Jonathan and his Afenifere allies By Idowu Akinlotan

In December 20, Governor Olusegun Mimiko led representatives of the Yoruba socio-cultural and political organisation, Afenifere, to visit President Goodluck Jonathan. The visit came some eight or so days after former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s venomous letter to Dr Jonathan was made public, and a few days before the president’s insipid reply was published. The president is under enormous pressure to opt out of the 2015 presidential race and to accept responsibility for what his critics describe as the unremitting dullness of his government. But he not only soldiers on valiantly, even if the opposition to his presidency increases and renders his hold on power tenuous, he also appears eager to clutch at any straw within his reach in order to give the impression things have not yet spiralled out of his control.

There are not many straws Dr Jonathan can clutch at in the near future, especially with the withering look he gets from the North, and the barely disguised contempt he attracts from the Southwest. But there is at least one straw he can clutch at gutsily outside the fawning regions of the South-South and Southeast where his canonisation remains unquestionable and irreversible: the Afenifere. The Afenifere, not the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), of course, is not only irredeemably splintered, as everyone knows, it is also neither as ideologically coherent and consistent as before nor as relevant as it used to be when the Southwest was buffeted by Gen Sani Abacha’s oppressive machines and Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar unfurled his presumptive transition programme.

Dr Jonathan is by all considerations out of favour. His arch supporters in the oil rivers have seemed to exhaust their ethnic jingoistic cries, and were in fact dealt a massive blow by Chief Obasanjo’s letter which described the Jonathan government as mindlessly and unconscionably mining the region’s ethnic sewers. Whatever raucous noise they make henceforth in those forbidden creeks will continue to weaken into hoary whispers of disjointed support. His supporters in the Southeast stand ramrod, but it is not altogether clear on what foundations the region’s brazen support for him stands, or that given an accentuation of the bolt from the national political stables begun by the All Progressives Congress (APC), the region would not be tempted to burn the barn. The amperage of Dr Jonathan’s support in those parts may still be burning high, but it has not stopped the president from despairing or from showing signs of paranoia.

The Afenifere has a rich and enviable history of enduring pain and rejection. Indeed, in its long and proud years of existence, it always preferred complete ostracism than any romance with the forces of reaction and conservatism. If by its associations today it has appeared to jettison its historical principles, that fact is explained both by the philosophical makeup of its current leaders, most of whom are ordinary pragmatists relying more on common sense than any deep introspection, and the circumstances of its bitter loss to regional political rivals, particularly the All Progressives Congress (APC). For whatever pretences it makes, the fact is that Afenifere is much more political than cultural, and more sneakily autocratic than Yoruba history richly demonstrates.

It was, therefore, not surprising that Dr Jonathan and the Afenifere were driven into each other’s arms, the former because of the rejection and humiliation he suffered at the hands of Nigerians appalled by his government’s lack of initiative and charisma, and the latter by their regional loss, flat-footedness and poor political manoeuvrability. Dr Jonathan’s desperation is not surprising, nor does anyone expect him to spurn any alliance, no matter how opportunistic. What is really earth-shaking is the ease with which the Afenifere jumped into bed with a government that has all but transformed into fascism. Sometime in October, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, an Afenifere chieftain, seemed to have set the stage for the Afenifere romance with the Jonathan government when he declared his support for the convocation of a national conference before the modalities had been stated. That support remains intact even after it became clear that what Dr Jonathan had in mind is not exactly what the true proponents of national conference have in mind.

In the interview Chief Adebanjo granted a newspaper in October, he went as far as suggesting that if need be the constitutional provision of periodic election should be subordinated to the conference, for, in his opinion, a conference was more exigent than an election or a constitutional provision. It was no use, he argued, to hold an election when the country had not been restructured, and the fear of conflict not dissipated. On the surface, he would appear to be making a logical presentation. However, not only did he fail to question the motives of Dr Jonathan who was obviously driven by pressure and circumstances into yielding to a measure he once roundly loathed, Chief Adebanjo kept talking of sovereign conference as if the president had decided on making the conference sovereign.

In any case, when the president eventually put his so-called conference ideas into words, he preferred to use the word ‘national dialogue’ rather than conference, let alone a sovereign conference. Neither Chief Adebanjo nor his colleagues in Afenifere were dissuaded by their past political failures in seeking for proof of government’s sincerity in policy enunciations. In 1998, they accepted to fully participate in Gen Abubakar’s transition programme even without the promulgation of a constitution, when they could have forced major changes in the constitution given the peculiar circumstances of the time. It is the same constitution that is now in focus. Before the 2003 elections, they also uncharacteristically embraced ethnic politics by throwing in their lot with Chief Obasanjo who was clearly the wrong choice for the presidency, not to talk of his questionable democratic credentials and poor policy conceptions. Now, barely a decade after those egregious blunders, the Afenifere leaders are embracing Dr Jonathan who has no grain of democracy or liberalism in him, cares nothing for the constitution he swore to defend, especially seeing that he prefers a monarchical form of government, and is merely using the dialogue to ventilate the pressures on his uninspiring government.

