“Sir, my sense about what is going on is that you are not likely to have much problem with the election. I believe you will win even though I also fear that you may find it difficult to govern the country after the polls”.
When I made that statement to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in his office on 23rd July 2014, I indeed believed he was going to win the 2015 presidential election based on my reading of the political situation in the country at the time. “I agree with you, Segun”, he replied, “I am also not worried about the election because I know I will win; but as you said, there are problems that could make things difficult after the election.”
Just about eight months after that conversation, President Jonathan lost the election to Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), the same man he had defeated four years earlier in 2011. Although I had by January 2015 reviewed my position with the conclusion that Jonathan was going to lose, the question still remains: How did I call it wrong for him eight months before the election and how come he also did not see the defeat coming at the period?
Looking back to that fateful meeting and the issues raised, there were indeed tell-tale signs that both of us ignored. The meeting itself had been set up in a dramatic manner. Col. Bello Fadile (rtd), who was at the period working with his friend and National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), had met me at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre. In the course of our discussion on the state of the nation, Fadile said in passing that there was a growing perception in the North that Jonathan had a prejudice against the geo-political zone. I replied by saying that was the impression being conveyed by people around the president.
Apparently taken aback by my response, Fadile asked me whether I was prepared to meet Jonathan to share my view and possibly offer advice. I agreed to the idea even though I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of our conversation. As it would turn out, barely 24 hours later, I got a call from Fadile that the president wanted to see me in his office the next day by 4.pm.
My session with President Jonathan lasted about 25 minutes and we discussed a wide range of national issues from Boko Haram to Chibok Girls/BBOG and what had become, at that period, a systematic profiling of the North by security agencies. I specifically cited the example of the Maitama Farmers Market that had by then been closed for several weeks. President Jonathan said he was not aware of the issue. Right in my presence, he picked the phone and asked that he be connected to the Director General of the Directorate of State Security (DSS).
When the man came on line, the former president asked him about the Farmers Market. Apparently unsatisfied with the explanation, Jonathan asked, “and because of that peoples’ means of livelihood would be closed down for weeks?” He ended the conversation by demanding immediate action on the issue. When he dropped the phone, Jonathan thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention, as he lamented the fact that the businesses of several Nigerians could be shut down in such a cynical manner. He was genuinely concerned about the plights of those traders who were mostly Northerners yet it was one of the “sins” counted against him at the time.
I have had to reflect on that encounter in the light of the recent “spat” between the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II and the former Special Assistant to President Jonathan on Social Media, Mr. Reno Omokri. At a public forum in Kano three weeks ago, Sanusi, as chairman of the occasion, warned President Muhammed Buhari against repeating the mistakes of his predecessor. “There is nothing we are facing today that we did not know would happen. We made mistakes, many of them deliberate. We ignored every single warning. We should not continue to blame the previous administration, as we have also made some mistakes in the current administration. We must retrace our steps; otherwise, we may fall into the same trap we fell the last time when the government was always right. The bottomline is that if your policy is wrong, it is you that must change”, said the emir.
Having taken the statement as an indictment of the Jonathan administration which he served, Omokri decided to pick up the gauntlet. “How can anyone say President Muhammadu Buhari should not make Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s mistake?” asked Omokri. “Rather than avoid GEJ’s mistake, PMB should make the same GEJ mistake that made the economy grow at over 4% every year GEJ was in power!”, added Omokri who went on to catalogue a list of what he considered the achievements of Jonathan that Buhari should replicate.
For sure, Jonathan’s place in history is very much assured but definitely not because of those achievements credited to him by Omokri but rather because he successfully managed two delicate political transitions with aplomb: The first, from the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua with all its complexities; and the second, no less delicate, to President Buhari that I have spent the last 17 months interrogating (speaking to as many of the principal characters as possible) for my coming book, “Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria”.
