If Jonathan Were Serious…

by Okey Ndibe

The kindest thing that can be said about President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal to amend the constitution in order to enshrine a single term of six years for occupants of the presidency and governorship is that Mr. Jonathan must have made up his mind without giving serious thought to the matter. For, in the end, the proposal is terribly weak, a product of profound misdiagnosis – and bespeaks a shocking misplacement of priorities.

In a statement signed by Reuben Abati, the president’s spokesman, we learn that the proposal “is borne out of [Jonathan’s] patriotic zeal,” that it came “after a painstaking study and belief that the constitutionally guaranteed two terms for Presidents and Governors is not helping the focus of Governance and institutionalization of democracy at this stage of our development.” Mr. Abati’s statement also reveals that the president “is concerned about the acrimony which the issue of re-election, every four years, generates both at the Federal and State levels.” We read that Nigeria “is still smarting from the unrest, the desperation for power and the overheating of the polity that has attended each general election,” with the concomitant “unending inter and intra-party squabbles which have affected the growth of party democracy in the country, and have further undermined the country’s developmental aspirations.”

Mr. Abati’s press release goes to extensive lengths to assure Nigerians that his boss would not benefit from the single term amendment – if passed. Mr. Jonathan, we learn, “also states that the greater good of Nigeria is greater than the ambition of any one individual.” And then this: “The envisaged Bill is part of the Jonathan administration’s transformation agenda aimed at sanitizing the nation’s politics. The President believes that this single move, when actualized, will change the face of our politics and accelerate the overall development of our nation.”

It is easy to demonstrate that Mr. Jonathan’s proposal is not remotely transformational. Nor is his prescription an antidote to the problems articulated in his spokesman’s statement.

First, there’s nothing in a single term that makes it less susceptible to violence or the so-called overheating of the polity. Candidates seeking ascension to Aso Rock or occupancy of any of the thirty-six Government Houses are likely to bring the same arsenal of violence whether they are to spend a single term of six years, or two terms of four years each.

Nor does it stand to reason that a president, or governor, who has only a single term, would be more focused on governance. Given a single term of six years, instead of two terms of four years, a thieving governor would simply cram into his single term all the looting he would have done in two four-year terms.

In fact, if nothing fundamentally serious is done to address the crises of violence and corruption in our politics – and Mr. Jonathan’s proposal is, at best, first aid, not a panacea – then Nigerians are, on balance, better off with two terms for state executives and even the presidency. It’s true that many incumbent governors still find a way – through bribery (to electoral officials, law enforcement agents, and judges), intimidation of opponents, and deployment of state resources – to wangle their way to re-election (or re-selection). Still, the case of Ikedi Ohakim – to take that telling example – illustrates the superiority of two four-year terms.

Imagine the greater damage an Ohakim might have done in Imo State if he had six years, rather than four, to enact his wrecking game. The sheer prospect of Mr. Ohakim spending another two years in Government House, Owerri is bound to give the millions of Imo indigenes ulcer. The lesson from Imo is that a determined people can sometimes dislodge a self-aggrandizing mediocrity from his gubernatorial perch.

There are simply too many holes in Mr. Jonathan’s proposal. Its central assumptions are deaf to recent Nigerian history. In fact, Mr. Abati’s claim that the proposal emerged from “a painstaking study” is bogus and deceptive. It’s fallacious to suggest that a president or governor limited to one term of six years would become indifferent to the issue of his or her successor. If former Governor James Ibori had spent only one term, does anybody believe he would have been less desperate to push forward his maternal cousin, Emmanuel Uduaghan, to take over from him? It’s no secret that, having lost the battle for a third term, former President Olusegun Obasanjo designed and executed a plan to enthrone the tag team of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan at all cost. Is Mr. Jonathan willing to argue that, had Mr. Obasanjo spent only a single term of six years, he would have quietly returned to his farm in Otta, instead of manipulating all the instruments of incumbency to impose his anointed successor?

As I wrote at the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Jonathan owes it to himself, the long-suffering Niger Deltans, and Nigerians in general to strive for success. If he fails, he can count on Nigerians’ – and history’s – Olympian rebuke. To succeed, however, he must muster and exhibit an inner strength, courage, wisdom and loftiness of vision that I haven’t heard anybody credibly accuse him of possessing. But leaders need not necessarily come to the job with these attributes. Some are lucky in their advisers. Some are luckier, still, when they have the disposition to listen to informed advisers.

This baffling issue of single tenure is a distraction, pure and simple. Parts of Nigeria are under the virtual rule of Boko Haram, an amorphous group whose expertise in terror and propaganda is daily growing in refinement and audacity. There’s the perennial crisis of electric power that can – and should – engage the full attention of a president and Bart Nnaji, his excellent choice for Minister of Power. There’s the near-collapse of the educational sector, with many teachers at all levels bartering grades and certificates for cash or sex. There’s the absence of a healthcare system, with well-to-do Nigerians flying off to places like India, South Africa and Ghana for routine medical procedures, while poor Nigerians, driven to absurd desperation, flock to miracle-vending pastors and imams. There’s the rising quotient of violent crimes – armed robbery, kidnapping, abductions. There’s the ever-present menace of corruption – and a veritable war between Attorney General Bello Adoke and EFCC chairperson, Farida Waziri.

One is astonished that, in the midst of these new challenges and deepening crises, a man who shoulders a huge historic burden, a president who has tagged himself transformational, would start off his (so far uninspiring) presidency with an issue as politically charged, hollow and unhelpful as the pursuit of a constitutional amendment to achieve a single term. If Mr. Jonathan is after a recipe for bogging down his presidency in do-nothingism, then he has found a perfect one.

But if he truly means to deepen Nigeria’s democracy and advance the country’s development, then he should propose prescriptions that are more likely to have significant, immediate and lasting impact.

One, why not send a bill to the National Assembly to radically revise the immunity clause. In truly democratic nations, a president and his deputy as well as state governors and their deputies enjoy immunity only for carrying out those acts that fall within the normal, legitimate duties of their office. When officials commit crimes – as Bill Clinton did when he perjured himself in the Monica Lewinsky case, or former Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois who tried to auction off Barack Obama’s Senate seat

– they are arrested, indicted and prosecuted. In Nigeria, however, a governor could steal public funds in plain sight, or assault citizens – and get away with it.

A second proposal: Why not advocate a change in the disbursement of so-called security votes? Why not ask the National Assembly to remove this stash of cash from the hands of the president and governors, and vest it in institutions like the police, the SSS, and the intelligence wing of the military? As a corollary, Mr. Jonathan should champion efforts – if he’s serious about transforming Nigeria – to make the judiciary truly independent, empower anti-corruption agencies to do their job without let or hindrance, criminalize rigging and other forms of electoral fraud, and establish a culture of the rule of law.

As a side note: Last week, Governor Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut – where I live –traveled to New Haven, one of the big cities in his state, for an official meeting. He parked his car at a spot where parking was prohibited. By the time he emerged from his meeting, a municipal officer had issued him a ticket. The fact that he’s the governor did not impress the officer who issued that ticket. And unless he goes to court and successfully contests the ticket, Mr. Malloy cannot avoid paying it.

And yet, a Nigerian governor could pocket 75% of his state’s resources and still be shielded by executive immunity! If Jonathan were serious, he would be tackling this scandal.

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