The Speech Jonathan Shouldn't Have Made

Reuben Abati

President Goodluck Jonathan almost ruined his inauguration day address by speaking too much at the May 26 pre-inauguration lecture on the theme: "A Transformational Agenda for Accelerated National Development." The elections are over, on inauguration day, the President assumes office, a new administration begins and the entire country naturally looks forward to a new beginning. On inauguration day, the people hang on to every word that the President utters, they pay attention to every sentence, they watch out for those quotable quotes that will give clear indications of the direction of the new government. That is how it is done in the United States whose democracy and traditions we are copying and where inaugural speeches are made by elected Presidents on the January 20 after the election. The beauty of inauguration lies in its symbolism and grandeur. Americans use it to show case their nation, to celebrate their best traditions; a poem is read, a song is rendered, two years later, the world still remembers Obama's inauguration, not for its grandeur, but its sheer historicity.

Jonathan's inauguration should be a grand, historic occasion, and if properly organized, a vehicle for sending clear messages about today's emergent reality which is this: that every Nigerian, regardless of ethnic extraction, or circumstances of birth, can occupy the highest office in the land. I do not want to imagine what President Jonathan intends to say to the world today, but hopefully he will avoid those platitudes about six, eight, nine, ten-point agenda, and promises about fixing this, fixing that, creating jobs, and also steer clear of familiar Presidential clich├ęs about hope, vision, transformation and renewal, but whatever he wants to say, he already took the thunder out of his inaugural speech. He faces the risk of saying something less important than the gaffe he made three days to his inauguration. He was not the guest speaker at the pre-inauguration lecture: that task was assigned to Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, but Jonathan ended up upstaging the lecturer. He uttered quotable statements that can be legitimately read as intimations of what is to come. He simply put himself on the spot. He should have kept quiet. Saving the right word for the appropriate moment is one of the major responsibilities of leadership.

Responding to the presentation by Professor Adamolekun (he didn't have to), the President reportedly declared that four years is too short for a President or a Governor to embark on any meaningful programme because it takes about a year or two before the administration settles down even with the right set of Ministers or Commissioners. Then, if the latter turn out "not to be good", after one year or two, the President or Governor is compelled to reshuffle his cabinet and by the time the new cabinet settles down, it is time for another election, and everyone is busy trying to win an election. This may be a forthright critique of the Nigerian governance process, but what does President Jonathan intend to do about it? By not offering a clear-cut option, he sounded as if he was merely giving excuses. This is certainly not the kind of thing to be said by a President from whom everyone expects so much.

One well-stated piece of advice by Nigerians since the Presidential polls, is that Dr Jonathan as President must run the business of governance in an unusual manner, dismantle the status quo, and bring fresh energy and initiative to the office, if possible act like a revolutionary militant in search of a new order. When he says four years are not enough to do anything, he gives the impression that he does not really appreciate the people's deep yearning for change, or that he has not been listening to them. We all know it takes a while for the wrong kind of Ministers and Commissioners to settle down, and that such persons can waste everyone's time, but those are not the kind of Ministers Nigerians want. Nigerians want President Jonathan to choose his cabinet wisely. He must avoid failed politicians who lost elections and are looking for another job in government by any means, PDP chieftains who expect to be rewarded for their contributions in their states, and definitely not the wives, sons and daughters of self-appointed Godfathers and political entrepreneurs.

Nigerians don't want Ministers who will take two years to settle down. They don't want the Federal Cabinet to be turned into a classroom where Ministers have to spend a whole year learning what a policy means, while they collect fat allowances and do nothing. The President didn't hit the right notes at all. That speech was a cop-out. It is not even what he said. The timing is wrong. The only thing he may have done is to reassure members of his present Cabinet that many of them can keep their jobs (those who have performed up to about 60%), because it is not good to change Ministers too often. The logic here is arguable. How would the President determine those Ministers who have scored up to 60%. Whoever he now retains in his cabinet will be subjected to close scrutiny and the public may have a thousand reasons why they think a particular Minister should not have been retained, and why the assigned 60% is suspect.

If that speech was written for President Jonathan, the speech writer should be suspended, and never allowed to write a Presidential speech again. He says four years is not enough to make a difference, because the government needs to settle down and stabilize. That certainly cannot apply to him. He cannot ask for the luxury of settling down after spending four years in office as Vice President, Acting President, with the last one year as President. Nigerians don't want him to settle down; they want results. That is why they voted for him. If the President had wanted to correct the impression that he will be a single term President, still, May 26, three days to the commencement of his tenure as President was not the right moment to fly such a kite.

