*An encounter inside Aso Rock
By Jide Ajani
This was to be the fourth meeting between the man Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and this writer.
However, last Sunday’s meeting with the man who is now President brought home some truth. From the preparation for the live broadcast of the PRESIDENTIAL MEDIA CHAT, to the post-event dinner at the President’s residence, one point remained very critical: Nigeria’s President needs help.
Before your imagination runs riot, this report presents the details of the encounter which lasted about three hours and thirty minutes; situating and contrasting it with a similar encounter with former President Olusegun Obasanjo. And after all said and done, you can then make up your mind on the type of help President Jonathan needs.
The President of Nigeria needs help from a wide range of people: His wife, his aides, friends and associates; foreign governments; Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, leaders; opposition politicians; and just about any individual who believes in Nigeria.
But the context of the help is what needs to be properly situated.
The boy who wore no shoes to school and who used to put his books on his head is now the President of Nigeria. Grace and good luck don’t come any better! That is the lot of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who hails from the dingy, sleepy creek community of Otuoke in Bayelsa State.
A simple, very simple man by nature, Jonathan’s life has been one dominated by grace and good luck. The story of his ascendancy is too familiar to be retold here.
But last Sunday, May 4, 2014, the encounter with Jonathan was like none other.
For some 10minutes, apprehension, occasioned by a massive dose of excitement and anxiety, reduced the esteem of this writer as he entered one of the chambers inside Aso Rock Presidential Villa in the company of Funke Fadugba of AIT/Faaji FM; Cyril Stober of NTA; and Bashir Saad of the BBC.
The first pleasant surprise was that there was no schooling – that is no government official came to tutor the quartet on what to ask or what not to ask President Jonathan.
Pre-recording formalities done, in came Mr. President in the company of some aides and friends who had come for one appointment or the other.
Jonathan looked cool. After warm handshakes, he took his seat.
Sensing that this writer was already sweating, the President dropped the hint about government’s plan to build a standard studio for recording; with all the necessary facilities and equipment.
Some 20 seconds before7pm, the cameraman signaled that we “would soon be live”.
Stober, the anchor for this edition of the media chat, set the ball rolling with the issue of insecurity, specifically the abducted girls, as agreed by the quartet.
It was at this point that the enormity and reality of the challenges confronting President Jonathan reared their heads like a multi-headed monster. Though he was very emotive, feeling helpless and displaying what can be described as real signs of pain, the verbalization of the emotions left much to be desired.
The President said all he wanted to plead for is that the parents of the missing girls should help government; that they should cooperate with government; that they should come and volunteer information and tell government where the girls are. He confessed, rather helplessly, that government had no information regarding the location of the girls.
But that response on national television belied a deeper challenge, steeped in frustration that Jonathan was facing.
Sunday Vanguard gathered from Aso Rock insiders that a meeting the day before, between President Jonathan; Governor Shettima of Borno State; CP Lawal Tanko, Police Commissioner in the state; Mrs. Asabe Kwambula, the school principal; Comrade Inuwa Kubo, Education Commissioner; and the DPO for Chibok, Hezekiah; had caused more muddle.
It was discovered by Sunday Vanguard that the four actors from Borno gave different versions of the incident of April 14.
Challenge of capacity
A source inside the Villa disclosed that this development threw every effort being mounted from
the Presidency into a kilter. “Even Mr. President could not believe what he was hearing from the principal, the education commissioner, the police commissioner and the DPO. Those at that briefing listened with mouths opened wide”.
It was this sentiment that President Jonathan re-echoed on national television.
From the gesticulation of hopelessness that he displayed regarding the insecurity in the country, what was clear was a challenge of capacity.
Even an attempt to help Mr. President place some of the blame where it really belongs – at the door step of leaders in the North, who allowed the Boko Haram insurgency fester and blow out of proportion – he condescended and rationalised this leadership failing, explaining that leaders in the North were dealing with terrorism and not militancy.
On the question of corruption and the NNPC, President Jonathan missed some points. He did not need to attempt to define corruption and its relationship with stealing. He did not also need to drag the legislature into it – by saying he smelt legislative dictatorship in the conduct of the activities of the House of Representatives; he also did not need to attempt to draw a parallel between corruption, inflated pump-head price of petrol and the popular rally of January 2012.
On the issue of governance and politics, President Jonathan said he wasn’t ready to declare whether he would seek re-election or not. He voiced out the same mantra of not wanting to be distracted.
That response was expected any way.
On the need to curtail the excesses of petroleum products’ marketers who are selling beyond the official rate, President Jonathan sounded very distant. There is the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, statutorily mandated to monitor activities in the sector. But Mr. President first embarked on a voyage of disbelief; that he finds it difficult to believe that the claim was true; and that Nigerians were responsible for the serial inhumanity against fellow Nigerians. Then suddenly, Mr. President remembered that there was DPR which, he admitted, should begin to do its job.
Jonathan also responded to questions regarding the need for a sound electoral system. He tackled, quite well, the need to ensure that the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, gets good funding to prosecute next year’s general elections.
The National Conference going on in Abuja got a fair share of mention. Tackling the need to provide a legal framework that would ensure that resolutions from the confab found their way into the Constitution, Jonathan assured Nigerians of the genuineness of his intention. He provided a pan-Nigerian vision which he said should be the abiding mantra. He made it clear that it would be better for Nigerians to buy into the resolutions so long as they are meant for the enthronement of a nation built on fairness and equity.
At the end of the two-hour session, the coterie of staff and a few friends were all smiles.
‘Mr. President, well done’; ‘Mr. President, that was a good one’; ‘Mr. President, that was great’.
