Fellow Nigerians, after my chance meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari last week at the Presidential Villa, it was the turn of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, two days ago, on November 9, 2017, to be my host. The only difference is that the meeting with President Jonathan had long been in the offing but had not materialised due to several factors. First, I was considered an enemy of the Jonathans because of my support for President Buhari. No one remembered my audacious support for Jonathan in 2010 when I risked everything to defend Jonathan’s right to become the Acting President in the absence of his boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. President Yar’Adua was then mortally ill and on an interminably long medical sojourn in Saudi Arabia, and some dubious, but influential, clique had chosen to govern by proxy in his absence. Anyway, that was then.
In the 2011 Presidential race, President Buhari and I, and many others, lost the elections to Jonathan. It was a baptism of fire. I was somehow happy though that a quintessential minority candidate won that election. However, I became worried when the Jonathan government started floundering and waltzing from one crisis to the other. The fuel subsidy conundrum, for me, was the height of it. I participated in the demonstrations that nearly incapacitated Jonathan in the early days of 2012. Subsequently, I took it upon myself to be an unofficial, unpaid special adviser and consultant to Jonathan on political matters. I wrote copiously on how the government was frittering away its massive goodwill and equity. Of course, the Jonathan supporters did not want to listen and hearken to my sincere opinion and I was endlessly insulted for speaking out my mind.
By 2014, I was just too sure that the Jonathan government was heading for a cataclysmic fall. I wrote an article, ‘In Search of Mathematicians’, in which I analysed that the opposition Party was going to thrash the ruling Party. Again, I was called names my parents did not give me, but it was only a matter of time before my doomsday prophesy came to pass. One of the greatest tragedies of power is how acolytes often mislead the big boss. I have no doubt that Jonathan is a gentleman who meant well for our country but he was surrounded by several malevolent people who capitalised on his plain humility, abject simplicity and imagined weakness to wreak havoc on the nation.
Since then, I have longed to chat with him and ask a few questions about his tenure as President. My previous approaches had been resoundingly rebuffed. Realistically, I did not expect Jonathan to be too comfortable with vociferous members of the opposition like me. But I did not give up.
As fate would have it, I ran into one of our mutual friends, a very significant member of Jonathan’s kitchen cabinet, weeks ago. The man had wondered why I wrote an article predicting the possibility of Jonathan returning to contest the Presidential election in 2019. Most of my readers had said the notion was preposterous and that it was an impossible and unreasonable proposition. The more I watched events unfold the more I felt Jonathan’s second coming was not impossible and unrealisable. His man informed me that his former boss nursed no such ambition and promised to arrange a meeting so I could hear this from the horse’s mouth.
My thesis, though seemingly absurd, is not without reason. Firstly, I do not see the possibility of any Northerner defeating President Buhari in 2019, if he decides to run. Buhari is the most popular personality from the Northern part of Nigeria today. He is, as a matter of unassailable fact, regarded and treated as a cult hero. The North would not want to risk certainty for uncertainty by supporting someone else from outside power. If the PDP chooses to present another Northerner to run against Buhari, the Party would have presented a second term to Buhari on a platter of gold because the South would have nothing to fight for and may present a lukewarm attitude to that election. My view, is that the 2019 Presidential election would be fought principally on the account of ethnicity and religion like most of our previous elections.
Secondly, a Presidential candidate needs to lock down four out of the six geo-political regions in Nigeria. Buhari had always found it tough to do this. On his own, he can boast no more than two regions. Naturally, a strong Southern candidate will give him a run for his money, if he also commands cult followership from his zone. There are few people in this mould and, whether one likes it or not, this includes Jonathan. The Southern candidate would obviously have a decent foray in the North Central and South West zones as well as a few of the battleground States in the North West and North East. Buhari has always found it difficult to replicate a similar decent incursion into the Southern axis apart from the South West.
Thirdly, age and health will be substantial factors in 2019. Buhari would be 76 and has been very ill in the recent past though, thankfully, he is much better now. Jonathan, like most of the other strong Southern candidates, will be under 65 and seems virile. He is one of the few who can draw on his experience and achievement to offer comparative analysis to Buhari, project for project.
It was with this mind-set that I approached former President Jonathan two days ago after he personally phoned to reconfirm our appointment for that day. I was deeply humbled by this simple gesture. By the time I meandered my way to his understated but elegant office, I didn’t know what to actually expect from him. He had some visitors from the Bible Society of Nigeria who had come to present him with the biggest Bible I ever saw, written in five languages English, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo and Efik, all in one holy book. He asked me to give him a few minutes to attend to these visitors and I gladly obliged.. When they left, I was ushered into his personal office. The first thing he said was, “Dele, I must thank you for your level of professionalism. I read your column regularly and must commend your maturity and objectivity. Even when I disagree with you, I still enjoy your style.” “Thank you, sir…” I replied. He was ostensibly excited about the visit from the Bible Society of Nigeria and showed me the massive wooden book that was jealously protected in a beautiful casket. He then lectured me (once a lecturer always a lecturer) on the history of the Holy Bible in Nigeria. That done, we settled down to serious discussions.
