President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential ambition is built and sustained partly on blackmail. A beleaguered nation, held hostage to a PDP oligarchy that knows only waste and incompetence, is being asked to vote for Jonathan as a price for unity.
The implied threat of disunity in the event of Jonathan’s rejection is not very subtle either. It is part of an elaborate script being advanced to make Jonathan seem inevitable and synonymous with Nigeria’s survival.
Blackmail politics kick in when a political cause lacks merit and logic, when a candidate’s record should earn him a dismissal, not a new tenure. Jonathan comes from the oil producing Niger Delta, which admittedly has given much more to the nation than it has gotten out of it. In terms of sheer national sacrifice, I can think of no other region that has given more and lost more in this troubled union of ours. The extraction of wealth from the region is accompanied by enormous and perhaps irreparable environmental damage.
There is a sense, then, unspoken but deeply embedded in the Jonathan presidential project, that his election would compensate the region for its sacrifice and recognize its fiscal centrality to the evolution of the modern Nigerian state. Certain strains of this thinking have even mutated into a sense of entitlement. And this is the danger. It is this strain that carries an undeclared threat meant to emotionally blackmail voters into embracing the candidate of the party that engineered their current misery.
The problem with this argument is that the presidency is too big an office to be parceled out as compensation, and Nigeria is in too dire a state for voters to succumb to the crude politics of mere representation and recognition. Nigeria needs deliverance and reclamation. In this climate of need, blackmail will prove ineffective. Nigerians have been so traumatized by the ruling PDP that they are way beyond being blackmailed by the politics of entitlement and compensation. Compensation, redress, and justice come in many forms. None of these forms have a Jonathan imprimatur on it. And it is reductive to assume that a region’s legitimate aspirations can be cheapened and distilled into the power quest of one man.
But blackmail is only one item in the Jonathan presidential toolbox. Revisionist history is another. The Jonathan presidential project has been encouraging the act of active forgetting. We are being encouraged to look past, forget, or to develop alternative understandings of events that occurred just a few years ago. No other arena has attracted this conscious project of amnesia than the Jonathan family ethical burden. The ethical troubles of the Jonathan clan, which seemed to have peaked during his governorship days only to resume when he ascended the presidency, have been well documented in oral and written forms. The oral pronouncements of Nuhu Ribadu, former EFCC chairman, constituted an authoritative indictment in their own rights. But written reports and reportage of court proceedings have supplied a thick record of multiple, spectacular ethical escapades.
Two of the alleged ethical transgressions bear recapping. There is the widely reported case in August 2006 when the EFCC seized the sum of N104 Million from one Mrs. Nancy Ebere Nwosu. Nwosu testified on oath that the money belonged to Mrs. Jonathan, then the Bayelsa State first lady, and that she was a mere mule, contracted to launder the loot. The case eventually made its way through the EFCC’s convoluted investigative hoops, ending up in the court of Justice Anwuli Chikere of the Federal High Court Abuja. Then, like all corruption cases involving favored members of the PDP family, the case fizzled out, never to be officially mentioned again. Even the fate of the seized money, which Justice Chikere ordered frozen, is still a mystery.
Another incident came to light before the dust of the first incident settled. The story, widely reported in September 2006 in the local and international media, was of yet another EFCC interception of funds traced to the then Bayelsa first lady. This time, the amount in question was an unheard of $13.5 Million. Like the previous loot, it was destined for laundering in offshore schemes. Mr. Osita Nwajah, the EFCC spokesman, gleefully announced the seizure. Again, the case disappeared into the the PDP’s labyrinth of impunity.
At this time, the Ribadu-led EFCC proclaimed these incidents triumphantly as landmark victories in the war on corruption. Lately though, Ribadu, for reasons only known to him and his creator, has not only disowned these “achievements” but has taken the politically suicidal step of constructing a new narrative of the Jonathan clan’s innocence. But, swimming against the current of written records of this recent ethical history, many of them widely available online and in court records that can now, thankfully, be obtained through the newly passed freedom of information bill, neither Ribadu nor the clan he seeks to absolve, has been able to rewrite this record of sleaze and ethical infraction. As a result, Jonathan stands indicted in the proverbial court of public opinion, stained not just by the alleged crimes but also by the cover-ups that undercut due judicial processes in the two cases. This is why we are being stealthily hurried away from Jonathan’s ethical past and being urged to discuss the possibilities for a prolonged Jonathan presidency. Nigerians have largely rejected this campaign of forgetting and see seamless connections between Jonathan’s past as a (mis)manager of resources in Bayelsa and the groping cluelessness of his presidency.
The ethical challenge of the Jonathan campaign may prove fatal, as most Nigerians today identify corruption as the preeminent enemy of the Nigerian state and as a catalyst for our current dysfunction and decline. But ethical poverty is part of a larger corpus of deficits that Mr. Jonathan parades. The trouble with Jonathan is that his ethical history serves to reinforce a larger perception: that, like Yar’Adua before him, he does not know what to do with power because he is an unprepared, accidental, and unsure president.
Beyond the ethical baggage, then, is a more serious crisis of incompetence and waste. The Jonathan presidency has been long on spending and short on tangible accomplishments. Promises abound and continue to multiply, but nothing gets done about our chronic infrastructure problems. Like Yar’Adua before him, Jonathan has perfected the art of setting up committees to examine every problem under the sun, but he has had trouble moving from these deliberative preliminaries into actual problem solving. As a result, we have so-called strategic blueprints on power, roads, and other sectors but little else.
