BOOK REVIEW By Reuben Abati
Bonaventure Philips Melah, Dear President Goodluck Jonathan (An Open Letter), no imprint.
The writing of books, commentaries, essays on executive political leaders, focusing especially on the efforts and the place of Presidential figures in history, popular culture and social imagination is an established tradition, and a major enterprise in Western democracies. It is comparatively still a growing field among African writers and public intellectuals, given the scope and richness of available primary material. Nonetheless, such studies provide an opportunity for recording, analyzing and contextualizing the contributions, the persona, the policies, the impact, the strengths and failures of particular Presidents or Heads of State, in relation to the writer’s own understanding or purpose or the larger objective of defining the legacy of a particular leader.
The tone could range from friendly to bitter, scholarly or affective, reflective or opinionated or just simply cold, journalistic, reportage. Presidential ranking is a favourite sport in this regard: who is the greatest President or the weakest? Who is the statesman, or the most polarizing? And how do the leaders, in a particular context, over time rank in accordance with varied criteria or expectations? The intense scrutiny to which state leaders are often subjected – from Amenhotep III, the Sun King (Pharaoh of Egypt) to Alexander the Great, all the way through history to Sanna Marin, the 35-year old, incumbent Prime Minister of Finland, iterates the importance of actors in institutional roles, and their impact on policy, politics and statehood. They remind of us of the role of leadership and power in the formation and evolution of global development and social processes: the living history of countries and communities in relation to the management of power and opportunities by specific individuals.
The political history of world leadership further offers a vehicle for holding those who occupy the highest positions in their countries accountable, and hence, a growing focus on social history in relation to leadership: how do leaders relate with ordinary people, how do they transform or worsen their lives, unite them or polarize them, rather than a narrow consideration of their own relationships with other elites in power, with whom they jostle for attention and opportunities. But whereas no single author or piece of writing can offer a whole view of the truth, every new contribution certainly provides a new perspective. The only danger in this area of enterprise is the error of generalization, the potential for bias, and the limitations of historical context.
This is a book review, not an essay on the intersection between power and history, but I have given this background to prepare the reader’s mind for the subject we are dealing with, which is the latest book on Nigeria’s former President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, a piece of political commentary, delivered in an epistolary style in 35 chapters and 185 pages. The book is titled accordingly, Dear President Goodluck Jonathan (An Open Letter) by Bonaventure Philips Melah. There is a growing body of writings on the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan as Nigeria’s President from 2010 – 2015. The persistent scrutiny of that tenure that we have seen, and the seemingly rich harvest thereby, would seem to be an indication of the controversial nature of the events and episodes before, during, and after that Presidency, and the issues and ideas that defined it.
In my estimation, writings on President Jonathan and the Jonathan administration fall into three categories so far: one, the documentation of the efforts of his administration by Ministries, agencies and departments, political associates and the President’s media and public communication team while he was in office; two: post-mortem reflections on the Jonathan administration and accounts of individual involvement by former Ministers and aides, and three: writings by independent observers – and this category is the most variegated, including post-mortems by scholars, journalists, political opponents, haters and admirers with the titles ranging from the friendly to the not-so-friendly. One book in this category is even tantalizingly titled Jonathan: The Squandering of Goodluck (2015, 604 pp) by Margie Marie Neal and Moshood Fayemiwo. Political leaders have no control over how they are assessed or remembered by the public. Even when the more organized ones among them make an effort to write their own story, the ultimate control over their narratives is in the hands of a mass, indefinite, global audience. It is part of the price of leadership. Any leader who worries himself sick over praise or condemnation does so in vain, because the judgment of time and history is a function of a long chain of events in the people’s memory and experience.
Bonaventure Melah’s Dear President Goodluck Jonathan (An Open Letter) falls into the third category identified above. A journalist, editor and public affairs commentator, Melah worked, for brief periods, on the sidelines of the Jonathan administration either as an aide to a political appointee or as a resource person to the media team at the secretariat of the then ruling People’s Democratic Party. His writing shows a more than casual familiarity with Nigerian politics and the ways of political figures and the Nigerian state. But he is essentially a Jonathan admirer and supporter, one of those loyal supporters of the President who were once labelled “Jonathanians” by the opposition.