It is particularly noteworthy that when I decided to write the book in April last year, I knew it was not going to be for Jonathan. Just like my Abacha book, which was written with President Olusegun Obasanjo in mind at a time he was toying with the idea of a Third Term in office, the real beneficiary of how and why Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election would be Buhari. The lesson of the past is usually more useful for the future or, as it is in this case, the present. That is the essence of the admonition by the Emir of Kano.
No matter the tales being told by the operatives of this administration, Jonathan did not invent corruption in Nigeria even though the desperation for re-election may have brought graft to an industrial scale under him. Yet, even that cannot explain the deprivation of majority of Nigerians today nor can we blame the economic downturn solely on the falling prices of oil. The challenge is that there is a seeming lack of ideas about how to turn things around aside the absence of any serious economic team working in that direction.
For the benefit of this administration, let me summarise President Jonathan’s mistakes into just one paragraph. He took many things for granted. He had a penchant for scoring own goals. He allowed himself to be hijacked by some ethnic/sectional entrepreneurs. He became distant from the ordinary people. He developed a persecution complex such that every critic, however well-meaning, was credited with ill motive. He was hemmed in by a cult of powerful women over which he had no control. He allowed the grievances of Nigerians to accumulate without dealing with them. And he enjoyed making excuses, rather than taking responsibility, for his failings.
The consequence is that Jonathan became the first Nigerian President to be voted out of office, even though he redeemed himself by the manner in which he honourably accepted defeat. Has President Buhari learnt anything from that experience, even when he was the direct beneficiary? I am not so sure. Indeed, if we must be honest, the landscape is already strewn with the familiar mistakes of our recent past.
That many Nigerians are hurting as a result of the biting economic situation is to put the situation mildly, even when we are now told some roadside “supermarkets” along Bauchi-Jos axis sell baskets of oranges, water melon and sweet potato for less than N1000! That perhaps explains why ad hoc measures are in place at a time we need bold initiatives coupled with strategic communication to assure Nigerians that however difficult things may seem today, the future of our country is secure.
In 2011, President Jonathan was the candidate of majority of Nigerian youth who saw in him many possibilities. His story that he grew up without a shoe (a line I gathered was supplied by Senator Ben Bruce) resonated. But it did not take long for Jonathan to forget where he was coming from and with that, the momentum shifted late in 2014 in favour of Buhari whose 12-year presidential aspiration finally galvanized the young and the old. The thinking was that a man with his experience and character would be able to inspire a new Nigeria. Unfortunately, Buhari has been more preoccupied with the past than the future.
To be fair, there is a background to that. In the frequent and understandable effort by each succeeding administration to enhance its legitimacy, the blaming of predecessors has almost become institutionalized in our country. The main problem, however, is that the adoption of ‘blame and shame’ as a permanent philosophy of government has been elevated to new heights by the Buhari presidency.
Ordinarily, the interests of Nigeria as a perpetual patrimony ought to have been clearly established 55 years after independence. It is these irreducible minimums of national continuity that ought to transcend successive administrations and their respective partisan pigeon holes. For instance, irrespective of who gets to occupy the White House every four years, the interests of the United States and the responses of the administration to whatever threatens those interests are easily predictable. This is the missing link in Nigeria and that is what is fueling the lingering Buhari/Jonathan differential that is standing in the way of serious work at a most critical period in the life of our nation.
The solution is for each new administration to be bold enough to make and own its mistakes while learning from the errors of the past. That is the real essence of Emir Sanusi’s intervention which this government will do well to heed. There is so much work to do and getting Nigeria out of recession will not be an easy task. It requires all the attention that this administration can muster.
I believe President Buhari can still turn things around for Nigeria but there must be a change of direction. In the attempt to insist on a single narrative (‘Jonathan stole all the money!’) for its seeming inability to properly manage the economy, the Buhari administration is accumulating errors and missteps that are entirely his. Yet, history remains what it is: it will judge Buhari by his achievements in office; not by Jonathan’s mistakes. That zone now belongs in the past.
Meanwhile, my book should be out by December. I have also uploaded some new offerings on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com.
I wish all my Muslim readers Eid-el-Kabir in advance!