By Titus Agbo
Former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has graciously turned 58 without the usual spectacle and exaggerated fanfare. The day will pass without so much of the flattering goodwill messages from fawning and dissembling politicians and attention seekers.
It truly would be one of the best birthday moments in recent times for the former president. A self-effacing, humble, selfless and deeply religious personality, Jonathan is said to be naturally inclined to the ambience of a quiet commemoration, often spent in private reflection and commune with his family and maker.
This is the innocence he lost 16 years ago when providence fished him out, like the Biblical David, and put him up for an epoch-making stint in public service and national leadership, which spanned all the critical positions from deputy governor to the President of the Federal Republic.
It is quite telling and gratifying that his first birthday out of the presidential chair, is coinciding with his visit to the United States where he is currently being celebrated by some strategic American pro-democracy institutions that are obviously enthralled by his story as the conscience of Africa’s democracy and transparent elections. The development is pertinently symbolic of Jonathan’s deserving profile as a true African statesman, a towering totem of transparency, fair election, and good governance in Africa.
Jonathan’s invitation to the United States to visit and share his experience in governance with the famed Presidential Precinct and other pro-democracy institutions, in the same week he was appointed by the Commonwealth to lead the negotiations for the resolution of the political crisis in Zanzibar clearly points to one thing. It underscores the fact that, in a world where true leadership heroes are in short supply, the former president of Nigeria has become a global brand with irresistible democratic credentials. He stands today as the most eligible advocate of peaceful and transparent polling on the African soil.
In appointing him as Special Representative to lead the charge for the international mediation efforts in Zanzibar, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Mr. Kamalesh Sharma had described him as a leader whose experience and guidance is sufficient in building the necessary political bridges in a challenging mission.
The mediator role was indeed a follow-up to an earlier assignment where the former president had chaired the Commonwealth Observer Group to the October 25 general elections in Tanzania. This was a task Jonathan had excellently discharged, putting up a sterling performance that earned him the trust and respect of all the stakeholders in Tanzania’s political setting. Not minding that it was his first time on such a mission, Jonathan was said to have been so good at the job that he naturally became the face of the international observer missions which had groups from the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
It must be said that as a former President of Africa’s most populous country who rewrote the narrative of Africa’s leadership struggles by chivalrously handing over power to the opposition, despite a beckoning opportunity for contestations, Jonathan intuitively built a soar-away continental profile for himself. That alone set him apart in Tanzania, and obviously showcased him as the most prominent high profile international personality on election duty.
Not a man to be encumbered by labels, the former President was said to have put aside this lofty status to display an unusual sense of humility and accommodation; a trait that earned him the trust, confidence and endearment of all the political leaders. It was therefore predictable that when the need arose to appoint an international mediator in the effort to quell the tension brewing in Zanzibar, following an unpopular polls annulment, Jonathan emerged as the natural choice of that persona that would be acceptable to all the sides.
In September 2015, Jonathan had dispatched letters to friends and close associates including Nigeria’s former heads of state, African leaders, foreign missions in Nigeria as well as well known international figures availing them of his decision to return to work. In the letter, he had said: “On Friday, 29th May, 2015; I completed my term of office as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and successfully handed over government to President Muhammadu Buhari. I immediately proceeded on a long deserved break; I have enjoyed a delightful time with my family and close friends. Now, well rested, I am back to work; to continue to serve and dedicate my life to promoting peace and prosperity for all…Furthermore, I will be devoting the rest of my life and energy to making the world a better place.” Hardly had the ink dried on those letters than the world came knocking on his door. The fact that the former President could be invited to discharge critical international assignments, only one month after announcing his return to public life, showed that the world had actually been waiting for him.
What many may have missed was that Jonathan’s trip to Tanzania was the biggest international election duty to have ever been handled by any Nigerian leader, especially as the Commonwealth which the former President represented has its 53-member nations drawn from all the continents.
