The first shots on the road to the 2015 elections were fired in January 2011 during the Occupy Nigeria protests. As President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration reeled from nationwide demonstrations against the unpopular hike in fuel prices, a previously unknown conclave of so-called Niger Delta elders issued an alarm over an alleged threat to Jonathan’s life. It was a classic instance of ethno-regional elites crying wolf over one of their own. Jonathan had campaigned for the presidency as a nationalistic everyman. The rhetorical appropriation of his presidency by a Niger Delta clique marked the beginning of the diminution of his stature.
Since then Jonathan’s presidency has been colonized by an increasingly provincial circle. He has failed to disavow Kingsley Kuku and Asari Dokubo who have threatened violence in the Niger Delta if he is not re-elected. Defacto spokesmen like Edwin Clark and Ayo Oritsejafor have only alienated people with their belligerence. The recourse to ethno-regional polemicists reflects Jonathan’s limitations as a politician who spent his entire working life in his home region and was suddenly thrust onto the national stage to handle a far more complex geometry of interests than he ever encountered in the homogenous Ijaw country. He was genuinely shaken by the ferocious opposition to his candidacy by some Northern elites, and the bloody aftermath of his electoral victory in some Northern states. The challenge of Islamist anarchist terror posed by Boko Haram seemed to fortify provincial paranoia within his inner circle in the early days of his administration. Since then, Jonathan has steadily de-evolved from a president with a fairly national support base to one whose loudest allies are in his home region.
The close identification of Jonathan’s presidency with the Niger Delta struggle is ironic, if not fraudulent, because he has no history of involvement with the struggle at any level. The quest for equity in the Niger Delta never included “capturing” the national presidency. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the intellectual patron saint of the Niger Delta movement, advocated fiscal federalism, resource control and communal autonomy and essentially wanted communities to control their resources. Isaac Adaka Boro, who first sounded the trumpet for the rights of Niger Delta minorities in the 1960s, similarly sought autonomy for the region in the Nigerian federation. Neither of these figures thought an Ijaw president would be a victory for the Niger Delta and neither advocated such symbolic tokenism.
That the Niger Delta question has been reduced to Jonathan’s political prospects signifies the supplanting of the intellectual spine of agitation in the region by brigands and political opportunists. Unsurprisingly, the Jonathan administration has not altered the material conditions of the Delta so much as it has transformed the fortunes of a small band of ex-militant chieftains and their acolytes. Tellingly, oil theft and piracy have skyrocketed since the administration outsourced coastal policing to an ex-militant.
Jonathan’s 2015 campaign is likely to feature ethno-regional irredentism laced with militant gangsterism. It will not make for an edifying campaign. This is a shame because despite torrents of criticism, Jonathan actually has a few achievements which he could argue for an opportunity to consolidate in a second term without resorting to counterproductive threats.
This brings us to Jonathan’s adversaries. The subtext of the schism in the ruling People’s Democratic Party is the belief by some northern politicians that 2015 is “the turn of the North to rule”. As with the “Niger Delta Elders”, this “Northern” claim refers not to the region but to an elite formation simply casting its narrow ambitions in sectional language for greater appeal. At this stage of Nigeria’s history, any claim to power based on ethno-regional entitlement is a nonstarter.
Atiku Abubakar, an arrowhead of the current revolt had sought the PDP’s presidential nomination in 2011 as the “Northern candidate” but was defeated by Jonathan. At the time, Jonathan refused to engage in the reciprocal idiocy of declaring himself the “southern candidate”. Had he not subsequently compromised himself with his provincialism and his sorry cast of defenders, he could have made a compelling case for why Nigeria should look beyond primordial considerations in its leadership selection. Jonathan’s opponents evidently aim to raise the standard of northern irredentism against him.
A progressive third force would articulate a post-sectarian, pan-Nigerian argument for national leadership harping on themes like social justice, human security, education, healthcare, and job creation. We need an agenda that speaks to Nigerians in their generality rather than in their fragments. Decadent identity politics has only yielded atrocious leadership thus far. Only the best, regardless of religion or ethnicity, will do. 2015 should not be about the turn of the North or the South; it should be the turn of the Nigerian people.
(All images sourced online)