I saw it coming. I had predicted in my last post that ex-President Obasanjo‘s open letter to President Jonathan would not go unanswered. And answered it was. Although the sitting President’s self-appointed media consultants had tried to dismiss the issues raised by OBJ as a non-issue (with some arguing that a weightless letter deserved no response) the current President knew better than to act as if the ex-President said nothing extraordinary. The President and his lieutenants did lose sleep over the open letter. The President’s rebuttal dated 20th December 2013 is the outcome of the marathon meetings held over the unsolicited missive. The President did more than return OBJ’s fire; he pointedly asked those given to washing Nigeria‘s dirty linen in public to look for other pastimes. The exigency of national security, as seen by the President, dictates restraint, possibly, self-censorship, not unguarded and flamboyant letter writing.
And this is my starting point today–the logic underpinning the invocation of the spirit of “national security” at a time we had been led to believe that it was only through open dialogue that we could get out of our predicament. Wasn’t it a little while ago that Mr President set up a National Dialogue Committee, authorized the Committee to disregard signs pointing to no-go areas, and gave the members a free hand to interrogate the National Question from all angles? Apparently, there are no-go areas after all. Besides saying it in so many words that OBJ’s open letter was a less “acceptable and dignified means” of communication, the President termed the letter a clear “threat to national security as it may deliberately or inadvertently set the stage for subversion.” He further alleges that “landmines” had been laid for him–President Jonathan, that is–waiting to explode. “The purpose and direction of your letter”, the President told OBJ, “is distinctively ominous, and before it is too late, my clarifications on the issues need to be placed on record.”
The President found the timing of OBJ’s letter particularly odd. If OBJ was not part of a gang-up against the President, why should his letter come on the heels of other “vicious releases”? The “releases” that the President considered malicious include the comment by the Speaker of the House drawing a correlation between the President’s “body language” and corruption, and the letter written by the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria accusing the NNPC of failing to remit the sum of USD49.8 billion to the federation account within a period of 19 months. Even though the CBN Governor’s letter was addressed to the President, its contents were divulged to third parties, OBJ included. The President said nothing about OBJ’s presumed tag-team partners, but if the likes of IBB, Abdul-Salaami, and Theophilus Danjuma were contemplating following up with their own open letters, the alarm raised by President Jonathan and echoed by former Head of State, Dr. Yakubu Gowon, should stay their hands and leave OBJ alone in the ring to face his new Nemesis.
Let us, for now, leave conspiratorial gang-ups aside, and take the bones of contention one at a time. OBJ had berated the government for its poor handling of security. Mr President fired back by saying that his government had instituted measures which significantly reduced “the scope and impact of terrorist operations” in the North East region. Among the steps taken by the government to contain the Boko Haram insurgency were the application of the carrot and stick technique, identification of illiteracy as a major terrorism trigger, the release of funds for the construction of Almajir schools, and the establishment of nine universities in the northern states.
The President, by the way, wondered if OBJ was qualified to counsel anyone on the use of the carrot. As the President noted, the stick was all ex-President OBJ relied on to curb militancy in the Niger Delta, in general, and Odi, Bayelsa State, in particular. Ouch!
On security across the whole country, the President maintained that his government accorded high priority to the equipment and training of law enforcement agents. The government had further “increased the surveillance capabilities of the Police and provided its air-wing with thrice the number of helicopters it had before the inception of the present administration.” The Civil Defence and Security Corps had also been armed to make it an effective law enforcement agency.
In the President’s own reckoning, Nigeria of 2013 is more secure than that of 2007. It was in 2007, the President points out, that a petrol tanker was set to ram into the INEC building in Abuja. The elections slated to hold that year would have been derailed but for the fortuitous intervention of an electric pole. It was also in 2007 that an armed gang tried, in vain, to assassinate the current President when he ran as the PDP’s Vice-Presidential candidate. The gang tried again to bomb his country home, but as luck would have it, Vice-Presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan was elsewhere when the bomb went off. Now the nation’s Number One citizen, President Jonathan laments that the “security people” whose job under the OBJ administration it was to investigate the assassins’ backers and motives, failed to unravel the assassination attempts.
