Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan prepares to announce new cabinet

Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan, acting president, unexpectedly dissolved the nation's cabinet Wednesday in a move to quickly assert power during the elected president's absence. He's expected to announce a new cabinet within days.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Vendors display newspaper headlines to drivers on a road in Nigeria's capital territory of Abuja Thursday. Nigeria's acting President Goodluck Jonathan is expected to announce a new cabinet lineup soon, which must be approved by the Senate.
Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters/File
Nigeria's acting president Goodluck Jonathan delivers a speech at a church in the capital territory of Abuja in this December 31, 2009 file photo.

Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s acting president, has dissolved the cabinet five weeks after taking the reins of Africa's most populous country, in a bold move to sideline allies of the elected (but incapacitated) President Umaru YarAdua, say analysts.

The blanket dismissal of 42 ministers on Wednesday is part of an ongoing power struggle, as Mr. YarAdua and his supporters refuse to transfer power fully to Mr. Jonathan, even though the former has been too ill to appear in public for almost four months. The resulting political limbo has caused concern both at home and among the Western nations who buy much of Nigeria’s oil.

The move was to bring new "vigor to governance," according to Jonathan's spokesman. The acting president is expected to announce a new cabinet lineup soon, which must be approved by the Senate. "More than half will come back and we are expecting it [the new government] next week," a presidential source told Agence France-Presse Thursday.

A quiet vice president?

Critics of Jonathan, formerly a rather quiet vice president, often dismiss him as a figure put in place by higher powers. The full-scale firing thus came as a surprise to some, even though rumors have circulated in recent weeks that the acting president planned to hire and fire a number of ministers.

“We were not expecting anything on this scale, so it goes to show that he should not be underestimated,” says Rolake Akinola, a West Africa expert at Control Risks, a consultancy. “This move says ‘I don’t think YarAdua is coming back, so I’m going to establish my own base.’”

Jonathan’s push to assert authority comes at a particularly precarious time for Nigeria, a nation that includes150 million people, some 250 ethnic groups, a predominantly Muslim north and Christian south, and huge oil reserves. There is a keen need for active and effective government.

In the oil-producing Niger Delta region, militants this week planted explosives outside local government offices. An amnesty scheme launched last year for such groups, who want a greater share of crude petroleum revenues to be spent on their communities, has stalled during Mr. YarAdua’s absence. In central Nigeria, clashes between rival Christian and Muslim groups left hundreds dead in January and earlier this month.

Moreover, many bills are stuck in a legislature that is perceived to act slowly even under normal circumstances. These include proposed laws on electoral reform, which could help prevent a repeat of the widespread vote rigging that marred the last presidential polls in 2007.

The cabinet dismissal is a sign that Jonathan wishes to act quickly on such matters during his short tenure, according to some senior political analysts, as he is unlikely to run in elections scheduled for next year. Many of the expelled ministers were supporters of Mr YarAdua, who might have tried to block his actions.

A mood of urgency

“The mood here is one of urgency,” says Victor Ndoma-Egba, a senator from Cross River State in the south, who predicts that changes to the cabinet will be “fundamental” to a successful Jonathan presidency. “It is part of the process of asserting his authority and will bring new energy.”

Support for Mr. YarAdua dwindles with each day that he fails to reappear. The president went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment last November and has not been seen in public since. The exact state of his health remains unknown, though he returned to Nigeria last month under the cover of darkness.

However, in the short-term, Jonathan’s proactive move could cast further doubt over the stability of sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest economy. The selection process for a new cabinet could take several weeks, though some government insiders say they expect appointments within days.

“Investors will not sit comfortably with the heightened level of over the coming days will be very closely watched,” says Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered Bank. “Reassurances will be sought that some kind of predictability can be reinstated quickly.”

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