The Nigerian Governors’ Forum NGF has always been a very powerful association but under the Obasanjo administration, the forum had deferred to the president on issues and governors of the ruling party were more likely to follow ‘presidential’ advice than to succumb to the temptation to duel with the federal government and by extension the president. For better or worse, Governors were under no illusions in those days about the fate of those estranged from the president. The casualty list of governors who had gone that way was well known. The forum of governors of those days was loathe even to be the cause of the president’s head ache. When in Obasanjo’s second term NGF chairman Governor Ayo Peter Fayose was saddled with the task of vetting and identifying the governors with the most credible presidential aspiration, little did Fayose realize that his political demise had begun. Perhaps, the immediate past NGF chairman Bukola Saraki has most personified the chairmanship of the NGF. Bukola Saraki, whose father was a political associate of President Yaradua’s father in the NPN, managed admirably the roles of being a Yaradua ally and amassing national influence as an ambitious and youthful chairman of Nigerian governors. Saraki was a smooth operator with a legendary surname and the know-how to prosecute the forum’s goals without rattling the presidency and despite the prominent roles played by quite a few governors in the opposition to Jonathan’s eventual emergence as acting president, Saraki as NGF chairman, still managed a near perfect landing and would go on to use the forum as a launch pad for his presidential campaign which was brief and eventful. He had by so doing broken the cardinal rule for NGF chairmen from the ruling party. A backlash was inevitable. He was unceremoniously removed from the chairmanship of the NGF perhaps to stop him from using the forum to hijack political supremacy from the president. He was eventually re-instated. If this was a testimony to the strong alliances he had built within the governors’ forum, it was also a pointer to the dangers of using the forum as a base for undermining the president’s political supremacy. The chairmanship of the forum was never envisioned to be in anyway a rival of the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Do not ever rattle the president. That is the invisible line in the corridors of power which an NGF chairman should never cross. President Jonathan has grappled with an image problem. He is commonly perceived to be naive, malleable and even ‘clueless’. But those who are quite familiar with the president say that nothing could be further from the truth. Jonathan, a former University of Port Harcourt colleague says, is a man of quiet strength and cunning who always gets what he wants. Still, the image of inadequacy which comes across perhaps due to poor image management under Ima Niboro and bad advice has not been helped by well documented hand-wringing confessions in front of the camera at the bombed out Abuja U.N building and during the 2011 Independence Day Thanksgiving Service. These potent images haunt Nigerians and compel predators and others who would wish to do some presidential arm-twisting. Can the president switch into another mode? He would do even more disastrously, if he is pushed into an orgy of rights abuses and contempt for the rule of law in order to dominate the Nigerian political landscape. The Jonathan administration is also beset with many other challenges geopolitical and economic. They are hardly secret. Many of these challenges are really not of President Jonathan’s making but he must take the blame for responses that have fallen short of the mark of what was expected of him. His predecessors never allowed for example the old debate about removal of subsidy to make them the focus of Nigerian outrage. Perhaps they had the advantage of not having to deal with the social media in those days. It would also appear that they enjoyed other advantages. Obasanjo was a former Nigerian military dictator with the experience, muscle, cunning and a general’s skills for dominating and mastering challenges to his power and influence. Umaru Yaradua was a second generation Northern oligarch, sharp, analytical and with the largest Nigerian political bloc behind him. Even after he was incapacitated by ill health, it was fiendishly difficult to extract the political power from his grip. Jonathan is the first Nigerian president from a minority ethnic group and among Nigeria’s elected presidents, he was the least prepared for presidential power; from an ethnic group that constitutes less than 10% of Nigerian population and a geopolitical zone that is ethnically diverse and divisive, the devastating effects of the political battle for his presidency still troubles the soul of the nation. Against this background, Goodluck Jonathan came to Abuja with a group of trusted but inexperienced and sometimes provincial allies, mysteriously not taking advantage of the available crop of the highest caliber of political minds in the region and beyond, people with the crucial experience and deep understanding of the length and breadth of Nigeria. There have therefore been times since May 2011 when people have had cause to wonder whether those who have his ears are bent on ruining him. A recent joke in the facebook community claims that the president turned up at CHOGM in Australia laden with three presidential jets while Queen Elizabeth 2, head of the Commonwealth came in a British Airways flight. Why does the president inspire that kind of tale? It has seemed incredible sometimes to watch the humble well meaning zoologist backing up the wrong tree with no danger in sight. Just what quality of advice has the president been getting? Is it then just a mere coincidence that under President Jonathan, a vested interest like the Nigerian Governors’ Forum started wielding a level of national influence never before seen ? Almost a veto-power over the president’s decisions and appointments. Has the leadership of the forum waxed bolder, privileged to have insider view of the cracks which appear to represent the president’s perceived power deficit? The face-off over the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) between the presidency and the NGF under Rotimi Amaechi’s chairmanship was a disquieting development which even got the attention of international bodies in both public and private sector. The vehemence which characterized the anti-SWF Campaign marked the lowest ebb in the relationship between the president and The NGF. . One is inevitably reminded of an earlier altercation between NGF chairman Governor Amaechi and another member of the Jonathan family during a much publicized visit to Okrika where the Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan snatched the microphone from the governor. The details of that face-off had become proverbial and the aftermath involved a lot of fence-mending on the part of the governor. The relationship had stayed warm ever since. This was the background of concord until Governor Amaechi broke bounds, seizing public attention with his daring campaign against the use of excess crude revenue for setting up the Sovereign Wealth Fund. ‘What the Federal Government has done is merely kidnapping our money,’ Amaechi flashed in Port Harcourt, a city that had seen more than its fair share of kidnappers. It was not the facts and fiction of Gov. Amaechi’s claims that made the anti-SWF campaign most noteworthy but his readiness to throw verbal punches at the president