The only other leader that comes close, in terms of reputation and global acclaim, is former Head of State, Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar (rtd) who earned for himself, a place in the sun by restoring democratic rule after spending less than one year as head of a military junta.
For former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the terrain is different, as he had only been leading African Union and ECOWAS teams to observe elections in few African nations. This, according to analysts, is because the jury is still out on whether Obasanjo has all it takes to represent a serious global body on election matters, given his dictatorial tendencies, poor conduct of 2003 and 2007 elections, as well as unflattering record with a failed third term bid.
Jonathan’s towering image as an African nationalist didn’t come as a surprise. Although many may wish to mischievously deny this, his determination to change the fortunes of the nation positively impacted many sectors of the economy. You could feel his revolutionary footprints and landmark achievement in such sectors as power, telecommunications, financial management, social infrastructure as well as agriculture where he made significant contributions to food security and job creation.
On his achievements on the political turf, Ignatius Okpanachi, a public affairs analyst wrote in a recent newspaper article: “It was Jonathan who gave INEC its true independence and subsequently opened up the political space by allowing the registration of new parties, including the All Progressives Congress, at a time when it would have been considered inconvenient by one of his predecessors.”
His greatest fan seems to be his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari, who seizes every opportunity to sing his praise, especially his roles in saving the nation from the disaster that was to come. While receiving the handover notes from Jonathan, Buhari had said: “What I will say is since the telephone call you made (conceding defeat) you have changed the course of Nigeria’s political history. For that you have earned yourself a place in our history, for stabilising this system of multi-party democracy and you have earned the respect of not only Nigerians but world leaders.”
The rest of the world that have continued to rain plaudits on Jonathan seem to have taken a cue from this. For instance, Tanzanians were ecstatic when Jonathan was announced as leader of the Commonwealth team. This was because they were convinced that his presence would bring hope, credibility and integrity to a close and tough contest that had left them fearing for the worst.
This feeling was routinely echoed by the local media throughout Jonathan’s two-week stay in the country. Tanzanian newspapers including the Daily News, The Citizen and The Guardian wrote very powerful editorials celebrating Jonathan’s presence in their country, and generously praising his decision not to cling to power like many other African leaders.
“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 Guardian wrote, stressing that the gesture was replete with ample lessons for Tanzanian politicians.
Jonathan’s counsel that ‘losers should concede defeat in the interest of peace’, resonated across the length and breadth of Tanzania, became unarguably the guiding anthem for all interest groups in Tanzania and, in the views of analysts, contributed immensely to the peaceful polling process.
Many Nigerians consider the international recognition coming Jonathan’s way at this time as quite deserving, especially against the backdrop of what the former President’s party has termed an unjustified demarketing and witch-hunting of his administration by agents of the party in power.
Even then, it appears the narrative of the blanket condemnation and denial of the achievements of the Jonathan administration is gradually changing, as officials of the new government are now subtly making concessions. Chief Audu Ogbeh, the new agriculture minister while speaking after his swearing in last week, indicated that he would continue with the laudable policies of Jonathan’s agriculture transformation agenda. Ditto for the new transport minister, Rotimi Amaechi, who also expressed his readiness to complete Jonathan’s rail projects.
As the former president marks his 58th birthday amidst rising global visibility, the message is not lost on Nigerians and Africans that they have located a new hero. Jonathan connects easily, not only as the youngest and most energetic Nigeria’s former leader, but also as one with the most bankable democratic credentials.
This recognition for international assignments, writes Cletus Akwaya, a media consultant, “should serve as a lesson to the present and future leaders on the need to serve with honour and integrity whenever they have opportunity to offer service.”
Going by the recent spell of international assignments that have come to few of Nigeria’s leaders, analysts are upbeat that the nation is actually on the path of resurgence as a regional and global player. It then goes without saying that, in the current situation, no other face is better placed to drive that agenda than that of Jonathan.
*Agbo is a senior legislative aide, National Assembly, Abuja.