By Jide Ajani
*The story of a President with hard choices
*Security meeting that missed the target
*How some ministers and governors misled him
A meeting in Aso rock villa
Muhammadu Buhari turned down the invitation.
He made it clear that if President Jonathan was going to be in attendance, then he was not going to attend. And when the meeting eventually held, those at the meeting wore long faces.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had arranged it. But Sunday Vanguard could not confirm whether he himself attended the meeting.
As for former head of state, Yakubu Gowon, he simply turned down the invitation – he had been quoted as insisting that the subsidy should not be removed yet, long before its removal penultimate Sunday; but some government officials lampooned him for expressing his views last year..
President Goodluck Jonathan, National Security Adviser, NSA, Andrew Owoye Azazi, some other security chiefs and former President and Commander-in-Chief, Alhaji Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari, were in attendance. The meeting was held penultimate Monday, the day after the removal of the subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit, PMS, popularly known as petrol.
It was not a National Security Council or National Defence Council meeting.
Yet, those in attendance could fit the bill. They were there to discuss the possible implications of the intended strike action by organized labour, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC.
The first issue that was tackled was the security implications!
Sunday Vanguard was informed by a source privy to the meeting that the prognosis, according to the security chiefs, was very terrible. President Jonathan was made to understand that everything that ought to be done to avert the strike should be done. The briefing made it very clear that should the strike go ahead and last beyond a week, “there would be serious implications for this administration”. Although the source said the language at the meeting was very weighted, “there was no mistaken the fact that the prognosis was very bad”.
Specifically, Sunday Vanguard was informed that one of those in attendance at the meeting pointedly stated that allowing the strike to go on for “up to 11 days would mean total disaster and eclipse” for the Jonathan administration.
As the briefing went on, President Jonathan reportedly stared into thin air like a ‘night creature caught in daylight’ – that was how the Time magazine described former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998, as one of its runners-up for the person of the year!
The former President in attendance was said to have made very useful contributions, assuming the role of loco perentis, even while President Jonathan sat in.
The economic implications were as far reaching as the security ones.
At the end of the meeting, President Jonathan’s body language suggested that something would be done earnestly to avoid the mass action.
How ministers misled govs
However, information made available to Sunday Vanguard suggests that one of President Jonathan’s cabinet members from the North Central Zone, who had himself been a student union leader, might it be added, and who has been forceful in his propagation of the subsidy removal tune, Information Minister, Labaran Maku, along with another minister from the South South geo-political zone, Elder Orubebe, prevailed on President Jonathan not to shift or accede to labour’s demand.
The Information Minister impressed it on President Jonathan that reverting to N65 would be seen as a sign of weakness and unseriousness. He may have been right!
Secondly, according to Sunday Vanguard’s source, President Jonathan was made “to believe that the strike action would normally kick off on the first day as threatened by labour but would quickly lose steam by the second day.
Sunday Vanguard was told that the impression conveyed to President Jonathan was that the strike action would not go beyond just two days before it loses steam.
It was this advice that President Jonathan took hook, line and sinker.
But the President did not stop there. He also made his own moves.
Intervention from the national assembly
But the presidency became jolted very late on Friday, January 6, 2012, when the leadership of the House of Representatives sent out words that it would hold an emergency session on Sunday, January 8.
Unfortunately, and typical of the shambolism that has become necessarily characteristic of the Jonathan administration, the move to scuttle the proposed session only served to further infuriate some Reps, annoy many as well as served as further impetus for more Reps to attend the session.
So, what did the presidency do? And how did the House respond? (See details in Abuja Bulletin, HOUSE SESSION ON SUBSIDY REMOVAL: The winners and losers)
In formation made available by a very strategic leader in the House to Sunday Vanguard suggests that last Sunday’s session was with a “with a view to ensuring that a middle ground was reached by both labour and the federal government”.
Sunday Vanguard also learnt that members of the House of Representatives, angry with the slide in the affairs of the country, were more peeved by the invocation of religious sentiments to defer the sitting. Presidency officials, it was learnt, had tried to persuade the house leadership to call off the sitting on the grounds that it would offend the religious sensibility of Christians.
That invocation was, however, dismissed by both Christian and Muslim members of the House who said the timing of the sitting was determined by the exigencies of the issues facing the nation.
A leadership cadre member of the House told Sunday Vanguard that “it was very wrong to begin to invoke religion in this matter. Committees sit on Fridays but religion is given its pride of place as members still go for Jumat which is respected by other committees’ members. Last Sunday’s session recorded a whopping 296 membership attendance. But beyond that, why would the Presidency that is still grappling with the menace of Boko Haram be toying with that type of thing”, Sunday Vanguard was told.
Apart from the religious angle, President Jonathan was said to have worked the phones trying through aides and some other leaders to get some state governors to talk to their Reps not to attend last Sunday’s session. That attempt, too, failed woefully.
