How Goodluck Jonathan’s humble beginnings and thirst for knowledge is inspiring a new Niger Delta and may be the way forward to helping Nigeria reach its potential for greatness
Written by Lolade Adewuyi
“We would like to be like President Goodluck Jonathan” is the expression on the faces of Odioko Edafe and Wosu Ernest, both final year students in the department of Animal and Environmental Biology, AEB, at the University of Port Harcourt when they met this writer last week. When both 22 year-olds entered for their course of study four years ago, none of them knew that faith had brought them to a path walked 33 years ago by no less a person than Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The department of Zoology, as it was known until 1997, was believed to only prepare students for work as teachers and civil servants, jobs that many of today’s young people look down on. But the rise to the topmost position in the country by a “thoroughbred” product of the department has brought renewed faith in students with many now envisioning themselves walking such a path to future greatness.
“No matter what you study in school, you can become what you want to attain in life. Violence and militancy is not the best way to go about our future, education is the key to success,” says Edafe stating the optimism that has grown among students. “I see positivity, I see progress and I see change. In the company of my friends I’m proud to say that the number one citizen of this country studied the same course that I am studying,” says Ernest. Teachers say that this new optimism among the students body has made their affairs more manageable. “Our students now look forward to earning degrees with a focus on responsible future leadership just like their hero Jonathan, a man who was once like them,” says William Wodi, the institution’s public relations officer.
The journey to relevance for Jonathan began as a 20 year-old in 1977 when he was chosen among a group of pioneer students to enrol in the newly established university. Just over 400 students were privileged to be in that first set and Jonathan took his place as a student in the department of Zoology under Canadian teacher C Bruce Powell, the man who laid the foundations for the course. Powell, hailed as a major influence on the President’s academic excellence as he later supervised his master’s and doctorate theses, had scoured the length and breadth of the region looking for intelligent students to begin his course after he was contracted from the University of Ibadan by pioneer vice chancellor Donald Ekong. The classes began at Choba Park, a village about 40 kilometres away from the city centre. The classrooms, that still stand today, looked more like those of a technical school and less like a university’s. Jonathan and his mates lived at swampy Aluu Village, a trekking distance from Choba. Many times they went to school with their mattresses in tow because their lodging in Aluu was always flooded. The experience of the early days was not palatable.
But with focus on the future, Jonathan and his set held on to their dreams of achieving degrees in the heady decade after the Civil War. In August 1979, war hero and then military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo came to lay the foundation stone for the construction of a proper faculty building for the sciences named Ofrima Building. Jonathan and his classmates watched as the boisterous young soldier put cement and stones together while bantering on with staff members. Perhaps it was the closest the young man from humble beginnings in Otueke, a fishing community in Ogbia, would have ever thought of coming to power. Such was his quiet nature that if students were to be listed for future exploits, the unassuming Ebele would not have made the top ten.
But he had leadership qualities in him says Aduabobo Ibitoru Hart, his colleague when they had their masters programme and now professor and departmental head at the AEB. He is described as kind, soft spoken, very quiet and hardworking, a man who was always willing to lend a helping hand. Hart says he was so helpful that she used to take along her five children to his house in Rumuokwuta whenever they had papers to work on and he never complained. Instead, he entertained the little ones. When he became a public figure, Hart’s children would exclaim, “Mummy, look at the uncle you used to take us to his house.”
Hart recalls how, when they had to defend a joint paper at a Fisheries Society of Nigeria conference in 1985, Jonathan took the mantle of leadership and presented the lecture in front of the highly learned audience. “We were still young academics then and it was such a big deal to stand up in front of so many learned people from all over the country and talk about your research as well as answer questions. But he decided to do it on our behalf and they were really impressed. I saw in him leadership potentials.”
Jonathan’s path from academics to state house wounds like a fairy tale. After his first degree at UNIPORT where he made an upper second class, he had his national service in Irese, Osun state where he taught sciences at a secondary school. He returned to the university to obtain his masters degree while also teaching Biology at then College of Education now Rivers State University of Education, RSUOE, Port Harcourt. Ikem Adiele, registrar of the university who was then secretary at the Faculty of Science while Jonathan taught there, says it was always possible to not notice the future president in a faculty meeting but he was insightful to bring to attention matters that might have been overlooked for discussion. “He was a simple officer who you could always approach and was not given to noisemaking. He was hardly noticed in the department except when it was necessary. People started realising that he was meant for greatness when he became the deputy governor of Bayelsa. I’m sure nobody thought he would have gotten that far,” says Adiele.