The President is gracious to acknowledge the fact that the general security environment remains dicey. Kidnapping, piracy, and armed robbery are still very much with Nigeria. He might as well include bloody bank heists, civil disturbances, ritual killing, and other violent crimes. The President’s rebuttal acknowledges these ugly realities, but has provided no satisfactory explanation for their persistence over time. Despite the huge allocations to the Police (with its high-flying and invisible “air wing”), the Civil Defence Corps, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, and the myriad uniformed outfits created at the drop of a hat, the President agrees that Nigeria is still faced with a grave security challenge. He, the President, in fact regards the security issues as those which “all Nigerians, including me (the President) are very concerned about.” How then is this “concern” different from the one expressed in OBJ’s open letter?
Probably to allay OBJ and other concerned Nigerians’ fears, the President’s makes a show of detailing the efforts made by the government to arm and equip the law enforcement agencies. This is where the President should have stopped–that is, the stage at which his government was said to be trying but insecurity appeared to be winning. But then, the President felt the urge to put up a robust defence, and by so doing, to portray OBJ as at best, ill-informed, at worst, spiteful. This is where the President made a fatal error. In explaining why the security situation had NOT improved on his watch, the President passes the buck to his predecessors! He regards the problems that he was elected to solve as antedating his tenure and therefore beyond his capacity! This is how the President (on whose desk the buck stops) sees precisely the challenges that he was elected to tackle:
“While we will continue to do our utmost best to reduce all forms of criminality to the barest minimum in our country, it is just as well to remind you (OBJ) that the first major case of kidnapping for ransom took place around 2006. And the Boko Haram crisis dates back to 2002. Goodluck Jonathan was not the President then (meaning, Baba OBJ was). Also armed robbery started in this country immediately after the civil war and since then, it has been a problem to all succeeding governments….”
The Jonathan administration’s “utmost best” is clearly not delivering the “barest minimum” promised let alone the results actually craved by the long-suffering people of Nigeria. Yet, the same tendency to evade responsibility for the design and implementation of measurable change in the security and law enforcement sector is evident in the President’s response to OBJ’s corruption allegation. Those who were wondering what “weighty issues” OBJ raised in his open letter should again listen carefully to the President:
“That corruption is an issue in Nigeria is indisputable. It has been with us for many years….The seed of corruption in this country was planted a long time ago, but we are doing all that we can to drastically reduce its debilitating effects on national development and progress.”
It is the same argument: government is trying but corruption is winning. If the seed of corruption was planted a long time ago, what efforts have we made to uproot the seed or to deny it the water and the compost it needs to sprout? The issue is NOT when corruption, or for that matter, insecurity, started. The issue–the critical one that the President failed to address–is how effectively he has so far deployed the intimidating powers of the presidency to combat corruption and checkmate insecurity. It is not enough for those aspiring to lead us to covet the imperial powers of the state executive. They must have an idea what they want to do with the powers. This is my argument in THE ROUTE TO POWER: THE DYNAMIC ENGAGEMENT OPTION FOR CURRENT AND ASPIRING LEADERS (Palgrave-Macmillan, NY, 2009). Unfortunately, many aspirants to leadership positions in Nigeria don’t have the slightest clue what the country is up against or how the people are hurting under the weight of unsolved problems. Once in office, the leaders care even less whether or not they find solutions to knotty problems. Otherwise, why would anyone vie for the office of President and Commander-in-Chief, only to get elected into it and then begin to blame the critical challenges’ dates of birth for the failure to make an impact?