Most governors could not put the leash on the Reps from their states.
And when the House sat, it did what it said it would do: Its resolution was that the federal government should revert to N65, while labour ceases to go on with the strike. The federal government refused; the NLC did not shift. And the strike commenced on Monday.
Jonathan’s last minute effort with govs
But even before the strike commenced, President Jonathan made a last ditch effort to try to stop the strike from starting.
One of the strategies was to pile what was thought to be maximum pressure on the NLC. It did not amount to anything because the leadership of NLC still went ahead.
Some state governors entered the fray.
A few governors reportedly misled President Jonathan.
The President, believing what he heard during private conversations “with some state governors, went away with the impression that state governments could tame the monster of the strike.
“Some of these governors, just as they did during the crisis over zoning and the contest for the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, deliberately set President Jonathan up so that he would stick to the N65 and be made to look like an unpopular President.
“If some of them had told him the truth, he would have known better that what he was going to confront from last Monday would be so massive that the international community would focus more on other issues of corruption in government, a matter that is at the root of the subsidy issue”, a source close to President Jonathan disclosed.
Sunday Vanguard was further told that when the strike commenced on Monday, it was a shocked President Jonathan who saw first hand how Nigerians derided him. By Wednesday when the Executive Council of the Federation, EXCOF, met, some ministers were still intent on the hard line posture!
The Senate quickly entered the fray by late Monday as David Mark, Senate President engaged the leadership of the NLC in talks. The leadership of the National Assembly eventually succeeded in getting the NLC and government to start talking.
Enugu, edo avert killings
But before then, a few states quickly took some steps to avert what would have been disaster.
Take, for instance, Enugu and Edo States – and lately, Niger State.
But for the intervention of Sullivan Chime and Admas Oshiomhole of Enugu and Edo respectively, there would have been disaster in those states. Sunday Vanguard learnt that in both states, some individuals had p[lanned to engage in retaliatory killings of Northerners in their states. The security report was very clear; so the state governors needed to act fast.
In the case of Enugu State, it was particularly bad but Sullivan Chime acted swiftly.
By the time the Senate stepped in, the NLC and civil society groups had entered Day 2 of the protests.
In all the states where the strike held never before had the type of crowd which responded to the call of labour to picket been seen! From Lagos to Abuja, Ilorin, Kano and Delta, the story remained the same – mammoth crowd of protesters.
Botch thursday negotiations And when, by Thursday, labour was set to meet with President Jonathan, he merely welcomed the members of labour into Aso Rock Presidential Villa where a meeting was eventually held with some state governors, the leadership of the National Assembly, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Anyim Pius Anyim, Labour Minister, Emeka Wogu, and a handful of other government officials.
The meeting did not achieve anything because it could not stop the strike action.
Sunday Vanguard was told that he position presented by the opposing team to labour was a reduction in the price from the about N150.
Labour insisted that it did not have the mandate to accept a reduction but a total reversal to N65 before further talks could continue. That was where the talks deadlocked.
Dame patience jonathan
Other information pieced together by Sunday Vanguard also suggests that Dame Patience Jonathan is also at the receiving end of the subsidy wars.
Sunday vanguard was made to understand that some women leaders have been bombarding the telephone lines of the First lady. On her path, she has also been making passionate pleas to women leaders to help calm their wards and not be allowed to be used by some people to march on the streets.
But as she continues to plead with people, some people are also complaining to her hearing that the subsidy removal is biting hard, that when she came to mobilize support for her husband, subsidy removal was not one of the issues of campaign, that the hardship was becoming unbearable.
Activists and last minute efforts
Interestingly, Sunday Vanguard also discovered that some of the leaders of the rally in Lagos State had made last minute efforts to use their contacts at the highest levels of the Jonathan Administration to push for a reversal of the policy for now but did not succeed.
In fact, it was the seeming aloofness of members of the administration that made the activists to return to Lagos and mobilize massively for the rallies in Lagos which turned out to be the first of its kind in the history of Nigeria. The activists, led by Pator Tunde Bakare, Professor Pat Utomi, Femi Falana, Muslim Clerics and a host of Nollywood stars. Food, shelter and water were provided. By mid Friday, Bakare told the crowd that there would be no rally on Saturday and today but that should the government refuse to revert to N65, the rally would be more massive by tomorrow. Nigerians wait.
A leader of the Joint Action Front, Dr Dipo Fashina also urged Nigerians not to relent in the current protest against fuel subsidy removal by government. Dr Fashina made the call at another rally organised by youths in Orile Agege, in Agege Local Govt. Convener, comrade Abiodun Akinyele, who is the chairman of the Youth Rights Movement, said information available revealed that fuel was not being subsidised. Representatives of Labour & Civil Society groups present include Mr Lanre arogundade, director, International Press Centre (IPC); Lagos state NULGE President, Comrade Lasisi Akinsanya and Nike Peller, a Nollywood , among others .