Jonathan and the end of a honeymoon

Those handling Goodluck Jonathan better tell him that this week marks the end of the honeymoon phase of his “acting presidency.”

This week, Mr. Jonathan must demonstrate his awareness, first of his personal burden, and then of the Nigerian crisis. If he can’t find the spine to begin to serve the Nigerian people, then he should ask his speechwriters to compose one heck of a resignation letter for him. He should then submit it and get out of the way.

Jonathan, to be sure, is a creature of a difficult historical circumstance. In 2007, he and his principal, Umaru Yar’Adua, were imposed on Nigeria. Far from earning the electoral mandate of Nigerians, they – Yar’Adua and he – were foisted on Nigeria by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and other elements.

Their chief sponsor, Obasanjo, could not have intended that the duo would deliver magnificent leadership. If anything, both Yar’Adua and Jonathan had exemplified gubernatorial mediocrity. In choosing them, then, a vindictive Obasanjo perhaps sought to punish Nigerians for daring to deny him his illicit desire for a third term.

Yar’Adua and Jonathan inspired low expectations, and performed worse. They could not transcend the crooked circumstances that tossed them into power.

With Yar’Adua hobbled by sickness, his “presidency” became little more than a residency in Aso Rock. Even at the best of health, the man merely occupied space, but remained incapable of making his presence felt in any positive manner.

Today, Turai Yar’Adua’s delusions notwithstanding, Umaru Yar’Adua is physically (and, in all likelihood, mentally) incapacitated to carry on the pretence of running Nigeria.

That circumstance has thrown up the prospect of Jonathan’s “acting presidency.” Nigerians have a right to wonder if Jonathan has what it takes to step into the role.

It is a measure of how desperate Nigerians are that some expect Jonathan to perform impressively. There’s nothing in the man’s political resume that suggests that he’s cut out for excellent leadership. Even so, history is replete with examples of men and women who managed, in defiance of the odds, to rise to momentous challenges. Nigerians are hoping – praying – that Jonathan would be one such accidental success story.

But let’s be fair: if Jonathan’s political skills are mediocre or average, he’s entitled to them. But he should, in that event, be fair to Nigerians by confessing that he doesn’t have what they expect – and that he wishes to de-commission himself as “acting president.”

This week is decisive.

Nigerians have watched with growing impatience and irritation as Jonathan appeared barely capable of chairing the weekly meetings of the cabinet. Last December, as Nigerian commuters were crippled by fuel shortage, Jonathan “ordered” that the ministers in the oil sector should not travel out of town on vacation. Mr. Rilwanu Lukman, who holds the main oil portfolio, skipped out of town, ignoring Jonathan’s directive. Why has Lukman not been fired?

Jonathan gives the impression of incessantly looking over his shoulder, afraid that the “forces” loyal to Turai and Umaru are out to get him. He runs the risk of allowing the fear of Turai to paralyze him. If he can’t overcome that fear, Jonathan might as well admit to his wimpy disposition, surrender what power he has, and leave the arena. If he stands pat, doing nothing, it will be a question of when, not if, the enemies he fears will pick him apart.

There’s work to do, and Jonathan’s best bet is to get cracking. For one, he ought to shape up the federal cabinet. There are too many ministers who don’t appear to understand the most elementary thing about their ministry – but who relish the sound of the pompous title of “honorable minister.” Given the shortness of his “tenure” – a year – Jonathan ought to fish for the most outstanding technocrats to help think up and implement solutions for Nigeria’s perennial infrastructural crises.

Nigerian roads are in a shambles. Nigerian schools are poorly funded and ill equipped. Nigeria’s healthcare is in a grim state. Erratic power supply remains a pervasive feature of Nigeria’s reality. Violent crime, especially armed robbery, festers. These problems did not crop up overnight, and they won’t be solved by the wave of a magic wand. But any focused leader, once who sets out to work instead of to steal, could make enough of a difference for Nigerians to notice. And Nigerians, long beset by disastrous leadership, deserve a break.

Jonathan must look into himself and discern if he has it in him. He’s never been known for stellar leadership, but the historical circumstances of his emergence as “acting president” are ripe for courageous performance.

A product of a shameful election, Jonathan has a unique opportunity to make a lasting impact by pushing credible electoral reform, not the half-baked, ineffectual brand that a hypocritical and self-serving Yar’Adua supported. He should indicate his readiness to champion passage of the key elements of the recommendations made by the Justice Muhammadu Uwais panel.

Before Jonathan can get to these substantive issues, he must, at minimum, steer the federal executive council to do the right thing by declaring Yar’Adua incapacitated. That should happen this week. Every Okoye, Musa and Adebayo knows that Mr. Yar’Adua is too gravely sick to be of help even to himself, much less to 150 million Nigerians.

This, I restate, is the week that Jonathan’s free pass will end. Henceforth, he must work to earn any goodwill. My hunch is that a Jonathan who can’t lead his colleagues to reach and express a commonsensical conclusion on Yar’Adua’s status is not worthy of being entrusted with running the complex organism called Nigeria – even in an acting capacity.

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