The Borrowed Shoes

"...This goes back to the circumstances of President Jonathan’s emergence: how he was the underdog without shoes that nobody gave a chance, the man that everyone helped all the way to the throne,

and now that he is there, he no longer remembers those who made him king! The sub-text is that too many people think Dr. Jonathan is president because of their own personal sacrifices. The attendant verbiage is like this: we fought for him to be president, when the Yar’Adua cabal did not want him; and he doesn’t seem to be showing us enough gratitude. Or the other face of it: he is using our term; if Yar’Adua had not died, he would not be president now. Or as the royalists put it: where is he coming from? How did we allow a minority to emerge as president? Of course, the truth is that the essential Jonathan persona has not changed in any negative way since he assumed the mantle of national leadership. The president has certainly not forgotten the millions of ordinary Nigerians who voted to elect him and he constantly proclaims that God has been very kind to him. But he asks for one favour: the “shoe-givers” should allow him to walk with the shoes and effectively implement his agenda for national transformation..."
--Reuben Abati, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity
The metaphor of the "shoe giver" so brilliantly used by Dr. Reuben Abati to make what I consider a compelling case for his boss, President Goodluck Jonathan, was well-captured in Tunde Kelani's film, Agogo Eewo (The Gong of Taboo). Set in Jogbo, a resource-endowed village being held back by corrupt chiefs, the death of the king brought about an unusual transition that eventually led to the enthronement of a successor who was installed much against his inclinations: because he was not comfortable with the seeming desperation of the "shoe givers", in this case the corrupt chiefs, who conspired to get him on the throne. Quite naturally, these dishonourable chiefs believed it was going to be business as usual; and for a while it was, until the people revolted.

While still perplexed about how to handle the tricky situation, the king had a dream in which the village sage recounted to him the story of a legendary but poor dancer who went for a dancing competition with a borrowed shoe. As he danced to the delight of the crowd, those who gave him the shoe began to distract him. Upon realising that the "shoe-givers" would give him no peace, he removed the shoe and started dancing barefooted. It was at that point that the villagers who were impressed not only by his dancing skill but by his show of defiance to the "shoe-givers" intervened and everybody began to offer him their shoes. The moral of the story is that the king had a choice to make: either to go with the "shoe givers" or pitch tent with the people. He chose the latter, with all the expected consequences, but ultimately he triumphed.

If we take out the unnecessary personal exchanges from the thesis (a response to Mr. Dele Momodu's earlier column), I believe Abati made a fundamental disquisition on the perception of the Jonathan presidency by critical constituencies.

Even if he did not mention names (and he actually did), one can easily identify the first set of "shoe givers" as the Save Nigeria Group whose operatives led the campaign for then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to be made acting president in January 2010. The second category I believe belongs to the group led by Alhaji Adamu Ciroma which in the build-up to the April 2011 presidential election argued that by virtue of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) zoning formula, only a Northerner should succeed the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. The third group comprises members of the Nigerian ruling elite who believe power should always go to their kind. These are the three groups Aso Rock holds responsible for the harsh rap the president is getting today.

As I said, I find Abati's thesis very brilliant but it does not address all the issues. If indeed these are the only forces that Jonathan has to contend with today, then I would say he can indeed go to sleep. The reality, however, is that the challenge of Nigeria today goes beyond the crisis of expectations by some imaginary "shoe givers", to the real concerns that the president might not be dancing well with the shoes majority of our people collectively gave him.

In a recent conversation with a lawyer who admitted voting for Jonathan last year, albeit reluctantly, he said he today feels vindicated among his friends who didn't heed his warning. He said when they sold Jonathan to him, he asked them, repeating the question to me, in that inimitable Ogbomosho dialect of his: "Okunrin t'eni ko wo bata ri yi, te ba ko bata fun, se ni koni wo t'otun s'osi?"

Yoruba loses its flavour when you translate into English but let me make an attempt: "this man that you people said has walked barefooted all his life, if you give him a pair of shoes, how are you sure he would not put the right shoe on his left leg?"

