By NBF News

Must compromise triumph over principle?
From the Other Side BY LINDSAY BARRET
Thursday, March 11, 2010
This week's episode of the continuing saga of the vanishing President has shown that Nigeria is indeed a resilient, not to say improbably dysfunctional, nation. A nation whose leadership appears to be willing to accept that the indefinite disappearance of the elected President is the solution to a crisis cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be operating a normal system of Government. The solution engineered by the Federal Executive Council has imposed new stresses and strains on the polity.

First of all those who are challenging the constitutionality of the parliamentary mandate given to Goodluck Jonathan to act as President have been strengthened in their assumptions. They will now be able to point to the Executive Council's obvious confusion to prove that the status of the Acting President is to say the least untenable. The idea that the duration of the acting mandate could be indefinite depends entirely on the presumption (not the evidence) that there is a President somewhere who though too ill to preside over anything now may recover soon.

This is the situation that Dr. Jonathan and the Federal Executive Council has asked Nigerians to accept in the face of the dilemma of there being an invisible President somewhere in the country. At the same time the Acting President has taken some decisive steps to renew and review government policy through consultation with a body of experienced and respected leaders of thought. This suggests that he intends to establish a foundation for effective governance and strategic change. If this is so then Goodluck Jonathan is clearly setting out an agenda for achievement that might be attributed to the Yar'Adua Administration but on which he plans to build a personal strategy for forward action in whatever time he is allotted.

The accusation raised in some circles that Dr. Jonathan is pursuing a personal agenda for a future contest is to say the least uncharitable. While many commentators have been urging him to act as if he is fully in charge what they are suggesting is uncharacteristic of the man himself. Since he openly accepted the limitations placed by the cabinet on the mandate given him by the National Assembly he will want to avoid making any pronouncements that could be regarded as divisive. At the same time the appointment of a Presidential Advisory Council and the nature of its membership suggest that he wants to put the administration's house in order as a priority while indicating that his impulses are neither partisan nor self indulgent.

The response of some regional chauvinists especially from within his party illustrate the high level of opposition that he might have to face but he is certainly not acting like someone who intends to run for office. He is behaving rather like someone who wishes to correct glaring anomalies in governance. Without placing the blame on his ailing partner he has made it plain that he wants to establish greater accountability in key sectors of the government's performance than has existed so far. The key figures whose names appear on the primary list of the Advisory Council as well as the special committee for project assessment indicates that Dr. Jonathan is trying to make experience and objectivity the basis for the deliberations of these bodies rather than political expediency. This is an unusually bold step on his part that will really test the relevance of the decisions that he will take as Acting President, but the Executive Council's refusal to recognise the true situation in the polity has presented him with an inordinately difficult task of ruling firmly while acting on behalf of an infirm leader.

It is obvious that several members of the political establishment have decided that compromise should be the order of the day even if principle demands firm action. The opinion that the Minister of Health was reported as expressing was particularly disingenuous. He is supposed to have stated that no medical doctor (and he is one) can pronounce a sick person permanently disabled. He felt that the constitution had erred in directing that if the President was incapacitated by illness a pronouncement from a medical board should serve as the basis for withdrawing his mandate and handing it to the Vice President.

The Minister's view can easily be debunked. The regulations governing public service officials make it plain that the permanence of disability is not the issue but convenience and effectiveness. The issue is to decide if and when the President can no longer 'preside' and under the present circumstances the answer is obvious. However another argument placed before the cabinet urged caution based on political speculation and this influenced the final decision. The spectre of a grinding battle on the floor of the National Assembly and the suggestion that regional hostility would be generated by this reinforced the decision to ignore the implications of the President's clear inability to function. What has become obvious is that the doctrine of expediency that was unearthed when the National Assembly made its historic resolution is still being applied to help justify lapses of political credibility over this issue. It has given room to both redemption and reversal and Goodluck Jonathan can only ride the wave he cannot really be expected to drive the process. He cannot overturn the foundation of his mandate but he has indicated that he is aware of the deficiencies that he must confront.

The unfortunate tendency of the ruling Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) and its key leadership to display impunity in matters of electoral probity and internal party democracy may have granted Dr. Jonathan some noticeable leeway by default. The strident announcements concerning the party's presidential ticket for the forthcoming elections due next year has effectively portrayed the Acting President as being a lame duck leader. In such a circumstance he is free to impose discipline and to take corrective decisions over government policies even if his party dislikes these actions since it has declared that he cannot be its candidate next year. In some key areas, especially electoral reform and the improvement of the power supply, as well as reform of the oil industry and improvement of contract delivery in infrastructural development Dr. Jonathan can make a difference within a very short time. He will need the cooperation of the National Assembly to carry these areas of endeavour forward. If he asserts his vision and his programmes are seen to be transparent and popular he will make an impact in the short term that might help to strengthen the democratic process.

This will only occur if he can seize the opportunity to rise above the spirit of compromise and take decisions based on principle in spite of the confusion and lack of credibility that the latest cabinet decision has saddled his office with. This is the most difficult task for any politician to undertake. It means that he has to ignore the ambitions and assertions of many of his political collaborators and take decisions meant to serve the public good rather than partisan privilege. He must ignore what appears at this point to be a failure to gain principled support from his political colleagues for the appropriate status of his leadership role at a time when the nation needs principle to triumph over compromise.

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