Why it Pays to Criticise the President By Sabella Abidde
Why do you constantly criticise President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration?” is one of the questions I am often asked. And especially for Nigerians who hail from the Niger Delta, they cannot get over the fact that “an Ijaw man is criticising another Ijaw man when you should have joined forces with him…supported him and reaped financial rewards.” The Ijaw are even more critical. They view my criticism of the President as an abomination, a betrayal. The good news is that such voices are in the minority. The majority understand the role and place of critics.
But having left the President out of my essays in recent weeks, the original queries and scolding have abated. The new line of queries, from all the geopolitical zones, goes like this: “You no longer criticise Jonathan, have you been settled or promises made to settle you…are you now working for him?” How do you deny or refute such insinuations and allegations?
However, if this or any President ever offers me a role in his or her government, I would give it a serious thought. It may not seem so to many, but really, public service is a noble and honourable calling. Even so, whether I would take the offer or not is something else.
Those who think that my criticism of this President is uncalled for, hence treasonable, do not know what they are talking about. I criticise President Jonathan, not because I hate him or his government, but because it is my duty and responsibility as a citizen of this country to see that it does not tumble off the cliff, disintegrate or roam aimlessly in the Sahara Desert. In fact, all citizens should feel this way.
What I will not do is what some Nigerians are doing: Praise the President in public but virulently criticise him in private; chastise his critics and perceived political enemies in public, yet privately provide the armour and ammunition with which to destroy him. This, in my opinion, is the worst form of hypocrisy and betrayal.
Can a critic be a true and honest critic and in service of the people and still be a true and honest friend to the President? Should you criticise the President in public and then dine with him in private? These are some of the questions some of Jonathan’s friends and supporters must answer. As Theresa Ugwuanyi, a noted public intellectual, just pointed out, “you don’t talk while eating.” Talking and eating are what many Jonathan’s devotees have been doing. This duplicity has been costly to him and his administration. Jonathan, as with any other president, deserves nothing but the truth – the truth he is being shielded from from his army of loyalists.
And the truth is that there are too many things wrong with our country. For example, the availability of human needs is at an all-time low; public confidence in government is awful; corruption and related ill are asphyxiating the nation; and governing institutions are weaker than at any time in our modern history. Within and outside of the continent, a once glorious nation –the doyen of the Black world –has now become a joke, the laughing stock of infantile and non-infantile nations. How did this all happen? What was the genesis?
Whether this or future presidents hate criticism or not, no one should be silent if they believe that Jonathan is making moves that may violate the national interest of the state and the people. No one should be silent if governors and ministers are abusing their offices. No one should look the other way when public officials are acting roguish.
And for that matter, no Nigerian should tolerate the personalisation of public office and the rule of law. No one! Silence and indifference have a price – a very hefty price. As a result, no one should cooperate with those who commit political, economic or social crimes. Speak out and speak up! Demand accountability! Demand justice. Challenge authority! And criticise!
The US Senator J. W. Fulbright it was who said, “Criticism may embarrass the country’s leaders in the short run but strengthen their hands in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” Winston Churchill chipped in: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”
Nonetheless, how to draw the line between “personal insults,” “political attacks,” and “criticism” is one of the challenges of politics and public life. However, we cannot have a society where we cannot criticise our leaders. We cannot! There has been no such society anywhere in the world since the beginning of human civilisations.
Kings, emperors, emirs, presidents, military generals and governors and all those involved in public life and public service are subject to and should be criticised. Otherwise, what we will end up having, at the very least, is group think and a robotic culture; and at worst, sycophancy, anarchy, and a stagnant society.
Leadership is strictly voluntary. No one forced or forces anyone to be chairpersons of their local government areas, be the president or the governor of their respective states. Those who are afraid of criticism, therefore, should get out of the room and the leadership space. In other words, anyone who loathes criticism – and even abuses and attacks – should stay out of politics and public service and instead join the monastery. “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing,” said Aristotle.
It is so unfortunate that any criticism of Jonathan, even when it is well-intentioned, is seen, by his friends and supporters, as a personal attack, an insult to the President’s person and office. Or, as an attempt to embarrass his office.
In all of this, I wonder: Will the day ever come when President Jonathan does not take criticism personally and believe that such comments are poison-laced arrows directed at his intellect and ethnicity?
But of course this is also the case with state governors – many of whom feel that nothing negative should be said or written about them even when what’s being said and written are the gospel truth.
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