30 days of Jonathan's interregnum
Exactly what should we celebrate of last week's events?
The assumption of Nigeria's top political office by Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan is worthy of celebration only because, given the turbulent waters into which our ship of state had sailed, we simply needed to get out. Regrettably, Nigeria's political establishment chose the convenient, not correct, way to do it.
If we celebrate, therefore, we must be clear that it is only in the sense of survival that we do so. The triumph of the law that many Nigerians sought was not accomplished. President Umaru Yar'Adua did not transmit the letter to the National Assembly and he should therefore have been correctly impeached.
He should continue to be regarded as an irresponsible employee who abandoned his duty post, not as a leader who is away on medical leave. The National Assembly, lacking the same leadership and character as Yar'Adua, has chosen the easy way out.
That brings us to Dr. Jonathan, who is the beneficiary of the fruit that ripened by the roadside. I congratulate him on his good fortune, but we must bear in mind that he is still the beneficiary of our political equivalent of original sin: the rigged 2007 election that awarded him the vice-presidency in the first place. Nothing that has happened has that wiped away.
Indeed, last month at the Annual Trust Dialogue in Abuja, Olusegun Obasanjo confirmed the rigging that brought Yar'Adua and Jonathan to power. He told listeners that he singlehandedly determined his successor, and chose him. All the voter had to do was pretend to be relevant.
Still, in Jonathan's hands now is the destiny of Nigeria. For nearly three years, he has been the closest thing to the Invisible Man. In the government, he fulfilled the constitutional allotment of a vice-president, but in practice, he did little more than work the diplomatic cocktail circuit.
While all of those events may have been blamed on others, he now wields executive power. He is his own man, and neither the illegitimacy of his election nor the invisible strings by which he has been controlled in the past matter anymore. We will now find out exactly whom he is.
Addressing the nation last Tuesday in his "sacred trust" speech, his first as Acting President, he outlined areas of "priority," the usual catch-all basket of concerns that our leaders use to garner legitimacy before they stab us in the back.
I was not impressed. No speech by a Nigerian leader impresses me anymore. It is Jonathan's actions that will define Jonathan.
In that sense, he will also be defined by the clock on the wall. Jonathan does not have four years in office. He does not have one year. What he has is Yar'Adua, the substantive office-holder. If Yar'Adua shows up tonight claiming to be healthy and ready, Jonathan's moment in the sun is over.
My recommendation to Jonathan, therefore, is to work as though he only has only one month in office, after which every hour and every day would be a bonus. One month in that seat is not so bad, but to proceed as though he has six months, or until May 2011 would be presumptuous, indeed foolhardy.
If Jonathan is genuine, one month is enough to set the table for the transformation of Nigeria. One month in which to make landmark decisions that Nigerians cannot resist or reject. One month in which to initiate, or implement key policies capable of transforming Nigeria. One month in which to demonstrate to Nigerians and the world that the heart that beats within Jonathan is as big as Nigeria, and not as limited as Jonathan.
There are five keys that will tell us whether Jonathan is opening the door to the future, or locking it against us.
The first is electoral reform, for which he can ensure the adoption of the Justice Uwais Panel Report fully, immediately, and without reservations.
The second is curbing executive and administrative license. Having observed things at close-up in both the states and the federal government for several years now, he knows the executive branch is often no more than an ATM, or Access To Millions. Executive authority is seen as a money-minting opportunity, with policies manipulated and funds misappropriated. In 30 days, Jonathan can close most of the valves through which these are done, in order to discourage people from running for office for that purpose.
Third, electricity: In November 2009, Jonathan promised this problem would be resolved this year, ahead of his profuse apologies at the end of that year that his government had failed to generate the meager 6000 kilowatts it promised. With executive authority in his hands, there is nowhere for him to hide. In his 30 days, he can accelerate matters so that even if he leaves office halfway through March, there can be no way to turn them back, or off.
Finally, corruption. Every Nigerian leader knows that Nigeria is going nowhere unless this menace is tackled head-on, and they often offer hollow promises to the Nigerian people. Jonathan may be no different. Promising to prosecute the war more "robustly," Jonathan said on Tuesday he would "strengthen the capacity of the anti-corruption agencies and give them a free hand to prosecute the anti corruption war." It should take him no more than a couple of his 30 days to accomplish this; if they are sufficiently serious adjustments, nobody can turn them off without serious consequences.
My position is that Jonathan should understand he is on borrowed time, a little sliver of our national history within which to make a critical but overdue contribution. Thirty days is time enough for hard work, but also for rhetoric and games, with which Nigerians are familiar. In Lagos State, however, Governor Babatunde Fashola has proved that if your agenda is of service, you do not need forever. And Nigerians have proved that they can see through baloney.
How would we measure Jonathan's success? Paradoxically, it would be in how much he is personally ‘hurt,' which is why he must understand that nothing will ever be as they were. Thus, if he does well, he will be resented by Yar'Adua and his supporters - if Yar'Adua does return - because if he is successful he would have pointed out how negligent or unsuccessful Yar'Adua had been.
One final point: If he does well, his own wife may also be in jail by the time he is through. Patience Jonathan's money-laundering cases have only been hidden from the law, not discharged. And there is no way Goodluck Jonathan can claim to fight corruption while he sleeps in the same bed with its most remarkable national symbol.