Originally appeared in NEXT in October 2010, after President Jonathan tried to absolve MEND of responsibility for the October 1 (Independence Day) bombings in Abuja.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, MR. PRESIDENT
By Tolu Ogunlesi
In 1939, at the beginning of the 2nd World War, the British Ministry of Information printed more than 2 million copies of a poster that bore the words KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, as one of a set of three posters designed to inspire a weary British public in the event of a German invasion. Today those words are famous – in Britain at least – despite the fact that the posters were never eventually distributed to the public.
Today, those words are sorely needed on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the weekend, the man we assumed was our President, who only a few weeks ago moved us with lofty words of hope, and a vision of transformation, shot himself in the foot and then put the bloody foot in his mouth.
When, in the aftermath of the October 1 blasts the President insisted on absolving the alleged perpetrators of responsibility, in that instant he ceased to be the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and became something much smaller.
In April, after an ailing President Yar’Adua played host to Islamic clerics in Aso Rock, I wrote (in this column): “When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-religious country chooses to secretly reveal himself only to Islamic clerics, five weeks after being smuggled into the country, one begins to wonder if he’s actually the president, or merely the overrated leader of a shadowy Islamic sect.
Today, sadly, I am compelled to apply a modified version of those words to Mr. Yar’Adua’s successor.
“When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-ethnic country chooses to transform himself into the spokesperson of a regional militant group with an incontrovertible reputation for violence, one begins to wonder if perhaps it isn’t time to acknowledge the fact that there is indeed a vacancy in the Presidential Palace.
Mr. Jonathan was quoted as saying: “What happened yesterday was a terrorist act and MEND was just used as a straw; MEND is not a terrorist group… It is erroneous to think that my people who have been agitating for good living will deliberately blow up the opportunity they have now.”
With those embarrassing words Mr. President missed out on an amazing opportunity to use the tragedy to send a powerful message to the Nigerian people; a message of comfort, a rallying cry to unite against shedders of blood and enemies of progress.
Imagine if the President had gone on air immediately (his speech accompanied by translations into all major Nigerian languages) and paid tribute to all the lives sacrificed in the name of Nigeria since 1960: including, but not limited to, Biafra’s war dead; the thousands who have died in religious crises in the last three decades; even the five persons who died when MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty in July 2009 (the same MEND that the President would like us to believe are meek as lambs and innocent as babies). Imagine if the President had sought to weave a sober narrative of hope and unity and righteous anger from the sorrow, tears and blood.
But no, instead of rising to the demands of the moment, Mr. Jonathan panicked, and sank, dragging the entire nation with him. The incident momentarily stripped him of his presidential garb and wrapped him in the gaudy garments of a ‘tribal’ chieftain.
Now I will leave the in-depth debate about ‘whether it was MEND or not’ for another time. My concern in this piece is less with ‘whodunit?’, than with ‘whatcanwelearn?’ You and I know that blowing Abuja up is hardly the most challenging task in a country where whole ships are liable to go missing, and where the original copy of the report of a probe into the disappearance of $12 billion can vanish without trace.
And for those who, like the President, insist that it was impostors using the name of MEND, I say ‘what have you been smoking?’ MEND has never been known to be silent. Jomo Gbomo – whoever he/she/they/it might be – may be guilty of many things, but tongue-biting is certainly not one of them.
If MEND is indeed being ‘impersonated’, why isn’t the real MEND proclaiming its innocence to the highest heavens. Shaped as my generation has been by conspiracy series like ‘24’ and movies like ‘Salt’, perhaps we should be willing to concede to the possibility that the entire senior hierarchy of the real MEND has been kidnapped, is being held incommunicado, and is hence unable to defend itself. Anything is indeed possible in a country whose President panics in the most public of ways.
The first victory of Friday’s attackers was to blow Abuja up. The second victory was to cause Mr. Jonathan to blow himself up (Words as WMDs?) – in panic, I insist – and to severely damage our confidence in his ability to be the strong leader Nigeria needs.
Let me warn him: he will be tested again. The least he can do in preparation is to learn from this incident. The buck will stop, as always, at his table. Nigeria needs a Commander-in-chief, not a Panicker-in-power.
(c) Tolu Ogunlesi 2015