Once again, Nigerians are caught in the trap of asking, and seeking to answer, the wrong question. This time, the question has to do with Goodluck Jonathan: Should he, or shouldn’t he, run in the forthcoming presidential election?
As questions go, this one is not only effete but also a dangerous distraction. And yet we have somehow found a way to elevate it to the status of the most potent political question of the day.
A few weeks ago, a woman who is a “facebook” friend sent me a private message asking whether I thought Jonathan should run. When I didn’t answer promptly, she followed up with a reminder, as if the query were self-evidently urgent. I wrote back to say, in effect, that for me the question begged a more serious, significant question: Why does Jonathan want to run for the presidency?
As I explained to the woman, it behooves Jonathan, instead of instigating a largely hollow debate about the propriety or otherwise of his candidacy, to define his vision, an elaborate agenda, for Nigeria. It boils down to this: Where does Jonathan want to take Nigeria, and by what means, if handed a four-year electoral mandate?
If Jonathan has answered that question, in words or deeds, then forgive me – I must have missed it. The last time I checked, the man who is being erroneously made the issue was still waffling on the fundamental question of why he desires presidential power. Again, unless I’m awfully mistaken, neither Jonathan nor his lobby has taken time to articulate the Nigeria they see now and the one they envision.
Instead, the issue of Jonathan’s presidency is being canvassed on the inherently slippery, corrupt and narrow turf of the PDP’s zoning scheme. The factions have staked out positions based on the party’s depraved formula for holding the Nigerian people and their resources under the PDP’s yoke for – as former PDP chairman Vincent Ogbulafor warned us – sixty years or more.
One faction in the debate insists that Jonathan should check his presidential ambitions – for now at least – to enable the “north” to complete its eight-year run interrupted by the death of Umaru Yar’Adua. Those championing Jonathan’s run insist that the zoning arrangement ought to be junked. There’s another faction – I identify with it – that regards the whole hullabaloo as an evasion, a contrived, deliberately manufactured confusion.
No sane Nigerian, whether from Kano, Yenogoa, Ado Ekiti, Owerri or Oturkpo, would argue that the nation is in good shape. Thanks in large part to the greed, depravity and visionlessness of its most “prominent” citizens, Nigeria is today in so profound a crisis that many of its own people argue that it is a lost cause.
There are some lunatics amongst Nigerians – most of them to be found in the circle of politicians – but no clear-minded Nigerian would argue against a Nigeria where roads are in good shape, education and healthcare are sound, power supply is dependable, employment opportunities abound, merit is enthroned, the judiciary is independent and fearless, journalists are principled, crimes are solved, the corrupt, however highly placed, are prosecuted and jailed, and elections are credibly conducted.
The Nigeria that most Nigerians desire is one that advances their legitimate human aspirations, rather than one – like the current Nigeria – that animalizes its citizens. If Jonathan demonstrated a serious commitment towards creating a Nigeria that coincides with the collective dreams of Nigerians, I don’t think we’re going to see hordes of protesters in Maiduguri, Abakaliki or Abeokuta with placards exclaiming, “We don’t want good roads from an Ijaw man!” “We reject regular power from a south-south president!” or “President Jonathan, take these good hospitals back to Yenogoa!”
What’s my point, then? Precisely that the debate over Jonathan’s presidential ambitions avoids the real issues – what has Jonathan achieved so far in office and what does he intend to achieve if given four more years? The debate also seeks to mask a scandal: that Jonathan, like Ibrahim Babangida and Atiku Abubakar (to name just two other presidential suspects), has not thought deeply about the challenges of leadership, and merely hankers after power for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
In a little over three months, Jonathan would have occupied Nigeria’s presidential seat (in a de facto, acting or substantive capacity) for one year. What, in sum, has he achieved in that time? In what way, if any, has he indicated a willingness and capacity to nudge Nigeria in a different, more wholesome direction? Has he done anything to buttress an acute awareness of the depths of Nigeria’s crisis, and to illustrate a commitment to a loftier idea of Nigeria? Has he brought some salutary stamp to statecraft, or ennobled the public space in a way that is both manifest and admirable?
Jonathan’s handlers would be hard put to it to contend that he has been focused on addressing Nigeria’s myriad crises of underdevelopment. Part of the argument is that, once he earns his own four-year mandate, then Jonathan would have the political capital to spend on moving the nation forward.
It’s an old, tiresome dodge of a contention. In the name of seeking the presidency – and there’s no question, now, that he covets the prize – Jonathan has left the impression of cutting some deeply questionable deals. There’s the wide impression that the fight against corruption, half-hearted at the best of times under Ms. Farida Waziri, has been put on hold as Jonathan courts corrupt elements to back his presidential ambition. Jonathan appears willing to embed himself with all-comers – from former President Olusegun Obasanjo to Tony Anenih – in this cavalcade to a four-year presidency. With the exception of a few names, Jonathan’s recent list of recipients of national honors was both scary and scandalous. Even if he had no hand in compiling the roll, he certainly could have made the case that he intended to pass on this year’s edition of an increasingly farcical ritual that bestows “honor” on some certified frauds, court jesters, or despoilers.
Missing in the “presidential” pageantry, sadly, is a sense of what matters and counts – service to the Nigerian collectivity and commitment to the task of lifting Nigeria from the morass of backwardness and impoverishment. Instead of investing so much in wooing discredited “steakholders” to support his candidacy, he ought to roll up his sleeves and go to bat for the Nigerian people.
If Jonathan had all along been driven by the dream of making Nigeria a better, more human space, then we would not today be wasting time on an idle debate. Had he even tackled an issue as simple as road construction and rehabilitation on a massive scale, he would then have been able to argue that, with more time, he would address other sectors of Nigeria’s blighted life.
As it is, the current debate over Jonathan’s presidential dreams amounts to a squandering of breath over a non-issue. It all reminds me of the hype contrived by shameless politicians and shady “traditional” rulers who – for a fee – mischievously argued that Sani Abacha should “transmute” from dictator to civilian president. The current exercise also echoes the notorious third term debate in which a coterie of profiteers from Obasanjo’s political scam tried to sell the idea that Nigerians would be doomed if they did not permit a certified mediocrity to continue to run their country – perhaps unto death.
Jonathan should end this non-debate by stepping forward to, one, lay before us the record of his accomplishment in office so far and, two, tell us exactly where he plans to take Nigeria, complete with the roadmap. If he can’t do this, it would be a sign that he doesn’t have the mettle and fiber to lead Nigeria. And he must then spare us this needless, empty debate.