Last week, I proposed that Goodluck Jonathan should pause, contemplate – and be instructed by – the misfortunes of Olusegun Obasanjo. When historians come to reckon the lessons and portents of this year’s elections, they are bound to dwell on the erasure of Obasanjo’s name from the political map of the southwest. And – since the southwest is Mr. Obasanjo’s home base – his political evisceration there represents a particularly damning verdict.
There are few things worse than when a man is forced to stand witness as the machinery of history grinds his legacy into the dust, turning him into an object of profound wretchedness. No bank account, however fat, no mansion, however high the hill on which it stands, no fleet of cars, however expensive and gadget-bemused – no material possession, however precious or rare, can palliate the pain of watching one’s person and work abominated by one’s closest fellows. It is no wonder that Obasanjo, a man whose inclination is to reduce every issue, however grave, to the silliness of “I dey laugh oh,” has found little laughter in recent weeks. For him, with his political work in ruins round him, it is neither a laughing matter nor day.
Mr. Jonathan, I hinted last week, has a chastening lesson to learn from Obasanjo’s travails. Giddy with a victory that’s still punctuated by question marks, Mr. Jonathan and his handlers have to wonder what it’s going to take to avoid Obasanjo’s unenviable fate.
The task would entail setting his sights on the terminal date of his first term. In other words, Mr. Jonathan should summon whatever powers of imagination are at his disposal to project himself onto 2015. Surveying his years in office from that imagined future outpost, he must then confront the question of the quality of his leadership and service. It’s going to come down to the quality of his vision, his mettle as a man, and his capacity for self-transformation. Nothing else is going to count. A failed leader may hire all the poets in the world, but their praise songs – to borrow and adapt Chinua Achebe’s phrase – cannot deodorize his bullshit.
In a way, this early in the game, Mr. Jonathan can still make the choice to strive to surpass his, and even our, expectations. He – and he alone – can decide whether he wishes to be just another self-aggrandized resident of Aso Rock, whether he’s in it for the sheer pomp and pageantry, or whether he intends to be a transformative agent.
In the end, it amounts to a choice. Obasanjo was not a woeful president because he lacked the ethical and intellectual wherewithal and measure to rise to lofty heights. There was that factor, undoubtedly. Even so, the man had traveled widely enough – and he’d read about as well as encountered some impressive leaders around the world – to develop a trained sense of what it takes to be a true leader. He was every bit able to tell the difference between a man intent on reducing a presidential office to his puny size and another determined to break down the walls of his office in order to touch a larger world.
Mr. Jonathan’s circumstances are as tricky as Mr. Obasanjo’s in 1999, and his prospects, on the face of it, seem just as unpromising as the former president’s. Last week, I suggested that the amount of IOUs Mr. Jonathan had issued in the course of his pursuit of the presidency was likely to weigh on what kind of presidency he has.
Let me elaborate on that important question, and on the kind of predicament it represents for the man. Many Nigerians, many of them youths, believe that Jonathan will be sworn in as president on May 29 because they gave him their votes of their own volition. And many of these voters and sympathizers had concluded, by some curious logic, that they were doing two contradictory things at the same time: choosing Jonathan as an individual whilst rejecting his political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Of course, the falseness of that premise is already evident in the fact that – despite the confidence of many Jonathan supporters that the PDP would be vanquished – the party (with the exception of its near-total disappearance from the southwest) retains a baffling dominance in the country.
So that, even as many voters profess that the Jonathan presidency was made possible by them, there’s a great chance that Mr. Jonathan has a different understanding of the source of his “victory.” By rights, given that his primary opponents had few structures in the southeast and south-south (and also that they did little serious campaigning in those areas), Jonathan would have won handily in those two zones. Still, one maintains – and there’s ample proof – that his figures in these areas were massively, even unintelligently, inflated. Let’s illustrate with the case of Imo State. Last week, Imo voters – surprised that INEC had declared their clear, unambiguous rejection of Governor Ikedi Ohakim as “inconclusive” – finally settled the matter by coming out in droves to emphatically make their point in a “supplementary election.”
Yet, despite the emotional stakes in that governorship election, despite the fact that the people of Imo detest Ohakim far more than they love Jonathan, the number of votes allegedly cast for Mr. Jonathan in the presidential election dwarfed the total number of votes for all the gubernatorial candidates. It’s either that the people of Imo saw a human messiah in Jonathan, or that the figures for the presidential elections were over-inflated. I incline to the latter explanation.
So, here’s where the calculations get tricky. Whilst many voters cling to the belief that they delivered the presidency to Mr. Jonathan, the man may well feel that his triumph, with its exaggerated figures, owed to the sponsorship, “loyalty,” and derring-do of the likes of Mr. Ohakim and numerous other governors as well as the famed fixer, Tony Anenih. So that, as voters expect Jonathan to act out their illusion that he and the PDP are two separate, warring entities, the man may well view himself as under an obligation to pay off IOUs to the few men and women he regards as the real manufacturers of his mandate.
The key here is whether Mr. Jonathan has the gumption and sense of history to proceed as if he’s answerable to the broad collectivity of Nigerians. If he musters the courage and vision to align with the deepest yearnings of the Nigerian people – a radical undertaking, given what we know, so far, about his political career – then he stands a chance of escaping the kind of opprobrium that’s become Obasanjo’s lot. On the other (in many ways, more likely) hand, if he submits himself, out of pusillanimity, to the dictatorship of a coalition of operatives who take credit for engineering his outlandish poll numbers, then he’d be working hard over the next four years to earn a seat of ignominy next to Mr. Obasanjo.
In a matter of weeks, when Mr. Jonathan unveils his cabinet, Nigerians will get an inkling of how the man is leaning, how his political heart beats. He has a broken country in his hands, a polity whose healthcare system is as scary as its educational system and critical infrastructure are in ghastly shape. And he has decades of the cruelest forms of human degradation in the oil-rich Niger Delta to confront and begin addressing in a serious manner. No Nigerian leader worthy of the name can afford laxity, or to govern merely by flaunting party-ready agbada and reading long speeches that drip with cheap platitudes. There’s work, urgent, desperate work to be done in Nigeria – to lift the country up to the level of, say, a Ghana.
It would be a grave mistake if Jonathan listened to, or worse joined, those who preach patience. No, Nigerian leaders don’t exhibit any patience before they embark on looting – they often start their very first day in office. Why must the long-suffering citizens endure endless exhortations to remain patient, fast and pray, trusting that God, not their leaders, will one day descend from the sky to build their roads, furnish their schools with labs and libraries, create jobs for milling graduates, empower our power authority, conduct credible elections free of manipulation, provide potable water, prosecute corrupt officials, dispose of the hills of trash that perversely decorate Nigerian cities – and do much more.
Mr. Jonathan should imaginatively transport himself to 2015 and then look back over the intervening years. Would he be proud of his resume? More to the point, would Nigerians be able to say, thank God this man was not cut from Obasanjo’s ignominious cloth?