Opinion: The conversion of a Jonathan critic

by Ikeogu Oke

Following the publication of my article titled “Jonathan as Nero: a Misplaced Analogy,” on page 66 of Saturday Sun of June 23, 2012, I received six reader’s responses by text message. Four of the responses commended the article while two condemned it.

The article was my response to the barrage of attacks on President Goodluck Jonathan by his critics summarily alleging that his travelling to Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which lasted from June 20-22, 2012, was insensitive and irresponsible. The critics predicated the allegation on the fact that there was social unrest in Kaduna and Yobe States, in the aftermath of bombings attributed to the Boko Haram sect, and so the president should not have travelled for the conference while the country, or some part of it, was “on fire.”

And when you throw in the trope of a country being swallowed or ominously nibbled at by an inferno, you would understand why some critics of the president’s trip compared him to Nero, the Roman king who allegedly played the fiddle while Rome burnt, a comparison from which my said article took its titular tack.

I disagreed with such critics in the article. For while I agree that any nation facing such crisis deserves the attention and support of its leader(s), and all its citizens who love it and care about its survival, I did not see how the president travelling for the conference could strictly be interpreted as signifying a lack of willingness on his part to pay attention to our country and give it his support, moral or otherwise, during the crisis, as the critics seemed to suggest.

To buttress my position, I cited two similar incidents in the recent past, specifically the bombings of the United Nations building and the office of ThisDay newspaper, both in Abuja, following which the president personally visited the scenes of the tragedies. I also made the point that with such precedents, no one who wished to be fair to the president would insinuate that he is uncaring about the suffering that such attacks bring on its innocent victims, or the angst with which they threaten to replace social order in our country.

I compared the president’s position to that of a man whose wife went into labour simultaneously with a violent death occurring in his family and who, having taken in the bigger picture, should choose to ensure the safe delivery of the new baby (which symbolises the future) and afterwards still do what he should in respect of the dead. I equally stated that I was not writing as an apologist for the president or his administration, as I was also of the opinion that the administration needed to improve its performance in various ways.

I think this recapitulation is necessary to put the history of the issue to be addressed in this piece in perspective for the reader who may not be familiar with it.

Now to the reader’s response, received as a text message, that has triggered this piece. It read: “Let’s face it, your president is an imbecile n your trash is like the two of u!”

My first reaction to the text message was shock that anyone could write in such a rude and intemperate manner to a stranger he has only “met” thorough his piece published in a newspaper, and about the president of his country, whatever his shortcomings. And I immediately recognised the response as a classic example of the fallacy called “argumentum ad hominiem,” expressed as the substitution of abuse or name-calling for argument, by people who would rather leave any issue at stake to attack the personality of those they disagree with on the issue.

So I sent this reply to the author of the text message: “Your tone and language reveal your type. Couldn’t you disagree with the president or my piece without abusing either of us? Thank you.”

The message I received next, in reply to mine above, was most unexpected, most touching, for its unreserved contrition. It said:  “I am sorry for my unsavoury tone.”

Then I replied again: “OK. Let’s help our country however we can. We’re all in trouble with the current situation and in worse trouble if it persists.”

To the above sentiments the other party replied: “That’s true, but we’ve brow beaten d guy 4 too long, obviously, he has not as much responsibility as we d concerned masses have. Have a blessed week ahead, oops ! D name is … 4rm …” – (The ellipses, which are mine, have been inserted to conceal the name and location of the source of the text messages, whose last message here implies his conversion from a Jonathan critic to a Jonathan sympathiser.)

And I replied thus to his above message: “Thank you for understanding, …. I’m glad to have made your acquaintance and hope to keep in touch. Long live Nigeria and her patriots! Down with her enemies and the saboteurs of her progress! A great future to you!” – (Again, I have inserted an ellipsis to replace and conceal the recipient’s name.)

However, this exchange confirmed to me something I had always suspected, namely, that some of us – Nigerians – are prone to take a very hard stance on issues without giving due thought either to our stance or the ramifications of the issues. Also, it confirmed to me that some of us with this predilection can easily be converted to the other side – the side of reason – with gentle and respectful persuasion, provided we can open our minds enough to engage in a proper dialogue and concede to a superior argument.

Unfortunately, the mind as the seat of reasonableness has been under steady assault in our country for the past several decades. Forces like religious fundamentalism (regardless of the faith), decline in the quality of education, and ethnicity, have mounted relentless attacks on the bastion of reason in our country, creating a nation at risk of becoming irreversibly de-rationalised, where as W.B. Yeats puts it in those timeless lines of his immortal poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” One sign of this is the tendency of some of our citizens to agree or disagree with any opinion expressed on any national issue not based on its merit but on the religion or ethnicity of whoever expressed it, or some other primordial consideration.

The second critical response to my said article reflected this inclination; for it began with the assertion: “Igbo re kwn 2 be sycophants/praise singers,” with the implication that I had weighed in favour of the president as a mark of the “sycophancy/praise singing” for which all Igbo, like myself, “are known.” Then the respondent reeled out a litany of systemic woes for which he believes the president should be held accountable. Clearly, stereotyping such as declares that “Igbo re kwn 2 be sycophants/praise singers” should have no place in the precincts of rationality. And when I pointed out to the respondent that some Igbo are openly critical of the president and his administration, among other facts that undermined his assertion, I got no response to that. Did the respondent back out for lack of courage to face the fact of his fallacious assertion?

Perhaps the second respondent was one of those who would rather not be swayed by reason, like some other diehard critics of the president, while the first – to whom I dedicate this piece, even if anonymously – obviously could, and could evidently change his position as a result, signifying hope for our beleaguered nation and its people.

* This piece was first published in The Guardian

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