Of course, President Jonathan inherited insecurity, corruption, and many other “impregnable” challenges. There would be no need for a president if there are no challenges breaking the people’s backs, tugging at their hearts, and shortening their lives. In President Jonathan’s case, the people of Nigeria (including those who did not vote for him) expected that as soon as he took his oath of office, old and new challenges would beat a retreat as government assembled the best and the brightest brains to wage a relentless war on those vexing challenges. But what do we have instead? We see the energy of the state dissipated on the retention, concentration, and consolidation of power; on self-aggrandisement; on controversial, possibly questionable, transfer of the Nigerian people’s assets to well-connected oligarchs; and on the virtual conversion of public institutions into personal households or fiefdoms. Instead of sharpening their detective, investigative, and crime control capacities to a fine hone, law enforcement agents wait for “instructions from above” to perform their statutory functions or, as is becoming the practice, to serve purely partisan political interests in total disregard of their professional ethos.
If the President wants to make a difference to the governance of this country (and record measurable impact in security and law enforcement, the war on corruption, electric power generation and distribution, etc.) he should start by turning the weak and bendable institutions into resilient, personality-proof, and enduring service delivery agents. This type of institution building/revitalization entails, at the very least, placing the highest premium on the autonomy, professionalism, integrity, productivity and performance of public service delivery agents.
We have focused thus far on the minuses in the President’s rebuttal. This, however, is not to suggest that the President’s rebuttal to OBJ lacks merit in its entirety. Far from it. The President has, in my humble opinion, responded adequately to a number of allegations, notably, the allegations that he placed over one thousand Nigerians on a political watch list and that he had sent snipers for training in readiness for deployment against political opponents. If OBJ knows of a list, he must also know the names on the list. Unless he is ready to produce the political watch list which he mentioned in his open letter (with the names un-redacted), he owes not just the President but every Nigerian an apology for crying wolf where there is none. Ditto for the allegation concerning the training and possible deployment of snipers. One lesson my professors taught me is that assertions are no proof. The President’s accusers have to go beyond trying to smear him. They have to provide the exact details of his wrongdoing. And no details are more exact than names that could be matched with recognizable faces. While still on the rebuttal, the President would appear to have laid to rest the ghost of the un-remitted US$49.8 billion– unless of course the Central Bank of Nigeria not only stands by its earlier finding but is also ready to back the finding up with incontrovertible and verifiable data.
Since the PDP crisis in an internal party affair–one that is only marginally related to the national issues raised in OBJ’s open letter and adverted to in the President’s response–it is better left the way it is, in the hands of the parties concerned.
However, there is one PDP-related matter which this post cannot ignore. It is the matter regarding the tension building up in the run-up to 2015. The President considered it “regrettable that in your (OBJ) letter, you seem to place sole responsibility for the ongoing intrigues and tensions in the PDP at my doorstep….At the heart of all the current troubles in our party and the larger polity is the unbridled jostling and positioning for personal or group advantage ahead of 2015.”
By that statement, the President acknowledges that tension does exist within his party and in the country as a whole. While accepting part of the responsibility for the crisis, he thinks that others also share in the blame. As President and Commander-in-Chief, President Jonathan cannot “share” this type of responsibility with anyone. The position that he currently holds obliges him to account for whatever befalls Nigeria. This is why he has to decide whether he would honour the one-term agreement which he explicitly or implicitly entered into in 2011 or, regardless of the risks and the consequences, he would shred the agreement and throw the bits and pieces in his opponents’ faces. In deciding one way or the other, the President should be mindful of his place in history. He should accordingly listen to his inner soul and voice–not to advisers whose jobs are on the line, not to relatives who see power and its fringe benefits slipping away, and certainly not to war-mongers.
May God guide the President aright, bless our country, Nigeria, and relieve the suffering of our people, no matter their tribe, tongue, or religious belief!
Professor Balogun, former UN Senior Adviser, and former Director-General, The Administrative Staff College of Nigeria, writes from Canada.
Follow Baloguun on twitter @balogunjide1
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters