The Reuben Abati They Did Not Know

In an article last week, President Goodluck Jonathan’s Special Adviser on Media & Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, went after his boss’ critics.

By his definition, they included “all the cynics, the pestle-wielding critics, the unrelenting, self-appointed activists, the idle and idling, twittering, collective children of anger, the distracted crowd of Facebook addicts, the BBM-pinging soap opera gossips of Nigeria,” formerly known as Dr. Jonathan’s friends on the Internet.

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He called them a diverse “army of sponsored and self-appointed anarchists,” who are “in competition among themselves to pull down” the President.

As a man who evidently considers himself an authority on public affairs, he said: “The clear danger to public affairs commentary is that we have a lot of unintelligent people repeating stupid clichés and too many intelligent persons wasting their talents lending relevance to thoughtless conclusions.”

The simple truth is that Mr. Abati has reduced to shame many people that used to respect him. Every Nigerian staring at the bumbling, stumbling and fumbling at Aso Rock knows that, having been pushed to the thin edge of irrelevance by Mrs. Patience Jonathan, the former columnist is only fighting to remain presidential spokesman.

Otherwise, it might have occurred to him that labeling critics “liars” and trying to plunge a knife deep into the the very heart of Mr. Jonathan’s political support in the past two years is an amateurish gamble.

But desperation makes a mockery of clear vision, and in the end, Abati’s “The Jonathan They Don’t Know” emerged as “The Abati They Did Not Know.”

Is Mr. Jonathan a nice, simple man, as his spokesman labored to establish of a man who has spent five years in the presidency?

Surprisingly, Mr. Abati does now know how irrelevant this point is. The issue is not about being a nice man; it is about being the leader to uplift Nigeria; about being the “transformational” figure he claimed he would be.

As a “pestle-wielding” dissenter myself, let me now restate some of the grounds on which I have criticized Mr. Jonathan as President, beginning from March 2010 when he became Acting President, and invite Mr. Abati to say how these constitute “lies” against a simple man.

One: corruption.

I have criticized Mr. Jonathan as being the latest in a line of rulers who deploy only words against the monster. If he takes himself and his country seriously, he must not only declare his assets publicly, he must fire such top officials as Ministers as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Anyim Pius Anyim, and Ministers Diezani Alison-Madueke and Mohamed Bello Adoke, all of whom have been stained by allegations of corruption.

Regrettably, along with refusing to sack them, Mr. Jonathan has ignored a mountain of top-level corruption reports that sit on his desk, including Halliburton, Okiro, Siemens, Wilbros, the Petroleum Ministry, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But there have been words. Among them in July last year, at an event at which he identified corruption as “the monster that we need to confront and defeat,” and pledged that the “war” will start at the centre, he asked two “anti-corruption agencies to probe all federal ministries, departments and agencies, starting from 2007.” As usual, it was the last time anyone heard about that initiative.

Second: Mr. Jonathan’s 2011 political promises, upon which he has completely turned his back, as though they never were made.

Third, the insecurity in Nigeria. Since Mr. Jonathan took office, billions of dollars have been thrown at the problem, alongside denial and amateurish mismanagement.

Four: Jobs. I have documented Mr. Jonathan’s vows on jobs. What I have not been able to document, is a serious, structured approach to redeeming those vows, or a full-frontal assault upon those issues that are keeping jobs away from us.

Five: the “pretend governance” culture in which the President sets up committee after committee to look into serious problems, only to throw their reports aside. His haul includes the Justice Uwais Panel on electoral reform; the Okigbo Committee on Halliburton; the Theophilus Danjuma Presidential Advisory Committee, and the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee.

Six: Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda: During his election campaign, the President successfully sold a transformation concept, but with almost one and a half years gone, he has not published the transformation plan, if any. On July 2, 2011, one month after Mr. Jonathan was sworn in, Mr. Anyim told the American ambassador that when Jonathan unveiled the “transformation agenda,” there would be major institutional changes aimed at plugging loopholes and opportunities for corruption.

The point was confirmed in October 2011 when the Minister of National Planning, Mr. Shamsudeen Usman, said the transformation agenda, when published, would emphasize the rule of law, judicial system and the policing system.

Seven: electoral reform. The intervention Mr. Jonathan promised was reform on the basis of the Justice Uwais report rather than the cosmetic changes that we have seen. Without the wholesome philosophical and functional changes promised by the Uwais plan, true electoral reform cannot be institutionalized.

Eight: arbitrary promises: In Minna in July 2010, Mr. Jonathan warned that Unless Nigeria retraced its steps from corruption, illegal acquisition of wealth, absence of productivity, dependence on oil, and evasion of taxes, “very soon the system will collapse.” Similarly, in his New Year message in January 2012, he lamented that Nigeria needed to move much faster, but “that is where the devil comes in and puts road blocks.”

But it is not the devil that has failed to provide proper example by declaring his assets. It is not the devil that does not “give a damn.” It is not the devil that flip-flops over dialogue with Boko Haram, or who promised earlier in the year he would defeat the militants by June.

These are some of the substantive issues, and they relate to Mr. Jonathan’s sincerity as a man, and his abilities as a leader. What Nigerians are criticizing is the relationship between what Mr. Jonathan says and what he does; and between what he promises and what he delivers, as the quality of life plummets for the ordinary man and woman.

They are about whether Mr. Jonathan means well or not, which is what Abati misunderstands when he writes, “I have even heard that the President spends billions on feeding.”

Actually, yes, the presidency did budget nearly N1 billion for food. And no, it does not matter whether it was for pepper-soup or roast turkey; or whether the president actually eats the food or uses it in food fights.

What Nigerians are saying is that the same President who had no shoes ordered three new executive jets as soon as was officially possible; offers bribes in hard currency to State House visitors, and made his first advocacy in office the subject of a six-year presidential term.

In other words, what Abati ought to be defending is why the Jonathan presidency is deeply resented as a government that has failed its people. Instead, he says, with embarrassing shortsightedness, that the President's critics “just cannot accept that someone with his simplicity can be their President.”

And then, elevating sycophancy into philosophy, he tried to smuggle Mr. Jonathan into the same farmyard as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Kwame Nkrumah, “men who have shaped the world that we live in by simplifying what others have complicated.”

At a time that Jonathan is pronouncing himself the most criticized President on earth, and asserting his government will now clap for itself if the press will not do it, Mr. Abati ought to have realized that, sometimes, you are at your most eloquent when you are silent.

If Mr. Jonathan wants to enter the same city with those four men, to him falls the challenge of not trying to complicate what they simplified through service and sacrifice.

• sonala.olumhense@gmail.com