Assessing Jonathan’s Presidency: Three years on By Tolu Ogunlesi

Nigerians Saving Nigerians:

Tolu Ogunlesi (

On Wednesday, May 29, it’ll be 14 years since democracy returned to Nigeria. And two years since Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was elected president. (Add the one year he spent completing the late Umaru Yar’Adua’s term, and he’d have been president for three years).

This is as good a time as any to review the Jonathan Presidency. We can no longer say it is morning yet on creation day; we have now come far enough to be able to use the past to predict the future.

Of course, the temptation is to see the future only through a prism of 2015. It’s a very appealing temptation, and an earlier article in this column made that argument that 2015 is already upon us.

But it would be a mistake to allow the fever of 2015 to obscure the gritty realities of 2013-to-2015. Even as we all begin to file to the dance floors, summoned by the drums of 2015 (the Nigerian Governors’ Forum already started dancing a long time ago), we must endeavour to remember that one of the purposes of a democracy is to ensure that a president’s chances of re-election depend to a large extent on what he has or has not done in the years preceding that election moment.

In other words, democracy insists that President Jonathan’s chances of re-election should depend on what he has done and not done between 2010/11 and 2015, not on where he comes from, or what he plans to implement after 2015.

The debate about 2015 should, in an ideal world, be about whether he has justified the huge trust reposed in him by the millions who voted for him in an election that was no doubt a huge improvement on all the ones before it since 1999.

The debate about 2015 shouldn’t be about whether an Ijaw man has had enough time to represent his region at the highest levels of public office in Nigeria, or whether it is time for the Igbo to have a shot at that office. Even if we will have those arguments – and, considering that this is Nigeria, we will always have them – they should come secondary to the matter of performance.

What we should therefore be concerned with at this time, is offering up honest and realistic assessments of the Jonathan administration. The purpose of today’s piece, therefore, is to play a part in driving that debate.

On my part, I started out with a great deal of hope in President Jonathan. I was one of those enamoured by his story. This is how I put it in an article that appeared in NEXT newspaper in April 2011, just after the results of the presidential election emerged:

“Come with me to 1998. Let’s meet Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, Assistant Director, Environmental Protection and Pollution Control at the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission in Port Harcourt, “earning small, small kobo that kept him going” (as his father once told The Guardian in an interview). Seven years later, the civil servant is Governor of oil-rich Bayelsa State. Five years after that he is the President of Nigeria. All this happens without him contesting any election on his own.Now, on May 29, 2011, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan will be sworn in as the 4th democratically elected Executive President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“He will go into the beckoning epoch clutching a string of firsts: The youngest civilian President of Nigeria at first swearing-in (Shagari was 54). The first Nigerian Vice-President to go on to be President. The first Nigerian to rise from deputy governor to Governor to Vice-President to President. (What are the chances of that happening in the wildly unpredictable political system we run in this country?). Nigeria’s first PhD-holding President. Nigeria’s first “Facebook President.” The second most popular Head of State alive, on Facebook. […] The first civilian President of Nigeria to come from a minority ethnic group.”

The story of his ascent to power bore the most divine of imprints – from mid-level civil servant to Deputy Governor to Governor to Vice-President to President, without that sort of ruthless ambition that typically characterises Nigerian politics. It was as though God himself had sent him to us. A class of Nigerians emerged who justified the fact of their falling in love with Jonathan with that now-classic line: “I voted for Jonathan, not PDP.”

It also helped that he came promising “transformation”.

Listen to what he said on Saturday, September 18, 2010, when he declared his presidential candidacy, in Abuja:

“Our country is at the threshold of a new era; an era that beckons for a new kind of leadership; a leadership that is uncontaminated by the prejudices of the past; a leadership committed to change; a leadership that reinvents government, to solve the everyday problems that confront the average Nigerian.”

And then this (if you read that declaration you’ll notice how the style echoes John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address):

“Let the word go out from this Eagle Square that Jonathan as President in 2011 will herald a new era of transformation of our country; an era that will end the agony of power shortage in our country… Let the ordinary Nigerian be assured that President Jonathan will have zero tolerance for corruption.”

There. He said it.

Now, it’s time to put him on the weighing balance. Will it be “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin”, or a “Well Done, Thou Good and Faithful Servant”?

You decide.

A lot of things have puzzled me about this Presidency. A lot of questionable presidential statements, ranging from that early push for tenure structure alteration, to the hurried defence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta after the 2010 Independence Day bombings, to the “I don’t give a damn” about asset declaration.

A long list of puzzling actions too – at the top of which lies the ill-fated removal of the fuel subsidy in January 2012, the act that in my opinion marked the immediate end of the Jonathan Honeymoon With Nigerians. Close to that on the list is the deception associated with the First Lady’s illness last year (the refusal to come clean to the public on the facts of the matter). I couldn’t believe that the Jonathan government was resorting to the same tactics that the Yar’Adua “cabal” deployed to prevent Jonathan from becoming president.

And then, there’s the fact that, contrary to all of President Jonathan’s promises in 2010, there’s currently no such thing as a war on corruption in Nigeria. From the handling of the Police College Ikeja and Pensions Reform scandals, to name just two, the message is clear: Corruption is alive and well and prospering in Nigeria.

It’s not all negatives though. Even though power supply has not improved (the only thing that appears to be improving is the statistics being released), the power sector reform seems to be back on track, and if it continues this way, should yield some tangible results soon. And you can now travel from Lagos to Kano by train (even if it will take you more than 30 hours). And this is one president far less likely than Olusegun Obasanjo to use force to win elections for his party.

There are also a number of individuals in the government who give us reason to continue hoping: Reform-minded technocrats such as Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, CBN Governor Lamido Sanusi, Mustafa Chike-Obi (AMCON), Uche Orji (Sovereign Wealth Fund). In agriculture, there’s Akinwunmi Adesina; in Communications Technology, Omobola Johnson. (This is not meant to be an exhaustive list).

But, let’s not mince words. A cabinet shake-up is long overdue. I won’t mention names. And I must add – I find it depressing that it appears that the only reason President Jonathan will let a minister go is because that minister has indicated interest in elective office. What that tells us is that mediocrity is not exactly reason enough to not be in this government of “transformation”.

It is up to Mr. President to determine his presidential legacy. No one, he should remember, is president forever. In April 2010, while he was still Acting President, I wrote, in a “letter” to him:

“Yesterday, you were Goodluck Jonathan. Today, you are Goodwill Jonathan. Now, you must strive to be Goodsense Jonathan, in whose hands the destiny of a nation lies.”

Three years later, most of that Goodwill has, tragically, been squandered. At this time, only the Goodsense can redeem the situation.

So help him, God, Amen.

Articles published by Nigerians Saving Nigerians does not necessarily reflect our editorial policy.

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