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A Pro-Poverty President By Sonala Olumhense

President Goodluck Jonathan has said that during his election campaign, he only promised to create wealth, not eliminate poverty.
He made the claim during his Media Chat on November 18.  Following that event, and out of respect for the presidency, I decided to allow some time for an official retraction, if any.  None has come.

President Goodluck Jonathan has said that during his election campaign, he only promised to create wealth, not eliminate poverty.
He made the claim during his Media Chat on November 18.  Following that event, and out of respect for the presidency, I decided to allow some time for an official retraction, if any.  None has come.

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My recollection is that during Mr. Jonathan’s election campaign in February and March 2011, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party did promise an assault on poverty.  Some of those promises were direct, while others were implied.  

While we may argue about those promises that were implied, there can be no argument that when he took the microphone at Rwang Pam Stadium in Jos on February 17, 2011, he promised “a straight fight” against poverty.  Those were his words, and newspapers reporting the stump quoted him as such.  

The Nigerian Observer, for example, said of the event in its edition of February 18, 2011: “[Mr. Jonathan] promised that, if voted into power in April, he would focus on a straight fight against poverty, which, he noted, had no respect nor discriminate on the basis of language, religion or nationality.”
The second time he tried to impress those who are interested in issues of poverty was four days later, on February 21, in Ilorin, where he specifically said he would tackle poverty.   

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The Guardian reflected the event in its edition of February 23, 2011 as follows: “President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign train yesterday berthed in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital where he reiterated the commitment of his administration to tackling poverty and making life more meaningful for Nigerians if voted into office.”

Following the election, and in an effort to nudge the administration forward, I posted in this column one week before his inauguration, most of Mr. Jonathan’s  2011electoral promises.   It included those two references to combating poverty.

It turned out I was not the only one keeping track.  The Lagos-based International Press Centre (IPC) also researched the campaign, and it listed on its website Jonathan’s 91 electoral promises.  IPC’s account also shows two references to fighting poverty.

As Jonathan tries to separate himself from this commitment, it is important to remind him he did not even have to promise to fight poverty.  By implication, everyone who asks to lead a developing country assumes the battle against poverty, which is partly what the challenge of development is.  Mr. Jonathan may not know it, but Nigeria also did sign up to implement the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.  The first commitment in that campaign is to eliminate extreme poverty.

Beyond that, anybody who hunts for vote in a presidential election swearing to ensure electricity, to develop a road network, or to boost education and agriculture—as Mr. Jonathan did—has already signed up for an anti-poverty war.  

In any event, if Mr. Jonathan did not promise to fight poverty, has he also fulfilled the promises he made in all those areas and much more?  If he promised to create wealth, was he talking about wealth for such people as Aliko Dangote and Mike Adenuga?

Nigeria’s experience of the past 18 months suggests, sadly that Mr. Jonathan intended to fulfill none of his electoral promise, and it is important to place this record where it belongs.  

When a politician makes an electoral promise, it should be both earnest and honest.  It should be rooted in his conviction as well as respect for the people, not in some conniving scheme simply to separate them from their votes.  That is how a ruler becomes the most criticized man in the world, as Mr. Jonathan labeled himself this year, with apparently no clue as to how that came to be.  

Regrettably, it is now obvious that when Mr. Jonathan was making his promises, he was thinking wholly, solely and fully about himself.  That accounts for the fact that he never published his so-called transformation agenda plan: his destination was the presidency; his destiny never was performance.

It is interesting that a commentator, writing recently on behalf of the Minister of Finance, said that if I wanted a copy of the Transformation Agenda plan, the National Planning Commission would have gladly sent me a free copy, since it was “published within months of the inception of the Jonathan administration.”  

This is a new lie, to me: I have been asking for this document for over one year, but many “distinguished” members of the administration have spoken about it only in the future tense.  In any event, since when did members of the public have to apply to offices of the government for major documents, when much lesser ones are routinely broadcast on the front pages and news conferences.  The meaning of this is that the Transformation agenda, like the transformation plan, is a ruse.

The battle against poverty, in any event, needs action, not the propaganda headlines.  At the 67th General Assembly of the United Nations, there were countries bragging not only about their hopes, but their possibilities and achievements.  On the same day that Mr. Jonathan spoke, for instance, the President of Ghana, Mr. John Dramani Mahama, told the Assembly: “Ghana is on track to achieve the targets set under [MDGs]. Significant progress has been made in the following areas: reducing extreme poverty, gender parity in school enrolment, universal primary education, provision of safe drinking water and the fight against HIV/AIDS…”

Most of all, President Dilma Rousseff, a remarkable lady who leads Brazil, said: “Over the past years we have pursued prudent economic policies, accumulated significant foreign exchange reserves, strongly reduced public debt and, with innovative social policies, lifted 40 million people out of poverty...”

All of that is while Nigeria has been doing the exact opposite: irresponsible economic policies, squandering foreign reserves, enhancing public debt, and driving more people into poverty.   

Lifting 40 million people out of poverty has been made possible because President Rousseff, like her predecessor, President Lula da Silva, committed to Brazil rather than their friends or their own greed.   President Jonathan, like his successors, never committed to Nigeria.

This is why I fear that what is ahead for Nigeria is worse than what has passed, because upon close examination, Mr. Jonathan’s real announcement was not that he did not commit to fighting poverty; it is really that he intends to run for the presidency again in 2015.  In other words, further denials—rather than announcements of achievement—are on the way.

I may be wrong, of course, but there aren’t many other ways to call your own people fools than to refuse to serve them even as you insist that they retain you as their lord.  

That leads to my final point.  It is clear that there is a vacuum of ethics, energy and courage in the Jonathan administration.  But is the more alarming reality simply that there is an intellectual vacuum?

A government in which there are so many conflicts, with the leader seemingly working at cross-purposes with his officials and his mission, even denying policies and purposes while recklessly insulting the citizens: exactly what—not who—is in charge?

We take it for granted that a government has intelligence and content and substance just because we may have seen strong men and women going in and read things written by lavishly paid consultants, but is that always true?

Should our real concern be that the Jonathan machinery is simply running on hot air?    
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