BY: Robin R. Sanders, Ambassador (US ambassador to Nigeria)
SUBJECT: GOODLUCK JONATHAN REMAINS ACTING PRESIDENT OF NIGERIA REF: ABUJA 207; FEB 24 A/S CARSON-AMB SANDERS TELCON CLASSIFIED BY: Robin R. Sanders, Ambassador, STATE, EXEC; REASON: 1.4(A), (B), (D) ------- SUMMARY
1. (C) Ambassador met February 26 with Acting President (AgP) Dr. Goodluck Jonathan at the Vice President’s official residence, Aguda House, in Abuja to review the current political situation following the return earlier this week of ailing President Yar’Adua. Moves are afoot, between Jonathan and key northerners in the lead such as former Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, to encourage the Yar’Adua family to let go and let the President resign with dignity. This will allow Jonathan to serve as interim President until elections and also allow him to designate a vice president. Given the dysfunctional level of the current Cabinet, Jonathan said that once this happens, he will dissolve the cabinet, after consulting with the Council of State. Both moves, he believes, will appease Northern politicians, as he suspects that more northerners will support the resignation idea. Jonathan claims he wants to do a good job over the next 12 months, and leave a legacy of credible elections, electoral reform, including replacing the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) chairman and all of the commissioners. He promised the Ambassador that he would look at her suggestion of using terminal leave for the INEC chairman, which could have him out earlier than June. The Acting President also agreed to allow U.S.-UK technical assistance to help improve the voter registry and provide for a parallel vote tabulation. He expects things to calm down in the next 10-14 days, will not leave the country until things are resolved, and has opened channels with the military. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was leaving Jonathan’s private office when Ambassador was entering. End Summary.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
2. (C) Jonathan told the Ambassador “everyone’s confused” about who is in charge of Nigeria. There has been an increase in the level of uncertainty in the internal political situation following ailing President Yar’Adua’s return, which was shrouded in secrecy, during the early hours February 24. The AgP said he was “unhappy” that the first statement issued following Yar’Adua’s return referred to Jonathan as “Vice President.” The GON issued a second statement February 25 that reversed course and refers to Jonathan as the Acting President. Jonathan said that the Villa received a lot of pressure to correct this error so that the lines of leadership and executive direction were clear.
3. (C) The AgP lamented, “This terrible situation in the country today has been created by four people: Turai Yar’Adua [the ailing President’s wife], his Chief Security Officer (CSO) [Yusuf Mohammed Tilde], his Aide-de-Camp (ADC)[Col. Mustapha Onoedieva] and Professor Tanimu Yakubu [Yar’Adua’s Chief Economic Advisor].” The AgP said he does not know their motives, but expected it was likely for nefarious purposes. He added Minister of Agriculture Abba Ruma and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister Adamu Aliero had provided a second-tier of layering to the bubble surrounding Yar’Adua. The AgP noted that “people are angry,” and did not want to allow those surrounding Yar’Adua to replicate the control and access similar to what they had done in Jeddah for the past three months.
4. (C) Jonathan said the CSO and ADC saw him separately to let him know that they did not intend to mistreat the AgP and expressed their willingness to work with him (which the AgP doubts). The AgP said he told them both “then the best thing is to stop the charade.” The AgP told the Ambassador he believes Yar’Adua is in a semi-comatose state without an understanding of what is going on around him.
ENCOURAGE PRESIDENT TO RESIGN
5. (C) The AgP said that Former Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who according to Jonathan has become one of his closest advisors, worked out a strategy where he would reach out to other former Nigerian Heads of State, including former Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowon, to approach those closest to Yar’Adua, especially his wife Turai, to try to convince them that the best, and most dignified step to take for the country and for Yar’Adua as a human being would be for the President to resign. This action would constitutionally make Jonathan Nigeria’s President. Doing such would also be easier than convincing two-thirds of the 42-member Federal Executive Committee (FEC) to declare the ailing President “physically incapacitated and medically unfit” to continue in the office of the Presidency. Jonathan said he and his wife, Patience, visited Turai as a humanistic gesture to express their best wishes for the recovery of Yar’Adua and out of respect for his ailing boss. The AgP said under no circumstances did he want Turai to come to his official residence.