I was thinking of how to proceed with the conversation. I decided to start by telling him my mission. I just don’t want to write abstract articles anymore. I want to use the incredible access God has given me to virtually everyone, low or high, to set a roadmap for our dear beloved country. It is my duty to give my readers authoritative information as much as possible. I’ve taken it upon myself to go behind and beyond the regular news to educate and entertain my passionate followers.
I started with harmless, innocuous and easy questions. How has he been coping outside power? He said he was fine because he never expected to be in government forever. He was particularly proud that he left power without any bloodshed. He appreciates the intervention of very influential and well-meaning people who brokered the democratic initiative. He feels good and at peace with himself for honouring his word and his bond.
Does he feel harassed by the Buhari government? He said he expected some of the unfolding events since the government came into being on the platform of anti-corruption mantra. “You do not abandon a winning formula easily…” He said he accepts his foibles and weaknesses and has learnt very useful lessons from those shortcomings. “But we did very well on the whole…” he insisted.. I was touched by his candour. He believed that if he had won his second term in 2015, he would have consolidated on the gains of that “imperfect” first term. But that did not happen. He says his love for Nigeria would never make him wish failure for Buhari or any other future government. “I have had the rare opportunity of leading our country at very critical moments and did my best. I’ve left the rest to posterity to judge,” he said matter-of-factly.
Now to the delicate terrain. “Sir, will you run in 2019?” I fired the shot from the hip. I’m not sure he anticipated this important question at the time it came. “Contest again? No. People come to me every day saying they want me back. I’m always moved to tears whenever I go out and see the huge crowds shouting GEJ, we want you, even in the North. Instead of getting swollen headed, I actually reflect on my achievements and mistakes and feel humbled and feel very sober… I have never been a man of inordinate ambition. I’m a man of very modest means. I hardly travel because of the logistical costs. I’ve played my part and I have moved on.”
“What if your party decides to invite you again?’ I probed deeper. “Are you not aware that our Party has zoned the Presidency to the North, and the Chairmanship to the South?” he queried. I gave him my permutations but he insisted that the two major Parties are highly inclined to produce candidates from the North. “Even Fayose that has declared his interest may face big challenges because of the decision of our party…” he opined.
“So there is no way you can ever contest again?” I fired again and he returned the fire instantaneously, “I’m not God but I sincerely doubt the possibility…” he said with finality. I dropped the subject as it was not my intention to put him on the spot, like that.
“How will you rate the Buhari government so far?” another tricky question, I felt. “What do you think Dele?… You are their friend…” I kept mute “Honestly speaking, they have tried in the area of security and fighting corruption, even if they’ve tilted more towards us… But we did a lot in our time in the area of agriculture, transport, managing the economy, rule of law, free and fair elections… Only Nigerians can judge… It won’t be fair of me to pass verdict so soon on my immediate successor… I knew they would hit brick-walls on some of their promises, especially the school feeding program and the payment of N5,000 to unemployed graduates… We worked on feasibility studies on them in the past and realised Nigeria could not afford it… It is always the job of opposition to over-promise but reality of governance is always different…”, he said, animatedly.
I could see and feel this was his forte. He spoke confidently and eloquently about the art and science of governance. He said the figures are still fresh in his memories. I decided to digress again. What does he think about Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s chances. “He can’t get the APC ticket. If Atiku gets our party ticket, he would compete well. He’s always a passionate politician. But he would have to reach out to our boss, Baba OBJ, the boss of all bosses. We’ve all learnt at different times that you ignore OBJ at your own peril. OBJ has the magic wand, respected at home and abroad…” speaking like a penitent student. Experience, they say, is the best teacher.
If PDP picks a Northern candidate, where does he expect the running mate to come from, I asked. “Strategically, since Professor Osinbajo is already running with Buhari, the South South and South East, remain the most fertile grounds. And there are many brilliant people there waiting for the chance. The Governors control some of the richest states in Nigeria except Lagos…” he posited.
With time far gone, I requested for some pictures with him. He accepted with his usual equanimity. I invited my protégé, Mr Ohimai Godwin Amaize, aka Mr Fix Nigeria, who was a prominent member of the PDP Youth Wing who was really elated to meet Jonathan again, to do the honours. We took several pictures.
As we exchanged goodbyes, I looked back at President Jonathan and wondered what fate might have in store for him in the future …