Quite a few Nigerians have tried to redeem Jonathan out of the dust of infamy. With dewy eyes and longing, they see him as the new pope of Nigerian politics. They might even loft him up as a sort of Christ. The one who descended to the grave, and now he is alive for ever. He holds the key to kitchen and plenty.
That is the view of quite of few Nigerians who are laden with nostalgia. This do-over of the Otuoke potentate growls beneath formal speeches. They say, in Jonathan’s day, dollar flourished in their pockets. Their food pots flowed over. Their mouths choked with delicacies. They shone with sartorial choices. They could pay their rents. They could travel. They indulged in the familiar Nigerian vanities. And, to top it all, they had their salaries, however abject. Now they seek small mercies called salaries. Instead, they face damnation.
Today, it is quotidian misery. Their ribs now chill for lack of laughter and the party music now tamed, they act as though in self-imposed peril. So, they ask, why don’t we go back to the Jonathan era and let the good times roll again? Some of them voted for him, and we could see that as self-justification. But others who voted against him now have volte-face.
That is one example of an about-face. The other pirouette concerns the confab of the Jonathan years. The ebullient Babachir David Lawal, the scribe of the government, tossed aside the call to bring back the reports of the 2014 National Conference. He called it “jobs for the boys.” Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, one of the confab mainstays, ribbed Lawal. How dare he condemn a work that took hours and intellectual rigour with the constellation of role models? Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka also took a swipe at Buhari for pooh-poohing the document, asserting that it surpassed the work of PRONACO years ago.
Suddenly, Jonathan has a makeover. The shoeless man is bouncing out of a dust-ridden image. For Buhari, a “messiah” wants to go to work but meets a rising tide of the people who think he is no messiah.
The portrait of a leader can change anytime, and it often depends less on what he did right or wrong, but what people feel at the time, especially about who leads them now. That is why Jonathan, who brought the economy to its knees, who divided the nation on ethnic and religious grounds, who crippled the Northeast with a corruption-ridden war chest, who never completed a landmark project in six years, is now the candidate for sainthood.
But if we look at the facts, they are seductive. Salaries are hardly forthcoming. The dollar is cascading furiously, many more are homeless and roaming the streets, people are stealing their neighbours’ amala and impiously stalking Ramadan meals. Joining gangs entices boys and harlotry gulps up girls. Queues to flee the country are elongating.
Suddenly the hero for some is the ineffectual man who created the mess. His image has changed. “There is something fatal about a portrait,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about how a picture changes from winsome to murderous. The same way some people are giving new pictures to Jonathan.
Was it not Jonathan of the billions of naira scandal, of Dasukigate, of cousins in theft, and friends in spendthrift stealth? Is it not the same Jonathan who wrecked the dollar, who excused a dame who flew with impunity and extravagance, and another dame of BMW saga?
How come the people now salivating for him cannot make the connection? A witch cried last night, a child dies this morning, says the African proverb. Who does not know the connection?
The same applies to the confab report. We can say that the report may not be all saintly, but what report is? Hence we can see the sagacity in Soyinka and Akinyemi and others who call for redeeming the project. I know, from sources at the time, that the meeting was called as jobs for the boys, as Lawal said. And we cannot forget the princely allowances. Jonathan’s minders also saw it as a diversion. In spite of that, they had a report and they included a few gems. Shall we forget the gems because of the germs in the hands of the makers? Judas betrayed but redemption resulted.
But as I have noted before, we need to rake up all our reports since independence. The piles have become files of paralysis. We can even build a museum and stack them and see what catastrophe of ideas has been our trajectory as a nation. Is it about the Niger Delta? Or about education, the army, the civil service, the housing crisis, urban squalor, foreign policy? The files abound. Or it is about our ethnicity or faith clashes? Go to the informal museum. Maybe we should inaugurate the museum as a way of laughing at ourselves as monuments to paralysis.
The crisis reflects our failure to latch on to a golden era as a nation. Well, we don’t have a golden era. Perhaps in a regional sense, we have, but only in the Southwest and because of Awolowo. The Southwest can look back to the rim-glass hero. But not so in the South-south region, which is an array of people with diverse roots. Nor in the Southeast, except the only soap bubble of Biafra. The North is grappling with its feudal fantasy in a republican age. Leaders like Shettima, Tambuwal and El-Rufai are working hard at it.
If the past haunts the present, it is the job of the present to exorcise it. That’s the task before the charioteer of change, Buhari. Or else we will look like the post-Napoleonic France that made the historian, Albert Carrie, to write, “Those who looked back to the Napoleonic era, they belonged to the lunatic French.”
Buhari has to attack the challenges of perception and galvanise a nation. No one but he himself can do that. Or else, the more people will start look back rather than looking forward. They will say, like Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, “Farewell, fair cruelty.”
One hundred years after
He was called Mala, as short for his longer Itsekiri name. But as his stature grew and myth gained vigour, everyone called him Nanna, who was fondly and sometimes derisively called Gofune or Gofine, a corruption of the word governor, a position he held in the Niger Delta where he flourished in politics and commerce.
This week, Nanna’s death will be marked in Itsekiriland and the Niger Delta as one of the great icons of his era and pre-colonial Nigeria. Nanna’s martial spirit and patriotic rage will be marked as candle lights wink, monuments unveiled, speeches soar, his ad hoc soldiery celebrated
Nana towers today as one of the men of visions and courage we ever had. He ranks with avatars like Sodeke, or Balogun Latosa or Ovonramwen, except that no one put up so stout a resistance to the colonising devilry of the British like Nanna. Where the British saw a servile black, he proved the mettle of sovereignty. He also turned an interregnum into republican swagger.
He was no democrat. He was no king. He was no general. Yet, he reigned with the glamour of royalty, the groundswell of popular following and strategy that impressed an Alexander or Patton.
The British needed him in oil trade and made him governor. But they thought they had their slaves. Nanna knew the age of slavery was over. Maybe the English still basked in that era. They broke his staff of office and wanted to trick him out of town into jail. He was on to them. They brought their Army. He mounted a blockade. The English called themselves “mistress of the sea” but got stuck and had to seek reinforcement and the help of local rivals like Numa to break the blockade. He had help moving from place to place and took shelter with his Yoruba friend Seidu Olowu in Lagos before he turned himself in.
His story reminds us why we should study history in our schools as highlighted by patriarch and author and president of Itsekiri Leaders of Thought, J.O.S. Ayomike, the inspirer of this remembrance.