Nigeria Matters

Jonathan, Sylva, and the Rain of Stones

Last Friday, President Goodluck Jonathan traveled to his home state of Bayelsa to campaign for the Seriake Dickson, the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a governorship election scheduled for February 11. At a rally in the state capital, Yenogoa, Mr. Jonathan weighed in on Timipre Sylva, the state’s recently rusticated governor. The president delivered a dismal assessment of Mr. Sylva’s performance.

It was a highly revealing occasion, and mostly revealing of the president’s political instincts and his profound lack of a sense of irony.

No major political party in Nigeria has set itself apart as an embodiment of vision and exemplary leadership. Even so, the PDP has patented itself as a heavyweight champion in the sectors of corruption, indolence, and visionlessness. Given the party’s reputation for incompetence and shamelessness, it’s always comical when one PDP honcho accuses another of poor performance. It’s akin to an area boy accusing an agbero of unruly inclinations.

On the stump for his party’s flag bearer – a man he anointed – President Jonathan berated former Governor Sylva for failing to stimulate economic development in the state. Specifically, the president named the former governor’s inability to sustain work on the Tower Hotel, a “five star” hotel. Conceived by former Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the hotel, according to Mr. Jonathan, was supposed to “attract people from all over the world.” Instead, at the hands of Sylva, the project, the president proclaimed, had become a “monument of disgrace.”

Having provided “concrete” proof of the former governor’s ineptitude, President Jonathan regaled the audience – and the party’s gubernatorial candidate – with an instructive incident that demonstrated popular disaffection with the dismissed governor. Mr. Jonathan recalled a visit “a few months ago [when] Bayelsans stoned the governor. You must work hard to ensure that they do not stone you because if you do not work hard and they stone you, I will join them to stone you.”

My first thought on reading that statement was to wonder why this particular president, with his hardly inspiring record, would champion the stoning of incompetent public officials. Even so, I’m not about to dissuade him really. I’m all for stoning the tribe of thieves who have turned – and turn – life in Nigeria into sheer hell. With too many judges all too willing to use technicalities to set privileged looters loose, why, stoning strikes me as a highly attractive option.

I doubt that there are enough stones in Nigeria for the job of stoning the misbegotten, anti-human elements whose expertise is the fertilization of misery.

A succession of other thoughts crossed my mind. What’s the president’s understanding of hard work? Was Mr. Jonathan in earnest when he implored Mr. Dickson to work hard for Bayelsans? In shepherding Dickson to the party’s governorship nomination, did the president for even a fleeting moment consider whether the man possessed the stamina for hard work? For that matter, when President Jonathan assesses his own strengths and weaknesses, does he reckon himself a hardworking guy? Does he believe that he would be spared if – or once – Nigerians take to stone-throwing as a preferred mode of expressing displeasure with mediocre leaders?

Nobody who’s dispassionately followed the squabble between President Jonathan and former Governor Sylva would misread it as a disagreement over principles and ideas. The truth, after all, is that Jonathan and Sylva are cut from the same political cloth, hewn from the same “moral” wood, and share the same undistinguished record in public office.

If there was anybody to call Sylva lazy, it was not Jonathan. Nigeria is mired in myriads of crises. In addition to the familiar, perennial problems – ghastly roads, run-away unemployment rates, skyscraping corruption, wretched healthcare, an educational system so terrible it’s churning out unbaked graduates who can’t function in a modern economy – there are the ramped up threats of terrorism and ethno-religious violence. Still, I don’t think Nigerians exactly picture Jonathan as a man who keeps sleepless nights, assiduously investing time and energy to fashion solutions. Perhaps Sylva ran a wretched government in Bayelsa; still, one suspects that Bayelsans didn’t fare better during Mr. Jonathan’s stint as governor. Consequently, the present president is hardly qualified to gloat over the stoning of the former governor.

The Jonathan-Sylva feud is rooted in personality clashes, not principle; it is a product of naked power tussle between two men who are idea-challenged and ideologically bereft. Theirs is the butting of heads between two men fascinated by the aggrandizement of office, but with no discernible program for transforming the condition of their environment. Bayelsa has become a turf for power play at the rudest level, and Jonathan – marshalling to his aid the machinery of federal power – has triumphed. For now, at least.

Yet, Sylva is far from vanquished. I was not surprised that the embattled ex-governor responded in kind to Jonathan’s doleful evaluation, and actually accused the president of lying. Jonathan, the ex-governor recalled in his rejoinder, had raised Sylva’s hand after the stoning incident and proclaimed him a superb governor. How come the president didn’t realize then that the former governor was an awful “stonable” failure?

It’s a curiosity that, of all the possible criteria to use in evaluating a governor’s achievement, Mr. Jonathan would focus on the so-called Tower Hotel. In the 21st century, why would a state government even dabble in the building of a hotel, even an alleged five-star one? Had the state met its more basic needs in infrastructure? Had it achieved a desirable level of security? Had it secured for its residents access to potable water, healthcare, and an environment devoid of toxic pollution?

In a country where contract (over)inflation is a fact of life, Sylva’s allegation that the contractor building the Tower Hotel demanded a variation of N5 billion needs to be addressed. What were the original terms of the contract? What necessitated the alleged demand for an additional sum as high as five billion naira? Is it true – as Sylva’s statement insinuated – that the said contractor was building a country home for a public official that was unnamed?

Sylva must name the beneficiary of the alleged largesse by the contractor. And the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission or some other law enforcement agency must carry out a transparent investigation of the transaction. If Mr. Sylva’s allegation proves to be true, then both the contractor and the beneficiary should be prosecuted.

It is time we established in Nigeria that a contractor’s “kick back,” whether in cash or kind, is a criminal act. A court in the United States recently sentenced former Illinois Governor Rag Blagojevich to fourteen years in prison. And what was the man’s office? He and his aides had worked the phones in an effort to auction off President Barack Obama’s Senate seat to some generous donor to his campaign. Mind, he had not received a cent at the time officers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) swooped into his office, handcuffed and led him out. Yet, Nigerian officials who accept swanky homes from contractors are not only spared prosecution; they are garlanded with national honors.

Last week, a middling president and a mediocre former governor threw verbal stones at each other. But unless the likes of Sylva and Jonathan come to terms with Nigerians’ rage, unless they &#8211

; and other public office holders – find a way to sabotage their greed and to embrace the ethic of true service to the people, the day of wrath will come, and soon too. And there will be a rain of stones and rocks in the land.

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