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Okey Ndibe: Jonathan Doesn’t Know Poor Nigerians



If anybody wanted proof that Nigerian “leaders” do not occupy the same space and time as most of their country folk, President Goodluck Jonathan amply provided it in an astonishing speech he gave last week.

On April 4, World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, had stated in New York City that Nigeria was among five countries containing most of the world’s poorest people. India, China, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were bracketed with Nigeria in this unflattering league.

The Nigerian president appeared to have spent close to a month mulling an appropriate, decisive response to the World Bank’s president. Mr. Jonathan seized an opportunity on May 1, celebrated in his country and many other parts of the world as Labor Day. In a speech to workers, the man who runs Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, essayed `what must have struck him as an eloquent rebuttal.

Nigeria, President Jonathan argued, isn’t—could not possibly be—a poor country.  His country’s problem, he owned, was not so much poverty as the business of wealth redistribution. To buttress his argument, he pointed to the august Nigerian business mogul, Aliko Dangote, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s 25 richest people. How could a country be home to one of the richest billionaires in the history of planet Earth and yet be deemed poor, Mr. Jonathan seemed to wonder?

And the Nigerian president did not leave the argument at Dangote. “Nigeria is not a poor country,” he let the World Bank henchman know. “Nigerians are the most travelled people in the world. There is no country in the world you go that you will not see Nigerians there. The GDP (gross domestic product) of Nigeria is over half a trillion dollars and the economy is growing at close to 7 per cent.”

And then, for definitive effect, he proudly shared an anecdote about a recent outing in Kenya where he participated in a program organized for Nigerian and Kenyan business executives. Nigerians, the president revealed, strutted their rich stuff on Kenyan soil, leaving their hosts dazzled. A paraphrase of that presidential anecdote won’t do. It makes eminent sense to hear the story in Mr. Jonathan’s own words. Here goes: “The number of private jets that landed in Nairobi owned by Nigerians that day was a subject of discussion in the Kenyan media for over a week.

“If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries in the world. Yet, they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries.”

I implore the reader to please pause for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and then take that in.

Okay, I know what you, the reader, are thinking. You don’t believe that the president spoke the words attributed to him. Some addle-headed online critic must have made it all up. Or some mischievous foe must have concocted the story in order to create a cartoonish image, to scandalize a good president’s name.

I sympathize. At first, I too found it hard, if not impossible, to believe that Mr. Jonathan marshaled this line of argument. But I waited for three agonizing days to read a disavowal. As I write, none had appeared. I have no choice, then, than to believe that the president voiced the (hard-to-believe) words, that he expressed the (improbable) sentiments. Our president, in other words, must believe that what he said amounted to a solid rebuke of the World Bank’s dismal outlook on Nigeria.

I’m nothing short of astonished. If the president read from a text, then whoever wrote that speech deserves to be fired. If, on the other hand, the remarks were extemporaneous, then some of the president’s advisers ought to muster the courage to counsel him to refrain from such off-the-cuff remarks.

The president’s argument merely pointed to a grave deficiency of argument. Going by the evidence of what he said, he had no facts he could commandeer to call the World Bank’s evaluation into question. And, lacking anything remotely interesting or tenable to say, he should have maintained a studied silence. He was under no compulsion to pronounce on the matter. If he felt an irresistible urge to weigh in, he might have taken the noble path. That is, he should have acknowledged the sobering state of affairs in his country—and then announced a set of proposals to begin the task of reversing the trend.

Instead, he spoke in a vein that betrayed profound alienation. He demonstrated a weak grasp of the fate of Nigerians, and a deep misapprehension of the meaning of poverty and wealth. In no place did he articulate any measures to achieve his goal of redistributing the billions in a few hands to the nearly 200 million Nigerians who don’t—can’t—own a bicycle.

Running for president, Mr. Jonathan had made great capital out of his deprived, shoeless past. His May 1 speech seemed calculated, cruelly, to mock that campaign narrative, to thump his nose at those who today suffer as he suffered in the past.

It is easy to stretch Mr. Jonathan’s “argument” to ludicrous conclusions. In his shoeless days, how would the president have felt if somebody had insisted that Mr. Jonathan had more than enough shoes because the children of some wealthy family owned ten pairs each? Would that argument have brought relief, a smile, to the young Jonathan?

Nigerian public officials routinely travel abroad to receive quality medical treatment. Should we invoke that fact to claim that Nigerians enjoy one of the best healthcare systems? Electric power supply in Nigeria remains woeful, even though Aso Rock, the seat of presidential power, as well as the residences of 36 state governors enjoy round-the-clock power from mammoth generators. Mr. Jonathan might as well assert that Nigeria has more than enough electric power—the only problem being that of distribution. Come to think of it, since so many Nigerians own private jets, why, the president can argue that Nigerian Airways, his country’s now moribund airline, is in robust shape.

In Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, we encounter a learned and principled Finance Minister who is cast to the hounds, reduced by a manipulative Prime Minister to a widely ridiculed caricature. The minister’s crime in the novel is to balk at the prime minister’s order to print worthless currency in order to paper over a looming economic crisis in the country. It seems to me that there’s little to choose between the prime minister’s recourse to a deceptive panacea and Mr. Jonathan’s bizarre way of reckoning his country’s fortunes. Thanks to a career in politics, the Nigerian president is now far from the days of shoelessness. Perhaps his many, many pairs of shoes have blunted his imagination, erased his memory of what it means to live in dire circumstances, and estranged him from all but billionaire Nigerians.

Somebody close to him ought to whisper to his ears that he does not preside over a country of billionaires and private jet owners. He ought to spend more time among his country’s slum dwellers, including those in his home state of Bayelsa. Only then will he grasp what the World Bank knows and has stated with such unanswerable authority.


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