Mr. Jonathan Feels Our Pain

In his days on the stump, former US President Bill Clinton was famous for telling hapless voters with stories of woe, “I feel your pain.” Mr. Clinton, who grew up poor – raised by an impoverished mother and an often-abusive stepfather – earned many a comedian’s jibe for his all-too liberal use of that phrase.

Even so, many political pundits credit the former American president with working relentlessly to improve the lot of pauperized Americans. Under his presidential watch, the economy boomed, millions of jobs were added to the U.S. economy, and the minimum wage rose. If he was not quite the champion of America’s lowliest citizens (and a case may be made that his policies favored Wall Street executives), he can’t be accused of indifference to their plight, much less of worsening their misfortunes.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who is leading the charge to deepen Nigeria’s poverty index by removing the so-called fuel subsidy, appears bent on playing a Clinton. He is anxious to sell Nigerians on the idea that he feels their pain.

Last week, Mr. Jonathan used the occasion of the Christmas Carol at his presidential villa to do two things. One was to push his contentious plan to remove fuel subsidies as a choice informed by sound economic logic and an act of extraordinary political courage. The other was to profess his intimacy with the harsh, buffeted existence of the vast majority of Nigerians.

According to a report in this newspaper, Mr. Jonathan predicted, “fuel subsidy removal would only bring temporary pains which will fizzle out in no time for Nigerians to reap the gains.” The paper also reported Mr. Jonathan stating “that the nation could not continue to use its limited resources to subsidize imported fuel,” adding “the fuel subsidy was to the advantage of a cartel and to the detriment of the poor masses.”

The president, according to this paper, “explained that the decision by his administration to remove fuel subsidy was in the overall interest of the nation and not a deliberate move to inflict pains on the people.” Then we heard the president’s own words: “There is nobody who will want to deliberately inflict suffering on his people. Goodluck Jonathan can never be one.” Here’s yet another gem: “I know the pains Nigerians are passing through. Yes, I am here in the State House and being fed by government but that does not keep me so far from the people.” And this: “There is no day that I don’t interact with Nigerians, both low and high, and I appreciate the pains of the people. We are facing challenges but we must take certain decisions to reposition our economy so that things will ease out.” And this: “If we don’t have the courage to do so, then we will continue to be dying in pains until God knows when.” And this: “So, my belief is that, at a particular time, people must be courageous to take the right decisions.’’

Alas, Jonathan’s effort to convince us that he cares turned out to be a hard, improbable sell. In fact, his statements above expose a man who is profoundly disconnected from the condition of most Nigerians.

Yet, there are two senses in which Mr. Jonathan fits the Clintonian mould. Like the former American leader, the Nigerian president was born and grew up poor. Campaigning for the presidency earlier this year, he and his wife parlayed the story of his deprived youth to create the image of a man who was of and with the people. Besides, Jonathan, like Clinton, ventured into politics after stints in academia.

But Jonathan is no Clinton. By the time he became sidekick to the late Umaru Yar’Adua, Jonathan had amassed a fortune that was close to two million dollars – going by his 2007 declaration of assets of N295 million. Since he jumped from a teaching post into politics, and since Nigerian academics are not lavishly paid, it is safe to deduce that Jonathan came to most of that wealth during his gubernatorial stint in Bayelsa.

By contrast, Clinton merely managed to scrape through during his years as governor and president. In fact, President Clinton was near broke by the time he served out his second term as president. His wretchedness owed to the huge legal bills he and his wife ran up to fend off the Whitewater investigation. The investigation itself stemmed from an Arkansas banker’s unfounded allegation that Clinton had pressured him to grant an unsecured loan of $300,000 to an erstwhile business partner of the Clintons’ in a failed real estate investment.

Clinton is a millionaire today, but only because of money he made after, not during, his presidency. He received an advance of more than $10 million for his autobiography. And he commands six figure fees for giving speeches in the U.S. and around the world.

