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RIVER NIGER PROJECT PUTS JONATHAN INTO TROUBLE

By NOSIKE OGBUENYI, Abuja



Acting President Goodluck Jonathan

Following some missteps, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan appears to be blowing the goodwill that heralded his ascension to the apex of power. The latest of the alleged wrong steps was his purported order for the suspension of the dredging of the River Niger. Saturday Sun gathered that such directive has generated much bad blood that Jonathan had to make a volte-face on Wednesday night by 'clarifying' his action.

The decision to suspend the River Niger dredging was reportedly taken by Jonathan scarcely 48 hours before ailing President Umar Musa Yar'Adua was flown back to Nigeria in the early hours of Wednesday. The sudden threat to the fragile power equation in Aso Rock, occasioned by the return of Yar'Adua, offered an opportunity for the North to begin mobilization behind the ailing president. Their aim, an insider source revealed, is to move against Jonathan using the River Niger dredging as the catalyst. The development jolted Jonathan and forced him to begin to woo and reassure the powerful northern bloc and its South-East allies afresh.

The northern power bloc was constrained to reach out to the South-East and to initiate moves aimed at checkmating Jonathan's further ascendancy of the power ladder following reports that he had suspended the dredging of the River Niger, a project so dear to the landlocked northern Nigeria. Some prominent leaders from the old northern region, who helped to galvanise the federal lawmakers from that section of the country were furious that the acting president, who they just helped to elevate, could turn round so soon to spite the North. The leaders strongly suspected alleged undue influence on Jonathan by former President Olusegun Obasanjo for the seeming anti-North and South-East decision.

One of our sources intimated that the River Niger faux pas by the acting president seriously angered leaders from the North. For instance, at the emergency meeting of the Northern Senators Forum on Wednesday night to review developments in the country, the matter was said to be on the front burner. The pro-Yar'Adua lawmakers were said to have latched on the development to launch attack on the pro-Jonathan senators, including members of the National Interest Group (NIG) for allegedly putting northern interest on the line. The meeting was said to have been explosive with some NIG members of the forum being the butt of attacks.

It was learnt that but for the quick move of Senate President, David Mark to save the day, the forum would have resolved to shut its door on the acting president, which would sound the death knell on his presidential power quest.

Mark doused the flame and opened an escape route for Jonathan by assuring the senators and others present that the Bayelsa-born acting president had already accepted the advice not to suspend the dredging of the Niger, a project which many prominent northerners and Igbo have been clamouring for several years running.

It is noteworthy that President Yar'Adua flagged off the River Niger dredging project last year, amid thunderous applause, especially from the northern and the south eastern flanks. His decisive move to launch the project, which has been on the drawing board for over 30 years, proved a great relief for the North. Under Obasanjo presidency, the dredging project and the second Niger bridge initiative virtually became presidency's tools of grand political deceit and rigmarole, rather than a concrete agenda.

Sensing trouble ahead, the acting president moved swiftly to calm frayed nerves by reassuring that the dredging was on course. He denied suspending the dredging through a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr. Ima Niboro on Wednesday.

Niboro said that only lower Niger dredging, from the Onya bifurcation to the Niger Delta communities, along the Nembe /Port-Harcourt course, was suspended and not the major Niger River dredging.

The acting president was reported to have approved the transfer of N19 billion from the special intervention funds from the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of the Niger Delta to take care of shoreline protection and land reclamation.

The special assistant said the total cost of the project is N19 billion, out of which a sum of N5.5 billion has been released and transferred to Niger Delta ministry, adding that the cost of the major Niger River dredging project, which takes off from the Warri bifurcation up to Baro, was N36 billion.

He stated that his earlier comment on the matter during the press briefing on Tuesday on the outcome of the meeting of the Presidential Coordinating Committee on the Niger Delta Amnesty was distorted. He said that after consultations with governors of the Niger Delta region, the Steering Council of the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme resolved that the most urgent requirement of the communities along the shores of the lower Niger are shore protection and land reclamation.

As things stand now, Jonathan faces the urgent challenge of convincing the northern bloc that he can be trusted with power without betraying the region.

Our sources hinted that some influential senators, members of the House of Representatives and appointees from that section, who are loyal to him are currently working round the clock to sway the skeptical elements in the North to give him their nod as it is now clear that President Yar'Adua has become incapacitated.

Said a top northern senator to Saturday Sun on Thursday in Abuja: 'As things stand now, we don't really have a choice than to accept Jonathan as president, at least to complete the remaining one year and three months of the joint Yar'Adua/Jonathan tenure. The only alternate to that is for the military to come in and retain power in the North but that will sacrifice the entire democratic structure and shake the country to its foundations.

'What is required is that rather than dance to the tunes of the like of Obasanjo and Nasir El Rufai, Jonathan should quickly constitute a broad-based team of advisers and aides that will guide him in pursuing programmes that will meet the needs of majority of Nigerians.'