Letter to Muhammadu Buhari and Yemi Osinbajo, by Tolu Ogunlesi

buhari in suitPresident Buhari should under no circumstances allow himself to be cast as a Fulani President, or a President of northerners or Muslims. Vice President Osinbajo should never succumb to the temptation to see himself as a Vice President for Yoruba people, or the Redeemed Christian Church of God, or for Nigerian Christians. Goodluck Jonathan and Namadi Sambo sadly saw nothing wrong in using religion to divide the country; Jonathan taking delight in running from church to church, posing with Pastors and Bishops (he even managed to squeeze in a photo-splashed pilgrimage to Jerusalem), while his party tried to portray Muhammadu Buhari and the APC as Islamists, Sharia apologists, ‘Janjaweed’ and even the political wing of Boko Haram. During the presidential campaign Vice President Sambo reversed the strategy, and did all he could to convince us he was the next in line to Prophet Mohammed, in the Islamic pecking order. (From him we learnt that ‘Namadi’ actually means ‘Na Madinah’, and that Osinbajo was on a mission to Christianise Nigeria).

Both Buhari and Osinbajo should avoid anything that will portray them as beholden to any group of Nigerians on the basis of sectional or religious or partisan interests. They should strive to be leaders for all of Nigeria, regardless of ethnicity, religion, age, or political affiliation.

Two. The matter of the Office of First Lady. One of the greatest contributors to President Jonathan’s loss of goodwill has been his wife, the uncouth, overreaching, uncontrollable Patience ‘Mama Peace’ Jonathan. Wole Soyinka warned the President to keep his wife in check; like much of the other advice he got he ignored it. Buhari has given hints that he does not believe in the existence of the office of First Lady, because there is no place for it in the Constitution. Our recent experiences with First Ladies have convinced me that any President serious about bringing change to Nigeria cannot afford to have his or her spouse running a parallel government in the manner that Turai Yar’Adua and Patience Jonathan did. While I don’t think the Office has to be abolished, it is clear that whoever occupies it must do so with a sense of decorum and responsibility.

Three. Presidential assertiveness. Goodluck Jonathan’s biggest failings, in my opinion, lay in his almost total abdication of presidential control and responsibility, so that he became a hostage of the forces surrounding him. There’s an interesting anecdote by journalist and newspaper editor Jide Ajani, who was part of a team that interviewed President Jonathan in the presidential media chat of Sunday May 4, 2014; the first after the abduction of the Chibok girls. After the chat, Ajani was invited to join the president for dinner. Listen to Mr. Ajani’s account of what transpired while they ate:

“Apart from Mr. Vice President, Namadi Sambo; Chief of Staff, Gen. Arogbofa (rtd); Dr. Reuben Abati; and Labaran Maku, Information Minister; the dinner table was filled with jesters. Some would not even allow Mr. President to finish a sentence before they would interject and complete the sentence for him. When Jonathan tried to explain the complexities involved in the abduction saga and why he remained disappointed in the way the episode is turning out, some people around the table would not let him finish. ‘Yes, the state government should be blamed, Mr. President’; ‘the school principal is not fit to head a school’; ‘Mr. President, this looks like a set up’.” Ajani’s damning conclusion: “Jonathan’s friends and close aides … appear to have ring-fenced the man from reality.”

These buffoons and jesters surrounded the president and kept him detached from reality. Instead they endlessly reinforced the nonchalance and paranoia that came to define his administration. So that when, in February, the Wall Street Journal asked him if there were any plans to investigate the Ekitigate tape, all he could think to say was: “It’s all fabrications. Why should I investigate things that are not real?” And this was the same attitude he extended to everything, whether it was allegations of impropriety against the oil Minister, or reports of billions of dollars in missing oil revenues (“America will know!”), or (in the early days) the news that hundreds of Chibok schoolgirls had been abducted by Boko Haram, or that MEND had claimed responsibility for the Independence Day bombings of 2010 (Recall that he hurriedly absolved MEND of responsibility, because “it is erroneous to think that my people who have been agitating for good living will deliberately blow up the opportunity they have now.”)

What we learn from the Jonathan era is that a President who allows these professional sycophants to hold him hostage will pay for it in substantial political and moral capital. Buhari and Osinbajo would do well to avoid surrendering to these men and women who haunt the corridors of power, looking for whom to mislead and destroy. They will wear all sorts of masks, they will be the ones singing and praying the loudest in Professor Osinbajo’s early morning prayer meetings, they will be the ones hustling to have breakfast with President Buhari or to sit closest to him in the mosque. Some of them are worse than merely sycophantic; they are downright evil characters, reprobate souls for whom no lies are too large, and no schemes too immoral.

President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo will need to find a way to keep open that all-important access line to common sense and outside reality. Our leaders need an antidote to the reality distortion fields of the presidential villa. For all we know Goodluck Jonathan truly believed he was transforming Nigeria, because that was the message his army of court jesters consistently vuvuzela-ed into his ears. Imagine the surprise that awaits him when he steps down from the gilded cage and realizes that even the East-West road (which connects his home state of Bayelsa to his wife’s home state of Rivers) remains, in many sections, a death trap; that it may be faster to bicycle from Lagos to Kano than attempt to take his much lauded trains, that the Kaduna-Abuja railway line which his government has been boasting about finishing is really still a long way from being ready for use. I don’t know how Buhari and Osinbajo plan to counter the inevitable attempts to ring-fence them from reality; what is clear is that if they don’t, they will, in a few years from now, find themselves in the deep hole in which Jonathan is concluding his presidency. And they shall deserve no pity, because they had the example of Jonathan to learn from.

Four, a reading list for the President and President-elect. In recent years a handful of former presidential insiders have published accounts of their time in power. For me two of those books stand out, and not necessarily because they are wholly truthful – indeed they have both been challenged by other players who have recalled incidents and issues differently – but because they at least have taken the bold step of painting a picture of what it means to be an insider in the intrigue-ridden catacombs of Aso Rock. First is Segun Adeniyi’s account, ‘Power, Politics and Death’ (on the Yar’Adua years); the second one is Nasir el-Rufai’s ‘The Accidental Public Servant’ (on the Obasanjo years).

I would encourage the President-elect and Vice President-elect to find the time to read these two books and discuss learning points from them. We cannot afford to repeat the most egregious mistakes of our recent past. (As for the mistakes of the Jonathan era, we are surrounded by them, and are still feeling the many effects). There’s one more title I’d recommend for both men, and this is ‘Reforming the Unreformable’, outgoing Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s account of her first stint in office as Minister of Finance, under President Obasanjo, between 2003 and 2006. There is no sense in repeating, deliberately or out of ignorance, the mistakes of the past. The task ahead is too important, and too urgent, for Buhari and Osinbajo to not put in all the preparation that is necessary. Posterity will not forgive them or their party if they bungle this long awaited task of redemption.

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