by Sonala Olumhense
President Goodluck Jonathan slipped out of town last week, smart man. With Abuja increasingly hotter over the Stella Oduah corruption allegations, his spokesman issued a statement disclosing that the Nigeria leader was heading for Israel.
The State House statement was a curiously-worded statement, outstanding for an admixture of wordiness and wordlessness.
For instance, rather than say Jonathan would tour the Holy Land or visit Holy Sites or undertake a holy pilgrimage, as Christians usually say, the statement said he would “undertake a tour of some locations in Israel which are revered by Christians because of their association with the earthly mission of Jesus Christ.”
But Jonathan was also going to be doing a spot of work, meeting with Israeli leaders, the presidency said.
“Talks between President Jonathan’s delegation and Israeli government officials are expected to focus on the enhancement of bilateral relations between Nigeria and Israel in areas including trade, economic development, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, communications, culture, education and tourism.”
If those were the areas slated for discussion, it was curious that the official delegation included Rtd. Col. Sambo Dasuki, the National Security Adviser. The statement suggested Nigeria would not be discussing security or terrorism with the Israelis. Perhaps Dasuki would simply tour the Christian sites with Mr. Jonathan and sample the luxuries of presidential travel.
The presidency took care to list members of Mr. Jonathan’s delegation, but it disingenuously omitted Mrs. Oduah. The embattled Minister was sent to Tel Aviv ahead of the Nigeria leader perhaps because someone felt Nigerians would be offended if she were to be seen entering the presidential jet with the President.
But she was part of the delegation, present in Israel to sign a bilateral air agreement on behalf of Nigeria that some other official could have signed. I have seen the Jonathan presidency do some pretty filthy things, but smuggling Mrs. Oduah into Israel at the height of the corruption uproar against her at a time she was supposed to be facing an investigating panel is one of the dirtiest.
There was more. The State House statement also said, almost in a whisper, that during his trip, Mr. Jonathan would also meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority.
Absent in the announcement was the highly significant detail as to whether Mr. Abbas would come into Israel to meet with him—which would be a major diplomatic statement on all three sides—or Mr. Jonathan would travel to the West Bank. If it was the latter, it would have meant Mr. Jonathan was making three trips, not the two that the government told the Nigerian people.
Still, with a few hours left to his departure, Mr. Jonathan returned to the inescapable heat of Mrs. Oduah’s embarrassing corruption allegations, including illegally and corruptly buying two luxury cars for an incredible $1.6 million with the funds of an agency in her Ministry.
His unconvincing afterthought however raises two problems, one of them practical; the other, philosophical.
The practical: the panel, according to the government’s announcement, has two weeks to submit its report in what should be no more than a simple two or three-day enquiry. But of the two weeks, a member of the panel, Col. Dasuki, was spending the first in the Middle East as part of Mr. Jonathan’s traveling party. Is it possible that the retired colonel has been cloned so the faithful servant can be in two places running different errands for the same master? Or has Nigeria run out of manpower?
The philosophical: first, by setting up an ‘administrative’ panel, Mr. Jonathan undermined Nigeria’s so-called anti-corruption agencies and the police, which have the expertise and the structures to undertake such a task expeditiously. The President suggests that privileged Nigerians cannot be investigated by the same agencies that investigate the not-so-privileged, and casts doubt that the objective is justice.
Of equal importance, by setting up the panel, Mr. Jonathan steps over the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-smell-no-evil altitude about corruption in high places he has adopted since he first bragged he would “fight” it. In particular, he arrives in the stables of SaharaReporters, a website known for its relentless exposés about corruption.
By deciding to investigate Mrs. Oduah, one of his former campaign stalwarts, Mr. Jonathan acknowledges SaharaReporters, which broke the story, and all the journals and petitioners that have courageously reported corruption throughout his thoroughly ambivalent presidency.
But where does that acknowledgement end? Even Mr. Jonathan knows he lacks a true anti-corruption bone in his body. Is the objective to punish Mrs. Oduah for the same self-enrichment and impunity that has been the fare of the media in the past seven years? With what credibility will Mr. Jonathan explain away the mountain of corruption reports and petitions he has ignored since he first took over leadership?
It looks more likely that the probe is only a ruse, part of a strategy aimed at keeping the game going. After all, corruption allegations do not stick to anyone for long in Nigeria, especially if you are sufficiently close to the center of power. James Ibori brushed them off his sleeves. Several governors who faced them are now Senators and best friends of the Jonathan presidency. Dipreye Alamieyeseigha enjoys presidential pardon.
The point is that the Oduah matter, including the purported probe being undertaken the House of Representatives and the presidential panel, only makes good theatre.
That probe is no more than the latest in a growing trail of strategic errors that Mr. Jonathan has made as he gropes his way to 2015, highlighted last week by his irresponsibly taking of the beleaguered Minister to Israel.
Another such error is the National Conference Advisory Committee he announced on National Day.
Mr. Jonathan does not have a good track record of implementing reports, but even before this particular process could begin, he betrayed his own cause by clarifying he does not understand, or accept, that sovereignty belongs to the people, not the National Assembly. It is the equivalent of stabbing your only son to death before his umbilical cord has even been cut. He demonstrated he is only playing politics.
These are extremely significant developments, but also dangerous ones for Mr. Jonathan’s political future. By making some of his recent choices, Mr. Jonathan may well have made Mrs. Oduah the new face of corruption and inadvertently given her control of his political destiny.
Next week, he will return from Israel with both a Minister he is probing and a man who is supposed to be probing her.
No matter how innocent Madam Minister may have been, it will be interesting to see how his storytellers convince the Nigerian people that during the trip, the President, the Minister and the National Security Adviser did not discuss the Minister’s fate.
Jonathan may be probing her now, but in the end, she may well determine how far he travels, and in what direction.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sonala Olumhense. Follow this writer on Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense