Adewale Kupoluyi contends that good governance can only be established when praise-singing is discouraged

Former Nigerian President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan recently made an honest disclosure when he said that overpraising sitting presidents makes them feel like a little god and unthinkable for them to leave the office. Jonathan stated this at the constitutional term limits summit in Niamey, Niger Republic. The former president, who is one of the speakers at the summit that was organised by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), also said the fear of persecution after office makes it difficult for a sitting president to relinquish power.

“Let’s create an environment where people will believe there’s life after office. That if you leave office you should not be persecuted. The way we manage ourselves as sitting presidents and former presidents matter. The first line is to reduce what will make a sitting president afraid to leave the office. We are our problem because we always think our presidents are little gods. That somebody is president does not mean he is God. We have a tradition of praise-singing. We tend to give our presidents name they don’t deserve”, he added.

At the occasion, some African leaders, led by President of Niger and Chairman of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government Mahamadou Issoufou and former Liberian President, Amos Sawyer had paid tribute to Jonathan for leaving office voluntarily and masterminding peaceful power transition after the 2015 general elections that brought the incumbent Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari into office, describing it as an exemplary show of leadership that should motivate those in power.

Warning African leaders to adhere strictly to the constitutional period in office, Issoufou stressed that term limits strengthen democratic institutions and promote peaceful power transfers from one administration to another, the Nigerien President pledged himself to the two terms stipulated by his country’s constitution. Similarly, former Liberian President, Amos Sawyer lauded Jonathan for setting what he called a democratic example by peacefully handing over power to his successor. Sawyer described the former president as a remarkable man who did not let his ambition becloud his sense of patriotism, saying “Former President Jonathan is a remarkable gentleman, for what he did for Nigeria; he did not do a second term; he handed over power peacefully”.

However, Jonathan deviated a bit from cheery remarks when he observed that “A former president has to be careful in commenting on national issues; otherwise you become a nuisance to society. Because having been the president of the country for a period of time, there are information available to you; you do not always expect a sitting president to do things exactly the way you do, and sometimes, when you try to comment on national issues, of course, there are people that will defend the president. Sometimes, they leave the subject-matter and begin to castigate some aspects of your administration they observed weaknesses in, to divert the attention of the general public from the issue”.

“Former presidents should make comments from time-to-time on our national issues, but it should be issues that are quite critical; issues you think you will not be able to reach out to the president; if you reach the president and have conversations with him, you do not need to go to the media and discuss the issues otherwise you will create more problems. In Nigeria, we have this platform; the council of state that former presidents belong to, it could be a good platform to discuss issues. I do not advise that a former president should be active in political commentary; it will create more problems than solving the problem’’, Jonathan stressed.

From the summary of the comments made by Jonathan, three things can be pointed out. First, there is a need to stop praise-singing African leaders. Secondly, the media and civil society organisations should continue to serve as watchdogs and uphold accountability in governments. Thirdly, past presidents should avoid commenting on sensitive state matters after leaving office because it causes distractions for incumbents. Frankly speaking, I both agree and disagree with the position of the former president. The critical question to ask is what encourages praise-singing? Many leaders themselves promote praise-singing because when they get into office, they detest criticism. They hate to hear anyone speak anything negative about their government. All they want to hear is sweet talk!

“We tend to over-praise sitting presidents and make them think they are little gods. When they begin to make a sitting president think he is God, and he is the only person that can run the affairs of the nation; then the person will be there; nobody removes God. When you make a president feel he is god, don’t expect him to leave. The media and civil society must continue to admonish characters that make presidents think they are the best thing to happen. That you are president does not mean you are better than others. We citizens of this continent create little gods”, Jonathan had added.

Why people avoid telling truth to power is that no matter how sincere, objective and useful such criticism is, those who hold such are tagged as enemies that should be silenced, hunted and persecuted. In the end, except those that are ready to die for the truth, what African leaders continue to hear are only the things they want to hear and promoting sycophancy, eye-service, and nepotism. Media outlets and civil society groups that are not on the side of government are labeled as opposition and sponsored by perceived enemies of the government in power. We recall that under the Jonathan administration too, there were forceful seizures of newspapers at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos while distribution vans were stopped and searched in different parts of the country, as wrappers of the tabloids were stripped-off and copy confiscated.

The truth is that good governance can only be established when praise-singing is discouraged and when the media and civil society are alive to their responsibilities. Leaders and past presidents should not relent in speaking up when things are going wrong. This is where I disagree with Jonathan. Past leaders should speak up when things are falling apart. They should not only exercise their fundamental right, but they should always be opinion leaders in society. More importantly, the leadership recruitment process should be transparent, seamless and honest enough to breed quality leaders badly needed to speak fearlessly and turn around things for the nation. That is how to make a difference as leaders. This is an obligation that Jonathan owes our country by telling truth to power.

Kupoluyi wrote from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta