Much Ado About Stones

By Reuben Abati

Some commentators have raised a hue and cry over President Goodluck Jonathan's reference to "the throwing of stones" during the presentation of the PDP flag to the then PDP Gubernatorial candidate, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson and his then running mate Rear Admiral John Jonah (rtd.) in Bayelsa. These include, among others, Ayodele Akinkuotu, "He who lives in Aso Rock does not throw gaffes", TELL, February 20, 2012; The Nation, "Stoner" -in -Chief?" (Editorial, February 8) and Sam Omatseye, "Circus show" (The Nation, February 11).alt

The commentators have been unfair to President Jonathan, taking his words out of context, interpreting him literally to convey an impression that "unguarded words" are becoming his "trademark". If the purported advice in the pieces were offered in good faith, it would have been understandable, except that they seem calculated to please former Bayelsa Governor, Timipre Sylva. What's more, they all read as if they originated from the same factory.

I find it difficult to accuse the writers of a certain lack of understanding, for these are well-informed commentators, but there is a certain penchant abroad, evident also in these comments, namely the theatrical attempt to play to the gallery, by those who seem to believe that belittling the Jonathan Presidency will make them popular no matter how unfair their conclusions may be. They miss the point.

When the President said he would join others to throw stones if Hon. Dickson failed to deliver on his promises as Bayelsa Governor, in the event of his being so elected, he certainly was not saying he would go onto the streets, pick up stones, and lead a riotous assault on the Chief Executive of a state. Nor does that statement translate into an admission of involvement in the stoning of ex-Governor Timipre Sylva at a previous occasion, or "an endorsement of political thuggery."

The commentators should know that words have embodied meanings, and that in cultural contexts, languages lend themselves to idiomatic and metaphorical expressions which may carry heavier weight as signifying codes. The word, "stones" in the present context need not be read literally. Rather, President Jonathan was urging Messrs Dickson and Jonah to be prepared to deliver good governance if elected into office. He was also reminding them of the cost of failing to do so, namely the anger and rejection of the people, which may not necessarily be in the form of actual "stone-throwing," but may manifest as civil apathy.

To transpose that expression out of context, and construe it literally to make a simplistic point, points not to a lack of intelligence, but to wilful mischief. To go further and claim that the people of Bayelsa are "fishermen and mechanics" who cannot understand metaphors is simply ludicrous.

And it is fast becoming a fashion to twist Mr. President's statements out of context. The same has been done with his statement on another occasion, that Boko Haram members are everywhere. This has been twisted to mean an expression of "self-indictment" or "helplessness" or "cluelessness", depending on the texture of the writer's cynicism, whereas the President made that statement to underscore the seriousness of the national security challenge, and the need for collective vigilance, also to illustrate his view that Nigerians are dealing with an unconventional enemy: seemingly ubiquitous, mercurial, without a certain identity, stealthy in form and operation; he could even be next door without the potential victim knowing.

President Jonathan has also argued that terrorism is an emergent global security challenge, which requires a rethinking of the national security architecture and such issues as capacity building, and the training and retraining of security personnel. If he said "we should be ready to live with the menace of terrorism" (not his exact words by the way); he was again underlining the urgency of the need for active responses. Subsequent developments have since indicated the seriousness of that challenge, but the literal-minded have continued to harp on their convenient interpretations!

In some of the commentaries under review, the tone is abusive, and at least one columnist seems to be deriving too much sadistic pleasure from abusing President Jonathan. Rather than provide illumination, he resorts to name-calling, week after week as if he writes solely to entertain an imaginable political audience.

It is especially curious that the commentators did not deem it necessary to comment on ex-Governor Timipre Sylva's stewardship in Bayelsa, his abusive press release signed by his media aide in which he heaped insults on the President, purveyed discreditable lies, and sought to denigrate the office of the President. His media allies have been parroting the same lies, hoping that by piping Sylva's dictated tune, they will force the public to accept their lies as truth.

I had responded at length to Sylva's press release in ThisDay - the only newspaper that tried to balance the story. I can only reiterate that whatever the matter is, it is between the people of Bayelsa and Sylva. He certainly will need more than a press release, or hired pens, to render an account of his stewardship as Governor of that state.

I conclude by insisting that President Jonathan is not "a stoner-in-chief" as The Nation claims. He is President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He is committed to the rule of law, and will not be found in any situation promoting lawless behaviour. His administration's growing legacy of credible and transparent elections is an incontestable illustration of his commitment to law and order.

While the cynics are free to be disagreeable, President Jonathan deserves to be assessed on the basis of facts, not partisan presuppositions. Perhaps if these writers had enough sense of literary appreciation I might even go further and play on words and like Mark Antony to the Roman crowd, ask them to lend me their ears as I outline the tangible progress Nigeria has made under President Jonathan, but I fear that they may interpret my words literally: without the understanding that it is a figure of speech and therefore go to town with the headline that I want to cannibalize their ears! So, I rest my case.

Dr. Reuben Abati is Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to President Goodluck Jonathan