It was not the thunderous response that was expected. With his regime under fire for all sorts of allegations ranging from corruption to incompetence, it was thought former President Goodluck Jonathan will react to all the charges against his administration when he appeared before the diplomatic community in Geneva, Switzerland. Word had gone round that the former president will speak on all the corruption allegations and that he would even entertain questions on any subject concerning his administration.
To those of us from Nigeria, any response to the suffocating allegations of corruption would be worth the trip to Geneva. With his National Security Adviser still being investigated for allegedly diverting humongous amount of money to purposes other than what they were meant for, anticipation was high that at last there would be a response.
At exactly 3.30 pm, Jonathan walked briskly into the press centre of the Cercle DIPLOMATIC flanked by two aides.
Decked in a blue black suit and a light blue shirt and a blue tie, the former president sat down, scanned the hall packed full of journalists, diplomats and some Nigerians in Diaspora, he was introduced by the compere as a rare African former president to have handed over power peacefully and who should as such be honoured. His response to the allegations was not the robust reaction that was anticipated but at least he tried to justify some of the decisions his administration took. The former president also spoke about his foundation – the Goodluck Ebele Jonathan foundation. After reading his three and half page statement he followed on to draw questions. Surprisingly, the organisers restricted the number of people that could ask questions. Even when Dr Jonathan said he was ready to respond to anything thrown at him the compere would not budge. Below is what the former president said to the few questions he was asked.
Do you have the support and contact from other leaders on GEJ Foundation
I will say yes and even go ahead to state that there is another area of intervention that is of equal importance to me; and this is the area of wealth creation through special programmes to encourage men and women to get involved in medium and small scale enterprises. We intend to be doing this by assisting them through training to acquire capacity in their areas of interest as well as help them with access to funding.
I have been to the United States where I visited some former presidents and the foundations of former presidents, especially Virginia, which is home to many former presidents.
Back home, we are also making a lot of consultations, talking to other African leaders on what we intend to do.
So we are actually on track such that by the time we take off, we would hit the ground running.
How he got the name ‘Goodluck’
That is a question I would have referred to my father, if he were still alive. He gave me that name and only him can say why he did that.
On the alleged diversion of the $2.1 billion arms purchase fund
I would have loved to speak extensively on this issue because even back home, I read in the papers where a few people said that President Jonathan should add his voice to this controversial issue. But you know, in our country, there are laws. When a matter is already in a court of law, the people who had one thing or the other to do with the matter are not expected to make comments because such would be considered as sub-judice. As a former President, any comment I make at this point would affect the witnesses and ongoing proceedings in court and I would be going against the law of my country.
So I will not make any comments at this point until all these are sorted out. But definitely I will speak on it. But one thing I will want Nigerians to know is that we had issues in the country. On my part, I tried to build institutions. I strengthened the judiciary and that is why I wouldn’t want to go into areas that are not in line with standard judicial practice. I encouraged separation of powers among the three arms of government because that is the standard practice in any true democracy.
I reformed the electoral system by strengthening the electoral body, INEC, making it possible for it to seamlessly conduct the 2011 and 2015 elections. Subsequently, the election was adjudged transparent, free and fair by local and international election observers. Some of you still remember the tension that had built up before the 2015 elections, so much so that doomsday predictions emerged from many quarters including from agencies in the United States that Nigeria would disintegrate in 2015. The country became even more polarized along the North and South divide and also between Christians and Muslims.
Don’t forget that we still had issues of terrorism then. So to conduct election across the whole length and breadth of the country, given the circumstances was going to be difficult. But still we were able to conduct peaceful, free and fair elections. So, to answer you directly, I would not want to speak on the controversial $2.1 billion issue, but I will speak my mind on the matter at the appropriate time.
Boko Haram gaining strength
Boko Haram started in Nigeria in 2002, not really quite recent. It started off initially as a religious group. Although they were fanatical about their belief; they were not terrorist from the very start. But over time, just like any of the other terrorist groups the world knows about, they became radicalized may be through some local and even foreign interests and influence.
We just discovered that a group that was just being fanatical about their belief started resorting to extreme violence and assuming all the characteristics of terrorism.
As a government, we worked very hard to combat them. It started when I was vice president. The first major clash that happened between the Boko Haram agents and the Nigerian military was in 2009. Then, the first leader of the sect was killed by the Police.
From that time we started having more challenges and don’t forget that the country’s security architecture was not designed to combat terrorism at that time. You and I know that combating terror requires different approaches with new technologies.
