The writing of political epitaphs is a most peculiar art. Even though he has been pilloried and criticised for most of his tenure, President Goodluck Jonathan, with one act, now threatens to whitewash our memories of his presidency. His swift congratulatory message to the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, unanticipated as it was, has suddenly, according to Jonathan’s disciples, transfigured him into a super statesman, an uncommon patriot, a heroic leader, and whisper it, Nigeria’s greatest ever president. Some of the accolades are genuinely cringe-worthy but this is how spin-doctors earn their keep. Just as covert intelligence operatives fabricate “legends” – elaborate fictitious biographies for their assumed personas, so too do politicians construct their own legends – elaborate hagiographies.
Some believe that the effusive praise pouring on Jonathan is unwarranted. They argue that the very least a defeated contestant in an election can do is concede defeat and depart without a fuss into the night. This view is understandable. Our bar of collective expectation and amazement needs to be set a lot higher. This way, we can stop genuflecting in gratitude before elected politicians for building roads, sinking boreholes and performing all the other elementary tasks that they are paid to do in the first place. We should not see rights as privileges or accept social services as gifts dispensed by benevolent politicians at their convenience.
Even so, there is little or no precedent in our political history for what Jonathan did. Election results are traditionally bitterly contested, often with partisan violence and protracted litigation. Much of the apprehension surrounding the polls was hinged on the question of whether the incumbent would readily concede defeat or illicitly marshal the might of his office to scuttle the manifestation of an unfavourable electoral outcome. There were obviously hawks who believed that the power of incumbency should be deployed to secure victory by any means necessary, even if this meant throwing the nation into chaos. The attempt by Godswill Orubebe to disrupt the results collation process seemed like the first stage of a plan to truncate the process and bring it into disrepute.
Jonathan’s swift concession took the wind out of the hawks’ sails before they could devise even more nefarious means of aborting Nigeria’s date with destiny. Thus, Jonathan’s quick congratulatory message to the president-elect is positively contrarian to the extent that you can actually count the politicians who have acted likewise in the past. Kayode Fayemi conceded gracefully after losing the Ekiti state gubernatorial election last year as did Rabiu Kwankwaso after his loss of the Kano governorship in 2003.
Critics take umbrage at the claim that Jonathan and the PDP were committed to free and fair elections. After all, it was under Jonathan’s watch that the Nigerian Governors’ Forum was broken in an election in which the president’s favoured candidate was declared winner despite having lost with a haul of 16 votes to his rival contestant’s 19 votes. Team Jonathan also mobilised armed militias like the Odua Peoples’ Congress to threaten violence in the incumbent president’s name.
The PDP’s record of electoral heists, chicanery and thuggery since 1999 is appalling, even in a context in which all politicians try to secure illicit advantage. That the PDP seemed unable to subvert the electoral process this time around was not for want of trying. Last year’s Ekiti State gubernatorial election, which featured the illegal use of military and state security assets to intimidate the opposition, was a template that could simply not be applied to the national stage because of the scale of resistance to the ruling party, the vigilance of local and international watchers and the comparative integrity of the electoral process itself.
Confronted by the prospect of an inevitable defeat, the question became not whether Jonathan would accept defeat but how he would accept defeat. Refusing to concede defeat would portray him as a tyrannical sit-tight grouch while conceding gracefully would enable him burnish his legacy and shape how he would be remembered. In one of his presidency’s all too rare moments of strategic lucidity, Jonathan chose the best option available to him and to Nigeria. For this, he deserves some credit.
However, hyperbolic talk of the magnificence of his magnanimity, his superb statesmanship and his worthiness for a Nobel Peace Prize, is risible and corresponds with a national habit of hyping the most basic norms of civilised society and short-changing ourselves in the process. They also reflect a customary Nigerian readiness to swiftly forgive their leaders. With one sober calculated act, Jonathan’s ruinous leadership risks being written off as a series of bad days at the office and then submerged under an imminent tide of collective amnesia.
The political scientist Richard Joseph once observed that Nigeria is not a politically vindictive society. This trait explains how and why former military dictators are reborn as democrats. An ex-rebel warlord who led an abortive secession not only received a pardon but went on to run for the senate and the presidency and received a state burial upon his death. This capacity for forgiveness is an admirable trait but when not yoked to the discipline of remembrance, it becomes a vulgar licentious acquiescence to the indefensible, the reprehensible and the mediocre. It corresponds with a latent sadomasochistic streak that makes us gluttons for abuse by politicians.
We do not learn from the past because we are too eager to forget it; too ready to absolve our politicians of their misdemeanours and ourselves of complicity in their misconduct. Thus, these absolutions are taken as indulgences enabling the misconduct of successive generations of politicians because they believe that there will be no recompense or restitution for their misdeeds. This negative cycle, so akin to the dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim in an abusive relationship, has to be broken.
Political leadership is a continuum of banality punctuated by key moments or critical junctures. High quality leadership is defined by the ability to recognise such moments and give utterance to the demands of the hour by doing the needful. Leaders must seize the day with these acts which are often as symbolic as they are substantial. Consistently taking such doors of opportunity is what translates a politician into a statesman.
If any debility hobbled Jonathan’s presidency and cost him the goodwill he so richly amassed in 2011, it was the singular inability to discern defining moments and marshal appropriate responses. From the Chibok debacle and Occupy Nigeria, to the failure to fire Abba Moro and his misplaced loyalty to the very officials whose ill-conduct ultimately dragged down his presidency, Jonathan consistently misread situations, indulging in denial and equivocation where decisive action was required.
Where a leader lacks the natural discernment to readily identify such critical moments, he should have people around him who can interpret such occasions and guide him towards appropriate action. Those who should have done this for Jonathan served him so poorly that they terminally damaged his presidency. Had those advisors offered better counsel, perhaps Jonathan’s leadership might have been remarked upon merely for benign negligence rather than catastrophically inept statecraft.
Discernible in the exaggerated praise being lavished on Jonathan are the very reasons for his presidency’s failures. Many of those hyping his concession were the same people who hailed him as Nigeria’s answer to Lee Kuan Yew and Mandela, even while he was plunging remorselessly from one blunder to the next. They belong to the resilient industry of court jesters and sycophants that surrounds power.
The veteran journalist, Orji Ogbonnaya Orji, who served the first five heads-of-state to reside in Aso Rock, has highlighted the role of sycophants in shaping the character of governments. In his book, Inside Aso Rock, Orji argued that the larger than life image of General Sani Abacha was created by the media while “powerful cliques” around him capitalised on his poor health, incompetence, reclusive tendencies and paranoia, to run Nigeria arbitrarily in his name. A comprehensive post mortem of the Jonathan presidency might yet establish how much of his administration’s failings stemmed directly from him and how much of it was due to aides manipulating his insecurities and his often evident unpreparedness for high office.
This is a lesson for the incoming president-elect who must be wary of the shadowy courtiers whose counsel have led leaders into perdition while they remain unscathed and proceed to prey upon the next leadership.
Jonathan’s call to Buhari was a rare example of him reading a critical moment accurately. By readily conceding defeat, he keyed into the inescapable metanarrative of change. It was a case of either joining the chariot of history or being crushed by the sheer force of its momentum. He chose rightly. For this, he deserves neither canonisation nor beatification; only measured commendation for setting an important precedent. We can now move on to more pressing matters.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and political analyst.