Goodluck Jonathan gets his first strutting experience as “president” next week when he visits the U.S. at the invitation of President Barack Obama. How Jonathan handles himself, and the image he projects, will determine how seriously his American host takes him and the country he runs.
Umaru Yar’Adua set a poor tone when, during a visit at the White House in 2007, he acted like a child let loose in a candy shop. Eyes glimmering, he gushed to President George W. Bush that coming to America was the best day of his life.
It would serve Jonathan to avoid such callow exuberance. He better come properly briefed, and fully prepared, to articulate Nigeria’s take on the topics of discussion.
The two men, and their respective countries, have a large menu of bilateral issues to bite into. There are such issues as oil, terrorism, democracy, trade relations, anti-corruption measures, and Nigeria’s tense – and, it appears, worsening – sectarian divide.
It’s easy, in talking with Obama, to misread his ties to Africa – as the son of a Kenyan father – as an indication of deep sympathy for African causes. Half of Obama’s heart may be Kenyan, but he is, when all is said and done, a quintessential American original. Given his cosmopolitan outlook, Obama is unquestionably more informed than his recent predecessors, about the poor places of the world, and more sympathetic to the plight of the world’s poor.
Even so, his deepest loyalties lie – as they should – with America, and especially with America’s corporate giants, many of them with tentacles in Nigeria. It’s Jonathan’s place to recognize this fact, and to do his best to champion Nigeria’s economic interests as strongly as Obama pushes America’s interests.
Oil is at the center of America’s interest in Nigeria’s vicissitudes. With the rise of anti-American sentiments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, U.S. authorities have made no secret of wishing to buy more of their crude oil from Nigeria.
That prospect means that the U.S. is attentive to Nigeria’s domestic stresses. There’s little doubt that Washington closely monitors both the deepening militarization of the oil-rich Niger Delta and the incessant outbreaks of religious violence in such places as Jos, Maiduguri, and Bauchi.
America is, in short, invested in easing the pressures that have caused sharp declines in Nigeria’s daily oil output. But Jonathan, who happens to hail from the Niger Delta, ought to convey to Obama that economic justice is key to reducing militancy. The Nigerian state and the oil companies have exploited the resources of the oil-producing delta.
It would be a mistake to imagine that Obama is less than enthusiastic about George Bush’s plan to establish an African Command. Should Obama try to sell the idea, Jonathan ought to unambiguously register Nigeria’s continuing opposition. At the very least, such a command would further undermine the sovereign will of African nations. At worst, it is likely to subordinate African nations, willy-nilly, to American control. Put bluntly, it is a recipe for re-colonization.
America now perceives Nigeria as an incubating site for terrorists. That dishonor came by dint of a young Nigerian’s attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit last Christmas. If the plan had succeeded, some three hundred passengers on the flight would have perished – to say nothing of the number of casualties if a burning plane had crashed in a city.
In scale, it would have been the most serious terrorist assault on American soil since the September 11, 2001 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City. The would-be bomber, Umaru Abdul Mutallab, has Nigerian parents and carried a Nigerian passport. But he was recruited into al Qaeda in England, not Nigeria; his training and equipment took place in Yemen, far from Nigeria.
Last week, a motorist in Calabar came close to causing another terrorist calamity. In a shocking breach of airport security, this man was able to ram his car onto an Arik Air flight. Little information has been released about the incident, but the attack – one must admit – is likely to strengthen Obama’s resolve to keep Nigeria on the roster of “terrorist nations”.
That shouldn’t stop Jonathan from pleading Nigeria’s case, namely, that the isolated actions of two men hardly add up to the portrait of a nation that spawns international terrorists.
Jonathan is, like Obama, a figure thrown up by history – and capable of acting as an agent of profound historical change. Obama’s election more than a year ago signaled America’s willingness to lift, however temporarily, the veil created by its long history of racial discrimination. On his part, Jonathan ascended to power through the quirks of fate.
Unlike Obama, Jonathan is handicapped by a deficiency of legitimacy. In 2007, he and Umaru Yar’Adua became prime beneficiaries of one of the most fraudulent elections in history. Now, with Yar’Adua consigned to the shadows through physical devastation, Jonathan has been thrust into power. And he’s been assigned a rare opportunity to rise beyond his circumstances and imprint his name in history.
Many doubt that he’s capable of rising to the challenge. He has been criticized, justifiably in my view, for coming up with a mostly uninspiring list of ministers. And even though he’s spoken of his commitment to electoral reforms, many doubt that he’s willing to go through with measures that are likely to upstage his political party.
Yet, Jonathan must know that Nigeria has changed since the 2007 impunity that foisted the Yar’Adua-Jonathan duo in power. The country may not be able to survive a repeat of the electoral heist of 2007.
Obama should encourage Jonathan to stand behind electoral reform, to fire Maurice Iwu from the chairmanship of Nigeria’s electoral commission, and to ensure that the police, armed forces, and security agencies are not invited to help PDP candidates in thwarting the wishes of the electorate in 2011.
Jonathan is reportedly making overtures to Nuhu Ribadu, a former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, to serve as an advisor on anti-corruption issues. This promises to rank as one of Jonathan’s most warmly received appointments. In his second coming, Ribadu has a rare opportunity to address legitimate questions about the selectivity of some of the EFCC’s prosecutions, and then proceed to reinvigorate the fight against all corrupt elements.
Ribadu will face a quandary. It was reported that, in September 2006, Ribadu’s EFCC officials seized $13.5 million from Patience Jonathan, then Governor Jonathan’s wife. Somehow, that case – which drew international attention – fizzled out. Neither Jonathan nor Ribadu can afford silence on the case. Both men must make it a priority to divulge the facts about Patience’s alleged millions. Is it true that the EFCC confiscated that stash of cash? If true, where’s that money? Was it handed back to Mrs. Jonathan? In that event, how and where did she make it? If it was confiscated, then Jonathan would do well to apologize on his wife’s behalf. Then, and then, should Ribadu get cracking on other abusers of public trust.