6. (C) Once Yar’Adua resigns and Jonathan becomes interim President, he said he would choose a Vice President that could appease the Northerners by working with them to identify a candidate. AgP Jonathan also shared that until Yar’Adua resigns, and things come down he would not leave the country.
(N.B. This is in reference to the POTUS invitation to attend the April 12-13 Nuclear Security Summit). The issue of identifying a northerner as a vice presidential candidate, Jonathan underscored this appears to be the thing most on the minds of the northerners as they feel cheated out of the Presidency with Yar’Adua’s illness.
FEARS ABOUT MILITARY
7. (C) Jonathan said “everyone, including the Army Chief of Staff (COAS) [LTG Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau] and Chief of the President Guards Brigade [BG Abdul Mustapha]” are concerned about the confusion over who is the executive of the nation. The AgP said the military chiefs are making sure no politicians are reaching out to the rank-and-file, and encouraging the military to stay in the barracks so that the uncertain political situation does not generate coup-like behavior emanating from the mid-ranks because of the confusion. As the Ambassador began her meeting with the Acting President, he had just concluded a meeting with COAS LTG Dambazau (see reftel A for Ambassador’s conversation with the COAS February 24).
USG ADVICE: BECOME A NATIONAL FIGURE
8. (C) Based on points developed telephonically with Assistant Secretary Carson (ref B), Ambassador encouraged Jonathan to change the perception that he is a regional figure, and be seen, rather, as a national figure who has the best interest of the nation at heart. Ambassador expressed that given that the U.S. and Nigeria are very best friends, we feel the need to share our concerns, as any good friend would do, and that we are counting on him to steer Nigeria through this troubled and uncertain period. At the moment, Jonathan’s detractors believe he is a surrogate for former President Obasanjo.
Ambassador advised the AgP that he needs to publicly demonstrate that he is the sole executor of national issues, not being directed or serving a political purpose for Obasanjo or others, so that his leadership would not be in question and the polity would accept that he had the best interest of nation at hand. The AgP said he appreciated our advice, including publicly holding Obasanjo at arms length. He said he would consider taking steps, including possibly convoking the entire diplomatic corps to brief them on the current political climate, using this and other events to demonstrate that he is his own man, and diminish the appearance he is a regional leader.
9. (C) Jonathan noted that the Northern politicians would always be uncomfortable with him as president, and he understood the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) picked him as Yar’Adua’s running mate in 2007 because he represented the Niger Delta. Jonathan said he was handling Niger Delta issues until the Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs was created in September 2008, allowing him to distance himself from being viewed as someone who could only work on that issue. “I was not chosen to be Vice President because I had good political experience,” he said. “I did not. There were a lot more qualified people around to be Vice President, but that does not mean I am not my own man.” However, he said, with the changed circumstances, the AgP said that his sole focus is to leave a legacy of both electoral reform and credible elections, including changing the entire Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The AgP said he was appreciative of the Ambassador’s remarks made during the National Day reception February 25 and Assistant Secretary Carson’s February 24 statement because both provided him with the courage to press forward.
10. (C) Jonathan shared initially, he had the intention to dissolve the Cabinet early the week of February 22, and had planned to make that announcement at the February 24 FEC meeting, but found out that Yar’Adua was returning, and thus dissuaded him from acting. He said the last Cabinet meeting was disastrous and included yelling and screaming, and it is totally dysfunctional.
He said he is “not a politician” and had very limited experience as an administrator, but concluded, “I will not tolerate a brawl.” Jonathan said he will dissolve the Cabinet once he knows people are more comfortable with him being the Acting President or if the current strategy to convince Yar’Adua surrogates and family members to allow the ailing president to resign.
ELECTORAL REFORM AND INEC
11. (C) Jonathan agreed to the USG offer of technical assistance to review and update Nigeria’s national voter registry and funding for a Parallel Voter Tabulation (PVT). The AgP asked us for a letter formally offering this assistance (NB: we are providing to him today). The Ambassador noted the technical assistance could begin as early as the end of March with his approval (which he gave) with software installed that can assist with cleaning up the voter registry.