Many Americans look with nostalgia on the Clinton years at the White House. But even those who loathed Clinton would be reluctant to deny that, as president, he spent hours each day meditating on how to solve his country’s manifold problems. When he spoke, it was clear that an agile mind was at work, that he had a mastery of the facts, and possessed a sense of history. What was more, his policies often cohered with his words.

If proof was needed that Clinton and Jonathan operated from different wavelengths, look no further than the latter’s statements at his carol party. To assert that a cartel hijacks Nigeria’s resources hardly justifies imposition of a further financial burden on Nigerians. That’s a doctrine of double victimization, and is rightly rejected. Why not refurbish the country’s existing refineries, and build more, to boost local production of fuel and remove the dependency on imports?

If it wasn’t so sad it would be hilarious to read Jonathan’s claim that “There is nobody who will want to deliberately inflict suffering on his people.” The deliberate, depraved infliction of pain is the first item on the agenda of most Nigerian “leaders,” military and civilian. With its harvest of natural resources and human talent, Nigeria would not be in its current moribund state if its presidents, governors, ministers, legislators etc did not set out, daily, to serve themselves at the expense of the people.

The Nigerian president thinks it’s untenable to “continue to use [Nigeria’s] limited resources to subsidize imported fuel,” but he doesn’t realize how ridiculous it is that Nigerians are compelled to subsidize the corruption, greed and – worse – incompetence of a cast of clowns, comedians and mediocrities posing as leaders.

Mr. Jonathan’s contention that the pain will be fleeting is an old dodge. Nigerians have not forgotten how former dictator Ibrahim Babangida promised that the pains of his structural adjustment program would pass quickly, ushering in an era of enduring prosperity. Instead, the program sapped Nigerians for years and virtually zapped the Nigerian middle class out of existence. How about former President Obasanjo’s pledge that he would invest savings from oil subsidies in infrastructure? That promise was kept in the breach.

There’s nothing in Jonathan’s political record – as governor or (for more than two years now) president – to inspire confidence in his promises of momentary pain succeeded by great economic uplift. Nothing!

Jonathan wants to be perceived as a brave man willing to take bold, courageous decisions. There are clear and better tests for this presidency’s bravery. For starters, he should push to institute real accountability for office holders, himself included. A brave Jonathan should offer to lead the fight to cut the scandalously high formal and informal payments make to – among others – the Nigerian president, Ni

gerian governors, and Nigerian legislators. Why not lead a crusade to stop members of the National Assembly from collecting millions of dollars in constituency allowances? Why not send a bill immediately to stop the scandal called security vote? Why not bravely admit that Nigeria is sunk in crises, and champion the convocation of a national conference to discuss the reshaping and revamping of this comatose behemoth?

In his speech at the carol, Jonathan said: “I am here in the State House and being fed by government.” To be a Nigerian president, governor or lawmaker is to live like a parasite off the toil of Nigerians. It means the enjoyment of free meals, free cars, free transportation, including first class flight tickets, free swanky housing, free electricity, free medical treatment (abroad) – and many, many other freebies.

But that’s not the case in the U.S. The American president as well as U.S. governors must pay for their families’ personal meals and other domestic needs. The only free meals President Barack Obama eats in the White House are those served at formal state functions. Otherwise, he and his wife receive a monthly bill – and pay – for food, drinks and other services they consumed or used.

Jonathan may well believe his own spiel that he interacts with “Nigerians, both low and high.” But Nigerian leaders are notorious for mistaking the likes of their presidential aides as “low Nigerians.” Otherwise, they arrange to meet dispossessed Nigerians in highly choreographed settings scrubbed clean of any real contact, communication or cross-pollination.

If this president truly wishes to take the pulse of Nigerians, he should do what some wise ancient kings sometimes did. He ought to wear a disguise and visit the slums, markets, and beer parlors where most Nigerians open their hearts. If he did, he would discover why many Nigerians believe the argument about fuel subsidies is a mere ruse to take even the crumbs away from famished mouths – and to enable the tiny, mindless circle of embezzlers and profiteers from misery to gorge more. And he would realize that the vision of the slum has far more history to back it than his own prattle about fleeting pain, enduring gain, and courageous action.

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