By Obi Nwakanma
As readers of the “Orbit” are bound to notice, this column has been on furlough for the past six weeks. I came to Nigeria to bury Chinua Achebe, and I had taken a break afterwards to vacation and do some research. I have interest currently in writing the biography of the poet, statesman, leader of the African anti-colonial movement in the 20th century, and Nigeria’s first president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Zik’s is a much layered life and we can chew him only in little bits. I’d spent the last eight weeks in Nigeria traveling in bush taxis and buses; hanging out with village folk, as well as some dear old friends in Abuja, Lagos, Owerri, Enugu, Jos, Port-Harcourt, and Onitsha. I kept my ears on the ground and my reporter’s instinct sharpened.
Two things struck me: I’ve been on biennial and triennial trips homewards to Nigeria since my expatriation nearly fourteen years ago, and I’d never felt a better sense of the presence of government in the lives of Nigerians as I felt in this trip, and yet it also felt, quite eerily indeed as though the administration was wrestling with shadowy spirits – factors that make his best efforts invisible.
There is clear evidence that the government is working, and it is abundant at least in the vast network of motorable roads that I drove; roads that were in the past impassable. In my local county, old corrugated colonial roads; roads built when my maternal grandfather was county works supervisor or foreman, have now become macadamized through the agency of FERMA and by the efforts, I’ve been told, of the honourable Emeka Ihedioha, who brought the bacon home.
There was greater evidence of the availability of petrol. In the past I would see long lines of cars like soldier ants in dry stations. In this trip, far more than at any other time, there was no experience of fuel shortage. You drove into a gas station, and you had fuel. No problem. If only for this, president Jonathan’s administration deserves great commendation. I felt a sense of prosperity among Nigerians.
Things remain very tough, no doubt about this, from years of economic attrition. Nigerians continue to complain, and rightfully too, because this nation can do much better by its citizens. But I felt a greater sense of public well-being, far more than at any other time in the last twenty-five years. There is a bustle; a new spring in the gait of Nigerians; a new sense of confidence, and it is palpable, even among the young, who are increasingly deploying their skills to various entrepreneurial emergencies – efforts which this government must do well to support with a far-reaching policy.
There is still great disparity in the distribution of wealth: humongous wealth continue to pile in just a few hands; a dangerous and unsustainable trend – while a young generation of skilled unemployed continue to feel profoundly alienated from their society: jobless, under-employed, and often without ameliorative support. This generation has grown cynical, fatalistic, and may well be a ticking time-bomb.
However, it seems clear also that when all things are generally considered, President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has grappled with a terrible legacy of waste, and in very quiet and sometimes clearly unremarked ways has done far more work than he has been given credit to stem the tide of decay. Although the Boko Haram insurgency remained quite clearly an issue, I have felt a greater sense of safety and security than in the past.
In spite of the public criticisms that have trailed the president’s policy of containment, national security is clearly at alert even though operationally, the security agencies have managed not to blanket Nigeria with a sense of siege. In the past, I felt nervous traveling Eastwards, but the East is today calm as a gentle breeze; calmer than I’d remember. Since the end of the civil war, the Eastern part of Nigeria has often seemed like it was under police and military occupation.
Today, there is far less police presence on the roads. Those uniformed and sworn personnel on the roads no longer harass the public. They treat the public with greater respect. I felt this and those who have not lived under a society in constant siege might not understand the sense of relief that clearly accompanies this new order of reality. There are certainly many blindspots in this administration. Electricity supply is still iffy. Unemployment is still criminally high.
There is evidence of continued corruption in public places. There are very major policy planks that I disagree with, particularly for their neo-conservative tilt. Yet, we must, as a matter of obligation acknowledge, that President Jonathan has performed better than any of his predecessors in the last twenty-five years. So, the question remained for me: in spite of the clear leaps made by the Jonathan administration, there remains a clear necessity to undermine him and destabilize his best efforts. I will emphasize this: this president is not as dumb or weak as he has been made out to be by his severest critics.
In a measure of competence, he is by far, more competent than Obasanjo, for instance. He has contained the terrifying Boko Haram insurgency. He has accomplished some infrastructural milestones in the area of roads and public highways; he has made certain that the age old shortages that shut down production in Nigeria has been stemmed; he has cleaned up the banking sector, and he is providing a clearly more accessible leadership with a humane face. There, I think is where the disconnect happens.
Nigerians have been so used to military style leadership that President Jonathan’s style seem to some a bit strange. His spokesmen put a finger to it: “this president is not a bully.” Perhaps, because most of Goodluck Jonathan’s critics suffer from something akin to the “Stockholm effect” – they somehow miss the “strong president” – the bulldozer who does not negotiate, compromise, or recalibrates his position.
They want him to crush Boko Haram to pulps and not listen to any other counsel. I want him to crush Boko haram and not negotiate. But I think that as president, he has all the facts at his disposal to take decisions which should be beyond my own sentiment. The question I’d ask myself will be: should I trust this president? I think Nigerians elected a democrat, and not a dictator.
A great attribute of sophisticated political leadership is the ability to change positions to great effect; to use compromise as a tool of statescraft. But the hounds are after this president for the wrongest of reasons: from the very beginning, he was the “wrong” president: a minority nobody, who had been trussed up from obscurity to power, Goodluck Jonathan had no power base; had no innings in the traditional cult of power in Nigeria. He was the classic outsider.
Those who made him thought he could be made into a marionette; they would sing, and he would dance. But they forgot something: the stubborn gene of the Ijo and the wit and cunning of the Aro of Jonathan’s hybrid ancestry, as well as the fact that, in spite of our unwillingness to believe it, the president earned his doctorate in the Sciences, and it is not honoris causa. An educated man is bound ultimately to confound his adversaries. I think Jonathan is playing for high stakes. He has aligned his own forces, and he is in a great battle with very traditional power oligarchs, and they want his head on a platter.
They have lit a cauldron in Rivers state, using Rotimi Amaechi, Jonathan’s closest political kinsman: it is a classic ruse, and the issues have also become mired in cloak and dagger politics: from the battle over the control of the governor’s forum, a key position in the coming nomination process for president in the PDP, to the question of who controls the president’s backyard, there is in all this, a prelude to 2015.