By Azu Ishiekwene
Of the three presidents who ruled Nigeria between 1999 and 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan appears, so far, to have been the subject of more controversial books than his two predecessors.
Five notable books about or significantly touching on former President Obasanjo’s tenure are his memoir, My Watch; Olusegun Obasanjo: The Presidential Legacy (Vols. I & II) 1999-2007, by Ladipo Akinkugbe et al; Obasanjo, Nigeria And The World, by John Illiffe; and Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s Accidental Public Servant.
Segun Adeniyi’s Power, Politics and Death, is perhaps the most definitive book yet on late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s tenure.
Within two and a half years of Jonathan’s exit from power, however, five books on his tenure have, so far, been published, three of the most notable of which are – Against the Run of Play, by Segun Adeniyi; Facts Versus Fiction: The True Story of the Jonathan Years, by Reno Omokri; and now, On a Platter of Gold, by Bolaji Abdullahi.
Adeniyi was an insider in a different era, but even though the other two – Omokri and Abdullahi – served in the same government at different levels, their views are strikingly, but unsurprisingly, different.
Abdullahi’s 397-page 12-chapter book is an X-ray of Jonathan’s five-year rule, the forces that made him a democratic president and how Jonathan’s apparent inability to manage some of those forces eventually brought down his government.
More than gold
When the author said from the title of the book that Jonathan was handed the Presidency on a platter of gold, I don’t think it was to suggest that Jonathan was unworthy of the bequest.
The trope was in the context of other political heavyweights who had given everything for the office but still failed to get it. And Abdullahi named them in the introductory chapter of his book.
But there was more to Jonathan’s golden chance than the list of those who tried but failed to become president. The economy, for example, was on a better footing with the external reserve at $43 billion (oil price at $84 pbd); the amnesty programme started under Yar’Adua was bearing fruit and calm was returning to the Niger Delta; the country had substantially regained its goodwill and respect abroad. And on top of all this, by 2011, the ruling PDP had swallowed its own vomit by setting aside zoning to back Jonathan.
With party and country rooting for him and the tailwinds behind the economy, the President could not have wished for more auspicious circumstances.
From Abdullahi’s account, three things defined Jonathan’s Presidency – discontent within the relatively weakened party he inherited; the handling of Boko Haram, which pre-dated him; and the attitude of Jonathan’s government to corruption.
President Jonathan has, of course, added two other reasons why he lost: he has blamed the Northern elite, especially the leadership of the party (which has in turn blamed Jonathan for recruiting outsiders who used vile language during the campaign); and he has also blamed foreign powers, specifically the US, France and the UK.
Until he stops threatening to write and actually writes his own memoir, however, we’ll have to wait and see if the man in the mirror will ultimately take responsibility.
Outsiders were probably familiar with the episodes summarised above, but perhaps not with the intricate, riveting details of who did what, when and how.
The author takes the reader by hand through the corridors of power in Aso Rock into the Glass House, the chambers of council meetings, and other such sanctum sanctorum where decisions are taken in the name of the country but which often bear the disgusting imprint of narrow personal and group interests.
Who could have known that two women in the presidential godhead – Diezani Allison-Madueke and Stella Oduah – while presenting a façade of a public interest, still managed to corner the President behind each other’s backs, with long knives? And that if Diezani did not whisper into Jonathan’s ear, he might have spared Oduah even after a presidential panel had indicted her in the N250 million bulletproof car saga?
In hindsight, though, it is quite interesting to see that Diezani, of all people, was Jonathan’s closet lecturer on how to tackle corruption!
Who could have thought that Dame Patience Jonathan, apart from her famous gift for drama, could also summon the presence of mind in her post-election moment of distress to remind the Attorney General of the Federation of some fine points of history after accusing him of betrayal?
Or that Minister Adewunmi Adesina, in spite of being President Jonathan’s poster boy, would be among the first to jump ship, openly courting the opposition, after Jonathan’s defeat? But it’s all there in the book, in details not previously known and in words that will make you cry and laugh. Or think.
Who needs a nice man?
The author appears to suggest that on his own, Jonathan was a very nice man, a happy-go-lucky fellow who will not offend anyone. I think most people would agree.
But that was, also, part of the problem. A leader who does not want to offend anyone, who does not want to break eggs, cannot expect to make omelet. A leader who will say one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon just to please the last listener, may not be motivated by vicious incompetence, but incompetence is incompetence. There’s no need for an adjective.
Yet, we also see from the book that power can be a very, very lonely place.
When it came to the decisions that unmade Jonathan’s presidency – whether it was about what to do with the fuel subsidy scam or how to respond to Boko Haram, which covered one quarter of the book; how to handle the Chibok girls or how to respond to the rebellion in his party and the momentous exit of five governors; whether to accept defeat after the election or charge his party to appeal – the man was utterly alone.
Would the trajectory have been different if Jonathan had a different temperament? Had he grown so used to being number two that he could not adjust to the nation’s top job? Or was Jonathan, well, just Jonathan?
We now know a little more from an insider. Jonathan meant well. He promised a free and fair election and he delivered it. He said his election was not worth the blood of a single Nigerian and conceded defeat even before the final results were in.
As to why he failed reelection, the single most telling revelation from the author is that all said and done, the job was beyond him, a point on which two of the three notable post-Jonathan era books agree.
In the last chapter of his book, Abdullahi, who was Sports Minister, narrated how Jonathan executed nine ministers in one day of cabinet shuffle. He said he was penciled in but was later “saved for another day.”
Well, that day came to pass but the story is missing in his book! That’s probably a story for his next book.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network