Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan was a guest of Invest Africa this morning in an event billed as a “conversation” at Bloomberg’s offices at Finsbury Square in London.
Jonathan called his speech “Democratic rule and economic development Nigeria and Africa”. It wasn’t quite clear to this reporter whether Invest Africa had invited the former president or if he was using them as a vehicle to reinvent himself.
Invest Africa, according to a flyer handed out at the event, was founded in 2013 as a platform for business leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs to gain insight and exposure to information and opportunities from Africa.
Jonathan was introduced by one of Invest Africa’s leadership team, Mark Simmonds, a former UK government minister for Africa, who claimed that he and Jonathan were living proof that there was “life after political office”.
Simmonds stressed the importance of Nigeria as the most populous country in Africa, Lagos had a larger economy than Ghana and Kenya combined, and so on. He said African leaders were judged on outcomes and, with their strong presence on social media, Nigerians deserved nothing better than leaders that delivered. He praised Jonathan for being a “democratic role model” in supervising relatively free and fair elections and a peaceful transition.
Jonathan’s speech was a bit of a ramble and characteristically low-key. He spoke how he had spent a lot time reflecting since leaving office and it has been a “key learning process”. He recounted how he made the phone call to Muhammadu Buhari to concede defeat after the election, claiming this was “unprecedented in Nigeria”. His goal was that no one should die from his political ambition and no conflict should arise.
He went on to wonder whether people may think that his “proudest achievement was not winning” the election. He next claimed successes in spearheading “democracy efforts” in Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc.
He revealed that he has established the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation to “galvanise action towards improving” African societies.
Jonathan went on to claim achievements in fighting corruption in agriculture subsidies (via what he called “e-wallets”) and in the petroleum industry. He said he “boosted food production and saved 1tn naira [$5bn]” in food imports.
The former president also claimed that his efforts to deregulate the petroleum industry were derailed by politics.
He then segued into the need for a “Bill of Rights” for Nigeria to allegedly “end discrimination and tribalism and promote equality.” He seemed genuinely oblivious that the constitution already has provisions that outlaw discrimination. Jonathan threw in a Cicero quote in Latin “civis romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”), claiming, to much laughter, that it would be wonderful if there was a “civis Nigerianus sum” in which all Nigerians were treated the same regardless of ethnicity. His proposed “Bill of Rights” was meant to bring such a dream to reality.
Senator Ben Murray Bruce, who represents Jonathan’s constituency in Bayelsa State, said afterwards that he will introduce such a bill in the Senate.
Jonathan’s speech was pretty much as expected from him – music to the ears of the converted, but uninspiring to neutrals, and he seemed a bit nervous at the start, fumbling with his file, not sure what to do with it, and ending up leaving it on the floor. Perhaps, the reduced circumstances of having to carry your own file was something he needed to get used to.
He sort of found his feet during the short question and answer session after the speech. He was asked about the ban on same sex marriage which he signed into law, and he managed to dodge that minefield, considering sensitivities in the country in which he was speaking. He was also asked how the so-called Bill of Rights would be respected in a country in which those in power ignore a constitution that contains similar fundamental rights. He responded that the bill would include punishment for failure to comply.
On whether he had any regrets from his time in power, he said vaguely that time and circumstances meant he didn’t achieve what he wanted to achieve. He claimed he tried his best in those circumstances to do what was right, but he may have “failed to do what I believe as a leader should be done”. But even though he failed, he tried to do what was right.
If Jonathan wants to make a career out of public speaking, he would need to take lessons from experts to improve his communication skills and he may need better speechwriters -although the material they would have to work with may be weak considering his record in office.
But he seemed to engage well with the audience during the Q&A, even though it had to be said that the crowd, which was well screened, was friendlier, reserved, and not with the usual boisterousness you expect from a gathering of Nigerians. The man relaxed a bit more when not reading his prepared text and came across better for it. Maybe next time, he should ditch the speech and just go straight to an interactive session.
“A conversation with Goodluck Jonathan” would have been a lot better if it was a proper discussion with the audience.