In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, writer Sola Odunfa considers whether President Goodluck Jonathan can keep Nigeria away from the brink.
A new image of Nigeria’s president has emerged in the first month of this year
It is not that of the ever-smiling and reluctant leader many Nigerians had taken him for over the past three years.
The President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan we knew was the man who – on being accused last year of having no clues about how to deal with the country’s myriad problems – retorted that he could not be an army general spraying orders.
Today the president in state house at Aso Rock in the capital, Abuja, is no longer unaware that he is, indeed, the commander-in-chief of Nigeria’s armed forces.
The first lady, Patience Jonathan, must have privately celebrated this new-found confidence in her darling.
Labour unions and civil society groups were taken aback when, after a week of a nationwide strike against the petrol price hike, they were suddenly confronted by this emerging President Jonathan.
Like everybody else, they only heard on the radio the president’s announcement that he had unilaterally reduced the increase by half.
We may not know what pressure was mounted on the unionists behind the scenes but they meekly came off their high horse and accepted the new price.
There was outcry of “a sell-out” against them from a large part of the striking workers and market leaders – and many of them expressed determination to continue the strike the next day
But unknown to Lagos residents, soldiers had been deployed everywhere in the city before dawn to ensure there was no public gathering of any kind.
No-one dared stand up to this public display of a newly oriented President Jonathan.
Firing and hiring
While the strike drama was unfolding, the police arrested an Islamic scholar – alleged to be the mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing of a church not far from Abuja.
And they bungled it almost immediately: The suspect escaped from their custody; there was a sense of outrage across the country.
Within a week President Jonathan uncharacteristically demonstrated his anger at this apparent police inefficiency.
He fired the Head of the Police Force and installed a new one.
Not a few Nigerians marvelled at the speed at which the president acted after the escape of the alleged bomber. With the politically crippling deployment of soldiers to crush the general strike and the dismissal of the bungling police chief behind him, President Jonathan now has to convince Nigerians that they truly have a newly energetic and focussed leader at the helm of affairs.
That is not an easy task. Boko Haram terrorists operating in northern Nigeria are as murderously active as they have been since last year. The sophistication of their armoury is improving by the day – and the mobility of their foot soldiers deftly defy security and intelligence agencies. Apparently in exasperation, President Jonathan said last year that Boko Haram members or sympathisers had penetrated into all arms of the government. But since then the president has not been able to tell Nigerians how deep the penetration is – or to announce the arrest of any such fifth columnist in any part of government.
The puffing president
So with the terrorists remaining secure in the corridors of power, the collapse of Nigeria into anarchy may be only a matter of time. Many Nigerians have expressed the opinion that cleaning up the country’s security agencies is easier said than done – because they are cesspits of corruption. The rot in the government can only be removed by a reformed and clean police. This cycle is the biggest problem confronting the now puffing President Jonathan. Worse still is the general public perception that the president’s cabinet is not as clean as it should be – as shown by the stories seeping out of the investigations by the National Assembly, itself not clad in shining armour. In 2005, an American research institute predicted the collapse of the Nigerian state in 15 years. We are three years away. President Jonathan now needs to sustain his new image of being truly and firmly in charge – and to demonstrate very publicly a zero tolerance of corruption. Only then can he pull the country back from the brink