Tell’s “The Jonathan Interview”; in defence of critics By Mohammed Haruna



Tell’s edition of penultimate Monday (post-dated February 27) carried a lengthy exclusive interview with President Goodluck Jonathan which is probably his most comprehensive press interview to date. For that reason alone it is somewhat surprising that it has been paid scant media attention; perhaps I had not looked hard enough but in the one week since its publication, I have not read a single story in any of our newspapers about the interview.

It is, however, not only probably his most comprehensive press interview to date. It provided very useful insights into the workings of the man’s mind.

One of such insight is that he is not easily moved by public opinion. “I am,” he said in answer to the last question of the interview, “not moved by public opinion so easily because, in most cases, the public opinion may not be quite right.”

Even more insightful was his analysis of the make-up of all societies. In every society, he said, there are three categories of people; the critics, the advisers and the doers. The first job, he said, is the easiest, followed by advising with implementation being the most difficult.

“It is,” he said, “just like a soccer game; people will be abusing the coach. Sometimes you think you know more than him. No. He knows more because he has been with his players more.”

Hardly anyone would disagree with the president’s classification of these three jobs in any society. However, being the easiest does not necessarily make the job of the critic a useless one to society. On the contrary, criticism is the trigger for progressive change in any society, provided, of course, it does not degenerate into cynicism.

And even when criticisms degenerate into cynicism, chances are those who have the power to implement are more to blame than the critics for the simple reason that all too often the latter abuse their power for selfish ends and do not say what they mean or mean what they say.

The president himself provided one incontrovertible proof of why cynicism by critics can be justified. “When I look at some people that I know and they shout ‘corruption, corruption!’, I just shake my head,” he said. Clearly the president is here referring to hypocrisy in high places. And it is this kind of hypocrisy that makes not just critics but other members of the public have little or no faith in those they have entrusted with power to do things or in those who seize power by force or by rigging elections, purportedly to do things in the public interest.

Tell’s interview covered at least nine issues, each of them of critical to the country’s unity, stability and integrity; the threat of Boko Haram’s terrorism, state police, the economy, oil subsidy, the related Petroleum Industry Bill, Agriculture, power, corruption and, not least of all, the continued existence of the country itself.

On this last issue, the president’s position was predictable. “I am,” he said, “very optimistic that Nigeria will progress.” No leader would, of course, express pessimism about his country. To do so would be a vote of no confidence in one’s own ability to govern well and with equity.

However, the trouble with President Jonathan’s declared optimism about the country, as was the case with that of his great benefactor, former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, is that while he expresses faith in the future of the country, he has done little to restrain forces that seem hell bent on destroying Nigeria. On the contrary his regime seems to be at least complicit in the activities of those whose stock-in-trade is to abuse anyone or any group or any section of the country that differ from him or his government, and threaten them with fire and brimstone.

When you express faith in the future of your country as a leader but create a distinct impression that there is a hidden hand of government behind forces that want to divide its people, you can only invite suspicions about the integrity of your faith.

And you raise those suspicions even more when you have one rule for one set of disgruntled citizens and another rule for another set, as was the case in his reply to the question about whether his government should engage the Boko Haram insurgents whose terror is threatening to tear Nigeria apart with an endless religious war between Muslims and Christians.

He is, he has said not only in this interview but at other fora, prepared to listen to Boko Haram, provided its leaders identify themselves and provided their demands are reasonable.

The president is right to insist any disaffected group must be reasonable in its demands before they can be negotiated with. However to say, as the president did in comparing Boko Haram with the Niger Delta militants, that Boko Haram had no reason to be restive and to also say they are ghosts is to distort their origin.

“People like Asari (Dokubo), they were not hiding. So there was a basis for negotiation. They had a reason for restiveness and they had faces.” True. But then so also had Boko Haram. Boko Haram may have expressed extreme views about modernity and about Westernization, but as the president knows very well, it was a harmless group and its leaders were well known until the authorities in Borno State, where it began, decided to set the security forces against it because of its trenchant criticisms of their mis-governance.

As the president also now knows all too well, the attempt in 2009 to execute a final solution to their ensuing confrontation with the security forces merely drove them underground only to rise, phoenix like, and return with vengeance. The lesson of that failure should be obvious; the greater the attempt to wipe out a group, the deeper it goes underground and the more difficult it is to find solutions to their grievances.

Two more things about the Tell interview. The first was his views about agriculture. Asked about what he intends to do about the non-oil sector, he promised agriculture will be the focus of his economic policy. Oil, he said, contributed only 14 per cent of the country’s GDP as compared to agriculture’s 40 percent, telecom’s six per cent and the banking sector’s four per cent.

“Though in terms of earning of government, it is oil but in terms of earning of the public, it is agriculture. That is why we are emphasizing agriculture so much now. Our target is to make sure that between now and 2015 we will develop agriculture to the extent that it will generate two million jobs,” he said.

This is unlikely to happen in a country like ours where in the foreseeable future the capital budget is unlikely to exceed 40 per cent and where security alone gobbles nearly a third of the budget. It is even more unlikely to happen in our country where the movement of people and goods have become a nightmare because of useless, if not potentially dangerous, security checkpoints ostensibly meant to eliminate Boko Haram.

Second, it is interesting and somewhat ironic that in the interview the president has chosen to lay the blame for the scandalous spending on last year’s oil subsidy on the Central Bank of Nigeria; interesting because in the presidential system the buck stops on the president’s desk, and ironic because the CBN governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, has arguably been the greatest defender of oil subsidy removal.

The figure of N2.3 billion oil subsidy for last year (and still counting), said the president, should have prompted the CBN to raise alarm. The CBN, he said, should never have continued paying and paying.  “Assuming there is no probe (on the fuel subsidy payment by the House of Representative),” he said, “will the CBN just keep quiet?”

Clearly this attempt to pass the buck to the CBN says a lot more about the readiness of the presidency to accept its responsibility for the management of our economy than it does about the competence and integrity of the CBN.

Sorry, one more thing and this is really final. Perhaps the most interesting remark by the president in the interview was his promise about power, given its central role in the revival of our comatose economy. “I promised Nigerians,” he said on this issue, “we will stabilize power but if you ask me how many megawatts, I will not tell you.”

He then went on to promise that “By the middle of next year, you will ‘dash’ me your generator. I’ll send it out of this country because we won’t need it here anymore.”

Obviously the president said this in good humour. However, the contradiction about how he can make the use of stand-by generators in the country redundant when he does not know how much megawatts he will generate in the next one year seems lost on the man.

But humour or no humour, he can rest assure that come June next year, Nigerians will hold him up to his promise to get them to “dash” him their generators.

 

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