Dr Reuben Abati’s article which he titled ‘The hypocrisy of yesterday’s men’ and which was widely circulated yesterday was but the latest front in the battle between the Jonathan regime and the army of ex-Obasanjo aides led by the former president himself who are bitterly ranged against it. In this battle between yesterday’s men [and women] and today’s men, with tomorrow’s men waiting to inherit the estate, the role of referee falls on us the men who were spectators yesterday, who are looking on askance today and who are set for the dustbin tomorrow.
Abati did not mention anyone by name, but there were enough pointers in the article to show that he was addressing four people: Obasanjo, former FCT Minister Nasir el-Rufa’i, former Education Minister and former World Bank vice president Oby Ezekwesili and former Presidential Assistant and Aviation Minister Femi Fani-Kayode. Copious references in Abati’s piece to emergency columnists and men who use the social media were a reference to Nasiru el-Rufa’i. Mrs Ezekwesili’s charge last week that the Yar’adua and Jonathan regimes together squandered the $67billion in foreign reserves that she said Obasanjo left in 2007 rankled Jonathan regime officials no end.
What annoyed them most however have been Obasanjo’s trenchant criticisms of Jonathan, especially on the issue of insecurity occasioned by the Boko Haram insurgency. It has reached levels of obsession, I think, and the regime’s men scored a point by pointing out that Obasanjo contradicted himself in his message. While he said in Warri that an Odi-style handling of Boko Haram was needed, he said not long afterwards that dialogue was needed. Last week, he said that Jonathan was to blame without specifying why.
Jonathan’s four big critics may have different motives for the attacks. As far as I can see, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode is mostly rankled by his continued trial for alleged fraud when he was Obasanjo’s Aviation Minister. El-Rufa’i, on the other hand, is a chieftain of the opposition CPC and is seeking a return to political power, perhaps the presidency. Now, whether trenchant criticism is the right path to power is another matter. Atiku Abubakar, who also angles for a return to power, says little but plots a lot behind the scenes. As for Ezekwesili, it was a bit of a surprise that she returned from the World Bank and immediately exploded a canister of chemical weapons on the political scene. If it is was meant to signal her return to Nigerian politics, she probably overdid it, especially if it is proved that the $67bn figure she cited was wrong.
Trenchant criticism of Jonathan by former President Obasanjo is something else. Ideally, a man who served two terms as civilian president, who was a military ruler before that and who is now in his 70s should be retired from politics. Since Obasanjo chose not to retire from politics, then his criticisms of the Jonathan regime will be seen not as the words of a statesman but as a manoeuvre for continued relevance and settling of scores. The most visible score to settle is that he almost single-handedly propelled Jonathan into the governor’s seat of Bayelsa and later the vice presidency, but is not being sufficiently rewarded with political loyalty.
Ideally, in this struggle, the President should be his own best spokesman. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is not doing so very effectively because he came to the position with some notable shortcomings. The first one is stature. Even though Alhaji Shehu Shagari was lightweight in relation to his top Second Republic rivals Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo and Malam Aminu Kano, he was a First Republic minister and a Federal Commissioner for Finance under General Gowon. Obasanjo, who became president in 1999 had an even bigger stature as a Civil War Army Division commander, Federal Minister of Works, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and military Head of State who received added stature in later life as contender for UN Secretary General, member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and political prisoner. Let me add here that as we learnt to our chagrin, there is no linear relationship between political stature and subsequent performance.
Jonathan was somewhat lucky that the bar was lowered with Malam Umaru Yar’adua’s rise to the presidency. He was a state governor who was not an exceptional performer such as Lateef Jakande, Abubakar Rimi or Rotimi Fashola, even though he was from a prominent political dynasty. Although Jonathan is the first Nigerian ruler with a doctorate degree, this hardly translated into an intimidating intellectual prowess. He has a weak command of language and he is not eloquent. Much more seriously, he has not articulated a grand vision or shown resolve and firmness in its pursuit. Yet another handicap is that too many Nigerians see him as sectionally inclined.
In which case, the president must rely heavily on official and unofficial spokesmen. Jonathan has at least five men who regularly speak in his defence: Labaran Maku, Reuben Abati, Doyin Okupe, Ahmed Gulak and Chief Edwin Clark. Only last week, the latter was tackling state governors on Jonathan’s behalf. The qualities required to speak for a president include personal loyalty, intellectual power, political weight, political sagacity and, last but not the least, eloquence. Maku is astute and very eloquent but the Information Minister’s office has become an albatross due to the records of its holders in the last 20 years. Abati has great intellectual power and is one of the country’s most powerful writers but he does not have the gift of eloquence, which was why he resorted to writing an article to tackle Obasanjo and his men.
Even though an article has some permanency and impacts heavily on those who find the time to read it, it does not often reach large audiences such as a radio and television speech will do. Abati’s statement pointed out some achievements of the Jonathan regime for which he has so far won little credit in the public mind, such as improved power supply, dogged pursuit of a power sector roadmap and the reappearance of trains. The fourth one he mentioned--rehabilitation of airports--- is slightly dubious. While all Nigerians want to see an end to air crashes, not many see the refurbishing of airport lounges as a national priority. Far more people travel through the motor parks and no one has as yet spoken about refurbishing them.
In this fierce exchange between yesterday’s and today’s men it is pertinent to ask the question, what is the objective of criticising government officials? Is it to get them to check their excesses, sharpen their mission and their message, improve on their performance, or to distract them from the mission, get them to drop the ball so that someone else who is waiting in the wings will pick it?
Obviously that depends on who is doing the criticism. An academic critic, for example, will be seen by the public as a person overflowing with knowledge but not necessarily wisdom and experience and who, if saddled with the same task, may not do it better. Maybe that is why it is called arm chair criticism. A journalist critic also has a different purpose; a former editor of the Boston Globe once told me that the only work of a journalist is to find out what is happening and report it, not caring whether it helps or hurts any person or situation. Now, a critic whose goal is to inherit power would engage in some acerbic criticism at every turn. The public will recognise these for what they are, hopefully.
If you think of Nigeria under the Jonathan regime as a heavy duty truck that is overloaded with cargo, is moving very slowly along a potholed road and the cargo is being pilfered at every turn, what is the best thing to do? Is it to stand aside and curse the driver or to place a six inch nail under the front tyre?