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Vol 54 No 22

Published 1st November 2013


Jonathan’s dialogue plan outflanks rebels

As the political class gets drawn into presidential plans for a national conference, the rebel state governors are running out of options

It has taken six weeks for President Goodluck Jonathan to regain the political initiative after seven state governors walked out of his party’s national conference at the end of August demanding radical change or threatening an alliance with the opposition (AC Vol 54 No 19, Punching out the PDP). Given Nigeria’s febrile political climate and the fickle loyalties of politicians some 18 months ahead of national elections, Jonathan’s recovery is not that remarkable and may not last. Despite their strong start, he has also been hugely helped by the rebel governors’ mistakes and political timidity.

The main new element is Jonathan’s big idea, floated in his Independence Day speech on 1 October, of a ‘national conversation’ to heal the country’s manifold political, social and economic crises. It started out as a rehash of previous demands for a national conference on how to apportion political power, resources and revenue among the regions. Senate President David Mark had proposed a plan for a political dialogue a few weeks earlier (AC Vol 50 No 25, Nigeria's succession: the candidates). Now the idea has taken off, within the governing People’s Democratic Party and beyond. Even foes of the PDP see it as an opportunity to redraw the political rules. Such is the disillusionment with mainstream politics and its inability to tackle such crises as the insurgency in the north, maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the chronically dysfunctional education and health services, that some people believe a series of regional dialogues and a national coordinating conference could generate a new way of running government.

Within two weeks of Jonathan’s announcement, discussion groups around the country started to assemble their demands. Many demand radical constitutional change, devolution of power to the states and local governments, and tighter limits on federal and executive power. Most of the groups are demanding that the national dialogue or conference should be sovereign: that is, that it should draw up a list of constitutional changes that can be put to a referendum with powers to amend the constitution. Jonathan’s idea was much more modest: a series of regional conferences over several months to draw up recommendations for political and economic reform to be submitted to the National Assembly.

Opportunity or distraction
Presiding over these arguments is Senator Femi Okurounmu, whom Jonathan appointed Chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on the National Conference, to draw up an agenda for the dialogue and agree the rules. Although the opposition All Progressives’ Congress (APC) and its éminence grise, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, dismiss the dialogue as a distraction, other politicians are not so sure (AC Vol 54 No 14, The governors and the insurgency). Some want to use the project to expose and undermine the government

A worsening scandal could also wrong-foot Jonathan: the apparently unauthorised purchase of two top-of-the-range bullet-proof BMW cars for the heavily inflated price of US$1.6 million for Aviation Minister Princess Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi. News of the secret purchase surfaced on the Sahara Reporters website, which got hold of copies of internal documents from the Aviation Ministry that were sufficiently compelling to force the government to act. Oduah, who was Treasurer for Jonathan’s presidential election campaign in 2011, now faces a special panel to investigate her role in the affair and must explain her position to the National Assembly’s Aviation Committee.

This shifting of the terrain cuts both ways for the rebel governors. They may celebrate the government’s discomfiture over the Oduah case, but they are still far from clearly setting out their own political agenda. At a stroke, the rebels now known as G-7 (Group of Seven) or the New PDP had deprived Jonathan’s PDP faction of its overall majority in the Assembly. Yet, from this initial position of strength, they have lost ground through procrastination and petty legal disputes with the mainstream PDP. Every time they choose a building as their headquarters in Abuja, their opponents take out a court action to get the premises sealed off.

The New PDP group has also lost all the courtroom battles so far over the use of the PDP name. Doubtless it would have been useful for the rebels to have had more control over the PDP’s name, organisation and membership list. So far, the rebellion has been more about blocking the government than defining a clear policy or organisational direction. Numerically, the rebellion still threatens Jonathan, though. It could effectively halt all parliamentary business before the election. A big test looms on 14 November, when Jonathan is due to deliver the 2014 federal budget to the National Assembly.

Before that, the rebels are meant to discuss the conditions of their return to the mainstream party with its senior office-holders. The Chairman of the PDP Trustees, Tony Anenih, encouraged those talks but National Chairman Bamanga Tukur absolutely opposed it and wants the rebels to be punished. Tukur seems to be winning the argument within the party and pushing ahead with a new strategy, which is to develop a parallel political network for the PDP in all the states still controlled by the seven rebel governors. So the ball is in the rebels’ court. Do they want to parley with the PDP mainstream and the government or do they want to go into full-blooded opposition, either in alliance with the APC coalition or in some new party of their own?

The third option looks less and less likely as the election draws near. The rebels must decide very soon whether they want to joint the APC. Nasir el-Rufai, leading light in the APC and former Federal Capital Territory Minister, reckons an opposition alliance with the rebel governors is the most probable outcome of the present impasse. That would greatly add to the APC’s firepower in the Assembly and in the National Governors’ Forum, but it would also complicate its internal elections for its presidential candidate for 2015. Almost all the seven rebel governors – Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu (Niger State), Sule Lamido (Jigawa), Abdulfatah Ahmed (Kwara), Murtala Nyako (Adamawa), Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (Kano), Aliyu Wamakko (Sokoto) and Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers) – want to take a run at the presidency. Doubtless the APC plus the rebel seven will be a bigger coalition but it will be one carrying even more personal ambition. 

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