Understanding Nigeria’s President Jonathan, By Tolu Ogunlesi

“The president’s political career has been one marked by mistreatment from his superiors.”

Do you remember the long “biographical sketch” on Umar Yar’Adua, published by Nasir el-Rufai in May 2009, months before the constitutional crisis precipitated by the President’s illness? The essay that showed us, to an unprecedented degree, the character and personality of the man we called President. In el-Rufai’s words, he hoped that the information he was providing would “help explain some of Yar’Adua’s decisions and actions, as well as successes and failures as President of Nigeria.” When I read it I recall thinking: why didn’t we know this before 2007?

Today I’m deeply interested in exploring the life of Goodluck Jonathan and how his personality and circumstances might have shaped and are shaping the most crucial decisions of presidency. In the search for clues I have turned to an authorized biography, ‘Wind of Hope’, written by Lindsay Barrett and Babatunde Faniyan, edited by Ebiegberi J. Alagoa, and published in 2011, shortly after Dr. Jonathan was elected President.

Goodluck’s humble background is on display in that book. (It must however be noted that the dire circumstances of his childhood were in no way unusual then – or even now. He certainly didn’t have a more deprived background than Olusegun Obasanjo).

He tells his biographers that the first time he, aged five or six, heard the sound of a car (a Shell LandRover travelling on the dirt road between his village and a neighboring one), he ran into the bush, in fear. (The book also tells us he didn’t buy his first car – a 1986 Datsun Bluebird – until 1995, when he was 37 years old).

From the book the possibility emerges that the President’s affinity for powerful women – his emphasis on ensuring that at least 35% of public offices at Federal level are reserved for women, and the fact that Nigeria has never before had this many women prominently positioned in government (indeed we have come a long way from the Babangida days, when Nigeria went more than seven years without a single female Minister) – may have its roots in the strong female personalities who shaped his early years.

First there was Jonathan’s paternal grandmother, Sarah, the woman who named him ‘Azikiwe’ after the eminent PhD-wielding nationalist who would go on to become Nigeria’s first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Throughout his childhood he was known as ‘Azikiwe Jonathan.’

Then there’s his mother, Eunice. According to the biography, seven of Eunice’s children died before they turned one. Eunice, Lawrence Jonathan’s first wife, moved out of her husband’s house after he married a second wife, circa 1960. She never returned there; and till date, presumably never remarried.

And then his older sister, Obebatein, who the biographers quote as saying: “[Goodluck] used to joke that he would marry a woman who was as tall as me or even taller than me.”

Finally there was the woman he ended up marrying. Although once his student at the College of Education in Rumuolumeni, Rivers State (where they met), Patience Ebifaka Oba is older than him by a month, and, from what we know and see of her, projects a more forceful and socially active persona than he does.

There appears to be a consensus that the President is a simple, humble man. The words “unassuming”, “humble”, “quiet”, “coolheaded” keep showing up in descriptions of him by friends and colleagues. Even today you can see evidence of the reserved nature in the shyness of his smile, and in his seeming unease in the face of TV cameras and interviewers.

Generally, in Nigeria, a country where aggression is national character, reserved people tend to be taken for granted. The president’s political career has been one marked by mistreatment from his superiors. The grand irony is that it’s the same calm, humble, taciturn mien that made him the perfect choice for Deputy/Vice that always ended up putting him on the receiving end of sustained humiliation.

As Deputy Governor in Bayelsa it is said that he was kept a figurehead by Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a Governor turned convict who he would go on to offer a presidential pardon. The academic Wale Adebanwi, in his book A Paradise for Maggots, writes that “for Alams and member of his inner circle, Jonathan, as deputy governor, was a virtual nobody. Alams ‘Man Friday’, Ebifemowei, was the de facto deputy Governor.’

This was a pattern that would repeat itself barely three years later, when Goodluck Jonathan became Vice President. Journalist Segun Adeniyi narrates an interesting story in his book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’:

“As early in the administration as December 2007, a group of women had paid her a visit, and in the course of the discussion, one had asked: “How is oga?” To this Mrs. Jonathan replied, “My husband is in the office reading newspapers.” Then she added in pidgin English, rather sarcastically: “Abi no be newspaper Turai [Mrs. Yar’Adua] say make im dey read?””

