Jonathan: An exceptional statesman at 59

FORMER President Goodluck Jonathan turns 59 today, 20 November, 2016.

Going by his vast leadership experience and record of landmark achievements, he appears to have flown so high, in so short a time, way ahead of his years.

It is to the glory of God that, while some politicians at that age may still be struggling to get into their first public office, Jonathan has exceptionally checked the boxes for Deputy Governor, Acting Governor, Governor, Vice-President, Acting President and President; the only African, dead or living, to have navigated such an astonishing political trajectory. Add to this the fact that, at 59, he is relatively young, compared to the average age of Africa’s surviving ex-heads of state.

Today, he remains the most loved, decorated and recognisable face of all African statesmen, not only because of his development strides in office but also because of his simplicity and unflinching commitment to his belief that Africa will become great, if the people are truly given the opportunity to choose their leaders and realise their full potential.

Jonathan came into politics with a master-class outlook that redefined love for nation, selflessness, inclusion and non-violence. For him, the famous declaration that “my ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian,” was not just a creative catchphrase or rousing rhetoric, it was an article of faith that epitomised his craft.

In a clime where a leading politician described politics as “do-or-die,” Jonathan chose to be different, by putting peace and progress of country above self. He set about implementing his vision for a credible electoral system by first appointing Professor Attahiru Jega as head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), strictly on his own merit, without having ever met him.

Under Jonathan’s Presidency, elections were evidently free and fair because of government’s policy of non-interference. INEC’s independence became so prioritised that the ruling party lost major elections, even at great pains to Jonathan and his party men.

Those who make light of Jonathan’s historic telephone call to concede the 2015 presidential election to his rival, President Muhammadu Buhari, even while the votes were still been counted, fail to realise the import of that gesture, in a clime where the roots of democracy are still very fragile.

In the first place, it takes great courage to concede like Jonathan did in the face of beckoning opportunities for contestation, especially when his second term bid and legacies were at stake. Even in advanced democracies, it is a tough choice. The best way to fully appreciate how Jonathan saved Nigeria from a consuming fire is to closely look at the situation in Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Burundi, Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Last year, just before Tanzania’s presidential election, The Guardian of Lusaka wrote a perceptive editorial, advising local politicians not to go below the standards already set in Nigeria. It said: “Jonathan’s voluntary handover of power to the opposition wrote a new chapter for Nigeria’s democracy, given the fact that it is rare for sitting presidents in Africa to hand over power to winning opposition parties.”

The only measurable and sustainable mileages recorded so far in the current administration came through the public financial management reform measures introduced by Jonathan. These included Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, which has so far eliminated over 50,000 ghost workers in the public service and saved hundreds of billions; the biometric verification of bank customers (BVN), which made it difficult for people to hide their loot within the banking system; as well as the Treasury Single Account (TSA), a unified structure of government bank accounts, which Jonathan introduced to keep a watchful eye on federal revenue.

The sad thing about the well-conceived TSA is that it is, unfortunately, being misapplied. It is instructive that government has now buckled under public pressure to take the blame for the crippling recession unleashed on the land by poor economic choices, rather than continue to blame Jonathan. However, it appears to be an admittance undertaken reluctantly, particularly as “the responsibility dodgers” are now changing the narrative, by seeking to give credit for the phenomenal economic growth recorded under Jonathan, to high crude prices.

At an average GDP growth rate of 7 per cent, the Transformation Agenda recorded tremendous progress in key areas of the economy by tackling the challenge of youth employment and entrepreneurship, transforming agriculture, enhancing ICT development, growing Nollywood and the entertainment industry; the Jonathan administration drew a road map for the National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan, which it backed up with an executive bill on Development Planning and Project Continuity. Unfortunately, this initiative, designed to irreversibly return the nation to long-term development planning, has been abandoned.

In Zambia, while tension was rising over a recently-concluded contentious presidential election, the heads of the various observer missions looked up to Jonathan for direction. His iconic admonition in Lusaka that “If Africa can’t yet send men to the moon, we should at least organise elections that are free and fair, of which the whole world will be proud,” has continued to plague the conscience of all dishonest politicians on the continent.

Like the previous year, this birthday will probably come as one of Jonathan’s best in recent times, because it will afford him the opportunity of quiet reflection, without the distraction from self-seeking politicians and rent seekers had he still been in power.

Last year, Jonathan’s first birthday out of the presidential chair, coincided with the time he was leading the Commonwealth negotiations for the resolution of the political crisis in Zanzibar, shortly after he had led the international body’s election observer team to the general elections in Tanzania.

This year’s anniversary has also come at a time the former President is fully engaged, honouring international speaking engagements, working on his memoirs and attending to programmes of the nascent Goodluck Jonathan Foundation.

I join millions of other Nigerians to wish His Excellency a happy birthday.

  • Eze is media aide to former President Jonathan.