Powerful and influential Jewish leaders in Jesus’s time marvelled at his powers of healing, saving and raising the dead to life. What more, Jesus’s mastery of Scriptures and his common touch with ordinary people, made the leaders ask, derogatorily, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” Let’s draw a parallel here – between Jesus and our former President Goodluck Jonathan. I do this at the risk of being accused of blasphemy. Christians believe Jesus was no ordinary man. He was flesh and blood; he could be touched, he ate food, drank water and shed tears. He bled to death at his crucification. But more than that, he was God himself come in human form. Jonathan? He was all of the former but none of the later nature of Jesus Christ. However, this is not to deny that just like “the carpenter’s son”, the son of Otuoke has seen his national and international stature grow in a short period of time.
Jonathan left his university teaching job to enter politics. And his first elective position was as deputy governor of Bayelsa state. When Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was kicked out as governor in 2005, Jonathan took over. In 2007, he became vice president after he and Umaru Yar’adua won the presidential election that year. In 2010, he became president following Yar’adua’s death. And in 2011, he won election in his own name but failed to be re-elected in 2015. He did the unthinkable by readily conceding defeat to his rival, Muhammadu Buhari. His party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that had been in power since 1999, wanted to challenge Buhari’s win in the court of law but Jonathan said no. An election victory for him wasn’t worth shedding the blood of any Nigerian, he told his party men. “I have said it before and I will continue to say and live by the fact that my ambition and, indeed, the ambition of anybody, is not worth the blood of any Nigerian.”
Yes, he had lost power but that courage of his convictions made him not only an instant elder statesman but also a citizen of the world. He became the United Nations’s troubleshooter in conflict countries and election observer on the African continent and beyond. In those positions, Jonathan has clearly eclipsed his compatriot and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who himself oversaw a transition from military dictatorship to democratic governance in 1979.
No wonder then that when he opens his mouth – something he seldom does – everybody listens. It is as the old rhyme goes: “Listen, listen! Pay good attention! For (Jonathan) has something to say.” And, indeed, he did have something to say Saturday, November 11 – the day off-season governorship elections took place in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states. Jonathan volunteered a personal position on those polls. “Basically, this is an off-season election; I get worried about off season (election) and will use this opportunity to plead with the National Assembly to block it,” he told a group of journalists. According to him, such elections are not the global best practice. “The country can elect its people at the same time like America that elects everybody at the same time,” the former president said. “If we continue with this based on our laws, there will be a time the Nigerian presidential election will be off season. Nigeria should be worried; when I say Nigerian presidential election may be off season, they may say how? It almost happened in 2007 when I was the running mate to (the) late Yar’Adua. Seven justices that presided over the case, three of them said the process should be annulled while four of them sustained it. If one had crossed over, by now the Nigerian presidential election would have been off season.”
The former president’s discomfiture with off season polls is because they are not the “world best practice.” That is to say that they are unfashionable, out of sync with realities in the world. No other country than Nigeria holds off season elections. How did they come about in the first place? To be sure, the 1999 federal constitution didn’t envisage this scenario. Elections, presidential and governorship, had been held “in season”. Until the courts began to reverse results from the ballot box. For example, Peter Obi (the same one who ran for president in 2023) contested in court the victory of Chris Ngige in the governorship election in 2003 in Anambra state. The court reversed the outcome, awarding victory to Obi and he was sworn into office in 2006, three years after the election and a year before Ngige’s first term was to end. That set off the run of off season elections that now involve eight states – Anambra, Bayelsa, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Kogi, Ondo and Osun.
The number may go up if the trend persists. However, it can be stopped by the National Assembly, the only pillar of our democracy with the power of amending the constitution to reflect emerging political patterns. It can begin by shortening the judicial adjudication of election issues. Section 285 of the 1999 constitution outlines the timeline for resolving election matters, lasting180 days, sometimes longer. The problem with this is that disputes last interminably, often well into the tenure of the office occupant whose victory is being challenged, as happened in Anambra in 2006. It should be possible for all disputes to be settled before assumption of office. This way the original election timetable of INEC will not be disrupted. And our elections will stay in-season. As for the eight states that are off-season, why can’t interim administrations be appointed to prepare them to return to the fold, as it were?
That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with off season elections if they are not allowed to become commonplace. For one, they give the electoral umpire an opportunity to test its programmes and processes ahead of the main general election. Secondly, they reduce, in principle, the costs of conducting national polls. But by and large, if we could stick to the original election timetable and not default it, why not.