By Femi Aribisala
I WRITE this as someone who does not know President Jonathan personally. I have never met the man. Neither have I ever spoken to him electronically. All I know about him is what I read in the papers, or what I have seen of him on television. Nevertheless, he has been my president for the last five years.
When you write positively about the president, his opponents insist you must either be a card-carrying member of the PDP or be looking for a job. They act as if it is impossible to like him without having an ulterior motive. I have ignored this cheap blackmail designed to discourage people from expressing freely their liking for the president. But it has already outlived its usefulness. In a matter of days, the president will leave office. From now on, those ostensibly looking for a job are the praise-singers of president-elect Buhari.
For over 20 years, I refused to write anything that was not religious. I took no interest in politics, and did not participate in political debates the way I used to. When that proscription was lifted two years ago, I became interested in President Jonathan because some people were so adamant that he must not succeed. Indeed, they did their level best to sabotage his administration. Boko Haram was one of their many weapons. The press and the social media also became their tools of persecution where the president was maliciously labelled “clueless.”
I was affronted by this. I insist that President Jonathan has an inalienable right to be president of Nigeria, as does any minority citizen. Moreover, close scrutiny of his presidency indicates he was better in many respects than his predecessors. The president himself observed that Nigerians would appreciate him better after he leaves office. I discovered, for instance, such anomalies as the fact that while his administration is labelled as the most corrupt in Nigerian history, the most significant advancements in dealing with corruption actually took place under him.
It is not my intention to go into those details precisely here, having written copiously about them in the heat of the election campaign. I have been and will continue to be an ardent supporter of Goodluck Jonathan, in or out of office. Within the context of the current triumphalism of APC supporters, I have found it necessary to point out that president-elect Buhari was only awarded 52% of the votes cast. That is hardly an index of overwhelming support for him. Neither is it evidence of overwhelming rejection of President Jonathan.
Failure is an orphan, ensuring that the president, by his own admission, has lost a lot of his fair-weather friends since losing the election. However, instead of losing me, the president has now become my hero. I don’t want the defining moment where my liking for him underwent this sea-change to be lost in history. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to put it down in writing especially because I am convinced I might not be alone in this assessment.
On Election Day on 11th April, 2015, President Jonathan and his wife went to their polling booth in his hometown of Otuoke to cast their vote; only to discover that their cards were not recognised by the card-reader. At this point, the 2015 presidential election became farcical. If the card-reader would not recognise the number-one citizen in the country, then it was operationally useless. As far as I was concerned, that faux pas marked the failure of INEC in the election.
I regard this as a prime example of the democratisation of Nigerian incompetence. In even the most backward of countries, there are usually exclusion zones for failure. There may be no water in the capital-city, but you would not go to the toilet in the presidential palace only to discover there is also no water there. No way, no how! There will be water in the presidency, even if it is non-existent everywhere else. But not in Nigeria! If there are power-cuts in the Abuja, Aso Rock would not be exempted.
INEC’s malfunctioning card-reader seemed to have sinister undercurrents. Although the card-reader did not recognise the president in Otuoke, it recognised General Buhari, the APC presidential candidate, in Daura. I watched this embarrassing moment for the president from the safety of my bedroom. I knew if it was me in his position, all hell would have broken lose. I would have put it on record right there and then that the situation was completely unacceptable.
I can imagine myself ranting off something to this effect: “Clearly, INEC has bungled this election. If I, as president of the republic, cannot be recognised by the card-reader, who then would be recognised? If the card-reader fails in the South-South which is my stronghold, sending back home a number of my supporters who may not bother to return; but works perfectly well in the stronghold of my main opponent, then it cannot be said that we are operating on a level-playing field in this election.”
The president himself also revealed that the governor of one of the South-East states had phoned him to complain about ostensible INEC conspiracy in the South-East. I recall his precise words. He said the governor was “boiling.” However, he did his best to calm him down. He himself did not seem too bothered by it all. Instead, he pleaded that contrary to what it might seem; INEC was doing its best.
He said: “I encourage Nigerians to be patient with INEC. Everybody will vote, even if the card readers have issues. It is new and anything new you must have challenges. INEC will have a way to handle delayed accreditation and I believe they will follow the guidelines to ensure that all Nigerians willing to vote will vote”.
Someone then asked him how he fancied his chances in the election. It was his reply to this question that did it for me. “I am hopeful,” replied President Jonathan.
I looked at the man again on my television screen. He was so relaxed and unflappable. I even got the impression that he had a sweet in his mouth. I said to myself: “I don’t think Nigerians fully get this man.” There and then, I gave him the greatest compliment I give to anybody. I said: “This man, Goodluck Jonathan, is a human-being.”
Jonathan wears his heart on his sleeve. He is a simple man who does not put on any airs. He is the president, but he has not allowed this to get into his head. This man clearly does not see the presidency as a do-or-die affair. He is a man of destiny who seems to take everything with a diffident equanimity. From that day forward, I saw President Jonathan in completely new light. From that day forward, he became my hero.
It does not matter that he then went on to lose the election. Indeed, it helps to understand his attitude to his loss. Before the last results were announced, the president conceded defeat and phoned to congratulate Buhari. Many have extolled this as a new departure in the annals of Nigerian politics. Moreover, the president’s gesture saved lives by averting bitter disputes and riots over the flawed election results. While I definitely share the view that the president’s actions established him as an exemplary statesman, I still maintain that the icing on the cake for me was hearing him say “I am hopeful” on Election Day.
Nigerian presidents are not “hopeful.” They create their own hope. Nigerian presidents don’t lose elections. But Goodluck Jonathan lost. If President Jonathan was determined to win the 2015 election, he would have won by hook or crook. He lost because although he wanted to win, he was not determined to win at all costs. Winning was not the only option for him.
I have read all sorts of conclusions about the election. Some of these only emphasise APC talking-points, as if these make any difference in Nigerian elections. Some who recognise that elections are never free and fair in Nigeria would have us believe this one was different because the card-reader made it rig-proof. But the truth of the matter is that, card-reader or not, Obasanjo would not have lost this election had he been in Jonathan’s shoes.
People seem to forget that the president’s party lost many elections before 2015, and there was no card-reader involved. PDP lost in Ondo. It lost in Edo. It lost in Anmabra. It lost in Osun. In the previous five elections before 2015, the PDP only won in Ekiti. The president kept telling Nigerians that one of the legacies he would like to leave behind is that of being the man that revamped the democratic system in the country. We heard him repeat this again and again, but somehow, did not take him seriously. We thought he was just another politician sounding off.
However, Jonathan sat back, and watched himself being defeated at the polls. My friend, Benzak Uzuegbu, says this is conclusive proof that Jonathan is, indeed, the most clueless man that ever ruled Nigeria. “How could he have lost the election? How can an incumbent president lose an election in Nigeria, with all the powers and resources at his disposal?”
I reach a different conclusion. Jonathan lost the election because he belongs to a different class of Nigerian politician. He lost because he did not regard the president as something to be grasped. He lost the election because, unlike most politicians, Jonathan is a human-being. He is a simple, decent, unassuming human-being, and that makes him God-sent to Nigeria.
Before the election, Jonathan’s traducers tried to compare him to Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire; a President who refused to leave even after he lost the election. How wrong they proved to be. President Jonathan not only lost, his loss became his victory. When the history of the 2015 election is finally written, the emphasis will not only be that General Buhari won, but more significantly, that President Jonathan lost. To put it more precisely, the President agreed to lose. What kind of a man does that in a country like Nigeria?