă§dua must not return to the country like a thief in the night. The National Assembly and the Executive Council of the Federation are not likely to impeach him, but if he must take over, there must be clear and compelling evidence that he is healthy enough to do so.
As far as the Nigerian people are concerned, Goodluck Jonathan should be allowed to finish the remaining 18 months of the Yar'Ă§dua Presidency. For more than two years, the country has been in a lull. The people want real dynamism. They are hoping that Jonathan will be able to provide it. He has on his shoulders a historic responsibility. He tried to show a little swagger on Wednesday by redeploying the controversial Michael Aondoakaa who as Attorney General and Minister of Justice acquired a notorious reputation for bending the law to serve narrow interests.
That wasn't good enough. Jonathan should have dissolved the entire cabinet and announce new Ministers immediately. Nigerians need a new beginning. A Federal cabinet of position-seekers cannot provide the needed momentum. He also must set to work immediately. There are files that have been awaiting Presidential signature since October including due retirements in the Armed Forces that have not been authorised. There are vacancies in INEC that have not been filled. Professor Maurice Iwu's tenure as INEC Chairman will end in June, he should be asked to proceed on terminal leave, and another man appointed quickly to start studying the terrain ahead of the 2011 elections. What is Jonathan still waiting for?
While engaged in house-cleaning, the 'Acting' President should also take time out to tour the country. That shouldn't take more than three weeks, off and on. Anyone who wants to rule Nigeria must make an effort to know this country. We have had too many people running Nigeria who know near to absolutely nothing about the country or the people.
In a country where history is treated shabbily, this should not be surprising. But Nigeria now needs more than good luck to move forward. We must put an end to the tradition of people jumping from their villages, or the army barracks to Presidential office. By reading a few history books and moving round the country to see things for himself, Jonathan should be able to get a crash induction into life Nigeriana.
Electoral Reform: He is in a position to do something about that too, more so as he is not likely to be a candidate in the 2011 Presidential election. Resource control: the people of the Niger Delta have always asked for this; through Jonathan as Acting President, they are now in charge of Nigerian resources, but will Jonathan be bold enough to take consequential steps to address the Niger Delta question? In addition to everything else, let him engage the services of a wardrobe director, and learn how to smile!