This is because they are not ordinary criminals like armed robbers, who would not want to die. Terrorists are a strange group that are not afraid of death; they are not frightened by the sight of the guns and other weapons. The security forces can manage armed robbers and other criminals better because the criminals are careful not to lose their lives.
But for terrorists, they even have suicide bombers who have already made up their minds to die, especially after inflicting maximum damage and killing as many people as possible.
So given this challenge, you need a different security architecture with superior technology. At that time Nigeria had not developed that superior technology.
When I became the President we had to start by building the capacity of various security outfits in terms of intelligence, monitoring and interventions to enable them develop the capacity to take pre-emptive actions. We built that capacity over time.
That was why we were able to push Boko Haram back and degrade them to a level where we were able to conduct elections in all parts of the country. And I believe that with the commitment of the present government we will be able to get to a level when Boko Haram will no longer constitute any obstruction to our social and economic life.
Working with the present Government
I am the former President and I cannot throw myself on the new Government. It depends on the assignment the current President decides to give me and also. If I have the capacity to carry out such assignment. He is our President and can decide to send people on assignments based on national interest. When I was in office, I used to give assignments to former presidents and that is how it has always been. I am free to work for my country and in deed for any other African president that considers my service valuable.
On claims by the Buhari administration that his government negotiated with fake Boko Haram
We did not negotiate with fake Boko Haram. I agree that within that period, especially whenever there was a problem, people volunteered all manner of assistance. It is just like what, my successor, President Buhari said in a recent media chat that if his government gets credible leaders of the sect, they would be willing to discuss with them.
People will come to you with all kinds of names. But my government never set up a team to negotiate with Boko Haram. We found out that the activities of the terrorists were coming from a section of the country, the North East, and they were more active in two states, Borno and Yobe.
If you relate this with the issue of education, you will discover that these two states have the worst cases in terms of children’s school drop-out rate with more than 50 percent drop-out rate. So you can see that this high rate of out-of-school children speaks to the issue of the prevalence of insurgency in these states.
Prevalence of insurgency
We then felt that there may be local issues involved in the matter. What we then did was to set up a committee of senior people in the states to hold conversations with all stakeholders including community leaders, religious leaders and all other interest groups.
Their mandate was to hold conversations with these groups towards finding a local solution to the problem. There was never a time we negotiated with Boko Haram. I think this whole idea is all politics. The world over, people do and say all kinds of things in the name of politics.But then it is wrong for people to play politics with very serious national issues.
The only group we negotiated with which started when I was a deputy governor was the militants in an area called the Niger Delta. I believe that if we had negotiated with Boko Haram, we would have come out with an action programme in that regard. When we negotiated with Niger Delta militants, we were able to do that because you could identify them and they had a clear position on all the issues.
In that case we were able to come out with what we called the amnesty programme which brought about the end of militancy in that part of our country where crude oil is being produced. We asked the militants to surrender their weapons in exchange for their rehabilitation. We engaged them with relevant training and placed many of them on a monthly allowance.
Some of them were trained outside Nigeria and some were encouraged to set up businesses and so on. For a negotiation to take place there should be certain expectations from both sides.
We just couldn’t negotiate with the terrorists because such expectations could not be established.
Anybody who says that we negotiated with Boko haram during my time is merely playing politics.
On his under-reported achievements and legacies
I am happy that somebody here could talk about all we did in terms of building institutions, promoting entrepreneurship among youths and many other things we did in office. When I set out to reform INEC for instance, I had in mind building the kind of democracy that is sustainable.
Democracy is not just about conducting elections and announcing the winner. Elections must be credible and transparent. They must appear free and fair to all the interest groups. There are many elections that are held and won without any iota of credibility.
Such elections will not lead to stability in the polity. And when there is no stability in a country, people find it difficult to enter. That is the difference between Africa’s independence periods, when we simply won our freedom but there was no stability; and now that our societies are maturing into stable democracies.
Our democracies are becoming institutionalized with even peer review tools being deployed. That is why the economies of many countries are now growing. We also ensured that the judiciary was independent. There was no interference from the executive which I headed. We ensured that the parliament operated within its mandate without any hindrance. We strengthened INEC because without a strong and independent electoral body you cannot conduct a free and fair election.
I can go on and on to enumerate all we did but that is not why I came to Geneva. The truth is that we cannot claim to have solved all of Nigeria’s problems. No president can safely make such a claim as no individual can solve all the problems of a nation. But I can say that we tried our best.
