PT: On May 29, it became exactly 20 years since the return of democracy to Nigeria which is the longest stretch of democratic governance since independence in 1960. What’s your impression about how far we have travelled?
JONATHAN: In life, it is always more rewarding to look to the positive side of things. While there are lots of room for improvement, I believe Nigeria has done relatively well so far. Having achieved a milestone of 20 uninterrupted years of democratic rule since 1999, it can be safe to say we are very hopeful that democracy is stabilising. Since 1999 our democracy has passed through different phases. It took off as a nascent experience and passed through some period of learning and time of consolidation, to where we are now.
By 2015, our democracy matured from an experiment to a certified theory when for the first time an incumbent ceded power to an opposition in Nigeria in an electoral process. Going forward, there is a need to deepen the gains so far by advancing the frontiers of credible electoral processes, fidelity to the rule of law and strict adherence to constitutionalism.
PT: There are Nigerians who believe that most of the challenges the country faced in 1999 are still there today. That the past 20 years have been characterised by poor governance, rigged elections, corruption, insecurity and violence, poor electricity supply, massive unemployment, among others. That there is, therefore, nothing to celebrate. What do you say to that?
JONATHAN: Good governance can neither be decreed as you will find in dictatorships nor legislated in a democratic set up alone. It can only be achieved by a people’s consensus around doing the right thing for the right purpose.
For the most part of post-independence Nigeria, the country was under a military dictatorship, which failed to deliver good governance. Similarly, Nigeria’s 20-year democratic experience since 1999, may not have met the expectations of the people in delivering good governance. From my considerable experience in government, it is discernible that unity of a nation is a condition preceding socio-economic development; this unity is fundamentally lacking in Nigeria in varying degrees since 1999, depending on how the governing political leadership at any point in time was able to manage Nigeria’s multiple diversities.
We need to renew our push for a truly united Nigeria away from a country of competing ethno-geographic nationalities to one where all citizens are equally guaranteed fairness, equity and justice.
In this instance, our choices as a nation are limited to the option of a truly united and egalitarian society. A people’s consensus about the enthronement of a truly democratic system of government, which holds prospects for a sustainable good governance structure can only emerge from a truly united Nigeria. Democracy as the best form of government can only work best for us if there is a concerted effort at upholding its principles of fundamental freedom of the people to choose their leadership through an electoral process that guarantees free, credible and fair elections.
PT: You were in charge of the country for five of these 20 years. Will you say these years were well spent on advancing Nigeria politically and economically? What significant values did your tenure bring to the country?
JONATHAN: I wouldn’t have loved to comment on my tenure because I don’t fancy assessing and judging myself. I always prefer that other people be the ones to comment on my tenure. But if I may make some few comments on what my five years in office brought to the country, using your words ‘politically and economically’, I will say that we did our best. Talking about what I achieved politically, within the country we encouraged a stable polity. We encouraged people to live and associate freely in a hassle-free political environment. We stabilised the political and electoral processes. We recorded great successes there and people can attest to that.
In terms of international politics, from 1960 till date Nigeria has been elected into the security council of the United Nations for five times. Two of those five times were within the five years I was President. This tells you that even in terms of international politics, we did very well. Since the establishment of the African Development Bank, which has Nigeria, Egypt and Libya as the biggest contributors, no Nigerian had ever been made President of ADB until my time. We were able to secure that position for the first time during my tenure because of my administration’s robust international relations. These are few milestones out of the numerous things we did that I thought I needed to mention just to answer your question directly and to let you realise that though we had challenges, we were able to move this country forward politically.
We also recorded appreciable progress on the economic front. Nigeria was the number one destination for foreign direct investment under my tenure. We were rated the biggest economy in Africa. We transformed the agricultural sector and brought the nation closer towards food self-sufficiency. Our currency was stable and inflationary pressure was kept at single digit. We may not have been comfortable with the exchange rate of less than N200 to the dollar at that time but I can tell you that the economy was stable. The stability we had ensured that business people and investors could plan because you were sure of the exchange rate and the cost of your goods at any point in time, whether you were exporting or importing. Economically you could say that Nigeria was stable and strong.
PT: What will you say is the biggest and most enduring legacy you left for the country at the end of your tenure?
JONATHAN: A legacy of a tremendously improved electoral system, to such an extent that I, as an incumbent lost to an opposition candidate; a personal loss I consider a win for the Nigerian nation. I had every instrument of state coercion at my disposal to undermine and compromise the electoral process to my incumbent advantage but I refused to do such because I placed the interest of Nigeria ahead of my personal interest.
PT: You ran for re-election in 2015 and lost. You conceded defeat. What do you say to claims that the presidential candidate of your party in the 2019 election should have followed your example and accept defeat rather than going to the election tribunal?
JONATHAN: The circumstances of 2015 and 2019 elections are very different. The person comparing the decision I took in 2015 to what PDP Presidential candidate in 2019 elections, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar is doing in 2019 is not being fair to Atiku. There is no basis for comparison. In 2015 I was a sitting President. Although INEC is an independent body, every structure of Government still operate under the President in one way or the other. So I was a President and INEC conducted the elections under my watch. Atiku was not a sitting President and if he or the party feels that things were not done right, of course they are at liberty to challenge it in court. So I will say that it is not right for anybody to compare Jonathan’s decision in 2015 with Atiku’s position in 2019 because they are two different scenarios. My place in the history of Nigeria is a unique one.
