Hoist by two lethal petards
The Johannesburg Sunday Times Oct 17, 2010 1:13 AM | By Cameron Duodu
Goodluck Jonathan may yet regret his attempts to profit politically from Nigeria’s bomb blasts, writes Cameron Duodu
“It was insinuated that the president got wind of the bombs but ordered the parade to go ahead to save face”
It was a former British prime minister, the late Harold Wilson, who said that “a week is a long time in politics”.
For Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, the first week of October must have seemed like eternity itself. His troubles began on October 1 when, as he inspected a lavish parade at Eagle Square, in the capital, Abuja, to mark the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, two car bomb explosions rent the air.
The explosions were not at Independence Square itself but not too far away. It was later learnt that some diplomatic delegations had obtained prior warning of the explosions and refused to attend the parade. It was insinuated that the president too got wind of the bombs, but ordered the parade to go ahead in order not to lose face.
The death toll from the blasts is currently put at 14 dead and 66 wounded. Therefore, if the accusation that the president ignored warnings and held the parade is true, he has given his opponents a major weapon – that of negligence – with which to try to frustrate his aim to get himself re-elected in 2011.
Even worse for the president, he has sought to exonerate from the explosions an organisation called MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) which has been terrorising Nigeria’s oil-producing areas for years. MEND laid claim to the explosions and blamed the government for failing to take note of its warning that it would disrupt the independence celebrations.
Yet the president publicly stated, one day after the explosions, that MEND was not responsible for the explosions and that they were caused by a “small terrorist organisation” based outside Nigeria. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s own State Security Service (SSS) and the Nigerian police were issuing their own versions of what happened and who was responsible. The police said they had arrested nine people, and published the photographs of two people they said were “wanted” for interrogation about the explosions.
The SSS, for its part, told the public that it had foiled an attempt to cause explosions in Abuja five days before Independence Day. If the SSS story was correct, why had it not prevailed on the president to put security first and cancel the October 1 parade?
Even as these questions were being pondered, the SSS arrested the campaign director of one of the politicians attempting to prevent Jonathan from winning the candidacy of his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), for the 2011 elections. It was after the arrest of this man, Raymond Dokpesi, that all hell broke loose.
Some of the president’s opponents accused him of “exonerating” MEND so that he could use the explosions to tarnish his opponents. They even implied that Jonathan – who hails from the same Delta region as most of the members of MEND – might be acting in collusion with that organisation.
This view gained credibility when a shadowy figure, who was once a leader of MEND, Henry Okah, poured barrels of oil on Jonathan’s troubled waters, so to speak. Okah was once arrested in Angola, repatriated to Nigeria and imprisoned. But he was released when the government granted an amnesty to MEND members in August 2009. He left for South Africa.
The South African authorities, probably acting on a request from their Nigerian counterparts, searched Okah’s house in Johannesburg a few days before the explosions, but apparently found nothing and let him go. He was, however, arrested after the explosions, and has now appeared in court on charges relating to terrorism.
While in his Johannesburg prison cell, Okah managed to give an interview to the Al Jazeera television station – which has rocked Jonathan and his security apparatchiks. According to Okah, an “aide” of Jonathan had called him to try to persuade him to get MEND to withdraw its claim that it was MEND that caused the explosions.
On hearing Okah’s allegations, the “Northern Leadership Forum” (a body that makes statements on behalf of Northern Nigeria), called on Jonathan to resign – or be impeached.
To make matters worse for Jonathan, the three northern politicians who are vying with him for the PDP candidacy – former president Ibrahim Babangida, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar and Jonathan’s own former national security adviser, Lieutenant-General (retired) Aliyu Mohammed Gusau – issued a joint statement similar in sentiment, if not in tone, to the forum’s. It thus appears that Jonathan is on a collision course with a large chunk of political opinion in Northern Nigeria.
The situation is extremely destabilising for Nigeria, because, at the best of times, the country has marched gingerly on as a result of coalitions formed between northern and southern politicians. It was one such coalition that brought Jonathan to power. He was not on the national political radar at all but was plucked from obscurity as governor of one of the 36 states, Bayelsa (in the south) by the PDP candidate in the 2007 election, former president (now deceased) Umaru Yar’Adua, who was a northerner, to be Yar’Adua’s running-mate as vice-president.
His rise was uncanny – he had become governor of Bayelsa only after the substantive governor was impeached. And, lo and behold, two years after he had become Yar’Adua’s vice-president, Yar’Adua was felled by the illness that eventually killed him in May 2010. And Jonathan, erstwhile deputy governor and erstwhile vice-president, suddenly became substantive president of Nigeria.
Jonathan and his associates have made much of the “mystical” hand that seems to propel him into high positions to which he has not been elected. But when he then sought to use his position to get himself elected, others thought his luck had gone far enough.
All three of Jonathan’s rivals for the PDP candidacy – Babangida, Abubaka and Gusau – are northerners and believe strongly that since the PDP “zoned” the presidency to the north for two terms in 2007, it should be a northerner, and not the southerner Jonathan who should be the PDP candidate in 2011.
The northern section of the PDP has set up a council of “elders” to examine all three candidates and choose one to be endorsed as the north’s choice for PDP candidate.
Before the “elders” announce their choice, Jonathan will have to face darts thrown at him from all three sides. Vice-President Atiku, for instance, has accused the president of unfairly using state resources to campaign.
And ex-president Babangida, commenting on Jonathan’s handling of the explosions, was scathing in his depiction of the president as an amateur in security matters.
Duodu, former editor of Drum magazine in West Africa, is an author and a journalist