Already, Nigerians are twittering, blogging and texting that Jonathan committed a Freudian slip, and that he plans to encourage an amendment of the Constitution to accommodate an extension of the tenure of Presidents and Governors. If he wants to so amend the Constitution, the same Constitution that he will swear today to uphold and defend, then he should not have been heard attacking that constitution three days to the event. "It is a constitutional problem", the President stated. The problem may be worth debating of course, and it may well be a good idea to ensure that Presidents and Governors spend only one term in office: five years or six at most. I believe that this may even help solve the problem of cut-throat competition for Presidential and gubernatorial offices, and cure the mischief of Governors and Presidents spending their second terms in office doing practically nothing. But even if the Constitution were to be amended along these lines, it cannot take retroactive effect, otherwise President Jonathan would be accused of subversion and he would have damaged the historic opportunities of his government.

It is not true that four years "is too short" for a President or a Governor to make a difference. The President didn't get it, and it is important that he does. The period appears too short because many of our elected Governors and Presidents (well, we have had only a few) begin to think of what to do, only when they get to office. They have no blueprint, no clear understanding of what is required, they do not even listen to the people well enough, and the parties that brought them to power have no manifesto, no plan of action, no defined contract with the Nigerian people. Given such background, the complexity of bureaucracy and the enormity of official powers could prove so intimidating that the typical overnight man of power could find himself or herself completely ill-prepared for high office. But this is what we want changed. In states where the Governors are prepared, we have seen so much done in four years.

Gbenga Daniel, Bola Tinubu, Babatunde Fashola, Rotimi Amaechi, Emmanuel Uduaghan, Bukola Saraki, Mohammed Goje, Adamu Aliero, Godwin Akpabio serving and former Governors, all cannot complain that four years is "too short" because in their first four years, they made great impressions, and strides. It is in fact when Governors stay too long in office that they begin to fail. Promises that a Governor or President needs a second or third term to make an impact have not been borne out by our experience. President Barack Obama definitely would not say that "four years is too short." In less than four years, his administration has shown such purposefulness that comes from the will to lead. Obasanjo as President did a lot more in his first term of four years whereas his second term was taken up by his "bolekaja" fight with Vice President Atiku Abubakar, and the selfish politics of tenure extension. General Murtala Muhammed spent 200 days in office as Nigerian Head of State and yet he made a lot of difference. Libya's Gaddafi has been in power for 41 years and he says the period is "too short." Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, 31 years in power, also insists that this is "too short."

What Nigerians want from President Jonathan is purposeful leadership. Today, he takes two oaths: the oath of allegiance (very succinct) and the oath of office President (rather prolix, it should be revised); as stated in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution which grants him a four-year tenure. Now that he says "four years is too short", we expect that he will avoid all the shortcomings that makes that possible, and he knows what to do: "hit the ground running". Any sign of tardiness on the part of his administration can be rightly interpreted as an attempt to justify an extension of his tenure. In reality, he has obvious advantages: his is a Jonathan to Jonathan transition, and for that reason, the people expect some quick wins in less than the next 100 days. There must be low hanging fruits that President Jonathan can pluck and bring quickly to the market place. He doesn't need four years to deliver on his promises in the power sector. He doesn't need four years to ensure that Federal roads are fixed. It shouldn't take four years to rebuild Nigerian schools or to get drugs into the hospitals, or four years to repair the Lagos-Benin Expressway and other roads. It will be strange to spend four years amending the Nigerian Constitution to produce a people's Constitution that reflects their aspirations within the Nigerian Federation. Do we need up to four years to re-organise the sports sector, and get the Eagles and the Falcons, and the athletics teams to start winning again? No...

The truth is: we stand, all of us, at the threshold of history. Today, the torch of our land has been handed over to Dr. Jonathan; he must use that torch to light the flame that will show us the path to the future. And he must lead that march to the future, and not waver, and not be afraid of his own destiny nor of men, nor his own shadows. If he dithers, he would have ruined the opportunity that this moment presents. The Almighty God has been kind to us. He has given us a land that is large and rich in resources. He has given us the strength to remain together in spite of the anguish in our land and the pain of bloody rivalries. He has brought us to yet another turning point in our history, and given us another opportunity to begin again. We must stand together as a people to heal the open wounds in our hearts, and resolve to build a better country for ourselves and our children, and their children too. Let President Jonathan mount the dais today and proclaim to the hearing of all: "I am ready!". If he is and we see that he is, we should stand by him.


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