By Lindsay Barrett
In recent weeks there has been a notable increase in stories appearing on the web alleging that Nigeria’s immediate past President Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan might have been implicated in acts of corrupt enrichment while he held office. It is particularly noticeable that many of these stories appear first in outlets of the so-called social media on the internet often authored by faceless anonymous reporters before being picked up and given greater credibility by the traditional media. As a consequence many of them have been regarded by Dr. Jonathan and his supporters as being unworthy of response or denial. However, one particular case, a recent allegation of the sharing of a substantial sum of money as bribes for a transaction involving a former oil minister who hails from Jonathan’s home state, has provoked a swift and angry response from the former President’s aides. This particular report has unveiled the extent to which Dr. Jonathan has been exposed to what can be described as serious harassment by the online media ever since he conceded defeat and stepped down from the Presidency. Many of the stories are couched in terms of seeming veracity and appear credible until they are carefully scrutinised. Under such scrutiny they often turn out to be based on either very flimsy evidence or sometimes no evidence at all. It has in fact become clear that a substantial proportion of these stories are being generated by persons whose major objective is to undermine Dr. Jonathan’s image rather than to find the truth. This trend raises serious questions about the role of social media and other internet based sources of information as agents of change and transformation in Nigerian politics in particular and African governance in general. The record so far tends to suggest that mischief-makers and rumour-mongers have seized the high ground of online-media reporting as far as issues affecting Dr. Jonathan are concerned.
The story of the Malabu Oil deal which provoked the harsh response from one of Dr. Jonathan’s aides recently had actually been a bone of contention in Nigeria’s oil politics long before Dr. Jonathan’s ascent to the Presidency. In fact when Mr. Dan Etete, who is said to be the proprietor of Malabu Oil was Minister of Petroleum under General Sani Abacha and the allocation of the controversial oil bloc OPL 245 was initiated questions were raised about the propriety of the transaction. These were substantially challenged and resolved to the extent that the Malabu entity was granted ownership of the oil bloc after Etete had left his ministerial post several years ago. According to the recent story however this resolution of the matter has been challenged in an Italian court with prosecutors in that case alleging that irregular payments have been made to Etete’s company. It is in this case that it has been alleged that Dr. Jonathan and the former Minister of Petroleum in his Administration Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke have been accused of accepting bribes. However a close scrutiny of the issues before the Italian courts indicate that contrary to the impression being given by the online reports neither Dr. Jonathan nor Mrs. Alison-Madueke have been named as prominent initiators of the actions being challenged. Instead their supposed intervention in the matter appear to be something of an afterthought and the prominence being given to Dr. Jonathan’s name, which suggests that he is a major figure in the case, is totally misleading. The fact that he is a former Head of State is being used to give greater notoriety to unsubstantiated claims that are being voiced by some of Mr. Etete’s adversaries and this appears to be the only basis for dragging Dr. Jonathan’s name into the matter at all. This perception is substantially reinforced by an empirical assessment of the allegations being bandied about as a consequence of the reports emanating from the court action. A typical example of the use of innuendo rather than evidence to demean Dr. Jonathan’s name in this matter is the allegation that one Abubakar Aliyu who collected the sum of $54 million dollars from moneys paid for the oil bloc by some international oil conglomerates is “Dr. Jonathan’s agent”. Dr. Jonathan’s spokesperson has categorically denied this assertion but the widespread reporting of this dubious and unsubstantiated relationship between the former president and someone whose provenance has been improperly established has served to taint his image in the public domain without effective proof. This is a tactical ploy often used by many online reporters who realise that since legal action against them is a distant and unlikely proposition they can get away with such libelous conduct more often than not. In addition to that when the stories are repeated in traditional media the attribution of these unsubstantiated claims to another source as the primary reporter affords protection to the secondary reporter. Dr. Jonathan’s denials, appearing after the universal distribution of what is often largely nothing more than “fake news”, tends to be presented as reaction rather than clarification thus portraying him as being on the defensive. It is not far-fetched for one to assume that this perception is the precise effect that many of the initiators of such “fake news” are seeking to generate. In many cases they are promoting sensationalism rather than seeking the truth and their objective is guaranteed once they can rubbish the reputation of well-known figures like the former President of Nigeria. This is not to assert that the former President is automatically blameless, but, as his own aides pointed out in their reaction to the Malabu issue nothing has been established to render him liable to be called as a witness in the court actions that have been instituted so far and so the reporting of the issue appears to be provocative rather than revelatory. There have been several examples in the last few months of reports asserting that Dr. Jonathan or those perceived as being close to him are being targeted in investigations into irregular transactions during his tenure. However it is of particular interest that so far there has been absolutely no mention of funds being found held in his name in foreign bank accounts, nor have there been reports of any property owned by him abroad. It is highly unlikely, given the record of negative allegations being mounted against him and his erstwhile associates that such information would be withheld if it was available. This point is succinctly made by the former President’s aides in the statement of denial of culpability that has been released in response to the recent Malabu Oil court action report when they assert inter-alia that “former President Jonathan does not own any bank account, aircraft or real estate outside Nigeria. Anyone with contrary information is challenged to publicly publish same. As the President who signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan lifted the veil on governance and encouraged transparency knowing that evil breeds in secrecy. It is the opinion of the former President that journalists and media houses should take advantage of this law in their investigative journalism, rather than rely on hearsay. We hope that these clarifications will help guide future reports which should be factual.”
What remains to be seen is whether in response to Dr. Jonathan’s denial of the latest plethora of provocative reports the former President’s online tormentors will cease their harassment of him or whether they will simply up the ante and continue targeting him with reports which are largely self-indulgent attacks on his integrity.