Nigeria: Between President Jonathan and Governor Amaechi

First, it was a fight -to- finish between him and then Governor Silvia Timipre for the soul of Bayelsa State. A re-invented President Jonathan – not the one with the public persona of the guy-next-door but his resolute double – reportedly ignored all pleas for Governor Timipre’s ‘sins’ to be forgiven from eminent Nigerians until he has fought and annihilated the former Governor of Bayelsa State Governor to surrender. Governor Timipre was not only denied nomination as the flag bearer of the PDP in Bayelsa State but was also handed over to the EFCC for prosecution for alleged corrupt practices while he was in office.

Now it is the turn of Governor Rotimi Amaechi to feel the punches of an apparently enraged but always calm Jonathan. The feud between the duo has been playing out on several fronts. On April 30 2013 for instance, the Vanguard reported that 27 lawmakers loyal to the Governor out of 32 in the Rivers’ State House of Assembly were suspended by the new leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party, PPD in the state and their seats declared vacant. According to the new chairman of the PDP in the State, Felix Obuah, the suspension of the lawmakers followed an earlier ultimatum given to them to rescind the suspension they slammed on the elected Chairman, Vice Chairman and 17 councillors of the Obio Akpor Local Government Area of the State. While it is not clear whether a state legislature has the constitutional right to suspend the chairman of a local government, it is, in my opinion, an act of rascality and political illiteracy for the state chairman of a party to declare the seats of legislators vacant. Where does the Chairman of a party derive the constitutional power to act in such a reckless manner?

The presidency is also reportedly behind the formation of PDP Governors’ Forum in an attempt not only to clip the wings of the governors but even more importantly to cut Governor Amaechi, who is also Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), to size. The Governor allegedly entertains an ambition of being a running mate to a Northern Presidential candidate. Recently, the Rivers’ State-owned bombardier aircraft was temporarily blocked from taking off from Akure airport allegedly because the pilot failed to declare the flight manifest but more likely as part of the war of attrition between the two political leaders. The same plane was reportedly later banned from flying on Nigeria’s airspace by the National Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA allegedly on grounds that the plane’s clearance certificate has since expired.

Though it is easier to cast Governor Rotimi as a victim – given the unequal power relations between a Governor and a President – it is, in my opinion, necessary that any sympathy for Governor Amaechi should be qualified. If, as Jonathan’s loyalists claimed, Governor Amaechi is preparing to run on a joint ticket with Governor Sule Lamido or any other Northern Governor, he should not expect the Jonathan camp to clap for him and sing his alleluia. True, any such ambition is legitimate, but a declaration of such intention whether verbally or by body language is putting the President on notice that his job is on the line. The contest for political power is rarely for the fickle-minded anywhere in the world, which is why Otto Von Bismarck, the conservative German statesman who dominated European affairs from the 1860s until his dismissal in 1890 by Emperor Wilhelm II, (the last German Emperor or Kaiser and King of Prussia) described politics as the “art of the possible”. Simply put, if you cannot take the heat, do not bother to enter the kitchen. In the contest for power, each opponent fights ferociously using whatever resources it has at its disposal. In the duel between President Jonathan and Governor Amaechi, the state mobilizes the instruments of state power to intimidate while Governor Amaechi plays victim to garner public sympathy and paint his opponent as a political bull in a China shop. Governor Amaechi ought to realize that in his duel with the President even laws that are rarely applied to others will be applied to him if he infringes them and his immunity does not cover him from being sanctioned.

By the way I disagree with those who believe the quarrel between the President and the Governor is ‘heating up the polity’. I think it is providing a needed excitement from a rather dull political environment and enriching our marketplace of political ideas at the same time. I don’t think the contest between the two gladiators has degenerated to impunity – except the incident of a probably uninformed PDP chairman with an exaggerated sense of his self importance illegally declaring the seats of lawmakers vacant.

But let us for a moment assume that Rotimi Amaechi actually nurses the perfectly legitimate ambition of being a running mate to a Northern presidential candidate. If such an ambition is actualized, how is it likely to affect the outcome of the 2015 presidential election? Will it lead to the Northern minorities, the South-east and the South-south – which appear to be President Jonathan’s current bastions of support – switching their support to Governor Amaechi?

In theory Amaechi’s vice presidential candidacy will divide the ‘Southern’ vote, (assuming Jonathan is flying the PDP flag) with the populous and resource-endowed Rivers following him. Again in theory Amaechi will also defeat Jonathan in any contest for Igbo support because despite the ‘Ebele Azikiwe’ in President Jonathan’s names, Rotimi Amaechi easily has more claims to Igboness than President Jonathan. My personal opinion however is that on the ground, things may not be as straightforward as it seems on paper. For one, the bottom part of a presidential ticket anywhere in the world rarely brings electoral votes – though it could hurt a ticket tremendously if it was not wisely chosen – as the choice of Sarah Palin did to the John McCain’s ticket in 2008 and the choice of Philip Umeadi as Awolowo’s running mate probably did to the UPN in 1979. Similarly though Amaechi has more claims to being Igbo, the Governors of the South-east often embrace the thesis of ‘the goat following the man with the palm frond’. This essentially means a tendency to support the man in power at the centre – a reason, in my opinion, why they supported President Jonathan in the April 2011 election just as they supported Umaru Yaradua even at the time the cabal around the sick president held the country hostage. This means in essence that many of the South-east Governors, despite the perennial agitation for Igbo presidency, are likely to eventually queue behind President Jonathan. There will not be shortage of rationalizations on why they chose to do so.

Again with the re-invention of President Jonathan now transmuting into what one Daily Trust columnist called the ‘Obasanjonization’ of President Jonathan and its associated garrison command politics, it will not surprise anyone if some of the current fierce opponents of the President, when it matters most, begin to sing a different song as security reports of their misdeeds or contrived misdeeds are shown to them and the EFCC called upon to do its job, or as some are ‘settled’.

The ‘Obasanjonization of Jonathan however means that the President has lost his assumed innocence, which was part of his political capital before and during the April 2011 elections. This will make it much easier for his opponents to turn him into a hate or sneaky figure for counter mobilisation if he decides to contest in 2015. Prior to the April 2011 presidential election, Jonathan’s public persona was that of a very humble and unassuming gentleman, who saw the office of president as a burden bestowed on him by destiny and which he was struggling with difficulty to carry, relying on his name of ‘Goodluck’ to help him carry it. I believe this persona of an uncomplicated guy- next- door who was in dire need of protection from the more sophisticated Goliaths in the political arena, was a key reason why many people during the PDP’s presidential primaries and the April 2011 elections axiomatically declared him a good man, a sort of a biblical David chosen by God to take the country forward at this moment in our political history. It would also seem that for most of the Governors, GEJ’s special appeal during this period was the same public image of a diffident and malleable man who could be easily swayed. That type of person, they must have reasoned, was someone they could do business with because they could always convince him with a ‘superior argument’ rather than Atiku, who could be too ‘politically smart’ to be swayed or Buhari who could remove the immunity clause in the constitution and herd as many of them as possible into jail for any infraction.

The above is by no means an indication that the President is assured of a re-election, especially given the general belief that he has performed below expectation. Also as the protest over the surprise increase in fuel price in January last year shows, Nigerians can temporarily close ranks to do what they perceive as the right thing.