When he walked briskly into his office that Monday afternoon, to keep a scheduled appointment with TELL, he wore his trademark smile. Dressed in black trousers and long sleeve jumper with white stripes and a black traditional Niger Delta hat, popularly known as ‘resource control’ cap, to match, he breezed through the handshakes and pleasantries. President Goodluck Jonathan was keeping his two-year pledge to grant audience to the magazine, where he would have the opportunity to discuss national issues. As he shook hands with Nosa Igiebor, editor-in-chief, he said jokingly, “You guys have come to deal with me.” That drew laughter from everybody, including his aides: Anyim Pius Anyim, secretary to the government of the federation; Mike Oghiadome, chief of staff; Labaran Maku, minister of information; Ruben Abati, special adviser on media and publicity; and other principal officers. That was not the only time the President entertained his audience. Even when he appeared rattled by some of the questions, he tried not to show it; rather he threw banters and gave a response. But apart from the joke, the President may have betrayed the apprehension of most leaders when they come across TELL, the People’s Parliament. The late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the fearless Ikemba Nnewi, said something similar when he was to start his last interview with TELL at his Enugu residence.
The magazine had applied to interview Jonathan, since he took over from late president Umaru Yar’Adua, but got excuses on why he could not speak with us. Could it be that the administration was avoiding the independent media? Besides, TELL had constructively engaged the President on public issues where he appeared indecisive or short of ideas. At TELL, we understand that with the magazine’s principled stand against juntas, it was clear any interview with the magazine would be a time to account for stewardship. Truly, it would not only take courage, but also something to tell, before Nigerian leaders can open their doors to the critical media.
The climax of government’s distrust for the independent media, including TELL, was when the magazine was denied official accreditation to cover Jonathan’s inauguration as president at the Eagles Square, Abuja, on May 29, 2011, which appeared absurd in a democracy the magazine fought for. But Maku later apologised for that incident by taking responsibility, though blaming it on the overzealousness of officials who handled the accreditation. However, throughout the interview session, President Jonathan was in his element, taking on issues and demonstrating a high degree of understanding of issues and events. The Jonathan who fielded questions that day was not the same man that some people believe appears clueless on the way forward for Nigeria. If he ever had that challenge, he seems to have learnt a great deal.
It took two years to get this interview. All previous efforts to interview the President were denied by aides who felt he was not ‘ready’ for us. And when he was deemed ready early this month, we were given only an hour slot in his usually heavy schedule to get all the answers we needed from him. However, one thing worked for the team: the appointment fell on a public holiday, a time when the workload was tempered a bit. Then the President himself was in high spirits and he was willing to take the challenge of the journalists. He flowed from the depth of his being and one hour became two hours plus! In a way, that compensated for the two years of waiting for the President!
He parried no questions as he answered every one on security, the subsidy saga, corruption and accountability with an infectious sincerity. He also discussed his transformation agenda and pleaded with Nigerians to be patient with the government, assuring that the right foundation is being laid for a peaceful and prosperous nation. His thinking is that from 2013, things will move much quicker, results will be more visible and the public will be happier. He is quite optimistic that at the end of his tenure in 2015, Nigerians will have reasons to cheer.
On security and the Boko Haram challenge, the President shows a deep understanding, an unusual calmness and confidence that the government may soon overcome it. He classifies Boko Haram into three – religious, political and criminal. His confidence predicates on the defence information available to him, the security infrastructure being built and improved training and deployment of men and machines. Four days later, one of the events he hinted at happened – Kabiru Sokoto, the alleged mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing of St Theresa’s Catholic Church, Madalla, Niger State, was re-arrested. Prior to this, the chief spokesman of the group was arrested at Kaduna. According to the President, so many other operatives of the group have been arrested and are undergoing interrogation. “It’s something significant. And one thing leads to the other.”
He promised “to carry out a radical overhaul of the police force to make sure that they respond to the challenges we have,” confirming complaints by Nigerians that the police have been more of a liability than an asset. Hear him: “The circumstances that led to Sokoto’s escape are still being investigated. All Nigerians are embarrassed. How can somebody that was arrested with over 50 officers be escorted to his own house with just about five policemen, headed by an inspector, not even an ASP? There are so many questions.”
Contrary to the insinuation in some quarters that the Presidency may be interfering with the National Assembly probe of the petroleum subsidy saga, Jonathan appears grateful to the House of Representatives for catalysing his transformation agenda. He feels that their report will help him clear the mess and reposition the oil and gas industry to respond to the needs of the national economy. On the different subsidy figures being canvassed by the Ministry of Petroleum, Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Nigeria, and the yawning gap between the amount spent on subsidy in 2010 and 2011, he feels that “something is wrong somewhere” and that the trio must harmonise their positions for the truth to be confirmed.
Above all, what came out clearly from the interview is the President’s growing competence on the job, apparently aided by his past experience, intellectual depth, analytical skills and engaging personality. On each issue raised, the President has an in-depth knowledge of what are involved – the dynamics, probable short and long-term consequences of government’s actions and inactions. He gives the impression that he is one President that burns the midnight oil, studying all the reports, opinions, laws and tempers on and about his country. And his background as “a normal Nigerian,” former civil servant, university don, deputy governor, acting governor, governor, vice president, acting president, and president has given him a rich repertoire of knowledge to navigate a turbulent Nigeria away from the precipice and on the path of peace, progress and prosperity. President Jonathan spoke to Igiebor; Wola Adeyemo, editorial director; Anayochukwu Agbo, senior associate editor; and Paul Kuyoro, photojournalist.
Full interview in TELL magazine now on the news-stand.
- Nigeria soldiers arrest Boko Haram commander (csmonitor.com)
- Boko Haram: Diaspora Army veterans return home to assist (transformationwatch.com)
- OBJ counsels Jonathan on Boko Haram, others -We’ll battle terrorists to a standstill, Jonathan vows -Advocates stiffer penalty for cultists (transformationwatch.com)
- Subsidy: Govs turned against me – Jonathan (transformationwatch.com)
- ‘North Loses N25bn Daily To Boko Haram Insurgency’ (transformationwatch.com)
- Nigerian Journalists Undeterred by Bombings (transformationwatch.com)
- Governor of Borno: North May Be Uninhabitable in Five Years (transformationwatch.com)
- Boko Haram Promises More Attacks on Press Freedom: Opens up on Thisday attack (transformationwatch.com)