Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jonathan's Rocky Road Ahead

Recognizing the reputational debilities of his party, the People’s Democratic Party, President Goodluck Jonathan built his campaign around his personal brand, which despite his underwhelming incumbency, remained sufficiently popular to earn him a win. He presented his bid as “a breath of fresh air” not an enterprise in continuity, knowing that the PDP had offered little worthy of continuation. He engaged broadly on social media and with constituencies ranging from commercial motorcyclists to Nollywood. It was smart politics. By repudiating the PDP’s zoning arrangement, Jonathan had angered influential northern power-brokers and needed to counteract their angst by broadening his popular support. Arguably, he accurately keyed into public opinion since an NOI/Gallup poll in early 2010 found that 63 percent of Nigerians opposed zoning.  

While campaigning, the president often sounded more like a populist insurgent than the ruling party candidate. Having won by virtue of strategic populism, he must now manage stratospheric public expectations and the tension between his two public personas – man of the people and ruling party standard bearer. These tensions will define his presidency. Nigerians voted for Jonathan and not the PDP. Yet, the coming days will reveal just how much ownership of his presidency ordinary Nigerians can justifiably claim.

The Jonathan administration will move to abolish subsidies on domestic fuel prices which will cause not only a hike in the price of petrol but also diesel and kerosene, the lifeblood of household economics for millions of Nigerians. It will likely raise fuel prices to between N115 to N120 per liter, effectively an increased tax with knock on effects on food and transportation prices. Last September, the finance minister, Segun Aganga disclosed that the subsidies would be removed by the end of 2011 but after investment in a mass transit program to ease its impact on the poor. Since then, officials have been more forthright in arguing for subsidy abolition than in announcing when this mass transit program is to commence.

At the same time, Jonathan has to curb the riotous government spending particularly, the reckless and unsustainable financial rewards that the PDP dominated National Assembly has appropriated for itself. This will surely bring him into confrontation with his party. If he abolishes subsidies without imposing fiscal discipline, he will swiftly become the object of public odium. If he takes on the reigning kleptocracy, he could trigger a civil war within the PDP pitting reformers against conservatives. But Jonathan could rally civil society groups and popular support to his aid in an epic confrontation with the culture of impunity. Either way, confrontation is certain if the orgy of theft in Abuja continues and the economy does not improve.

Subsidy removal will not achieve the administration’s stated goal of reducing the current 13.2 percent inflation rate to single digit figures. Nor would it aid reduction of the present 21.2 percent unemployment rate. Indeed, it will erase the gains of the new national minimum wage of N18, 000 which many states cannot pay. To do so, some states may have to lay off workers and risk the wrath of organized labour. Industrial unrest could paralyze several states as a result. The increasingly powerful Governors Forum will insist on a revision of the Revenue Allocation Formula to increase the funds available to states and ignite a potential confrontation with the federal government which presently gobbles up 52.68 percent of centrally collected revenue.  

Jonathan must also contend with a treacherous national security threat environment. Nigeria’s ruling class is a rent-seeking elite reliant on government for survival but its northern fraction is the most hopelessly dependent on government, the most vulnerable without it and, therefore, the most obsessed with state power. Unlike its southern cohorts, it has no technical or entrepreneurial capacity to fall back on. The coterie of northern politicians that sees power as an entitlement and now feels marginalized by Jonathan’s victory may stir up the feral passions of the northern street. They may deploy the armies of the slums to wreak havoc as a means of negotiating their continued access to the national cake. While they share no affinity with the Talakawa, identity politics often creates a false sense of solidarity between the dispossessed and the privileged. This explains why mobs may riot in support of the very elites responsible for their impoverishment. This has happened often enough in the past and is a likely scenario in the coming days.  

Kaduna which has its first elected Christian governor could witness a rise in sectarian tensions. For nearly two years, in Borno State, the ultraviolent anarchist Islamist cult, Boko Haram has been assassinating police officers, district heads and opposing clerics. It will attempt to expand its theatre of terror beyond the northeast and target even Abuja with high profile bombings and assassinations in order to firmly establish itself in the national consciousness. Other extremist groups could arise elsewhere in the north due to the ongoing and widespread radicalization of young northern males. In Jos, Plateau State, which is now largely segregated across ethnic and religious line, a tense calm is punctuated frequently by covert reciprocal killings. The likelihood of more open violence remains.

In the next four years, an outbreak of violence in the north may compel President Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in the affected state. At the very least, the army will be deployed as has been customary since 1999 to contain unrest. Yet Jonathan must adroitly manage the politics of militarizing trouble-prone Northern areas and also the practical consideration that prolonged militarization of an area tends to radicalize restive communities as was the case in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

The administration must develop a comprehensive national security doctrine that metes out tough, swift and decisive responses to sectarian terrorists, their sponsors and the architects of serial unrest including clerics and politicians that traffic in hate speech and incitement. Such a doctrine must also tackle the structural poverty and injustice that feed extremism. Jonathan must pressure and work with northern state governments to deliver good governance.

On another front, the new administration must tackle the constant clashes between nomadic pastoralists and agrarian communities. This is actually Nigeria’s most consistent low-intensity conflict and is partly a result of our flawed energy policy. 45 percent of Nigerian households use firewood for cooking and this figure will rise as the abolition of subsidies prices kerosene beyond the reach of more people. The quest for a cheaper alternative in firewood leads to deforestation, contributing to severe erosion and loss of farmland in the southeast. According to the Federal Ministry of Environment, Nigeria’s forests are plundered of more than 30 million tons of firewood annually.

In the north, deforestation and desertification is forcing the southward migration of pastoralists in search of grazing ground and into contact and conflict with agrarian communities in the Middle Belt. It is really a straight forward resource conflict but because these agrarian communities are mostly Christian, these clashes are reported as Christian-Muslim clashes when, in fact, nomadic Fulani are not Muslim. Such reportage fits the stereotypical “Muslim vs. Christian” binary beloved of much of the local and international media. Unfortunately, it also creates artificial convergences between distinct formats of violence, intensifying conflicts and perpetuating a mutual sense of threat and paranoia among ethnic and religious groups.

Much of Nigeria’s protein requirement is supplied by the pastoralists now hemmed in by the surging Sahara and by unwelcoming farmers. Without land to sustain their livestock, the pastoralists will suffer but Nigeria’s loss will be more severe. It will undermine our food security and sharply increase protein deficiency which is a key factor in the high rates of malnutrition and child mortality. The federal government should resume plans to establish a grazing reserve which if successfully implemented would drastically reduce clashes between herdsmen and farmers.

On the whole, the Jonathan era is likely to be marked by turbulence. The Nigerian state is bereft of institutional capacity, severely weakened by pathological graft and no longer has a monopoly of force. New non-state actors have emerged, created by the long-term militarization of public life, mobilized by social injustice and empowered by the privatization of violence.

The president may feel inclined to secure his government by distributing government positions to placate special interests. This would be a mistake. The commoditization of public office is the hallmark of a failed brand of politics. Instead, Jonathan must assemble a coalition of competent and honest Nigerians to drive national restoration. This will be the first sign of any serious intention to distinguish his presidency.

Politicians typically campaign in generalities and govern in specifics. However, in the course of his campaign, Jonathan was exceedingly vague and offered no definitive positions on key national questions such as why an oil-rich country imports fuel when it could build refineries or the meaning of Nigerian citizenship in the light of conflicts between so-called “indigenes” and “settlers.” These and other urgent questions await cogent answers. 

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