By Sonala Olumhense
In the interest of full disclosure, let me first recall that I have inconvenienced the First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, in the past. I commented on two incidents in 2006 when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said it had twice seized vast funds from her: the first the sum of N104 million; and the second, $13.5 million.
Mrs. Jonathan did not like my writing about this subject, and as she became one of the world’s most powerful women, she took out an advertorial in the Nigerian press, threatening to sue me.
Last Sunday, Mrs. Jonathan was not breathing fire. At a thanksgiving church service, reports say she testified to the fragility of the human body, telling worshippers of her near-death experience in the months of September and October 2012.
During that time, it was common knowledge that she was out of the country, but the seat of federal power at her husband’s command did not say where she was. It was widely reported she was in poor health, but the presidency provided no official confirmation. Whatever appeared in the press about the First Lady was met with denials and rebuttals.
Mrs. Jonathan returned to Nigeria in the middle of October, having been away for about six weeks. As soon as she set foot on Nigerian soil, she tried to fortify those denials. She was never ill, she said, had never heard of the hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, to which intrepid Citizen Reporters had traced her. She had never had surgery.
Then came last Sunday, February 17, 2013, when she painted with her own tongue a harrowing picture of sickness, agony, and confrontation with death. She had indeed had eight or nine surgeries in one month, Mrs. Jonathan said, and spent seven days in what sounded like a coma. At a point, her condition was so bad that her expensive doctors even gave up on her.
“It was God himself in His infinite mercy that said I will return to Nigeria,” she said. “God woke me up after seven days.”
Every Christian knows that you do not wield the name of God in vain. When she said that God restored her to life, you could hear a collective “Amen!” sweep through Nigeria.
I want Mrs. Jonathan to know that I was responsible for one of those Amens, and many before then. Her life is sacred before God and before man, and nobody has any right to challenge it.
A new kind of clarity seems to have visited Mrs. Jonathan lately because in her testimony in that church, she demonstrated an unexpected perspective of time and chance. “I will [from now on] be doing things that will touch the lives of the less privileged,” she said. “God gave me a second chance because I reached there (that is, actually died). He knew I had not completed the assignments He gave me that was why I was sent back.”
I welcome Mrs. Jonathan back, with joy, from the Pearly Gates, and thank her for the recognition she has accorded to God for her good fortune.
The First Lady followed up her appearance at the Aso Rock Chapel with a celebration of epic proportions valued at half a billion Naira, attended by the nation’s high and mighty.
The question is how she implements her pledge to do things to improve the lives of the less-privileged, for which she considers her life on earth has been extended.
Nigeria is a land of hypocrites; a country where the less-privileged people are despised. My experience as a journalist and commentator in the last 30 years has convinced me of a certain wickedness of heart in Nigeria’s rich and powerful.
Perhaps because most of the wealth and power is often stolen, begged or borrowed, those who have it seem to hold in contempt those who are not as ruthless. Their lifestyle becomes one of lying, cheating and stealing, and the people they exploit the most are the less-privileged.
Perhaps this is Mrs. Jonathan’s mission: to bridge the gap between those who have and those who lack; between those who are overfed and those who are starving; between those who are dying and those who do not need to die.
Last Sunday morning, Mrs. Jonathan threw shame to the winds and talked candidly about her life-changing ordeal, of doctors giving up apparently because she was thought to be beyond help.
Perhaps it is Mrs. Jonathan’s destiny now to remind Nigeria that there are thousands of people every day who need help for a variety of conditions, from hunger to health.
Why? The answer is that Nigeria is the greediest nation on earth. Add that greed to our corruption and it is easy to see why economic plans and budgets and public projects are never implemented.
That is why we lack roads and hospitals and good schools. Rather than build roads, we buy jets. Rather than build hospitals, we go to Europe.
That is why we put merit next, not first. That is why we worship the wealthy, not the just. We honour the looters and ignore the diligent. We praise the loud not the humble. We ignore the planting season, and wait for the harvest.
That is how shame of being labeled the “less-privileged,” which in Nigeria means “disposable,” has arisen. It is fascinating that these are the elements Mrs. Jonathan now says she wants to help.
I can assure Mrs. Jonathan, at the risk of being sued, that I do not believe her. When she and her husband left Bayelsa State, it was with a lot of allegations, and events since then have not improved their image.
Reporting on the April 2007 election, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York referred to Mrs. Jonathan as the “greediest person in Bayelsa State,” and a woman of great cruelty.
In June 2006, NIDDEMCOW, the Niger Development Monitoring and Corporate Watch, begged the EFCC to publish its report on Mrs. Jonathan. The Commission did not.
Add to those concerns Mrs. Jonathan’s money-laundering encounters with the EFCC, which have never been transparently discharged, and it is clear her new pledge will come under exceedingly close monitoring.
But even in an era of heavy political posturing and false promises, she deserves a chance to prove that she is serious. Where political office-holders have failed, there are a thousand ways she can leave behind a special reputation as an achiever.
She can provide a lifeline to millions of Nigerian women and children who have no access to fancy hospitals; or access to education, technical training; she can disburse opportunity by the trailer load.
And if she wants help in this direction, it is right there in the thousands of top Nigerians who were at her party at the weekend.
Yet we must be clear: if Mrs. Jonathan truly wants to bless Nigeria with her second crack at relevance, she must remember that the constitution does not recognize her office as a legal person.
Motivated by the engine of her gratitude to God, she must deploy the power of her will and her own imagination and hands.
If she proves to be genuine, this I promise: whatever I am, and my own two hands.