This might explain why when, in October 2008, the US Embassy in Nigeria cabled to Washington a list of the country’s most influential persons, the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was missing. [David Mark was on the list, as were a number of (then) state governors, including Ahmed Shekarau and Bukola Saraki].

When Jonathan summoned Sanusi Lamido to his office a few weeks ago, and asked for a resignation, did Sanusi’s middle-finger to the President suddenly trigger memories of the painful humiliation he faced as Deputy Governor and Vice President? Did those memories contribute to his decision to take the route he eventually took, instead of allowing Sanusi to leave with his wahala in three months?

It also appears that the President is a man with sense of loyalty (to his friends) so deep it often crosses the line into ridiculousness. This might explain why the Presidency appears obsessed with conflating ‘resignation’ and ‘sack’. This is a President who for one reason or the other seems wired to give his friends a soft landing, regardless of their crimes or misdemeanours. Hence the ‘resignations’ of presidential-campaign-queen-turned-Aviation-Minister Stella Oduah and fellow-deputy-Governor-turned-Principal-Secretary-turned-Chief-of-Staff Mike Ogiadomhe, even when the truth appears to have been that they were fired.

Such a sense of loyalty driven by a sense of ‘niceness’ can be hugely problematic for a man whose job it is to be a decisive President. As Lamido Sanusi memorably put it, “When you sit with President Jonathan himself, he appears a nice and simple person who is trying to do his best. His greatest failing obviously is that he is surrounded by people who are extremely incompetent, who are extremely fraudulent and whom he trusts.”

Last week karma caught up with one of such extremely fraudulent presidential aides, who authored a document linking Sanusi Lamido and Umaru Mutallab to Boko Haram, and, using a pseudonym, sent out the document to media organisations. The aide forgot one minor issue – digital footprints. It took only elementary probing to reveal that the Microsoft Word document had been created by the presidential aide. The Internet also very easily offered up clues linking the said aide to the fake ‘person’ created to disseminate the dangerous allegations.

President Jonathan would do well to beware of those whose only motive for being around him is to either maintain their access to ill-gotten wealth and power, or to feed their endless propensity for mischief and evil.

He should remember that every President automatically gets assigned, on assumption of office, a band of drummers whose job it is to play the music that will lead the President into infamy. It is his duty to recognize those drumbeats, and the drummers, and make himself as deaf to their music as is humanly possible.

These days I find myself often thinking: Can Nigeria endure another four years of President Jonathan’s biggest failings: the blind eye turned to the monumental stealing of public funds (mindboggling levels of crude oil theft and fuel subsidy scandals and dubious “strategic” agreements to hand over Nigeria’s oil wealth to private companies without appropriation); the disproportionate influence of militants and criminals over the President and the country (see the story of the disgraceful militant-engineered hostage-holding, in June/July 2013, of Nigeria LNG Ltd by NIMASA; an act that ended up costing Nigeria, in lost revenues and lost reputation, far more than what NLNG was reportedly owing NIMASA); and the elevation of a class of impossibly dubious persons into the status of ‘untouchables’.

His biographers write that, when he worked at the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) between 1993 and 1998, he liked to admonish his colleagues by saying: “Don’t overdo things!”

Whatever happened to that Goodluck?

And no, there’s no point arguing that other Presidents also presided over monumental corruption. Goodluck Jonathan came promising “transformation”, not maintenance of the status quo.

Here is a very lucky President, presiding over a country of immense potential at a time when its people have never been more primed to unleash their entrepreneurial energies, and when the country’s chances of breaking free from a dysfunctional past have never been stronger. Sadly, there is the strong possibility that the judgment of history upon Goodluck Jonathan will not be a very kind one.

And it would be such a shame, for a man offered, almost for free, such a wonderful opportunity to write his name in gold.

Follow me on Twitter: @toluogunlesi


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