That is the critical question today as there are many Nigerians who worry about the president's dance steps not necessarily because of distractions from those who consider themselves the "shoe-giver" (and there are such men in every society) but rather because of the way he has decided to wear the shoe. These people look at how within one year Nigeria had to pay a scandalous amount of almost two trillion Naira for fuel subsidy under his watch; they hear about disgraceful waivers being dished out at huge cost to the country and the economy; they see a degeneration of the security situation to the extent that Boko Haram has virtually carved a republic for itself in the North-eastern part of the country; they fail to understand why a government that makes a song and dance of cutting cost and waste would still make allocations totaling almost 1.5 trillion Naira to service mostly moribund 426 federal government agencies in the 2012 appropriation bill; they see how the sitting governor of the president's home state was muscled out of the political process and denied the right to seek a second term by a crude show of force unrestrained by conscience.

Given the state of our economy and the level of unemployment of our teeming population, Jonathan came to power at a very difficult moment in our history so it was always going to take something extraordinary for him or anybody at all to manage this complexity. Against the background that he had to push a necessary but unpopular reform agenda like removal of subsidy, it is to be expected that there would be upheaval. But a leader can overcome or at least moderate opposition if he carries the people along even when conceding that Nigerians are impatient people and reaching consensus on many issues can sometimes be difficult.

But to argue, as Abati did, that the declining goodwill of the president is contrived is to live in denial. The beauty of the situation, however, is that there is redemption if only the president and his handlers can sit down to examine what the issues are. It doesn't really matter what the "shoe-givers" do but the moment the president loses the crowd, there is a big problem. And there are indications that the crowd is already thinning out.

The president still has an opportunity to change the course of affairs and with that, the perception of his stewardship. Fortunately, there are potential quick-wins. First, he has to ensure that the report of the House of Representatives committee on the probe of subsidy payments (where there have been sordid revelations) is implemented with all the culprits brought to book. Then he must cut the waste in government beyond tokenism and he should confront squarely the threat posed by Boko Haram and now MEND. It should not worry him that the "shoe-givers" are distracting him. If the president shows enough fidelity to the course of the downtrodden, many will gladly remove their shoes for him. Nigerians are very generous people who appreciate little efforts by those elected to serve them. I am sure the president can regain lost grounds. But he has to impress with his dance.

I must, however, dismiss this narrative that Boko Haram emerged to checkmate Jonathan, a Southern Christian President. That is false. The sect actually came into existence under President Olusegun Obasanjo but became a menace under Yar'Adua. As I recounted in my recent book, one of the reasons which probably led the police to take the law unto their own hands concerning Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was the complaint that anytime he was arraigned in court, he always managed to secure bail that same day. Yet as syndicated columnist, Mr. Mohammed Haruna, recently pointed out, the man responsible for always bailing out the late Yusuf is no other than Prof. Jerry Gana, a most recognised and highly respected Northern Christian!

Notwithstanding, we should also not discount the fact that there may be some prominent Northern leaders who believe Boko Haram could be a bargaining chip in the current ethno-religious politics that we play in Nigeria. But such people do more harm to their people than to President Jonathan. Right now, the Northern part of the country is being systematically destroyed because I do not know any rational investor who would want to set up his business in Maiduguri, Kano or even Kaduna. Unfortunately, as a sister pointed out on a forum yesterday, it would appear that some people, apparently thinking they are gaming Jonathan, are now turning the Boko Haram narrative from that of "tormentors" of the North to that of its potential political "liberators". They are making a very serious mistake.

To come back to dancing, it is a serious art form, a meaningful ritual and a culturally significant pursuit. But it is one that also requires diligence and a good pair of shoes. The president should realise that for every dancing competition, there are always several self-appointed judges (political opponents, civil society activists, journalists, professional critics etc) who have the right to share their opinions. Sometimes their criticism is not constructive and their scoring could be inconsistent or patently biased. But fortunately for the president, even the official judges do not have the last word in a dance competition in a political/public arena: the people usually have the final say.

So my advice is for the president to realise that the ultimate "shoe-givers" are the silent majority of Nigerians. Those are the people he should dance to please. And to do that well, he must be sure he is wearing his shoes correctly.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 9th February, 2012

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