The cloud of uncertainty and instability which floated ominously over the Nigerian Presidency, and by extension the country has now cleared. Goodluck Jonathan has taken oath of office as substantive President, laying to rest whatever legitimacy questions may have arisen as a result of the resort to a doctrine of necessity to bring him to power. It is perhaps for this reason that not a few Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief when the death, long considered most likely, given the President’s health complications, was announced. The significance of the event of the last 48 hours lies in the lessons that can be learnt therefrom.
Although Yar’Adua’s handlers and the so-called cabal turned him into a pawn of power, thereby exploiting his vulnerability, it will be wrong to hold the man responsible for the manner in which his departure to Saudi Arabia, return and issue of non-resignation or handing over was handled. Yar’Adua was obviously incapacitated, and the hawks of power, led and guided by his wife simply seized the initiative, turning both the deceased and other Nigerians into victims of a vicious and selfish power play. Not only did they prevent Goodluck Jonathan, the man’s Deputy from seeing him, they took the entire country on a farcical journey, wasting public resources, time and emotion as they staged deceptive theatricals about sightings of the man, reported visits to him by handpicked guests, and all kinds of nightly manoeuvre. They exposed the state to great danger by testing its fragility further. But there is always a limit to fraudulent misrepresentations. Finally, the game is up, men are reminded again of the limits of their own devices. But the cost to the country has been enormous.
The first lesson is to appreciate how important the Nigerian Presidency is, and the need to prevent it from being hijacked under any circumstances whatsoever by cabals or unelected individuals who cannot be held responsible, and who are more interested in their own personal goals rather than the common good. The Yar’Adua incident has already compelled a reconsideration of Section 145 of the Constitution with the considered opinion that no President or Governor in the future can willfully refuse to hand over to a Deputy in the event of long absence from office. Should a similar situation arise in the future, the Yar’Adua precedent would have served as basis for forestalling mischief.
Second, the physical fitness or to put it more correctly, the health status of a Presidential or Gubernatorial candidate will now be taken more seriously in the future by the Nigerian electorate. In 2007, it was well-known that former President Umaru Yar’Adua was sickly; as Governor of Katsina state from 1999 – 2007, he was reportedly abroad most of the time for medical reasons. And yet, that was the same man former President Olusegun Obasanjo insisted on imposing as Nigeria’s president. Obasanjo did not hide the fact that Yar’Adua will succeed him whether Nigerians liked it or not, beginning with the PDP party primaries and the main election. When Yar’Adua became incapacitated, it was the same Obasanjo that first disowned him publicly, claiming that he was misled into believing that the man was capable. The thing to do is to ensure that in every election, it is the people’s choice that determines who gets to positions and that will mean making the people’s votes count. If the people on their own vote for an invalid, then they will accept responsibility for whatever happens thereafter. Most Nigerians do not feel a sense of responsibility that they made a choice that went awry in the Yar’Adua matter.
The third lesson is at the individual level. Yar’Adua himself was less than honest in offering to lead when he knew he was unwell. Because of his illness, the late President could not rise to the demands of his office and so, whereas he articulated a seven-point agenda, he lacked the energy to see any of the goals to a conclusion. There was some momentum and effort on the issues of Niger Delta security, Electoral Reform and power sector reform, but Yar’Adua is bound to be remembered as the well-meaning President who could not deliver on any of his major promises due to ill-health. There are Nigerians who will remember his presidency in terms of time lost and opportunities wasted, moreso as we saw in the past six months how political instability can result in serious economic crisis with dire consequences for communal well-being.
Whatever goodwill he could have enjoyed among the people was further frittered away by the politics of his illness. With his passing, the Federal Government should put proper closure on these events by investigating what exactly happened, why the so-called cabal was so desperate, why Nigerians had to be deceived for so long, and if it can be established that anyone was buying time for their own corrupt purposes, such persons should be named and shamed, to free Yar’Adua from the guilt that certain opportunists may have attached to his Presidency.
This is a moment of great transition for Nigeria. Without any militants forcing the issue, without anyone organizing a coup d’etat, a man with the bowler hat, and a walking stick, an Ijaw, a minority, is substantive head of Nigeria’s democratic government. This may have happened by sheer serendipity but Jonathan’s ascension has serious implications for majorities-minorities relations in Nigeria, a subject that has been at the heart of the national question since the Willinks Commission of 1957/8.One young lady captured the matter succinctly in a text message when she wrote: “Am proud. A South South Nigerian like me is President!” Another minority wrote: “The Lord is faithful. He has heard our prayers! An Ijaw man is Nigeria’s President. Halleluyah!”
These sentiments, deconstructed properly strike at the heart of Nigerian citizenship, and it must be a tragic fact that 50 years after Nigeria’s independence, major events in the country are interpreted through the ethnic prism. The minorities seeing gain and progress in what constitutes sadness and pain for the north further underscores the complexity of Nigerian ethnic relations in the context of power politics. It is also perhaps likely to inform subsequent political developments as the Jonathan Presidency settles down. Who for example will the new President choose as his Vice President? Will he take charge and assert himself or submit to the whims and caprices of a cabal? It is a moment in Nigerian history that must be carefully managed. Jonathan has only a few months at his disposal, between now and next May 2011, so much will depend on him as his assumption of full powers and authority has special implications with regard to the 2011 General elections.
At his swearing in ceremony, he offered assurances about making the best use of the short period at his disposal. This lack of time is the major obstacle that he faces, and yet Nigerians are a people in a hurry in desperate need of miracles. He must resist the temptation of getting bogged down by the ceremony of office or needless distractions. It is so easy to spend the remaining period simply busy doing nothing, and so Jonathan must make up his mind that he intends to work, and not get carried away by the endless intrigues within his party, the Peoples Democratic Party which has a limitless number of professional time wasters. The fourth and perhaps the biggest lesson of the Yar’Adua saga and which Jonathan must now commit to memory is that when all is said and done, Nigeria, the country, is more important than all of us. The Yar’Adua group took the entire country on a rigmarole from November 2009, all through February 2010, and now in May, it is all over. Were individuals to realize that all life’s exertions are but like a whistle in the wind, there would be greater exercise of moral responsibility by those who are privileged to lead.
Before our eyes, individual stories have changed. Turai Yar’Adua who only 72 hours ago was still considered a major power broker is now an ordinary Nigerian, all that myth about her calling the shots in Aso Villa even with an Acting President in the saddle is gone. The sections of Aso Villa to which the Acting President was denied access will have their locks changed, most likely shutting out the former occupants in case they went away with the spare keys! Patience Jonathan is now First Lady of Nigeria. Jonathan is the lucky man with the lucky break. Those privileged Presidential sons-in-law who hitherto enjoyed unfettered access may suddenly discover that the gatemen have truly changed. Life is like that. And where are those clerics who were the last to sight Yar’Adua?
It is important that we do not have a repeat of the kind of overbearing conduct that Turai Yar’Adua was accused of, or the distractive whispering campaign that surrounded her. President Jonathan must keep his wife in check. He must focus properly on the ball and also conduct credible elections in 2011. Perhaps in the fullness of time, history will be more sympathetic to the late Umaru Yar’Adua. He was a humble, sincere and dignified man of power who in his later years became a victim of circumstances beyond his control. In the mean time, Nigeria moves on. By His Grace, it shall be well.