A legal and political storm is quietly gathering in Nigerian politics about the potential candidacy of a former president, Goodluck Jonathan, in 2023. It is not the personal question of whether the former president will throw his hat in the ring, nor is it the more political one of on which platform he would stand. It is the legal question of whether the former president is qualified to run in the first place.
The constitutional change that prepared the weather for this storm has been in effect for three years, yet its implications appear to have received little attention. But since this question is about an uncertain future, not the present that we know, nor the past from which we can learn, we will save it for later. Let us consider first the man who has emerged, without question, as not only the most popular politician courted by both major parties, but also the leading moral voice in our politics and society today.
Anyone who has closely followed him in recent years would struggle to believe that the Jonathan we now have is the same president we had for five years. And here, three quick questions rush to mind. Where is the point of departure, indeed rupture, between the former president and, in a manner of speaking, this person? How much of the old Jonathan is still left in the new? And how can we account for the change?
Many a political career ends with a thud, or a whimper, but rarely with a bang. Jonathan’s ended with both of the former, though is now rising with the latter in sight. Having rode to the top on the tides of fortune, first as a deputy governor to somebody who lost power and then as vice president to somebody who lost his life. The true test of his political wit was the 2015 election, which he failed. He soon retreated to his home town, and three years later published a memoir about his time in office.
A memoir is a genre of political writing, not historiography. Unlike a biography, or even an autobiography, its chief strength is political correctness, not historical imagination. Jonathan’s My Transition Hours is neither. It is simply the crudest and most simplistic representation of politics I have ever read, and I have read some. Much like Nasir el-Rufai’s Accidental Civil Servant, which is fat in size but light in substance, My Transition Hours says more about the author we knew as president than the events it describes.
The moment of change is, therefore, probably the period following the publication of his memoir, from say early 2019 to date. So, how much has he changed since then? While in office, his government was described by one word: clueless. But cluelessness and incompetence do not uniquely define Jonathan’s or any one government in Nigeria. They are stable constants of our governance systems, and abound everywhere and at all levels; so much that the difference between one government and another is often not more than the distance between bad and worse.
As president, Jonathan was inarticulate. You would struggle to understand what he said, however attentively you listened. Other people then felt enabled to say things for him. Unfortunately, these other people were also among the most virulently divisive characters at the time: Ayo Oritsejafor, Asari Dokubo, Labaran Maku, Ahmed Gulak, the First Lady, etc. Third, Jonathan was not keenly aware of Nigeria’s political and social fault lines. He often made comments about the state of the country in a church, for example, which made them automatically controversial.
All three have now changed. The man is not only far more articulate, he speaks with clarity and nuance about national issues, and does so with the genuine feeling and concern you would expect from a statesman, not a politician. His voice is now the unifying national balm that soothes sectarian impulses in our politics and media. Jonathan has, in short, displaced Obasanjo in the very role the older man covets and thinks of himself the most, that is, as the living conscience of Africa.
But the foregoing is only a description of the change, not an explanation of it. How then can we account for it? Buhari’s humbling by the burden of office, as opposed to standing outside and pissing in, has been suggested as one answer. It is not a convincing explanation, however. It ignores the tendency among Nigerians to always perceive any current government as worse than any previous one. It also ignores the role Buhari has played in Jonathan’s political resurgence: sheathing the swords of politics and providing Jonathan with a platform to shine on the regional stage.
I think it is Jonathan himself who has changed, or indeed there has been no change at all. His concession of defeat in the 2015 elections, by way of a phone call to Buhari which most Nigerian adults heard at once, is one of the most unifying gestures in the annals of Nigerian politics, equal in stature and significance perhaps only to Gowon’s moment in 1970. Perhaps it is that part of him that has matured and become more prominent in his politics now, with the distractions that come with power now gone.
All of which leads us not only to the question of whether he would contest or not in 2023, but also of whether he is even qualified to do so. Some newspapers reported most recently that the former president has cleared the air that he would not run. That is interesting in itself, you will remember that we have heard something like that before, by none other than the present man on the saddle, and with a few tears for effect. So the key question, in fact, the only question, is that is he qualified?
I do not have an answer to that, and I will not try. However, an amendment to Section 137 of the 1999 Constitution, signed by Buhari in 2018, states that: “A person who was sworn-in as president to complete the term for which another person was elected as president shall not be elected to such office for more than a single term.” From a layman’s perspective, two very contradictory sets of facts emerge as they relate to Jonathan specifically with respect to 2023 or any other presidential elections.
The first is that if he contests and wins, and hardly anyone else has a better chance than he now, then he would be sworn-in as president three times, which is against the very intent of this section. If, on the other hand, he is barred from contesting, then it means that the law has been applied retrospectively, since it came to force long after he had left office. That will amount to injustice.
But I leave the rest of the argument to more competent persons and authorities. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court, hopefully all the way to the Supreme Court. It will settle this question for the foreseeable future and strengthen our constitution. And more than that, for me, it will also be enjoyable.