Those were the comments from virtually everyone around.
So, you needed to do a reality check: Were these guys referring to the same media chat that had just ended; a chat that saw Mr. President avoiding some questions and instead launching into a series of expeditions.
But then, you were quickly reminded that by Mr. President’s own standards, this was one of the best performances.
To be fair, not every man is blessed with the magisterial elocution or oratory of Obama; therefore, we cannot hold President Jonathan accountable on that score.
However, we can hold his handlers culpable of dereliction of duty. Was Mr. President not coached properly on how to handle questions? Was he not prepared on the art of effective response to issues raised?
Whatever you say of President Jonathan, he is a thorough gentleman who appears to mean no harm.
He may be limited as all mortals are.
He may also have been catapulted, by grace, beyond his wildest imaginations as he is wont to admit.
However, President Jonathan has spent enough years on the seat of power to realign the realities of his present situation by desisting from constantly disappointing some of his admirers.
What one saw last Sunday was the same man whom one had met twice at Government House, Bayelsa, between 2000 and 2004; and the man one met, through the facilitation of now Senator Smart Adeyemi, at Eko Hotel in 2006 – his very early days as governor of Bayelsa State.
Verdant, innocent, unacquainted and untried, four years on the seat of the President and Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria is more than enough time to recreate a man. And whereas an old adage says you cannot teach a man to become left-handed at old age, and while not being totally dismissive of the token transformation of Jonathan the village man to Jonathan the President and Commander-in-Chief, there is still much work to be done.
And this is where Mr. President’s need for help starts.
He invited the quartet to his residence for dinner.
First was the weight of the dinner chairs! Only God knows what material was used. Just pulling out the chair, it felt like the weight of a 25kg bag of rice. One of the guests could not but voice “these chairs are heavy, very heavy”.
And if one had thought the needless effusion of praise about his performance was absurd enough, more was to come at dinner table.
We would need to be charitable here.
Apart from Mr. Vice President, Namadi Sambo; Chief of Staff, Gen. Arogbofa (rtd); Dr. Reuben Abati; and Labaran Maku, Information Minister; the dinner table was filled with jesters.
Some would not even allow Mr. President to finish a sentence before they would interject and complete the sentence for him.
When Jonathan tried to explain the complexities involved in the abduction saga and why he remained disappointed in the way the episode is turning out, some people around the table would not let him finish.
‘Yes, the state government should be blamed Mr. President’; ‘the school principal is not fit to head a school’; ‘Mr. President, this looks like a set up’.
Emotive as the crisis at hand was, some individuals cracked jokes that were at once dry and unproductive. Yet, some of these persons are aides who are very close to the President.
But the real help Jonathan needs must be offered by all well-meaning Nigerians. He remains the leader. Whatever shambling of issues you may accuse him of, he remains the number one citizen of the country.
Those who are guilty in this regard are legion. His wife for instance! Patience Jonathan may be a wonderful wife on the inside but each public intervention by her comes with a heavy baggage of collateral mishap, which, in turn, only breeds public opprobrium. Giving instances here would be impolite but the social media videos of her intervention did more damage than good – even infusing the abduction issue with some sordid comic relief.
But Jonathan’s friends and close aides are the guiltiest of the lot. They appear to have ring-fenced the man from reality. Those who would have been able to offer good counsel and meaningfully contribute for the success of his administration are either kept at bay or do not enjoy quality time to strategic and serious thinking. What you then have is a miss-mash of ineffectual policy pronouncements. Those who seem to think the disgrace being suffered by the Jonathan Presidency – yes, disgrace – because of the abduction should not glory in it. It is a disgrace for the whole nation.
The party leaders, the former heads of state, the elder statesmen who labored to ensure that Jonathan got his ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ should carry part of the blame of what this Presidency is turning into. Is it that they offered counsel and were rebuffed?
True, he cannot be held responsible for this insurgency but he can be blamed for the way he handled the abduction of the girls.
Throes of evil
True there may have been political undertone in the beginning but when the Presidency is quick to splash the tar of politics on every insurgency, thus belies the fundamental issues which are related purely to a lack of capacity. There was once the sharia movement in this same country. A President dealt with it and even proclaimed that it would fizzle out. President Jonathan was on CNN mid last year waxing pontifical that Boko Haram would be forgotten in three months, that he would reappear on CNN to tell the story. Sadly, the story on CNN today is about a nation in the throes of evil occasioned by the insurgency.
Still on this issue of abduction, how did the Defence Ministry come out within 24hours to say all the abducted girls had been rescued? Was it PR gimmickry? For all of three weeks, the Presidency was asleep. Until the weekend of the media chat, there was no momentum. In times of national crisis, every nation needs a leader. A leader who means well must be seen to be doing well. In the case of the Jonathan Presidency, from what the naked eyes could see, there appears to be a great disconnect between the desire to accomplish and the capacity to deliver.
Mr. President needs help from all Nigerians because at least, as of today, he is still the President. We have had leaders who were rambunctious, some deceptive, others meek, and yet some clueless and uncoordinated. How would you describe President Jonathan?
In terms of assistance, mercifully, at the time of going to press, many countries of the world have shown considerable concern about the state of affairs in Nigeria and are sending help. Nigerians, the elites should help their President in the area of capacity-building. Watching our Information Minister on CNN, shouting and attempting to use decibel to break down their microphone smacks of panic response. Yet, I can bet you, as indecorous as that action may be, there would be some people in the Villa who would say, ‘Well done, Mr. Minister,’ ‘You did well Mr. Minister’.
That is the way we are. But the way we are would not help President Jonathan.