An open letter to President Jonathan, By Tolu Ogunlesi
“I doubt that Nigerians and their news media are singling you out for ill-treatment.”
Dear Mr. President,
I am constrained to write this open letter to you before this season of letters comes to a close.
I will go straight to the issues at stake. Let’s start with the level of toxic-ness in the air, sustained to a large extent by the attitudes of your array of spokespersons, who today do little more than insult and dismiss everyone deemed to be an enemy of the President. Just as you have a point when you say that the easiest way to be deemed “progressive” is to abuse Jonathan, it has also become that criticizing the President quickly earns you all sorts of unprintable labels from the President’s camp.
Everyone in your camp seems obsessed with the fact that the world is against you. One adviser recently accused everyone criticizing you of lacking home training. Another, who made his name writing brilliant articles that skewered the governments of the day, recently lamented — without any sense of irony — that all Nigerian media is in the hands of the opposition.
There’s a siege mentality at work, us versus them. I can assure you that that is not at all a helpful attitude to adopt. Let’s get one thing clear – if the Nigerian media seems to be against you, it is because they’ve always been that way; always tending to be deeply critical of the abuse and misuse of power. At the next Council of State meeting you might want to ask your predecessors about their experiences with the media and the ‘opposition’.
If the media was unusually ‘nice’ to or tolerant of Babangida, why did he spend so much time proscribing media houses? If they were nice to Abacha why was his government obsessed with hounding journalists? If they were nice to Obasanjo why did he once boast that he never read newspapers? The late President Yar’Adua earned himself a reputation as “Baba Go-Slow”. Remember the joke that circulated widely a few years ago, about going into a restaurant to order amala, shaki and ‘Yar’Adua’ (where Yar’Adua stood for ‘snail’).
My point is: I doubt that Nigerians and their news media are singling you out for ill-treatment. It’s not about you being a Southern President, or a Christian, or an Ijaw man, it’s far more likely to be about the actions and inactions of your government.
Mr. President, step out of the trenches. Your battle is not against the media, or ordinary Nigerians wont to express their frustrations and disappointments. I suspect that your battle is instead with many of those characters who surround you, claiming to be friends and loyalists, but who imprison you within a dangerous Bubble and delight in misleading you for their own selfish ends.
I have slowly come to realise how the condition of power easily sets up the wielders of that power for incarceration within a Bubble. It’s prison without the uniform and without the realization that you’re in prison.
In that Bubble you’re cut off from reality, and people come up to you and say all sorts of things. They give you lists of your “friends” and “enemies”, they concoct allegations, they worship you, they call you their Jesus Christ, their Alpha and Omega, the best thing to happen to Nigeria since 1914, they endlessly whisper rumours and rumours of rumours. They will tell you that everyone hates you because you’re from a minority ethnic group. They will tell you to ignore what “all those yeye newspapers and critics” are saying.
It’s time, perhaps, for you to fight to step out of that Bubble. Your own long walk to freedom ought to commence now, considering that it’s almost too late.
We all know that governance is largely a series of perception games. Thus far your government has, like many of the governments that preceded you, has played those games badly. When people perceive your government as corrupt, it is because they see no evidence otherwise. We all saw fuel subsidies rise four-fold during your first year in power. No one took responsibility, no one was punished.
When the Police College incident happened, it was an angry you who said the revelations were the work of your enemies. It was, and is still, puzzling – did the opposition somehow corner all the funds allocated to the College(s), making it impossible for the police bosses to spend their funds responsibly. Then there was the aviation industry scandal – and I’ve reliably heard that it is only a tip of the iceberg. The Oga At The Top is still sitting pretty, invoking the Law of No-Shaking.
Meanwhile that same government wastes no time pushing Bart Nnaji out for ‘conflicts of interest’; and hounding Sanusi Lamido on the unproven grounds that he “leaked” a letter to the President. Perhaps you will be able to explain to us how a Lamido Sanusi has managed to embarrass your government to a greater extent than a Stella Oduah.
With scenarios like this you shouldn’t be surprised that Nigerians are angry and confused.
If you stood where Nigerians stand, and gave the affairs of your government a proper consideration, you’d probably – hopefully – come to the same conclusion; that something is just not right somewhere.
The tragedy is that someday, maybe in 2015, or 2019, you will step down from the Bubble. Your eyes will ‘clear’, and like Mr. Obasanjo you will become an advocate of good governance. Perhaps you will even write longwinded letters (or emails) to your successor complaining about corruption and about how the international community is deeply worried about Nigeria.
And we will be forced to remind you of your own time in office, and wonder aloud what it is about the water in Aso Rock that turns occupants into this strange species of Homo Sapiens.
Perhaps you would like to backtrack a little, to the beginnings of your presidency. To the circumstances in which you, underdog of underdogs, came to power. When you were at the mercy of the “cabal” that ran Nigeria in the absence of President Yar’Adua.
I, like millions of other Nigerians, was angered by the antics of that cabal, at how you, the sitting Vice President, was treated. You were kept out of the loop, humiliated. I recall joining protest marches in Lagos and Abuja, calling for an end to the shameful state of affairs that kept you away from taking charge of Nigeria. We didn’t do it because you were an Ijaw man, or because your loyalists ‘mobilised’ us to march for you. We did it because it was the right, sensible and decent thing to do.
Recall the promise and potential with which you came to power. A Nigerian President who came from outside the hegemonic contraptions that have run Nigeria since independence. No one doubts that your victory in 2011 was legitimate; those elections, while not perfect, were the most credible we had seen in almost two decades. I recall describing your appearance on social media in 2010 as a “breath of fresh air” – a mantra that eventually became one of your campaign themes.
The question to ask yourself is: what happened? How did we get here; where the name ‘Jonathan’ has become a byword for goofs and gaffes, for complete helplessness in the face of oil theft and corruption.
In trying to answer that question (and maybe there are some answers above), the least we expect is that you will try to make amends. Because that is all that will really matter, in the long run. You will probably need to sacrifice some of those Untouchables within your cabinet. There’s news of an impending cabinet reshuffle. Go ahead and do it. Surprise us.
You will also need to do something about your communications set-up. Your achievements – and they do exist (these might form the basis of another letter) – deserve to do better than get lost amidst the din of mindless propaganda and abusive language flowing from your spokespersons and aides.
You would need to come and meet Nigerians where they are – sadly trapped beneath layers of angry cynicism – to directly tell them what you’ve been doing, what you’re currently doing, and what you plan to do in 2014. A handful of Presidential Media Chats per year will no longer cut it; not in these dire times.
You will have to face up to the difficult questions that Nigerians are asking, and answer them yourself. Go on TV, get on radio, get out there on social media. You can no longer continue to depend solely on a battery of spokespersons speaking dangerously off-the-cuff, hyper-excited by the sounds of their own intemperate voices.
The siege mentality has to go. You’re not the first, and will not be the last, Nigerian President to feel beleaguered. It is the nature of the task. And, considering what they receive in compensation and benefits for the job of ruling or misruling Nigeria, our politicians should generally learn to take all the heat, or leave the kitchen.
I have written this letter in genuine concern. I am not currently a member of any political party, and I do not have anything personal at stake in this brouhaha – no bids for a marginal field or NIPP power plant or import license that might possibly be affected by the way things play out. I do not hate you.
I am simply an ordinary Nigerian, concerned about the direction in which our country is headed; concerned about seeing that Nigeria gets the highest quality of governance that is reasonably possible, considering our very complicated circumstances.
Tolu Ogunlesi can be reached on Twitter: @toluogunlesi