President Umaru Yar’Adua seemed to have taken the wheel last week.
In that one week, he set up an economic team. An economic team is always a good thing; perhaps every household ought to have one. Unlike the team that existed under his predecessor, however, the mission of the new team is not necessarily to try to guide the nation’s economic policies, but to respond to the global economic situation.
The Federal Government also entered into a major pact in Abuja with the United Arab Emirates. Value: $16 billion.
Not since it was found out that the previous government had flung about the same sum into the ocean in alleged pursuit of electricity had we found ourselves fighting for breath. $16 billlion, Nigerians wheezed, at that time, is a lot of money.
And $16 billion, we also reflected last week, with greater wariness and weariness, is a lot of money. This new agreement, about which I have yet to learn any detail, was wordily described by an official as relating to “areas considered to be critical to the development of the country as they border on infrastructural development particularly in the Niger Delta Region in order to uplift the standard of living of the inhabitants of the area.”
When simple agreements are as verbose as this, it is difficult not to be suspicious. You simply wish they would phrase it in English, such as: “roads, electricity, and technical schools,” for instance. Or perhaps: “bridges and hospitals in the Niger Delta.” When someone signs a public contract of 16 billion dollars worth for “areas considered to be critical to the development of the country as they border on infrastructural development particularly in the Niger Delta Region in order to uplift the standard of living of the inhabitants of the area,” it seems to be a lot of words, for a lot of money.
Still, last week, Yar’Adua seemed to be dancing in the moonlight. He was speaking with unusual purpose, like a new man. He told the members of the Dubai World Cooperation there was no better location in the world for investment than Nigeria.
How? Nigerian legislations and regulations, the President told his visitors. "Our laws permit repatriation of 100 per cent profit. I doubt if there is a better country for investment today."
He was even more energetic when he spoke to his ministers following the inauguration of the economic team. “No time can be more challenging [than the present] but no time can be more auspicious for true leadership.”
I thought those were the kind of lines Nigerians have been trying to tell him, not to anyone else, but the President seemed to think it was other people that needed to hear it.
On the contrary, he told the ministers theirs was the challenge of meeting the yearning of Nigerians for the dividends of democracy and good governance. “This year marks the beginning of our second full year in office and the mid-point of this administration. It also coincides with the time of profound economic worries in the world. The world's leading economies are in the grip of recession and the fear of a global contagion is becoming real.
“Already, we can feel the impact from falling oil prices, the declining exchange rate of the naira and the cascading prices of shares at the capital market. We are thus starting the year amidst persistent push and pull of both local and global realities.”
As a result, he warned them, there is no room for “extended learning course.” And proving he knows he has been a disappointment so far, he admitted, “This is a time for action and visible results.”
But if Yar’Adua’s energetic week suggests some traction, Friday arrived with a carefully-leaked Reuters story that he is getting ready to travel abroad again for medical treatment. According to the report, the man—whose health problems are so secretly serious, or so seriously secret they are known to the entire world—will travel out of the country for up to two months.
The Reuters story confirms a 30 December 2008 story by the website SaharaReporters that the President’s plans for a prolonged medical leave were at an advanced stage. A government source had told the online publication that the trip could last longer than “several weeks,” depending on the diagnosis and treatment determined by his doctors at his destination, which was thought to be Germany.
On Friday, Reuters also said that ministers and other government officials were waiting in long lines at the presidency, seeking to obtain the president’s signature for policies in order not to be left stranded once he travels. Once again, that suggests that as has been the case in the past, he is not expected to hand power over to the Vice President as is required by the constitution, and that whatever little passes for governance in Nigeria will have to wait until he returns. Nigeria will again be poised on the thin edge of anarchy.
Not that I like Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan any more than I do Yar’Adua. But I like the constitution and the nation for which it was promulgated more than I do either man. That document does not put the egos and fears of men above its provisions. What is ironic is that Yar’Adua speaks a ton about his faith in the rule of law, as he suggested again to his guests from the Emirates last week, but seems to have difficulty practicing that faith.
In any event, it would be fascinating to see what happens if he does hand over to Mr. Jonathan, a man he seems he seems not to trust. Is Yar’Adua’s unusually active few days last week an indication of his being unprepared to grant him the powers that should be his in an acting capacity?
And what would happen to Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua? For a couple of months, at least, she would have to surrender the title of First Lady to Mrs. Patience Jonathan, whom I have described in this column as Nigeria’s most powerful woman. Mrs. Jonathan earned that recognition for her two gutsy money-laundering shenanigans by which she has single-handedly demonstrated that President Yar’Adua’s anti-corruption claims are empty.
Among other things, this would be an opportunity for Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan to ensure that the records disappear from the EFCC forever. The joke would be on President Yar’Adua. On his very comfortable sick bed, I hope he can appreciate the joke.
JOURNALIST, MIND YOUR NAIRA
As Nigeria finds itself in the middle of the global economic meltdown, the Nigerian press is full of related stories. Curiously, however, many of these stories are referring to something they call “naira.” The more I read the Nigerian stories last week, the more pervasive I found this trend to be.
But there is no such thing as a “naira,” if the reference is to Nigeria or the Nigerian currency. In many publications, notably the Nigerian Tribune, The Guardian, ThisDay (including its columnist Ijeoma Nwogwugwu), and the website newnigerianpolitics.com, consistent reference was being made to naira.
The Nigerian currency is known as the Naira (with a capital ‘N’.) Hopefully, our writers and editors will watch out for this error, otherwise, we will soon be seeing people writing “nairas.