Sunday, July 3, 2011

Presidential Power and Its Discontents I

Goodluck Jonathan won the presidency chiefly on the strength of three things: an engaging narrative, the vast resources that inhered in his incumbency and a genial non-threatening persona that endeared him to far more Nigerians than his rivals could manage. Jonathan’s feel-good “anyone can be president” narrative mattered. His implausible ascent from bureaucratic anonymity to the political pinnacle in just over a decade marked with preternatural good fortune resonated in a society that loves miracles. In recent times, only Olusegun Obasanjo’s march from prison to presidency in the space of a year offered similar thrills.

However the skills required for a successful presidential campaign are acutely different from those necessary for a successful presidency. The shape-shifting equivocations, chameleonic posturing, intentional vagueness, expansive accommodation of all interests and infinite promises that pave the path to the presidency are actually incompatible with running the office. The president cannot long remain “all things to all men” as in the campaign. In time, his actions must reveal where the needle of his internal compass is pointing. The presidency itself calls for decisiveness, clarity, single-minded focus, and the distillation of broad, imprecise agendas into specific deliverables. The transition from campaigning to governing has to be swift and seamless.  

Jonathan’s challenges are equal parts personal as well as systemic. His public career yields no oral or written records of strongly and consistently held positions on the pressing national issues he must now contend with. Jonathan was picked as Vice President to President Umar Musa Yar’Adua because as an Ijaw, it was presumed that his presence on the ticket would placate the restive youths of the Niger Delta. But his thoughts on the great cause célèbre of Niger Delta militancy – resource control, and its ancillary concept, fiscal federalism – are cloudy at best.

His ideological and philosophical orientations, if any, are unclear. He comes across less as a person of conviction than as an opportunist whose ethics are entirely situational, contingent upon circumstances, and directed by expediency rather than conscience. During his campaign, Jonathan vowed to transform Nigeria but transformative leadership is enabled by deeply held political convictions of which Jonathan appears genuinely bereft.

As far back as the 1980s, Olusegun Obasanjo had advocated a one-party system for Nigeria and argued its advantages in writing and in lectures. Thus, the way he ran both the presidency and his party reflected his core belief in the efficacy of a one-party state. The moral credentials of the belief itself are inconsequential to our inquiry. The point is that Obasanjo came to the office with some convictions and they shaped the way he wielded the presidency.

In Jonathan, we have a president who might have to hurriedly and belatedly develop core beliefs. When a leader has no convictions, it typically indicates either a lack of prior intellectual investment in grasping national issues or a congenital infidelity to principle – neither of which can possibly generate transformative outcomes. At best, he could be a pragmatist.       

This is surely not an unfair assessment. Jonathan had effectively been president for over a year before his own inauguration. His ideological vagueness has already created the first signs of policy incoherence. Weeks after his inauguration, he ordered cement manufacturers to reduce their prices or face unspecified sanctions. That decree would seem to indicate a preference for bold governmental activism to modulate the interplay of market forces. Yet, it conflicts with a liberalized economic regime in which the government plays no role, let alone setting commodity prices by fiat.

Jonathan has previously indicated that his administration will pursue a private sector-led free market order. He is currently overseeing the privatization of the power sector and at the January PDP convention promised that the establishment of forty new federal universities would be primarily private sector-driven. To seal his fidelity to markets, he has penciled down Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the internationally reputed neoliberal economic technician for a second tour of duty as finance minister after her first stint during the Obasanjo years. In a recent speech in which Jonathan asked Nigerians to brace themselves for tough economic measures, he managed to sound both protectionist and liberal at the same time. 

The question of the president’s true ideological colours inevitably arises. Is he a free market enthusiast, a believer in state economic activism or something in between? If he subscribes to a third way doctrine, some kind of “Jonathanomics,” it is yet to be articulated. Is it possible also that he has no preferences at all and acts out of convenience, out of a sense of the moment? These questions matter because they will affect the tone of his government and policy-making. In the absence of any discernible core values, politicians tend to dance between crass opportunism and fickle populism. But a serious government simply cannot function this way.

The evidence thus far suggests that the president lacks the intellectual and emotional commitment to his own economic agenda required to sell it to the public and to engage the special interests that oppose liberalization. They also predict a scenario in which the president either stalls his economic agenda at the first sign of serious opposition or simply cedes full control (and culpability) over economic matters to his finance minister as a means of evading executive responsibility.

The president’s shape-shifting has already resulted in an early political defeat. In repudiating the PDP’s power rotation (“zoning”) arrangement to run for the presidency, Jonathan hinged his candidacy on constitutionalism as well as the need to overcome divisive ethnic politics and entrench merit in leadership selection. He struck patriotic high notes implying that his presidency signaled the beginning of a new nationalistic and post-sectarian meritocracy in our politics. But after his inauguration, Jonathan reaffirmed zoning while trying to engineer the election of his favourites in the House of Representatives. The move failed. The representatives rebuffed the president’s overtures and elected leaders of their choice. The episode left the president looking like an opportunist who had abandoned zoning when it suited him only to resurrect it for his own selfish purposes. His blatant interference in the internal workings of the house carried out through the instrumentality of the party violated the national assembly’s autonomy and the principle of checks and balances. Its defeat has left him smaller in stature.

Presidential stature is important. Jonathan faces a host of adversaries including a coterie of implacable northern elites who see his presidency as an usurpation of their right to rule and an anarchist terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has declared war on the federal government. To adequately combat these onerous challenges, he has to look to a moral compass rather than the weathervane of expediency. Strength will come from conviction and conscience, rather than convenience. The president must choose his political battles carefully so as to avoid further diminution of his stature. His opponents are sure to quickly capitalize on any signs of weakness on his part.

Jonathan’s understated personality already invites underestimation by political adversaries. Ordinarily, this assessment of a politician who has just clinched the presidency ought to go down as a fatal miscalculation. But because his understated personality evidently does not mask any cast iron principles or keenly held ideas, he is all the more likely to be accurately adjudged as weak. Encouraged by this, special interests are sure to launch niggling nuisance assaults on his presidency in a bid to extract concessions from him. Indeed, extremist groups like Boko Haram will feel emboldened to continue their campaign of terror by what they will see as the president’s lack of resolve (not to mention the government’s lack of adequate armaments).

After the post-election violence in April, Jonathan gave one of his best speeches and among other sterling pronouncements, declared, “Nobody’s political ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.” But such lofty rhetoric has not been used to craft a new national security doctrine although it should have been obvious since the October 1, 2010 bombings in Abuja that our most urgent national security threat comes from non-state actors. 

All this predicts an embattled presidency besieged by ravenous lobbyists and assailed by cold-hearted opponents; one that will more often than not be on the defensive and more consumed with putting out fires rather than actually getting things done. Jonathan can prevent this quagmire by defining a set of minimum non-negotiable core values that will undergird his administration. These are the values which he must expend political capital to promote and by which he will consistently assert his leadership.  It is necessary but it will not be easy. The presidential virtues of strength and resolve can only be constructed on prior foundational convictions.

By electing Jonathan, it may be said that Nigerians voted for symbolic change, choosing the cosmetic novelty of the fedora hat over the tiresome familiarity of the Shagari cap. Whether Jonathan can transform the symbolism of his presidency into real systemic changes is another matter.

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