Nigeria: Jonathan must prove himself against growing tide of discontent – By Ejiro Barrett
Recently, at the ceremony for the conferment of Nigeria’s highest national honours, a shortage of medals for the awardees seemed a most awkward conclusion to an event that had been trailed by controversy. No matter how the event played out in the end, it was clear that the episode would escalate the scathing commentaries about the competence of Nigeria’s new government led by Goodluck Jonathan.
Critics say the blunder gives an insight into the government’s muddled state of affairs: if it could not get a simple head count of its selected recipients of a national award right, how could it claim any knowledge of a solution to the myriad problems Nigerians face?
Since he was elected President in April, Jonathan has faced ever growing criticism over his government’s policies and its inability to calm frayed nerves over the growing sense of insecurity in the country. This is especially so in the northern states where the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, is waging a deadly battle against security forces and the northern political leadership.
A recent attack in the northern town of Damaturu claimed about one hundred and fifty lives, and upped the stakes in the attempts to deal a decisive blow to the group. So far government attempts at stopping the spate of attacks have been largely ineffective. Except for the arraignments of some suspects over the fatal bombings during the country’s fiftieth independence celebrations and at the United Nations office in the capital, Abuja, indictments over attacks executed across the northern states have been negligible. Jonathan’s security chiefs seem stunned by the intensity and consistency of these attacks by a group that has steadily gained confidence in its invisibility.
In the Niger Delta, a re-emergence of disgruntled voices has heightened tensions once again raising questions over the success of the government’s amnesty programme. Attempts have been made to pacify ex-militants with government contracts while the administration struggles to push its Petroleum Industry Bill through parliament.
The political ascent of this hitherto obscure son of a rural canoe-carver from the oil-producing Niger Delta was largely attributed to a series of coincidences and mishaps, which seemed to have occurred without his effort.
The current quandary the president finds himself in began with a long conflict within his own Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) over the decision to allow him run for president. Jonathan’s candidacy was unique for three main reasons: firstly, before his election as president, he had risen up the party ladder without ever winning a political race. Second was his assumption of office at a time when a zoning formula, introduced as a way of sharing political leadership amongst Nigeria’s different ethnic groups, was supposed to produce a candidate from the northern part of the country. And thirdly was the fact he was the first candidate from Nigeria’s southern minority Ijaw ethnic group – whose economic significance had never been equated by national political relevance.
Jonathan’s much flaunted modesty however offered a welcome contrast to the superciliousness usually associated with Nigeria’s ruling cabal. It was this image of a leader without airs that seemed most influential to his victory at the polls.
He emerged deputy governor of his home state of Bayelsa in the oil rich Niger Delta after vigorous persuasion from political leaders in the state who felt his meekness made him a perfect pawn. When the governor of the state, Diepriye Alamieyeseigha, faced money-laundering charges, leading to impeachment and prosecution, Jonathan eventually took over from the disgraced man and, under what was clear pressure from the outgoing president Olusegun Obasanjo, was picked in 2007 by the presidential candidate Umaru Yar A’dua as a running mate relatively untainted by corruption.
The president’s honour list
Many of the initial assumptions about Jonathan’s persona are being challenged now that he has assumed the top job. His much publicised humility and reticence about politics have been smudged by a series of allegations of undue influence in some shady political arrangements that tainted the general elections held in April 2011. These allegations have re-emerged over recent political upheavals in Jonathan’s home state where a governorship candidate, who many believe was handpicked by Jonathan himself, has emerged as the party flag bearer for the elections scheduled to be held in 2012 – it is almost a certainty that the president’s party will win. There is a growing feeling across the country now that Jonathan’s reticence was contrived, as he seems to be playing the same old political games that many believed his presidency would stamp out.
The dust over events on award night may have settled but many of the names of the recipients have raised questions about the criteria by which they were selected. Awards made to security chiefs, including the National Security Adviser, Retired Lieutenant General Andrew Azazi, and the Inspector-General of Police, Hafiz Ringim, have provoked widespread criticism. The failure of the security forces to stem the current tide of violence betrays their incompetence and seems a submission to the deft tactics of this once rag-tag group. In some quarters, the refusal of Azazi and Ringim to accept full responsibility for the failures of the security agencies and resign reveals even further their misconception of the enormity of their failures. There are many who consider Jonathan’s decision to honour these security chiefs at this time as a slap in the face of the victims of these attacks.
Minister of Petroleum Diezani Allison Madueke, who is believed to have unrivalled influence over the president, was controversially also given an award. Allison Madueke has attracted massive opposition from within the oil industry and has been indicted by a series of investigative reports over her financial transactions. She has also been the president’s voice on the need to stop government subsidy on petroleum products, a proposal that is considered perfunctory and ill advised.
The subsidy conundrum
The argument from the president’s side is that subsidies are not serving the purpose for which they were introduced. Rather, the benefits that should accrue to millions of financially constrained Nigerians are being enjoyed by the marketers who continue to sell the subsidised products at real market prices. This opinion elicits divergent responses. Nasir El Rufai – a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory in Obasanjo’s cabinet and now one of the most unreserved opponents of the Jonathan government – argues that the consequences of subsidy removal would be retrogressive for most Nigerians who can barely afford the current cost of petrol.
El Rufai believes the most important focus of government at this time should be to curb its penchant for excessive spending on its officials rather than further reduce its financial buffer for a growing population of cash-strapped Nigerians. Opinions in the national dailies expose widespread dissatisfaction inspired by the belief that the removal of subsidies would provoke an unbearable hike in the cost of petrol – current prices of about $2 a gallon could increase to about $8. Transactions inside the national petroleum agency (NNPC) are shrouded in secrecy and this only further beclouds public perception of how the subsidy works and who benefits from it. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has threatened national strike action if the government insists on going ahead with the removal.
Beyond the pressing security challenges and Madueke’s increasing aloofness in the midst of growing disaffection with the subsidy removal initiative, there is also the issue of petroleum product availability. One of the much taunted successes of Jonathan’s government is the regularization of fuel supply, but this has been offset by a persistent lack of kerosene – the cooking fuel of choice for many Nigerians.
The issue of power (electricity) generation also remains topical. The Minister for Power, Professor Barth Nnaji, has made impressive strides in tackling Nigeria’s herculean power challenges by accelerating the pace of work at the different power stations, but the country still faces immense challenges in generation, transmission and distribution. The government will most certainly not meet its target to supply 10,000 Megawatts of electricity to the national grid by end of the year.
Jonathan’s decision to go ahead with his controversial programmes speaks of his belief in the efficacy of his policies, but public reaction to them will define the legacies for which his government will be remembered. For now, he struggles to keep the ship of governance afloat in the troubled waters that characterize the current political environment.
Ejiro Barrett is a freelance journalist and report. He writes a weekly column for The Nigerian Observer.