12. (C) On the INEC Chairman, Ambassador told the AgP that the USG would not continue any election assistance if Iwu remains on seat after June 2010. She described the meeting between A/S Carson and Iwu, noting the latter showed no signs of respect for good governance. The AgP said he understood the USG would not be able to continue providing technical assistance if the current INEC chairman remains beyond his five-year mandate that ends in June 2010. Ambassador raised the issue of using Iwu’s terminal leave to get him out sooner. The AgP said he would ask the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) to inquire if the current chair could take terminal leave, which could have him out as soon as next month. Jonathan again said that once he solidifies his position as Acting President or President, and that once the political environment is less uncertain, he would begin taking steps to replace all thirteen of INEC’s commissioners, and work toward replacing Iwu earlier than June provided he can confirm the amount of terminal leave Iwu has. However, the AgP noted this would not be easy, but he is committed to seeing this through.
13. (C) Jonathan said he does not anticipate standing for elections in 2011 and that he is not working towards being a presidential candidacy. He wants to put into place an electoral structure that will be ready for national elections. He did, however, note that, “if they want me to run, that will be something to consider at that time.”
However, he stressed that his focus now and for the next 12 months will be on “doing a good job and witnessing respectable and credible elections in 2011.”
FIRM UP THE PARTNERSHIP AGAINST TERRORISM
14. (S) Ambassador raised with the AgP the case of Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed (aka “Talha”). Talha was indicted earlier this week in New York on terrorism charges. Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) was about to release Talha onto an international flight before Nigerian police intervened and took him into custody. Ambassador underscored that the SSS’ close call in violating an Interpol Red Notice would not be helpful in making the case for Nigeria’s removal from the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration List of “Countries of Concern.” Ambassador also asked that SSS appear as witnesses when requested to demonstrate Nigeria remains a partner to the U.S. in the international fight against terrorism. She added that at least at the Director level, SSS not only knew about the Interpol notice, but simply said they did not want to hold him any longer. Ambassador added that the GON police forces did the right thing and stepped in to block the suspect from boarding the plane. He is now in police custody. Ambassador officially requested that he be turned over to the FBI agents here to escort him to the U.S. to stand trial.
15. (S) The AgP said he would call in SSS Director General Gadzama to clarify the security agency’s role in Talha’s near-release and that if the three SSS officers implicated had taken such action without authorization, they would face serious implications, including termination. Ambassador also took the opportunity to request Jonathan stop repeating that the December 25 attempting bombing case involving Nigerian Abdulmutallab was an “one-off aberration” and that Nigeria indeed does have foreign terrorist links and elements operating in country, as exemplified by Talha.
16. (C) After two days of uncertainty, that included signals of competing heads of state emanating from the dueling titular references within a Villa press release, it appears that Jonathan has plans to firmly take the reigns of the presidency, with the support from key northerners and the senior leadership of the military. As the Ambassador stepped out of her meeting, at least two Ministers and a Governor were waiting to consult with the Acting President. The Acting President’s bottom line is that he would do his best in the job in the next twelve months. He also wanted to ensure we understood he would “not be manipulated by anyone.” We believe the USG is firmly placed to advance our bilateral agenda, including the creation of an environment conducive to free, fair, and credible elections with the approval and assistance of Nigeria’s de facto head of state. Even if he decides to contest for the presidency, Jonathan seems sincere in wanting to leave a lasting legacy of electoral reform for Africa’s most populous nation. It is always hard to judge how some will behave (or surprise you) when leadership is unexpectedly thrown in their lap. The verdict is out on Jonathan and his previously underwhelming personality and performance needs to keep us in the cautious lane, but so far, so good. Things are quiet. The COAS is doing the right things. Jonathan is reaching out to key respected northerners, like Abdulsalami, which we see as a good thing. Our next steps should be to continue to encourage the AgP on the right path; help on the push back on Obasanjo through former and current USG officials; and, if the drum beat calling for the ailing President to resign picks up speed, we should ensure that we indicate our support for this given that it probably the best thing for the country.
End Comment. SANDERS