Melah has chosen as the title of his book, a phrase that has a familiar, contemporary ring to it. The phrase “Open Letter” is almost a personalized, if not “patented” phrase in Nigeria’s political culture today, for the simple reason that many political observers associate it majorly with one person – none other than Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former Head of State and former President whose “Open Letters” to his successors in office deserve a rigorous inquiry with regard to what those letters” say about other elites in power and their performance. Bonaventure Melah’s “Open Letter” is the friendly effort of an admirer, who is unapologetic in stating his objectives: (a) to congratulate President Goodluck Jonathan on his 63rd birthday; (b) to commend him for his leadership and contributions to Nigeria’s human and infrastructural development; (3) to update President Jonathan on some current economic and socio-political developments in Nigeria since he left office as President, and (4) to thank him for the courage that he demonstrated when he willingly conceded defeat after the 2015 Presidential election, precisely on March 31, 2015. Melah celebrates him. He salutes his courage, and recreates that unforgettable moment in Nigerian history.
The epistolary style adopted by the author allows him to cover a broad range of topics from the past, to the present and even, recent, topical issues, as he interweaves many issues from episodes during the Jonathan administration, with other issues of topical interest – security, corona virus, international politics, fake news and electoral promises, and the challenges of leadership. This is essentially the work of a journalist with a hard nose for the news, and who in the course of his career has learnt to pay keen attention to news behind the news, and use that as an advantage to place issues in perspective. Each of the 35 chapters in this book is interspersed with expressions such as “My dear President, “Dear Sir”, or more frequently “My President”, lending the book a relaxed, conversational and intimate tone. What Melah has written is for the most part “a love letter” to President Jonathan, but the love that he expresses is not blind love. He tells President Jonathan quite early: ‘Many Nigerians and others from around the world believe that you are a great leader; indeed one of the best leaders Nigeria and Africa has ever had. I am one of them.” Nonetheless, he would also in another breath tell President Jonathan: “As a leader, you had your faults, your weaknesses…” and he provides a few of these in a Chapter 22 titled “Our Expectations you didn’t meet.” This does not in any way, however subtract from the author’s conviction that President Jonathan is a hero of democracy, a global citizen, a great leader and a good man. Melah is very defensive of his hero and he does not pull the punches in that regard.
The book can be conveniently divided into three major parts. Part One in my view should comprise Chapters 1-12, and here to borrow a common parlance is the “hottest part of the book.” Melah defines his premises already outlined above, and provides facts to defend his position. He is convinced for example that President Jonathan lost the 2015 election because of the envy of those who no longer wanted him in power and the treachery of persons within his own party, the PDP who played bad politics”, including fair weather friends and together, those who no longer wanted him in power formed an unholy alliance. Melah tells President Jonathan that those who formed that alliance are today living in shame and regret: “Today in Nigeria, those women who rained abuses at you while you were President are hiding in one corner”. (p. 18). Readers of this book will find most interesting, Chapter 5 titled: “One major reason PDP lost the 2015 Presidential election”.
The author’s main argument in subsequent chapters is how what he calls Karma has befallen those who conspired against President Jonathan. From Chapters 6 to 12, he names those persons and offers a series of profiles of elites in the corridors of power that can best be described as provocative and controversial. Melah identifies good friends, and those he calls traitors and he reports to the President how each one of them has fared since his hero left office. While he praises Senator Olusola Saraki, Governor Nyesom Wike, Hon. Ahmed Gulak, he delivers devastating blows on those he calls “The Elite Conspirators of 2015”, who he argues deployed in his view the three Ms (MMM) – the Media, Money and the Military as his narrative builds up to a climax in Chapter 11 titled “My President, you can forgive, but Karma is at work here”.
And who are these victims of Karma? – Olisa Metuh, former spokesperson of the PDP, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice President of Nigeria, HRH Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. While the average reader may jump to the conclusion that the author of this book is adopting that common principle: the enemy of my friend is my enemy”, that principle would not seem to apply here, because the author himself had repeatedly stated that President Jonathan is quick to forgive and move on, but he needs to be reminded that nemesis has since caught up with those who plotted against him. His interpretation of events, and his conclusions could be disputed and even fetch him charges of defamation.