The underlying problem appears to be the waste and extravagance that has characterized the Jonathan presidency. It’s a bazaar of spending and cash withdrawals. The external reserve—whatever survived Yar’Adua’s cash raids—has been depleted without giving a thought to its macroeconomic impact. The problem is not so much the depletion of the external reserve as the failure to put the money to work for Nigerians. Since Jonathan took over, roads have stagnated or worsened; power remains epileptic; the health and education sectors groan under the weight of multiple deprivations; and security has gone south, insecurity north. In the midst of this deterioration, stratospheric amounts of money have been appropriated and hastily passed as budgets to feed a ballooning executive and a greedy legislature.
The Jonathan budget regime is a disgrace—heavy on recurrent spending (the lubrication of the political personnel of government) and light on projects consequential to Nigerians’ lives. One vulgar indication of this is the sheer number of aides and assistants that Jonathan and his wife have amassed in their short presidential tenure. A Jonathan foreign trip is now a jamboree of sorts, reinforcing the worst Western media caricature of African political revelry and offensive pageantry.
Instead of getting to work to earn Nigerians’ confidence, Jonathan has occupied himself with the expensive business of retaining his office. Governance has retreated as Jonathan and his camp have made it clear that retaining the presidency and its perks is a higher priority than working for Nigerians. They have worked to buy and coerce support instead of earning it through stellar statecraft.
The Jonathan presidency has all the hallmarks of a failed presidency. Lacking in substance, the only logic that feeds it is that of representation and recognition. But it is an insult to the Niger Delta people that their worthy, costly struggle should be downgraded to a mere presidential representation. How will a Jonathan presidency heal the fundamental wounds of the Delta or solve the tense Niger Delta stalemate?
Many people know that Jonathan is a poor advertisement for the Niger Delta. It would be great if he were a stellar, capable candidate. That would give the country an opportunity to solve both the representation problem and the more substantive challenges of our arrested national development. In Jonathan, however, we would have a token Niger Delta president, incapable and lacking the will to solve the Niger Delta crisis and the national one.
What then is the case for Jonathan in this election? There are Nigerians who will vote for the Jonathan/Sambo ticket on the basis that it represents both a generational break and a break from the tripodal politics of the three big ethnic groups. Some members of minority ethnic groups may set aside their issue-based reservations on Jonathan and see in him the possibility of upending the unwritten but entrenched exclusion of minorities from the electoral politics of the presidency and from the rotational arrangements of the PDP. This type of vote will be a choice based on affinity and identity, a vote for the symbolic possibility that a Jonathan presidency secured in his own right as a candidate will enable minorities to dream of entering political spaces previously closed to them, the most visible of which is the presidency.
As a member of a minority ethnic group myself, I sympathize with this thinking, although I cannot bring myself to put it ahead of my economic interest and of larger national interests. Symbolic political victories are important, but there are minorities who will conclude that this is the wrong time and the wrong election to make a symbolic political statement with their vote. The margin of the minority support for Jonathan may indicate the degree to which this constituency can anchor his victory. This margin will partly turn on the degree to which voters are willing to overlook the PDP’s awful record and vote for Jonathan as an individual.
There is also the seemingly insignificant intangible of Jonathan’s personality. What the president lacks in intellectual curiosity, competence, and charisma, he tends to make up for in a disarming personality marked by humility and simplicity. Jonathan, for all his deficits, has an unassuming personality and is humble almost to a fault. In a culture where humility is a virtue, many Nigerians who have stuck with him through his gaffes and fumbles have cited their attraction to his simple, humble persona. It would be foolish for watchers of this election to discount this factor as a variable in the chances of Jonathan.
Perhaps Jonathan has cultivated this personality for the proverbial political purpose of stooping to conquer. Perhaps humility comes naturally to him. Either way, it is working for him in some quarters. Jonathan has been able to disarm some important power brokers in unlikely places. He has charmed his way, for instance, to many important circles in the North, drawing surprisingly candid, sincere, and even enthusiastic support from the Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Gwandu, the two most important traditional rulers in the Caliphate hierarchy. When Dr. Olusola Saraki, the political Godfather in Kwara State, spoke glowingly about Jonathan’s candidacy recently, he focused solely on Jonathan’s humble mien and accessibility.
Jonathan is clearly a do-no-harm politician. He would not derail the applecart and would not disturb the status quo in Abuja. Under his presidency, every political group will have its way and path to the national patrimony. The tradition of appropriating more money for the perks of elected and unelected government officials than for infrastructure and services will continue. Members of the political elite will thrive as long as they don’t threaten the system. A Jonathan presidency would therefore be the preference of the political elites. They would simply make peace with a candidate that will not curtail their privileges and excesses. They will make this choice even if they disagree with Jonathan politically and think that he is incompetent. The viable alternatives to Jonathan—Buhari and Ribadu—represent, at least theoretically, a threat to the interest of members of the multi-ethnic national elite, who are often more afraid of radical change than they are of each other. Will the fear of the alternative coalesce into a pragmatic elite consensus in favor of a “harmless” Jonathan?
Will a humble personality, minority affinity, and pragmatic acceptance by the elite propel Jonathan to the presidency? Will these factors mitigate his intellectual, ethical, and performance deficits? More importantly, and given Nigeria’s precarious condition and the misery of its people, can any candidate win the forthcoming election without a track record of problem solving, without articulating a sound understanding of our national challenges, and without outlining a clear vision for overcoming them?
The author can be reached at: [email protected]