Goodluck Jonathan: Between Oratory, Sophistry And Performance
By Olugu Olugu Orji
I have keenly followed the towering institution of the American Presidency since maturation and the cessation of civil war hostilities enabled me in the very early 70s. From the hard-nosed Richard Milhous Nixon to the much-maligned (unfairly, though) incumbent Barrack Hussein Obama, every American president I’ve known is an orator. Because of how critical the involvement of the citizenry is to effective governance, mobilizing them has become an indispensible feature of the democratic odyssey. No more effective tool exists than the mastery of words and their flawless delivery. Even the one considered as America’s most inept president, the one Americans dubiously dubbed Dubya, George Walker Bush Jnr who had this reputation for committing memorable gaffes achieved historic redemption in his epochal speech on Ground Zero after the September 11 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.
It was therefore quite natural for me to have grown up associating oratory with leadership. General Yakubu Gowon, the head of state of post-war Nigeria wasn’t much of a speaker. I suppose he must have been so busy trying to figure out how to spend the country’s burgeoning petro-dollar-enabled wealth that speech making was the least of his concerns. Generals Murtala Mohammed and Olusegun Obasanjo were no better, and it was becoming quite clear that soldiers had little use for oratory since their legitimacy did not derive from the masses.
The democratically but controversially elected President Shehu Shagari was in the saddle for a little over 4 years. To his eternal credit, he never made anyone expect rousing speeches and he never delivered one. The general who ousted Shagari, Muhammadu Buhari was the least inclined to the use of flowery language. His two-pronged mission of combating indiscipline and corruption had no place for a wordsmith.
Enter the maverick, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida: a general who unlike his military predecessors, preferred to be addressed as ‘President.’ He always seemed to know what to say, when to say it and how to masterfully convey it. Like millions of hapless Nigerians, I was thoroughly taken in by his almost irresistible charm, hoodwinked by that toothy smile. While we slobbered and drooled after him, Nigeria’s fortunes nosedived. Midway into his 8-year stint, it had become clear to me he was no messiah: just another smooth-talking megalomaniac. He had single-handedly upgraded sophistry and subterfuge to national art forms. Under his watch, ‘419’ acquired dubious permanency in Nigeria’s expanding lexicon. Self-generated circumstantial pressure compelled IBB to scram, and thanks to him, I came to the sobering conclusion that Nigeria did not immediately require the services of an orator.
Even if the next three administrations had made fanciful speech making a directive principle of governance, I would have been unaffected. Happily, none of them even attempted to.
Obasanjo’s second coming in 1999 was in a period of national desperation. With escalating inflation and unemployment occasioned by a dwindling and unprotected economy, the socio-political fault lines were becoming disturbingly visible. He was in a position to steer the nation away from the fast-approaching precipice. While resources can never be unlimited, he couldn’t have complained of lack. Oil never sold for less than $100/barrel throughout his 8-year tenure. Obasanjo was no orator; a fact that had been settled in his accidental administration of 1976 – 1979. Yet he made promises, the most poignant being that of the comatose power sector. He pledged to end power outages but after $16 billion, Nigerians were still groping in darkness. That, for me is a sad commentary on an administration that held so much promise but delivered very little.
Umaru Musa Yar’adua was sick on arrival and as soon as that fact became public knowledge, I substantially lowered my expectations. But I can still recall his 7-point agenda and his pledge to tackle the Niger Delta militancy. Had he more time at the helm, maybe we would have leapt over this gaping chasm. The period leading up to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan being enabled to act as President further revealed Nigeria’s deepening ethno-religious divide. By the time Jonathan became substantive President after Yar’adua’s demise in 2010, the murderous Boko Haram was already a factor in Nigeria’s deteriorating security scenario.
No one can even remotely associate President Jonathan with oratorical prowess. But despite my earlier resolve, it still took me the better part of two years to come to terms with that reality. I had erroneously assumed that the process of picking up a PhD should have afforded him a modicum of oratorical skills. At a point, I had to make the difficult decision to stop listening to him in order to remain objective in assessing him. In a development-challenged country as ours, identifying real performance is no rocket science.
Since assuming the presidency over 4 years ago, the supply and distribution of petroleum products has remained commendably stable across the length and breadth of this expansive enclave. In the perennially underperforming power sector, I can testify that things are finally beginning to look up. A year ago, it was quite easy keeping a record of when there was light. At the moment, it is easier to recall when there is no light; and this is as applicable in Abuja where I live as in Elu Ohafia where my father is buried. I had the rare privilege recently of showing a real rail line to my seventeen year old son who for obvious reasons had never seen one.
I could go on and on but I must avoid being accused of being a paid apologist. An apologist I certainly am but paid, well, not yet!
Jonathan, many claim is Nigeria’s most divisive president. They assert that at no other time have the cleavages in the polity been so visible. If the concern and expertise of a physician have enabled him correctly diagnose the dire condition of a man who has been dodging from reality, do we turn around and blame the physician? But this physician is not simply satisfied with achieving a definitive diagnosis; he is mobilizing all his skill and resources to ensure the patient fully recovers. I think Jonathan’s complete lack of guile and sophistry is helping unmask the true character of many of his predecessors and contemporaries who achieved dubious distinction riding on the very divisive elements Nigerians now clearly see.
I don’t know how 2015 will pan out but one thing is certain: I won’t be looking out for an orator.
Olugu Olugu Orji mnia