There are rules guiding the postponement of elections. In October, Chief Adebanjo discountenanced those rules and turned the constitution into a capricious document with flexible provisions and timelines. The Mimiko-led Afenifere took the extraordinary step of denouncing before the president those who questioned the convocation of a dialogue at this point, especially the decision of the president to forward the outcomes of the dialogue to the National Assembly for their deliberations. Femi Okurounmu, chairman of the committee tasked with working out the modalities for the conference, described the conference as a dialogue in at least one sentence during the presentation of his committee’s report to the president. While Afenifere’s support for Dr Jonathan is no longer in doubt, a support that is however antithetical to their history and credo, it is hoped that they and the Jonathan government will have settled whether to call the conference a conference or a dialogue before the talks begin. At least, it is already known that it won’t be sovereign.

The incurable optimists of the Afenifere see nothing wrong or alarming in embracing the agenda of the Jonathan government. If Dr Jonathan’s hidden agenda do not frighten them, perhaps because they are too hopeful to see the dangers of having a major conference in what appears to be an election year, they should at least be worried by their own transformation from a progressive and principled organisation of a majority of Yoruba people to a bitter, opportunistic and unthinking organisation of a minority of Yoruba people. They should be alarmed by how rapidly they have descended from the Olympian height of supporting democrats and charismatic leaders in office to wholeheartedly and unscrupulously embracing reactionary non-performers in office. And while they copiously quoted the sage, Obafemi Awolowo, in the presence of Dr Jonathan, it is hard to explain why they failed to hear how ludicrously they sounded when they flattered their host as an offshoot of Chief Awolowo’s First Republic campaign prediction.

But it was not unexpected that Governor Mimiko would lead the woolly hairs of the Afenifere to meet minds with the distressed and increasingly forlorn Dr Jonathan. Before his re-election, the Ondo State governor had been projected by the losing groups in the regional political sweepstakes of the Southwest as the counterpoise to the feisty iconoclasts of the APC. When he won, the bitter and unforgiving rivals of the APC concluded that Dr Mimiko would serve as the new core of Yoruba politics. Since he won, they have begun to practicalise their aspirations. It, however, does not occur to them that they are merely giving a contemporary feel to the cancer that relentlessly gnaws at the sinews of the Yoruba, a cancer that sees the losing group forming an alliance with the political and cultural antagonists of the Southwest. This cancer saw a bitter Afonja align with Oyo Empire enemies; and it saw a bitter and frustrated Ladoke Akintola align with northern hegemonic leaders against the Western Region. It is certainly not a mistake that the majority of south westerners are in the APC. The reasons can be located in the disruptive inclinations and influences of the Obasanjo presidency, the obnoxiousness of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which offended the civilisation and sensibilities of the Southwest, and the absolute ineptitude of those who govern the country so uninspiringly and so loathsomely from Abuja. Why the Afenifere thinks this movement is a fluke is hard to explain. Why the Labour Party (LP), which at the moment stands for nothing, hopes to make itself the rallying core for the Southwest is also hard to explain.

It is, however, evident that history is being replayed in the Southwest. When Afonja entered into an alliance with the Fulani against the empire he was appointed to defend, it was to spite his people whom he ended up betraying. When Chief Akintola forged an alliance with the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), it was to underscore his grievances against Chief Awolowo and the Action Group (AG). Now that the same spirit has been awakened and blended in the alliance between Dr Mimiko and the Afenifere, the stage is set once more for a replay of the regions’ bitter and violent past. If history is a guide, however, not only will the opportunistic alliance fail, and its contraptions collapse, the end can be foreseen clearly in the failure of those who prefer to dine with the enemy because they hate the false dentition of their compatriots.

As they took pictures with Dr Jonathan in their starched agbadas, in addition to making sarcastic and caustic remarks about their Southwest compatriots, a diligent person must doubtless appreciate anew what it feels like to deaden the censorious pangs of conscience during the act of betrayal. For it would be too optimistic to suggest that the romantics of the rump Afenifere visited Aso Villa and met the president without the reproof of conscience that the ordinary man experiences on a daily basis in the process of telling a small lie or coveting a neighbour’s property.

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