Ac ting President Goodluck Jonathan has always been a lucky man. Last weekend, his run of luck continued. He smiled freely at his United States' hosts as his face sparkled like a new piece of chinaware. In local and overseas print and online media, his name made headline news. The image of Jonathan, sitting in a relaxed position, chatting with United States' President Barack Obama, the man with whom many world leaders would like to associate, was something that many people admired.
In the past five months, Nigerians have had little or no cause to smile or to be proud of their country. President Umaru Yar'Adua's complicated ill health, his silence and the manner with which his aides handled the ensuing leadership uncertainty, seriously undercut Nigeria's international image.
At home, Jonathan could hardly smile. A man besieged by political, economic and social problems should not smile. In the warm and comforting presence of President Obama, Jonathan found reason to suspend his domestic problems. Obama urged Jonathan to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Nigerians. Jonathan obliged him. He made many promises. He talked about his commitment to the Nigerian project - the determination of his government to transform Nigeria in many ways. In future we shall judge him by his ability to fulfil or ditch his pledge.
The sound of Jonathan's words, the seriousness that was engraved on his face, the sweetness of his promises and the way he delivered those words reinforced the public perception of Nigeria as a prodigal daughter who has repented and is now ready to regain the respect she lost in the international arena. It is uncertain whether Jonathan has the capacity to change his country. Time is his adversary. As a caretaker president, he doesn't have enough time to undertake sweeping changes. How Jonathan plans to transform Nigeria during his short term remains a major challenge. Nigerians do not want Jonathan to turn their growing expectations into rising frustrations.
If past experience is anything to go by, we have no basis to sustain hope. In the past, we lived on hope but we received hopelessness in return. Hope did not till our soil or plant crops for us. Hope did not provide us with equipment or soft loan to improve agricultural production. Hope did not provide us with clean drinking water. Hope did not improve electricity supply. Hope did not provide university graduates with jobs. Hope did not provide students with quality education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Hope did not provide food for families; it did not provide decent housing for the homeless.
For nearly 50 years, we lived on the expectation that political leaders and military dictators would build good hospitals to manage our healthcare needs. That hope has since evaporated because nothing was achieved. Hope without good leaders and good government is a form of fraud. It is this history of political deceit, ruinous military dictatorship and inability to conduct free and fair elections that continues to give us that gnawing feeling, that premonition that, with or without Jonathan, Nigeria has not yet produced leaders who love their country more than their bank accounts.
To make a difference, Jonathan needs to detach himself from the past. He must mint his own style of government. He must invent a new enduring national ideology on which many Nigerians would be prepared to invest their lives and their future. Across the country, selfless men and women are hard to find. Selfishness is our creed. Politicians want to plunge their grubby fingers into the national treasury. In villages and urban centres, the mood is down. We are impaled by the diverse problems that confront us. Violent crime and fraud are in ready supply.
Is there a special gin or tonic that Jonathan can distil in order to re-invigorate our spirit of hard work or to resuscitate our patriotic ethos? When the heart of a nation goes down, the nation goes down with it. Nigeria needs men and women who have surplus energy, foresight and practical initiatives to serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement.
Jonathan may have been quite categorical about his determination to switch on the engine of his quiet revolution in Nigeria. Understandably, his key aim is to organise free, fair and acceptable general elections in 2011. In no uncertain language, he told a special session of the United States' Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that his program of radical reforms would start with a wholesale review of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), an organisation that has caused so much pain and misery to Nigerian voters and politicians.
In the US, Jonathan said: "Before 2011, there will be a number of changes in INEC. A number of people talk about the chairman and it is not the chairman alone. The chairman's tenure is going to expire by 13th of June. It is not just him alone, but also quite a number of the officers, more than two thirds of them... We will inject fresh blood. And we will make sure that we bring people on board that if you mention the names, people in the civil society will be happy that they will conduct free and fair elections."
Little doubt exists about Jonathan's willpower to make leadership history in Nigeria. However, there are niggling questions about whether the man would be bold enough to undertake widespread political, social and economic reforms without fear or favour. In Nigeria, political leaders are notorious for talking big and achieving little, particularly in the early phase of their tenure. If Jonathan is serious about changing Nigeria, he must fix the irritating problems in the power sector and undertake wide ranging electoral reforms, including radical changes in the structure and composition of the membership of INEC. Extensive reforms in these two sectors, whenever they are introduced, would mark a welcome start.
Sweeping changes are long overdue at INEC. Under the leadership of Maurice Iwu, INEC imperilled the election process which, sadly, it was appointed to supervise. INEC has become too politically prejudiced that its impartiality has been severely compromised. No one believes that the current leadership of INEC can conduct free and fair elections in Nigeria, despite dubious assurances from Iwu that the organisation would improve with time. The credibility of INEC as an independent election umpire has been shredded.
Ever since the ghastly elections of 2007, the leadership of INEC has remained obstinate, divisive and unwilling to admit that its officials committed serious fraud that substituted injustice for fair play. Despite the fact that several INEC officials were implicated in the heist that passed off as national elections three years ago, Iwu and his senior officials continue to offer inexcusable and pedestrian reasons why the 2007 elections should be viewed as flawless. We must never forget that it was the current leadership of INEC that conned an entire nation in the 2007 general elections when INEC officials allocated victory to political candidates who, clearly, did not win.
Jonathan's response to the crisis in the power sector was disappointing. He gave no timeline and made no promises about when things would improve. Yet, it was Jonathan who, as Vice President and also as chairperson of the presidential steering council of the National Integrated Power Projects (NIPP), promised Nigerians on 16 March 2009 that, within 15 months, they would experience uninterrupted supply of electricity. We are in the 13th month since that assurance was given and still we have not experienced any significant improvement in electricity supply.
It is perhaps this realisation that compelled Jonathan to be evasive and cautious when he answered questions relating to the volatility in the power sector. Jonathan could be forgiven for his exaggerated promise last year because he was quite emphatic that power supply would be regular only through the intervention of God. He said in 2009: "By the grace of God, we will get it (i.e. steady electricity) under 15 months". Perhaps the grace of God has eluded Nigeria .
Jonathan may not be a miracle worker but we all harbour lofty ideas about what we expect from his government. We expect him to do well, to lift the veil of deceit, official secrecy and empty rhetoric that were used by his predecessors to drain the public treasury. The challenge that faces Jonathan is daunting. He must convert his public speeches in the United States into practical results in Nigeria. The troubling question remains: Has Jonathan got the capacity, the determination and the motivation to make a difference? One major predicament is that he faces the haunting realisation that he is just there -- at the Presidency - working as a caretaker president.