Jonathan, Babangida and the Sword of Damocles

In the Sword of Damocles, the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero tells the story of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the fourth century BCE. Briefly Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, and like any good praise singer, constantly flattered the king with unparalleled grovelling. One day the king asked Damocles if he would like to swap places with him – just for a day – to see what it was like to be a king. An excited Damocles gladly agreed and roles were switched. However towards the end of his one-day reign, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up and saw a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In panic, he fled the court and banished all thoughts of power from his mind.

In popular culture, the Sword of Damocles is often used to illustrate the perils of being in power or a sense of foreboding. True, Damocles might have been naïve about how a ruler could use the power of incumbency to ‘deal decisively’ with the source of that sword but the moral remains relevant: long knives are daily out for the man of power. Unlike Damocles however, most fight back, not run away. There are usually three possibilities: a truce (usually resulting in what is in Africa often euphemistically called ‘government of national unity’), the man of power is dethroned (usually not without a bloody fight) or the opposition is mercilessly crushed.

How do President Jonathan Goodluck and Babangida come into this?

Ever since Jonathan became the substantive President on May 6, 2010, it will seem that his body language has been indicating that he may contest for the Presidency in 2011, triggering a foreboding of the implications of his decision to contest or not contest for the country. At issue is the PDP’s zoning arrangement, which President Jonathan obviously benefited from. Some have argued that it would amount to betrayal for the arrangement to be jettisoned mid-way after one section of the country has benefited from it and the North is yet to ‘complete its turn’. Former Head of State, Ibrahim Babangda, has thrown his hat into the ring in support that the zoning agreement must be respected. Not only has he emphatically stated that he would run for the presidency, he has also, in what would appear to be a coded defiance, made it known he would not step down for any one. He went a step further by becoming one of the arrowheads of the Northern Elders Forum, which met recently in a media show of Northern solidarity. The group insisted that the zoning arrangement must be respected.

Several issues are raised in what now appears to be veiled jabs between the Babangida camp and the presidency.

One, the camp of Jonathan has been apparently responding to the ‘Babangida challenge’. It is possible that recent reports that the federal government has set up a committee to review the Okigbo Report, (which allegedly recommended that Babangida should be prosecuted for purportedly mismanaging $12.4 billion in a Dedicated and Special Accounts while he was in office) is part of the weapons in the armoury of the President’s camp. If this is so, then no one knows how this will pan out because no living Nigerian Head of State has ever been probed. Even Abacha, long presented as the poster boy of public corruption in Nigeria, especially under the Obasanjo regime, was quickly absolved of the charge by a cream of Northern leaders that included Buhari and Babangida. It is therefore likely that if Babangida is probed, it could be politicised and trigger calls for all past leaders of the country, including possibly Jonathan himself, to be equally probed.

Two, it will be counter-productive if Babangida hopes that President Jonathan will be intimidated by his being one of the arrowheads of Northern solidarity via the Northern Elders Forum. Unlike Damocles, modern president are aware of how to employ the power of incumbency to try to neutralise potential threats. If anything, the stance of the Northern Elders Forum could harden Jonathan and compel him to contest, as he may not want to be seen as succumbing to intimidation. Even if Jonathan decides not to contest, he could be forced to get his own pound of flesh by mobilising to ensure that none of the arrowheads of the Forum succeeds him – pretty much the same way Obasanjo successfully prevented Atiku from succeeding him.

More importantly, Babangida, who has always been very good in networking across the country’s main fault lines, risks being diminished by his open identification with a sectional project. Despite his faults, very few people can accuse him of being an ethnic chauvinist. Now by appearing to use primordial identities to mobilise support, he risks acquiring an ethnic toga, which will in turn alienate his supporters from other sections of the country. Babangida could easily have avoided this by championing a national movement of people advocating for the respect of PDP zoning (as a matter of principle) – after all they are many non-Northerners who have also been calling on President Jonathan to respect the PDP’s zoning arrangement by not contesting in 2011. The fight for the validation of Abiola’s mandate by NADECO and others was for instance done in the name of ‘fight for democracy’ – even though many people believed it was essentially a Yoruba project. Similarly, when former Vice President Atiku opposed Obasanjo’s plan to elongate his tenure, he did so in the name of respecting our constitution and protecting our democracy – not that such would cheat the North, even though this could well be the sub-text of his opposition.

Three, in what is thought to be a veiled reference to Babangida and the meeting of the Northern Elders’ Forum, President Jonathan, in far away Canada, was recently quoted as saying that Nigeria is a country peopled by ethnic bigots “who reach out to their narrow cleavages when they cannot compete,” (ThisDay online, June 26, 2010). President Jonathan was right. That ethnicity exists only in the context of the struggle for scarce socio-economic resources has long been recognised by political scientists. But much as the President was right, he was wrong to make the statement primarily because it is considered improper for a President to criticise his or her country when abroad. Additionally, that sentence could play into the hands of those trying to use ethnic sentiments to mobilise support (all politicians are of course guilty of this) if it is interpreted to mean that the President has accused a section of the country of being afraid to compete. This could possibly throw us back to the era in which our politicians freely used intemperate language. For instance, reacting to the purported statement by President Jonathan, elder statesman and former presidential adviser to President Shehu Shagari, Tanko Yakassai, was quoted as saying that “the Northern Elders Forum should be congratulated because in whatever they did, all the ethnic tribes of the north like the Kanuri, Nupe, Gwari, Fulani and Hausas were usually accommodated… This is unlike what is happening in Jonathan’s Ijaw National Congress where the Ibibio, Urhobos and others are not accommodated,” (ThisDay online, June 26, 2010).

What appears certain in the veiled battle of wits between the camps of President Jonathan and that of Babangida is that come 2011 – or even before it – something or someone will eventually give in.

Written by
Jideofor Adibe
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