While I understand the author’s moral argument about loyalty as the primary code of human relationships, as demonstrated in his deliberate review of “The Story of Jonathan and Soludo” (Chapter 12), I find his portrait of the former spokesperson of the PDP, Olisa Metuh, rather harsh. His labelling of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole as “one of the most corrupt political office holders in Nigeria” ((p. 72) is not backed by concrete evidence. His impolite characterization of the former Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi in contrast to his justification of the politics of Governor Abdullahio Umar Ganduje is also somewhat overdone. Melah makes no serious effort to hide his bias and prejudices. His letters to President Jonathan are coloured by his own emotions, but isn’t that what we do when we write letters?
In what I classify as the Second Part of the book, that is Chapters 13 – 18, he deals basically with topical issues: security challenges in Nigeria, the establishment of security networks like Amotekun, COVID-19 and the international politics around it. Melah’s accounts here are descriptive and reportorial. He writes about regional security outfits, and mentions restructuring but what does he think about specific issues: state police for example or the protest against police brutality as represented by the #EndSARS which falls within the time-frame of the letters published here. Conceptually, the author runs into troubled waters in Chapter 18 when he dabbles into the field of science, and cure for Corona virus. He praises Stella Emmanuel, the US-based Nigerian doctor, who joined others to promote Hydroxychloroquine as a preventive cure for COVID-19. In future reprints of this book, this is a chapter that I would recommend for excision or review. Both the World Health organization and stakeholder organizations have since established that those who prescribed hydroxychloroquine for CoVID-19 got it all wrong. Dr. Stella Emmanuel is definitely not “a rare gem and heroine” ( p. 107) that Bonaventure Melah says she is.
The rest of the book, Chapters 19 – 34 should constitute the Third Part of the book. It starts on a strong note with the author’s notable argument that “false electoral promises are fake news and should be criminalised” (p. 109). The remaining pages are devoted to issues of governance: President Jonathan’s major achievements as President, his words on marble, what he failed to achieve, Nigeria since 2015, including some achievements of the Buhari administration so far restructuring and the future of Nigeria. The book is brought to a close with photographs.
It is an engaging read. The author’s prose is crisp, unvarnished and exact. He may well get an open or a private response to some of his views and conclusions from President Jonathan, that in itself may require the writing of another memoir by the subject, but now that Melah’s letters are in the public domain as “an open letter”, he should be prepared for an open discussion of his interpretation of Nigeria’s recent and contemporary political history, and his projections into the future. In the final Chapter in the book (Chapter 35), Melah writes for example as follows: “Talks are ongoing among politicians and other concerned citizens, that you, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is the right person to take over government from President Muhammadu Buahri in 2023. Thso ewho share this view are saying that Nigeria needs both healing and reconciliation; and that you are the ideal person that can stand in the gap for the nation, this time. Even though I do not know the underbelly motive of those behind this turn-around, what I think personally, is that you leave the doors of your spirit open, in order that you may hear clearly what the Spirit of God will say eventually. This is true because as the saying goes: When God says NO, nobody can say YES; when God says YES, nobody can say NO”. (pp. 165 -167).
I have enjoyed reading this book very much. It is possible to start reading the book from any part or chapter, and yet get a full dose of the author’s impression about the particular topic under consideration. But it could have been better published and edited. These days, the content of a book is as important as its overall design and aesthetics. There is no imprint for example. The only clue we have about the date of publication is provided on page 168, where the author writes: “Abuja, December 15, 2020”. There is also no index to guide the reader as is standard practice. There are also proof-reading and spelling errors as in the repeated misspelling of hydroxychloroquine in Chapter 18. However, these omissions do not detract from the overall value of this book. This is by every measure, a worthy contribution to the conversation about political leadership in Nigeria, legacy and prospects and a most befitting tribute to a man whose humility, courage, wisdom and heroism provide strong lessons in leadership. It is hereby recommended for your attention and readership.