by Feyi Fawehinme
It would be fun, if it were possible, to figure out the number of Nigerians who voted for President Goodluck Jonathan in the April Presidential elections purely on his perceived humility and self-effacing manner. It also didn’t hurt that he grew up with no shows, something that a sizeable proportion of Nigeria’s teeming population could relate with at the time.
By virtue of his manner, Mr Jonathan presented a radical departure from the gruff of former President Obasanjo of whom rudeness and even brutality was expected. To put it simply, Mr Jonathan was a nice guy who was never expected to turn on his people by inflicting any kind of suffering on them, no matter how much it was to their own benefit.
But Mr Jonathan also came into office brandishing a transformation agenda and it is hard to see how a transformation agenda can be pushed through in a country like Nigeria that has spent the better part of five decades chasing its own tail, without ruffling a few feathers and ripping out the plasters masking wounds that weren’t really healing underneath.
So what’s gone wrong? How did Goodluck become Badluck so quickly? How did the smiling Mr Jonathan become the inspiration for photo shopped pictures that have collaged his face with that of the devil? How did the same Mr Jonathan who would publish a lengthy status update on Facebook and within a minute get ‘likes’ on it running into the hundreds turn into the same person whose page has now been overrun by deep curses like ‘may God remove all the subsidies from your life’? Where has all of Goodluck’s goodwill gone?
In a sense the crude and surprising removal of petrol subsidies on January 1st 2012 was strike 3 for Mr Jonathan. In July 2011, it came out that Mr President was going to send a bill to the national assembly seeking to amend the constitution to allow for a single term of 7 years for the President and perhaps governors. If this was the floating of a trial balloon to gauge public opinion, it never got off the ground before it was punctured. As quickly as it was suggested, it soon disappeared and no one said anything about it in the last quarter of 2011 at least. Crucially, no one is asking for its return. Good return.
Then there has been the growing violence and insecurity in the country and the boldness with which Boko Haram continues to carry out its bombing campaign. Very few Nigerians can say with a straight face that the President’s utterances on this issue have assured them. His comments have ranged from a coded call to Nigerians to accept the insecurity and violence as a new way of life to his own seeming helplessness on the matter. He has fired no one charged with the nation’s security (promotions are in fact in the works for some security chiefs) and the sole conviction was soon derided when the prison sentence was weighed against the sentence recommended for homosexuals unfortunate to be caught in the act in Nigeria per the country’s new anti-gay law.
And so like the child who cried wolf when it came to the seemingly sound economic decision to withdraw petrol subsidies as a way of rebalancing the economy from consumption to infrastructural development (in theory), people were immediately suspicious of the President. It must be said still that, remarkably, Nigerians seem to have accepted that the subsidies ought to go and conversations were going on across society about how best to do it to ensure it wasn’t too painful for everyone concerned and the touted benefits of the removal materialised sooner rather than later.
But on January 1st, the government decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by giving Nigerians a New Year gift they did not want or deserve. And thus #OccupyNigeria was born, the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The protests have spread across the country, labour have essentially shut down the country, lives have sadly but predictably been lost and the crowds have grown bigger every day.
In response to all of this, Mr President or at least his foot soldiers in the cabinet have doubled down and said the government will not back down from the subsidy removal. In other words, Mr President has declared this to be a stare down contest between both sides, effectively taking on the very people who voted for him a few months ago.
Maybe we should see things from Mr President’s point of view; if this was a parliamentary government it’s hard to see how a vote of no confidence would not have been called. The President who promised a transformation now faces up to having used up a quarter of his mandate without transforming anything at all. Maybe he’s getting desperate or worried; the obviously irritating thing about time is its stubborn refusal to wait for anyone.
So perhaps the way Mr Jonathan sees this is that backing down from this will further weaken his government and perhaps inflict a mortal wound from which he won’t recover for the rest of his term. There is also the issue of petrol subsidy removal in itself; it’s a policy that comes with plenty of pain and as such Mr Jonathan has limited time, 3 years to be exact, to assuage this pain via an improved economy and infrastructural development in a way that people will be able to link the gains with the pain that had come before. This is of course complicated by the fact that the government decided in its wisdom to frontload the pain without putting in place any palliatives. A bold gamble indeed.
But a crisis ought not to be wasted and this is an opportunity for the President to reclaim all of the goodwill he has lost in the last 9 months. Backing down from this half-baked policy implementation ought not to be a sign of weakness, if anything it can be a way for him to go back to that place where Nigerians first fell in love with him. Good economic intentions are hardly a good enough reason to alienate a significant portion of the population especially one for whom the benefits are uncertain and can be upended by a range of unforeseen things that creep out of the Nigerian woodwork every so often.
The other lesson to learn is that perhaps with large and diverse democracies like Nigeria, the real transformation can only be obtained by a series of small victories. So instead of going for the big ticket items maybe the way forward is to do the small things very well like improving the roads one kilometre at a time and adding 1000MW to electricity generation every time the opportunity presents itself.
President Barack Obama is widely seen to have spent a lot of his political capital on a bruising battle with Congress to pass his signature healthcare bill. He got his way in the end but that same bill has now turned into the stick with which some of his opponents are surely going to beat him with as he enters the battle of his life to get re-elected. The best parts of ‘Obamacare’ won’t come into effect until 2014 but the most obvious first effect is that it has increased costs for a lot of people who are now forced to buy health insurance.
Maybe Mr Jonathan should ring Mr Obama and ask for his reflections on that episode. You know, ask him if he would have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight.