Come with me to 1998. Let’s meet Goodluck Ebele 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. 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, Mr Jonathan will be sworn in as the fourth democratically elected executive president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He will go into the beckoning epoch clutching a string of firsts: At 53, 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 Nigerian president to grant a campaign interview to a hiphop star. The first Nigerian politician to debate himself in a nationally televised political debate. The first civilian president of Nigeria to come from a minority ethnic group.
Let’s think for a moment about the hurdles the man has had to cross on his way from civil servant to president. First, he survived the deputy governorship. The key word there is ‘survived’. Blessed is the man who had the good sense to call a spade a spade: deputy governors are “spare tyres” in Nigeria. If you doubt that Mr Jonathan ‘survived’ six years of deputy governorship, ask Orji Uzor Kalu’s deputies. Ask Kofo Bucknor Akerele and Femi Pedro. Ask Garba Gadi in Bauchi State. Ask Peremobowei Ebebi, the man who succeeded Jonathan as deputy governor in Bayelsa.
In many cases, the deputy governorship is a terminal illness for a politician’s career. But as fate, or luck, would have it, in Jonathan’s case, the spare tyre bucked the trend and ended up, not as a tool for lynch mobs, but as the steering wheel.
And then he survived a colourless vice presidency. When the Americans, obsessed as they are with list-making, compiled a confidential list of Nigeria’s most influential persons in 2008, a year into his vice presidency, Jonathan’s name was absent. This was barely three years ago.
You only need to see how many ‘godfathers’ have fallen by the wayside (especially on Jonathan’s ‘second missionary journey’ to Aso Rock) to realise that ‘goodluck’ is more than just a name. James Ibori, said to be one of the biggest financial contributors to the Yar’Adua campaign, is today preparing for a long jail term abroad. Ibrahim Babangida, a million times more powerful than Jonathan until a year ago, last week announced his retirement from politics.
Adamu Ciroma is a tired ethnic chauvinist; the final nail in his coffin was the collapse of his consensus candidacy project. Bode George is an ex-convict. PDP chieftain, Tony Anenih’s state is in the hands of the ACN. Olusegun Obasanjo’s state will soon be. Abubakar Atiku couldn’t even deliver his own state during the PDP primaries. Lamidi Adedibu is three years dead.
I think we may safely conclude that Mr Jonathan could, if he so chooses, easily become ‘Godfatherless Jonathan’. I am indeed very optimistic about the future of Nigeria under a Jonathan presidency. Last August, I said Mr Jonathan was “a breath of fresh air”. I was referring to his social networking strategy. (I’d like to believe that was what inspired the “breath of fresh air” campaign slogan of the president)
Today, I will stretch my claim further, and declare that Mr Jonathan is potentially a breath of fresh air to the way presidential leadership is conducted in Africa. I think we are looking at the man destined to, not only tackle long-standing problems like power supply and poverty, but also bring far-reaching reform to Africa’s largest and most messed-up political party, the PDP.
He is not a perfect man. Certainly not. He hasn’t got Bill Clinton’s charm or Barack Obama’s speaking skills or Mr Obasanjo’s sense of humour. But he offers something else: an endearing calmness, a modesty that is rare with Nigeria’s ‘Big Men’, and a seemingly sincere desire to engage with the people he’s ruling.
The task ahead is daunting. I do not envy the son of a canoe-carver who’s now sitting in a ‘canoe’ atop one of the most tumultuous waters in the world — the presidency of that bundle of contradictions called Nigeria. I, however, wholeheartedly wish him Godspeed. I will repeat the words with which I ended my column, “Goodluck, Goodwill and Goodsense”, published almost exactly a year ago (April 19, 2010):
“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.”
So help him God. Amen.