PT: What did the 2015 and 2019 elections teach you about our democracy, the players and the institutions of democracy in Nigeria?
JONATHAN: As a nation, we should continue to strive for improvements in our electoral processes. A credible electoral process is fundamental to making democracy work for us as a people. Wherein the people are sufficiently empowered enough to choose or reject their political leadership, it serves as an incentive for good governance.
PT: We just reread your 2011 inaugural speech. There were goals you set for your administration at the time. You promised to deliver improved medical care for all citizens, provide access to first-class education, make electricity available to all citizens, fight for an efficient and affordable public transport system for all our people and create jobs through productive partnerships. Your critics believe you did not deliver on these and that you ended up leaving the country worse than you met it. How do you respond to this?
JONATHAN: From 2011 to 2015 was four years within which we did our best. The truth is that no one person can change a country like Nigeria within that time, especially in a democratic setting where, in my own case, you had a vibrant opposition that sometimes even tended to misinterpret your good intentions. But looking at the areas you mentioned; take power for instance, first and foremost the privatisation of the power sector which everybody believed would bring about stable power in the country was initiated during the Obasanjo administration. We had to implement it with the aim that within some years, especially from the time that the power road map would come on stream, consistent operation and implementation of the road map, would have brought stable power. What is obvious in our kind of situation is that when the Government that initiated the programme did not stay to implement it, it might become difficult for such to be fully realised, especially if some people sometimes begin to play politics with aspects of such sensitive issues. You can see the consequences of such needless politicking and it cuts across most of the sectors. We had a robust plan for taking the sectors forward within a given period. Take the transportation sector for instance; people now commute from Abuja to Kaduna mainly by train. We built that infrastructure. We refurbished the Lagos-Kano rail and also the eastern wing of the old railway system. People are using them. We constructed so many kilometres of roads. So even in the transport sector that you mentioned we did very well within that four-year period.
For anybody to say that we left the country worse than we met it, that person is only playing politics. He is not being sincere because we had a robust economic management team made up of reputable people in Government and outside Government. The members from outside Government included President of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria, President of the Nigerian Economic Society who is a university professor. Frankly speaking, the Nigerian economy within the time in question was on a progressive path and it was really moving in the right direction. We expanded the educational sector and built 12 new conventional universities in all the 12 States that had no federal university. We built a specialised maritime university located in Delta state and a police university located in Kano. We came up with a robust programme to prepare the best brains for a technological revolution in this country. We established what we called Presidential special scholarship Scheme for Innovation and Development (PRESSID) where beneficiaries were expected to have made a first class from our universities in relevant technical areas to qualify. This is because we believed that as a nation we have our nuclear, space and such other hitech programmes. These are areas where you need your best brains in the sciences to succeed. There must be a deliberate policy to train the kind of manpower to man these and other highly technical areas. Our vision took cognisant of the fact that the world is ruled now by technology and we cannot afford to keep lagging behind.
In fact, we noticed the relevance of ICT to the nation’s future development and that was why we pulled out ICT from the traditional ministry of information and communications and made it a full ministry on its own. We got a committed minister to handle the ICT ministry alone so that Nigeria’s young people can be empowered to develop themselves, establish their own firms and create jobs through the ICT revolution. We said we will not miss out on the array of opportunities that the ICT revolution offers. We were not there during the industrial revolution, but with the ICT revolution starring us in the face, we had to make the commitment that Nigeria must not lag behind. That was why we created that ministry specially to tap into the ICT revolution.
So anybody who looks at the totality of all we did and says that we left the country worse than we met it is not being sincere. Even our foreign relations alone is a good enough testimony of what we achieved. Our good relations in Africa and our relations with our neighbours in the West African sub-region ensured during our time that Nigeria was well respected both in Africa and beyond the continent. That was why whatever we looked for as a country within the sub-region and outside it we got during my time. I have already spoken about how Nigeria was elected into the UN Security Council twice under my administration. I can confidently say that within a period of five years we recorded considerable achievements on both the international stage and the economic front.
PT: Shortly after the current administration came to power, the country slipped into recession. The current administration blamed you and your party for the situation, saying you and the administrations before you mismanaged the several billion dollars made from crude oil sales for 16 years. They said your party left the country broke and broken. What’s your take on this?
JONATHAN: My administration, which nurtured the Nigerian economy to become the largest in Africa could not have been responsible for its slide into recession after I left office. As a statesman, I will rather not engage in trading blames but help build a national consensus on how to move our dear country forward.
PT: What in your view does the country need to do to put itself on the path of sustainable development, and become a more enduring democracy?
JONATHAN: First, Nigerians must believe that Nigeria is their country where they have equal rights and equal stake. That will be the foundation upon which we must all mount our patriotism to love and work for Nigeria’s growth and development.
Fundamental to socio-economic development is national unity of the Nigerian state. Nigeria must evolve from a country of ethno-geographic nationalities struggling among themselves for Nigeria’s meagre internal revenues from mostly oil mineral resources into a united nation competing with other nations for global resources.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview, conducted in May 2019, was originally published in Premium Times special print publication to mark Nigeria’s 20 years of unbroken democracy.