But when you ask me about what is happening to all my legacies and what is happening in the government today, I will tell you that you are being unfair to me.
You do not expect a former President to begin to speak of his successor, especially knowing that I have just left office. It is not standard practice anywhere because any comment I make now, whether positive or negative, could be misinterpreted.
Narrow gauge rail network
I will tell you that you are not helping me you are not showing me love, if you continue to insist that I should run commentaries on the activities of my successor.
We also began a programme of revamping the narrow gauge rail network we have in the country. We intended by this to be able to move goods across the country freely without the disruptive effect of such activity on the roads. We knew that the narrow gauge was no longer suitable for human movements.
But we were convinced it was still good enough to move our goods within the country. It will shock you to know that moving goods from the northern part of Nigeria, say from Kano to Lagos, could be more expensive than moving the same goods from Lagos to Europe. With rail you not only reduce cost of transportation but you also save your roads from frequent damage.
Our roads collapse very fast because they are constantly carrying heavy loads, which they were not designed to always support. That was why we decided to begin a programme of reviving the narrow gauge rail network across the country which was built by the colonial masters because of movement of commodities and other raw materials. We also encouraged women to participate directly in governance and in entrepreneurship.
Everybody knows that in the area of women empowerment we performed relatively better than my predecessors. For instance, I was the one who opened up the Nigerian Defence Academy to begin to admit women as students. That opened the way for women to aspire to any level in the military, including the highest level of becoming service chiefs. I did a number of other things I don’t need to bore you with.
You are right that these achievements were not known by all our people. It is not because my people did not try to publicize the programmes, but you know, good news doesn’t spread fast. It is only bad news that require no push to spread.
I was told that even the current transport minister who was the governor of Rivers State said not long ago that he didn’t know that trains still run in Nigeria.
That was how bad it was. I also heard that the Minister of Power, Works and Housing who also was the governor of Lagos State has commended our achievements in the area of power infrastructure and building roads. These are testimonies coming from members of a political party that used to be in opposition.
So, I agree with you that probably we didn’t use the media the way we should.
Reason for going into politics
But even if we did like I said, only negative stories, like the amplified cases of corruption, would instantly go viral once they are mentioned, even without anybody giving it a push. But news about positive achievements hardly register in our minds. It is not as if these things were not being mentioned.
They were, because we had a policy of reviewing all our activities annually. There was even a time our minister of information took journalists round the whole country on a tour of all our projects.
Yet the spread of such information remained limited, in line with what I have just said that news about achievements probably requires a lot of force to spread. It is only negative news that spreads on its own.
Why he didn’t contest his election loss in court
In Nigeria, other people see us as being very religious. This is because we truly believe that human beings, either by creation or evolution, are made for different purposes. That is why people are in different professions and different callings.
The thing I believe is that I did not go into politics because of what I stood to gain as an individual. I went into politics because I see it as a responsibility to serve and to help my society grow. My reason for going into politics may be different from that of other politicians. I also believe that it takes the sacrifice of individuals to build a society.
Most of these societies that are very well developed were built by the sacrifices of individuals. Some people even died in the process of defending their people and fighting for their wellbeing.
As African leaders we must now be ready to set standards so that other people would begin to emulate us. In Nigeria it is almost taken for a given that anybody who contests for any office would always go to the tribunal to challenge an outcome that doesn’t favour him.
Cheating during elections
What that suggests is that nobody loses election in Nigeria. That tradition must also change. As a sitting President I presided over an election in which I contested but lost.
Yes, INEC is an independent body but you and I know that the activity of any agency is under the supervision of a President. Some people were telling me to go to the tribunal or even stop the elections, citing cases of irregularities. But I rebuffed such advice. If INEC that was under me, and assuming the officials allowed cheating during elections as was claimed, why will I go to the tribunal to complain? If I did that I would not be setting the right example.
It would then mean that all I suffered to build would come to nothing.
Results of the elections
The point I am making is that people should always be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of their country. We need to evolve that culture and imbibe it in our consciousness that we don’t have to go to court each time we lose elections.
Let me tell you a story that will shock you. When the results of the elections were declared and I got almost 13 million votes while the incumbent president won with over 15 million votes, I recall one African leader telling me that if I decided to leave office, it would only be because I must already be tired of remaining in office.
The implication of that statement was that many other leaders in my position would have stayed put, but that is just not me. My place in governance was to do my best and quit and not to sit tight and destroy everything I had built.
I believe that sometimes one will have to make that kind of sacrifice in the interest of his people and nation that God had graciously allowed you to lead.