A former student of the president Joseph Endurance, now a lecturer at the Department of Integrated Science, RSUOE, talks about Jonathan as a very focused individual who gave no time for frivolities as a teacher. Pursuing his PhD at the time, Jonathan was always studious and made sure to encourage his students in the Systematic Zoology course to be hard working. “He was really engrossed in getting his PhD and he took his books as his only pet,” says Endurance. He drank only on occasion and was never one to keep female students close by. Endurance says his leadership style involved scolding errant students and afterwards advising them to reach their untapped potentials. It is what Endurance says has influenced his own style of teaching today. “I don’t know what my students will become tomorrow so I call them presidents and governors in class. I try to reach out to their innate greatness,” Endurance says.
The journey of Jonathan from a boy who trekked to school without shoes to the leader of Africa’s biggest country is one that has implications for the unity of a country as diverse as Nigeria. In the 1960s, Major Isaac Daka Boro led the first agitation for greater self determination for the minorities of the Niger Delta. It was a rebellion that was soon quashed. About three decades later, author and environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa led the fight for resource control. He was killed by the regime of Sani Abacha after a tribunal sentenced him and the Ogoni 8 to death. In the 2000s, agitations from the youth of the region reached its crescendo as militancy became the order of the day. After years of corrupt enrichment by leaders of the region in collaboration with multinational oil companies, young men took to arms and began a war against oil installations that disrupted the revenue generation of the country before late President Umaru Yar’Adua declared an amnesty to cease the protracted crises.
All the while, a quiet Jonathan watched and participated in the peace process from the background never calling attention to himself. After the death of his principal, he assumed the role of president and has now won a full four year term in office that will see his character as president come full circle. Perhaps it is a testament to the fact that force of arms will not solve the problems of the region but what would do it is a dialogue with the rest of the Nigerian nation. Elections in April showed massive support for the President from all over the country. Many voters who had not voted since the epoch making June 12, 1993 elections went out to vote. Aina Bamgbose, a Lagos voter told the magazine that she saw in Jonathan something different and it was the reason she decided to cast her vote after a long time of mistrust for Nigeria’s electoral system. And even in the Rivers and Bayelsa areas, Jonathan transcended political parties as he became the beautiful bride that every politician used to get votes. His picture was used by opposing candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party to shore up their image and votes. The spirit of Goodluck was embraced by all.
It is a situation that has brought about renewed hope in the whole of the Niger Delta and among Nigeria’s many minorities and in the Middle Belt. When the people see one of them, a “minority of minorities” as Endurance described Jonathan, being the leader of the country it gives hope for the Nigerian project. “It’s significant in too many ways beyond the issue of the Niger Delta,” says Henry Alapiki, professor and head of department of political and administrative studies, UNIPORT. “It should bring and promote unity and equity, peace and justice in the country. Force would never have achieved getting a minority into the office of president.” Alapiki who was a student leader during the President’s time as an undergraduate says that Jonathan’s humble background and upbringing is the most important thing responsible for his sober-minded, disciplined character. “When Jonathan said on TV that he is one of us, it is because he knows where the shoe pinches”. Like a homeboy, “he understands what it is to grow up without the luxuries of life.”
However, the task before the President is enormous to say the least. Even as many Niger Deltans expect his tenure to bring much succour to them, they also know that he is not a president for the region alone but for the whole country. “I see Jonathan looking at the whole country as his constituency. His elevation will help to stabilise the Nigerian nation because many people had begun to lose hope,” says Adiele. And in the Niger Delta, Jonathan has a greater task in order to transform the troubled and deprived region which is responsible for Nigeria’s oil wealth. Almost five trillion dollars in crude oil has been mined from the region since the black gold was first discovered in commercial quantity in Oloibiri in 1956. Yet, the region suffers from low manpower and human development index figures. Years of corruption among local chiefs in collusion with state governments and oil companies has deprived indigenes of quality living standards. “It is a very complex situation in the Niger Delta that Jonathan’s rise will not solve all the problems unless governments at all levels will have to be accountable to the people. Corruption at all levels of governance has been the bane of good governance but Jonathan believes in justice and due process. In this four year mandate, he believes he has a mission for Nigerians and he will not want to fail the nation,” says Alapiki. “The Goodluck Jonathan I know will use these four years to write his name on the sands of time. He can only hold himself responsible if he fails to deliver.”
-Goodluck Jonathan is the first alumnus to return to UNIPORT as Visitor.
-The UNIPORT alumni association built a hall for the school and named it the Goodluck Jonathan Hall.
-The President endows a prize called the Goodluck Jonathan Prize for the best graduating student in Animal and Environmental Biology worth 50,000 naira annually.
-General Olusegun Obasanjo was Visitor to UNIPORT when Goodluck Jonathan was a student.
-Fidelis Oyakhilome was the governor of Rivers State when Jonathan received his masters’ degree in 1985.
-Jonathan met his wife Patience while he was a teacher at the College of Education, Port Harcourt.
This article was first published in TELL magazine in 2011. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Follow Lolade Adewuyi on Twitter: @jololade
Views expressed are solely the author’s