and leader of his party in the public glare. Even at fora where such controversy would have been unnecessary such as the Anambra State 20th Anniversary celebration where he was the guest of Governor Peter Obi, the deputy chairman of the NGF. Amaechi needed no urging to lay out his deep opposition to the Sovereign Wealth Fund initiated by the president. He did not seem anxious at all about being in President Jonathan’s good books and he did not seem to mind the presence of President Jonathan’s ministers including Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala and Mrs. Oduah-Ogiemwonye. That was unusual. Something was very wrong. The gloves had come off. The NGF then took the fight a step further by resuming an old court action against the Federal Government while state finance commissioners and accountant-generals walked out on Federal Government representatives at FAAC meetings. There could be no doubt at that point that the NGF leadership was spoiling for a full scale battle with the president over the sharing of excess crude money. This was Amaechi’s first case as chairman of the forum. From the first day the NGF opened a secretariat, it had become a potential adversary to the president’s influence, more so because of the system in the PDP where the president did not even nominate most of his ministers without falling back on governors; more power than was envisaged in the constitution has been concentrated in the hand of governors of the PDP, over the years. The NGF had every right to look out for the fiscal entitlement of the states governed by its members. They had every right to stop the president from making illegal deductions, if indeed the deductions were illegal. The court of law should rule on such where an understanding could not be reached. Going to court should be the last step, in the event of a failure to reconcile positions with the president. It would seem however that the president was surprised by the legal action instituted by the NGF. The Minister for Finance Oby Okonjo-Iweala had expressed satisfaction with her dialogue with the governors just before the NGF hit the president with the legal option. Was the NGF leadership hasty in declaring legal war. Could such impatience have been born out of a presumptuousness of victory. Was the chairman of the forum disrespectful in his criticism of the president over the SWF. It would also appear that the move to legal action divided the forum. Governor Akpabio refused to comment on the issue while in Australia because as he revealed he was not party to any such decision. Adams Oshiomole flatly stated his opposition to such legal action, noting that he was well consulted by the federal government on SWF. When drawn on Oshiomole’s disapproval of the court action, Amaechi retorted that other governors could go to court without him. Subsequently Amaechi has adopted a more conciliatory approach to the SWF issue, claiming that he was never really opposed to the SWF. It is unclear whether this retreat was advised by the massive Nigerian anger against the anti-SWF Campaign or the division in the forum over legal action or the reluctance of most PDP governors to drag the president through the court when there was access for dialogue. Since then quite a few governors including the governors of Niger and Benue states have confirmed that the areas of contention in the scheme have been straightened out. Flummoxing his audience with the technical claim that governors did not go to court against the SWF, Amaechi tried to put an end to what he started, ‘what the press is mistaking to be a court case is the matter instituted between the Federal Government under late President Yaradua and the state governments…on payment of excess crude,’ he said. ‘The agreement then was that we should withdraw the case that they would pay. Having not paid, some states have gone back to court against the Federal Government. It is that matter that the press has been referring to as SWF but it was rather a different case’. Gov. Amaechi was being disingenuous; the case resumed under his chairmanship was obviously meant to kill off every Federal Government deduction from the Excess Crude Account including the latest maneuver the SWF. Counsel for the governors, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), said the governors were forced to file the application because the Federal Government and its officers had consistently, and in total disregard for the pending suit, withdrawn, utilized, disbursed and allocated funds from the account and had nearly depleted the sum of N5.51 trillion being the balance on the account as of 2008, when the case was first instituted. He further stated that the Federal Government had announced its intention to withdraw, disburse and utilize another one billion U.S dollars from the credit balance from the account. Nigerians were more interested in economic realities than legal arguments. For a change, the Jonathan administration had offered Nigerians a way to save some of their oil wealth for a rainy day and that resonated with the desire of most Nigerians despite the lack of transparency in all tiers of government finance. The NGF chairman’s tirades about the rule of law and not the rule of man left even many constitutionally minded Nigerians cold because the governors were up against an old image problem. Nigerians simply did not trust them with their money. There was nothing in the way of development to show for all the billions of naira that had gone through the hands of most governors. The majority public opinion was therefore against the release of excess crude funds to governors. The Nigerian Governor’s Forum when united can probably wield more influence over the national assembly than the president. They also control their state legislatures which are more often than not rubber stamps for their governors. Under Obasanjo, there was always the threat of a Ribadu organized blackmail to keep governors in check. Yaradua had the loyalty of Saraki as NGF chairman and postponed the evil day by reaching an agreement with the NGF when governors went to court in 2008. Money sharing was always the ever present cause of conflict between the president and governors. Under Jonathan, the fear of the EFCC has almost disappeared. Every one now realizes that the anti-graft agency’s investigation tactics are hardly formidable and their reputation for losing at court is now taken for granted. The rule of law, at least for the affluent and privileged has taken firmer root, the immunity clause for governors has remained inviolable and the days of kangaroo impeachments have passed away. So how should President Jonathan keep the NGF from running circles around him without going outside the constitution? There are two lessons he could learn from Obasanjo and Yaradua. Firstly, the president can not afford to look weak or outmaneuvered. Secondly, the rule of law must not be compromised.
The Court Case against the FG.
In the suit filed by the state governments on October 24, 2011 the states are seeking an order restraining the Federal Government from making any withdrawal whatsoever from the account styled ‘Excess Crude Account’ (or any account replacing same by any name howsoever) pending the determination of a subsisting suit initiated by them in 2008. They are also praying the court to order that all sums standing to the credit of the said Excess Crude Account be paid into court or be otherwise secured as the court may deem fit pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit. (The Nation. Oct. 30 2011)