Yar’Adua’s AWOL and Ethnic Profiling

Since President Yar’Adua vamoosed from Nigeria nearly three months ago, on medical trip to Saudi Arabia, without officially notifying the National Assembly, there has been palpable anger and frustration in the land. There is understandable fury that Nigerians are being taken for a ride by a cabal around the presidency who apparently prefer to play a hide-and-seek game with Nigerians while the country hung on a precipice. Thee are also frustrations that the President’s ‘Away Without Official Leave’ (AWOL) seems to have grounded the country to a halt while this shadowy group continues to argue that everything is OK and that the President’s absence has not affected governance.

Predictably, Yaradua’s AWOL has led to a sharpening of the old North-South divide, with some nationalities openly threatening secession and accusing the “Hausa/Fulani oligarchy” of treating the rest of the country with contempt. Implicit in the argument of this group is that because Yaradua is from the North, the entire North has conspired to take Nigerians for a ride just because “it does not want to relinquish power to someone from the political South.”

While the position of some Northern groups may not have helped matters, I would however argue that blaming the North for the current constitutional crisis arising from Yaradua’s AWOL is simplistic:

One, the North as a geographical expression and entity cannot take any action on its own. People act in the name of geographical entities – North, South, West, Southeast, South South etc. There are factions and even fractions within the elites in every ethnic group and geographical entity. These elites also belong to groups that could be crosscutting such as political parties and professional or social associations. At any given issue, the interests of some factions of the elite from each ethnic group could converge, leading to temporary alliances. In this sense, it is possible that most of those purporting to champion the interest of the North or South in the current situation in the country are merely different geographical factions of the Nigerian elite who are conveniently using ethnic sentiments to mask their vested interests. Of course there are those who are motivated purely by ‘national interest’.

Two, while ethnicity and regionalism had their origin in the colonial urban centres in the context of the struggle for the scarce socioeconomic resources such as jobs and scholarships, over time they acquired an objective character and became more of an emotive ideology for mobilising people by politicians. This means that even people who have nothing to benefit from the intra elite feuds are unwittingly turned into keen ‘ethnic and regional watchers’ because of the ‘we versus they dichotomy’ that underpins ideology and ethnicity. In this sense, it is understandable that in the current circumstances many ordinary people are emotionally rushing to ethnic and regional profiling to ‘defend’ their in-group.

Three, factions of the elites from different parts of the country have taken conflicting positions in the current constitutional impasse – often based on what they believe would best serve their interests. For instance while the Southeast Governors reportedly took a position supporting that Yaradua does not have to transmit a letter to the National Assembly (an euphemism that Yaradua should continue as President even from his sick bed), it was also an Igbo from the same Southeast, Professor Dora Akunyili, who broke ranks with her fellow Ministers at the Federal Executive Council meeting, by drafting a memo calling on President Yaradua to formally hand over to Jonathan. Similarly, while Pastor Tunde Bakare and Professor Wole Soyinka, who are both Yoruba, were in the forefront of the Save Nigeria Rally to compel Yaradua to formally hand over power, in acting capacity, to Vice President Jonathan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, another Yoruba, reportedly prevailed on House Members not to pass a resolution that would support the transmitting of any such letter to the National Assembly. In the same vein, while MEND has made threats that the Niger Delta would secede from the country if Jonathan was not made Acting President, and Niger Delta women, under the aegis of Concerned Mothers of the Niger Delta, has called on First Lady, Turai Yar’Adua, to prevail on her husband to formally hand over to Jonathan, Timipre Sylva, Governor of Bayelsa, Jonathan’s home state, was reported to be planning a pro-Yaradua rally (Ukpakareports.com, 27 January 2010). In the North, while a number of Northern groups and individuals have clearly taken a hard stance against changing the status quo, others including former Vice President Abubakar Atiku and former military Head of State Muhammadu Buhari have publicly called for a formal transfer of power to Jonathant. Some Northerners have even called for Yaradua’s outright impeachment. Again Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Second Republic President and former Head of State, retired General Gowon, both Northerners, were among the eminent persons that went to the National Assembly to urge them to prevail on the Presidency to formally hand over power to Jonathan. Even the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Northern sociopolitical organisation, recently joined the call for Yaradua to formally transfer power to his deputy.

From the above, it appears simplistic to imply a consensus among the elites from any geographical entity in the country on the way out of the impasse occasioned by Yaradua’s AWOL.

Four, it is possible that the position taken in public by many of the gladiators in the current impasse is different from the one they take behind closed doors. For instance it cannot be ruled out that some members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) and PDP who are publicly supporting the status quo may in fact be championing a different position in private but do not want to be seen as undermining the doctrine of collegiality. Similarly, it is possible that those calling for a formal transfer of power to Jonathan are only doing so for public consumption while privately working against such a scenario.

Five, it is tempting to speculate on what would happen, if, following Professor Akunyili’s courageous memo to her colleagues at the FEC, there are mass resignations of Ministers from Yaradua’s regime. Will Jonathan, under such a scenario, and without being formally inaugurated as an Acting President, have the constitutional mandate to nominate their replacements?

Six, assuming that Yaradua miraculously survives and returns to power, can he retain enough legitimacy to rule, especially given that many Nigerians now feel that his prolonged absence and refusal to hand over to the Vice President has brought the county to public and international ridicule?

There is no doubt that Yaradua’s AWOL and the politics surrounding it is a threat to the Nigeria project. The challenge is to identify the group of elites who have vested interest in the perpetuation of the status quo and address them directly. Resorting to an ethnic or regional profiling will be playing into the hands of a geographical faction of the elites with interest in maintaining the status quo.

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