Beyond, and Beneath, N65

Sonala Olumhense

Beyond, and Beneath, N65


If I were a swearing man, I would have sworn that had Mr. Goodluck Jonathan ever imagined that the word "transparency" would come to Nigeria's street lexicon, he would not have hungered for the presidency.

"I do not make empty promises in my campaign because whatever I promise to do, I had already carried out adequate study to make sure I can accomplish it in the next four years" he told the people of Nigeria in Onitsha on February 27, 2011.

The proof does not support that claim, but at the time, some Nigerians seemed to agree with Jonathan that if he, once shoeless, could "do" it, so could they. Many said they hated his party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which had historically demonstrated poor faith and form, but they followed Jonathan, swearing they were voting for the man, not the party.

Think about it: for 12 years, through his predecessors, the issue was about control of power, which is why there are two Ps in PDP. It is only fair to assume that Jonathan calculated no differently for his four or seven years.

He took office only on May 29, 2011, but by last week, many of his supporters were left hanging only to guilt and embarrassment. By callously and casually eliminating the phantom subsidy on oil, Mr. Jonathan tore Pandora's Box open to reveal a side of Nigeria he did not know to exist. That is the one armed with the battle cry of transparency.

Let us be clear: there isn't one Nigerian who does not believe that the subsidy, if it is genuine, should be retained. Not one. The issue is that the amateurish and insensitive handling of it in the face of wholesale corruption, and the implications of that approach.

In a matter of days, against the background of some of Mr. Jonathan's fiendish 2012 budget proposals, his own supporters were cursing his ancestry, ripping down his pictures and calling him the vilest of names. Rare it is in modern political history that "popularity" can turn to loathing so quickly; Mr. Jonathan has somehow managed it in seven months.

Other factors were at play: Before the entire world, Mr. Jonathan was setting aside for himself and his family a life of luxury and opulence, while throwing his beloved people to the wolves. He was surrounding and protecting himself with sophisticated security and armoured cars, while feeding his voters to Boko Haram. The President himself was making it clear: this was not a government of the people; this was a government for itself, by itself and in itself.

That is why it also became quickly obvious to the ordinary man that, beyond the so-called oil subsidy, this conflict is really about the way we are, and how we became this way. We prosper together or crumble together.

That is how, as Jonathan prepared to spend millions of Naira per day on food and gifts and toys, he found he had inadvertently educated Nigerians that the fuel subsidy is a byword for a terrible, more destructive disease: an ailment so fearsome that all the arms of the government are infected.

This ailment is responsible for an irresponsible executive that places no limits on absurdity; one with no commitment so strong it would actually implement an undertaking or a report.

This ailment is why the legislative arm of the government, established to make law, has become a law unto itself, its members arrogantly sitting not only atop Titanic salaries and allowances, but on "constituency" loot that violates the divide between the executive and the legislature.

In other words, the crisis in Nigeria is that those who rule Nigeria have lost all credibility in the eyes of the people. It took Mr. Jonathan only seven months to make this point clear.

Mr. Jonathan is said to be a man of "good luck," although in the past two weeks, I have heard that name shredded creatively. If his government survives, he would have to understand that government-as-usual is over; Nigerians are insisting that the political power relationship must change so that those who rule do not expect to be served, or serve themselves.

Nigerians are asking for a true war against corruption. The evidence before us all is that Mr. Jonathan cannot offer such a commitment because his government is corruption itself. To begin with, Mr. Jonathan himself has refused to declare his assets, which is in many ways a confession of a dark secret. He has also failed to define his so-called transformation agenda; he talks about that agenda all day when all he has is a concept. An agenda, Mr. Reuben Abati would have told him in another life, has form and substance.

Take a look at his cabinet and special advisers, and the assortment of integrity-challenged personnel tells you that this is a government founded on rhetoric and hypocrisy. The paradox of Nigeria comes down to the fact that the people who are being asked to enthrone transparency do not know what transparency is.

Mr. Jonathan claims he wants to fight corruption, but he investigates nobody, arrests nobody, prosecutes nobody. No reports submitted to him are implemented.

This is particularly worrying when you consider his paranoia. Unable to fulfill his promise to bring Boko Haram to its knees, he has now declared it to be present in all arms of the government and the security agencies. Still, the President names nobody, arrests nobody, prosecutes nobody.

This confirms what some of us have been saying for a long time: there is nothing in the character or track record of Mr. Jonathan that makes him suitable to embark on the most fundamental demand Nigerians are making: the arrest of corruption. And yet, if we do not get that, the future will be outlined and defined by greater discontent and violence.

What next? The first thing is that the people must continue their rallies and protests, and insist that their efforts lead to substantive changes. If they do not, not only would all the suffering and deaths of the past two weeks have been for nothing, the Jonathan government will become worse, not better. Evil would have triumphed.

The challenge before us is that the social contract is broken and must be renegotiated. To that extent, the Labour Movement must be clear about one thing: this is a mass protest, not a labour strike. Labour must therefore be careful not to overestimate its role or overreach itself. It is making a wonderful contribution, but the protests preceded Labour intervention. Labour lacks the authority to speak for the people, some of whom are wary of a possible sell-out.

What Labour and others can help to do is help the government to understand that in 2012, the people want a government which locates its mandate in the electorate, not atop, or beyond. They want a government which implements the rule of law, not one which sides with criminals or hides them.

As a result of all this, the Labour Movement would be making a terrible error to assume anyone can turn off the rallies if Mr. Jonathan simply reverses his subsidy policy. If this is clear to Labour, they must work to broaden its discussion with the government to include all facets of society.

Only on such a table can the future, in terms of a meaningful peace deal be fashioned, and must include:

  • · Defining a true offensive against corruption to include independent bodies;
  • · Restructuring the government's anti-corruption bodies so its principal officers are recruited using the same criteria developed by the Justice Uwais commission, through a competitive hiring process mediated by the judiciary;
  • · An independent Ombudsman who publishes quarterly corruption-related reports and monitors public petitions;
  • · A judiciary restructured to undertake corruption prosecutions swiftly and publicly;
  • · A Loot Recovery Initiative for Development (LURID);
  • · A law to protect and reward whistle-blowers;
  • · An Office of Budget and Public Projects Review; and
  • · Election Campaign Finance Law.

We are not going back to 2011.

· sonala.olumhense@gmail.com