Last Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan suddenly and unexpectedly axed nine of his ministers, all of whom, it appeared, were appointed through those now ranged against him in political battle. It is instructive that when the president was finally persuaded to substantially reshuffle his cabinet, he did so in defence of private political objectives and in ways that baffled presidency watchers. We do not know whether Dr Jonathan appreciates the irony that dogs his presidency; but to many of us it is clear that whenever he projects power it is mainly to advance ignoble causes. Indeed, I add that anytime the president yields to his often overpowering inclination to do wrong, it is in spite of the loftiness of the cause before him and to the detriment of his imposing and outsized office. It was with characteristic surliness, for instance, that he deployed the military to crush the January 2012 nationwide fuel revolt when all he needed to do was placate the electorate and gain political capital as he grudgingly reduced the price of a litre of fuel from N145 to N97. In last week’s cabinet reshuffle, Dr Jonathan adds imprecision to surliness.
Perhaps tired of being punched and wrong-footed by his enemies, Dr Jonathan finally felt compelled to respond in a way that has left his aides struggling to rationalise what is obviously a baffling political move. Except newspaper reports quote presidency sources wrongly, it is known that the president and his aides are still negotiating with the Group of Seven governors and others sponsoring or inspiring them into intra-party revolt. But by moving against the G-7 nominees in his cabinet, it is not clear which the president values more: to root out those he suspects are disloyal to him; or to reconcile with the G-7 and restore peace and order in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). His priorities, however, seem already self-evident. It is obvious he intends to continue indulging his counterproductive pugnacity, a contentiousness that has been given fillip by the gerontocrats surrounding, captivating and seducing him to war. The president has enormous powers, they say, and it is both presidential and fitting to use them in such a manner that no one will be left with the mistaken belief that Dr Jonathan does not understand the nuances of power.
Dr Jonathan does not interpret the grievances of the G-7 governors as proceeding from their exasperation with the leadership style of the PDP chairman, Bamanga Tukur. Nor does he think those grievances, even if they were substantial or potent enough, were genuine. Indeed, with the presence of the intrepid Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State in the ranks of the so-called rebels, the president is sufficiently persuaded to believe that rebellion, rather than grievances, was the bane of the party. The president also gives the impression, without saying so, that the rebellion is driven by a combination of irreverence (some call it rudeness), opposition machinations and deliberate contempt for his person and ability, all of which are summed up in the unflattering and insulting opinion that he is unfit to rule. But rebellion, as he and his aides also secretly hold and whisper in pianissimo tones, should be crushed rather than mollified.
When political battles are cast in military terms and symbols, such as Dr Jonathan and his brash aides have done, it portends danger for both the state and the combatants. For even harmless feints, which former President Olusegun Obasanjo is besotted to in his uncalculating and continuing obsession for relevance, can easily become a gritty test of wills from which it is impossible to climb down. Dr Jonathan has faced many tests since he assumed power some four years ago, but none of those tests has produced in him the maturity, reflection, astuteness and perspicuity great leaders acquire after passing through trials. On the contrary, every notable test he has faced and every dubious victory he has achieved has made Dr Jonathan more intransigent, less contemplative and given to romanticising brute power. Having thus allowed himself to be persuaded that he faced war against the rebel governors, and after having cast himself obliquely as a war leader who needed to take decisive and powerful steps to rein in dissent, Dr Jonathan has decided to go for broke.
While it is incontestable that the many haphazard and unthinking policies of Alhaji Tukur spurred rebellion in the party, and while the president was more careless in overseeing the affairs of the party than he has deliberately courted trouble and disaffection, it is fair to say that his current temper is a reaction to the impertinent goading of the G-7 governors. By coming out with an alternative power structure on the day the PDP held its special convention in Abuja, and doing so with such secrecy as ridiculed, if not humiliated, the presidency and its coercive agencies, few failed to notice that the G-7 governors had also gone for broke. Given the stiffness of their conditions for peace in the party, it seems inconceivable that the rebellious governors left room for any peaceful settlement now or in the future.
There is little doubt that the aggrieved G-7 governors drew first blood, and the president had to respond whether he liked it or not. What is in dispute, however, is whether in the circumstances the president has reacted with the decorum becoming his office and the restraint and circumspection he has claimed for himself for so long. By any standard, sacking nine ministers in one fell swoop is not only excessive and inexcusable, it is indicative of the president’s poor judgement in cabinet selection. It is also doubtful whether Dr Jonathan can convince himself, let alone the country, that the ministers he sacked were either incompetent or underperforming, or whether they were the only guilty ones. More crucially, even if he wishes to assemble a war cabinet for Poll 2015, as some now speculate, it is hard to see from where he would recruit those field officers who can deliver the easy victory he covets and who would not succumb to the rabidness and thoughtlessness of his man Fridays. Yet, it is well known in Abuja that it is his leadership style, not to say his lack of visionary depth, that predisposes his presidency to repeated mishaps, humiliation and crushing defeats.
Any rebellion, such as the one triggered by the G-7 governors, is not strange in politics. In fact many established democracies, which run the parliamentary system, have witnessed the kind of political rebellion that is making Dr Jonathan froth at the mouth with rage. There will, therefore, always be rebellion, and presidents and political leaders must have the common sense and moderation to tackle it when it arises. Sadly, Dr Jonathan has approached the rebellion in his party with unseemly and demeaning comportment. Because he and his predecessors unwisely personified party leadership and have accreted enormous party powers to the presidency, it has been difficult for him and his predecessors to confine party disagreements to party boundaries. Instead, they have formed the bad habit of transferring disagreements to the presidency and foisting a needless crisis on the country, thereby threatening not only good governance, or indeed governance of any sort, but also peace and stability.
Encouraged by sycophants, jobholders and some insensitive South-South political leaders and herdsmen of jaundiced votes, Dr Jonathan has embraced a fanatical and unyielding style of crisis management. We always knew he was not a democrat, nor, like Chief Obasanjo, can ever be, but his ham-fisted manner of conflict resolution and his monarchical approach to general politics have so polluted and prejudiced the atmosphere that for the first time, this column has started to fear that the foundation of Nigeria is threatened. The threat, it must be reiterated, is not because there is crisis at all, but because the men in power lack the reasoned agility to respond in ways that will reassure everyone that those in power are rational, patriotic and civilised people. One of the variables in the crisis is the 2015 presidential poll. Dr Jonathan, of course, has the right to contest in 2015, and that right can be advanced and defended intelligently; but his opponents also have the right to discourage him as much as they can without being subjected to unconstitutional, not to say autocratic, measures.
I suspect that no one but fate itself can restrain Dr Jonathan. He will fight everywhere and every person, and he will spare nothing, not even the constitution, in waging his self-inflicted war. Democracy and its spinoffs are dispensable to him, for after all, he has never shown he understands what they mean. He has a vague notion of the greatness of the country he presides over, but that notion does not include its peace, stability, growth or superiority over other African nations. He knows a thing or two about what the presidency stands for, but his perception is coloured by the traditional African system of hero-worship, superstition and idolatry. This was why, for instance, he and his men took umbrage when his opponents described his style as kindergarten. So, let us brace ourselves for the worst or be prepared valiantly to reclaim our democracy, or what is left of it, from the hands of charlatans. Dr Jonathan, it is clear, is incensed by the seemingly harmless effort to limit him to a one-term president. He will do everything to destroy his opponents, and if need be, the country, not only because he has taken the fight personally, but also strangely because, for a 20th century man, he views politics and leadership from an antediluvian prism.