By Samuel Malik
“The final reason behind GIFT 2015 is that we love President Goodluck Jonathan, and we insist that he is the best option for Nigeria for now and must be encouraged to run again in 2015. So we as a body are doing everything possible to make sure he contests, and we will campaign and get votes for him to ensure he wins at the polls during the elections” – Chinedu Okpalanma, National Coordinator, Goodluck Initiative For Transformation, GIFT 2015
When #iStandWithBuhari, an organisation that claims to support President Muhammadu Buhari’s government and his anti-corruption campaign, surfaced in January 2016, a lot of young Nigerians signed up to it in line with the desire to make a change in the country.
What many of them did not know is that the man behind #iStandWithBuhari and its Director General, Chinedu Okpalanma, is a die-hard pro – Goodluck Jonathan hustler who founded and coordinated the Goodluck Initiative For Transformation, GIFT 2015, and worked tirelessly for his re – election in the last general polls.
Just like he did for Jonathan with the March in March rally in 2014 Okpalanma, through #iStandWithBuhari, is now getting ready for another march in March tagged 9 Million Nigerians Affirmative March in March, this time in support of Buhari.
Okpalanma was so vocal in his support for the re-election of Jonathan that he threatened to relocate to Otuoke, hometown of the former President if he refused to contest the 2015 presidential election.
“lf the President says he will not contest, then he will have to make provisions on how to accommodate 10 million Nigerians who will follow him back to Bayelsa, me inclusive because we will have no option but to follow him back to his village if he doesn’t say yes to our request,” he said in interview with Montage Africa.
To show that he was not joking, Okpalanma gave Jonathan a deadline of April 30, 2014 to announce his interest in seeking re-election, threatening to mobilise Nigerians for a “mother of all rallies like has never been seen before anywhere in the world.”
“From all over Nigeria and Diaspora, representatives have been pouring into our offices to applaud us for the success of the march in March and identify their willingness to join the 30th April rally. I’m talking close to 10 million Nigerians who are saying they will converge in Abuja on the 30th of April, and they will not leave until Mr President declares. People have told us they will come with their mattresses, pillows, mats, cooking utensils, and they will shut down the city and will remain here until the President declares,” he stated.
Okpalanma’s interview came off the back of a huge rally, March in March Project, put together by GIFT 2015, an organisation he founded with the sole aim of getting Jonathan re-elected. According to him, the President had little choice, as Nigerians had already made the decision for him to continue in office.
“The march in March project was held on Monday 31st March in Abuja to show him that the decision is no more in his hands because we as the people of Nigeria are insisting that he must continue in office to finish what he started. You can’t effect proper transformation in 4 years,” he noted.
A 2014 investigation by Daily Trust newspaper showed that there were 161 pro-Jonathan billboards in Abuja, with GIFT accounting for 30 of them.
So strong and vocal was GIFT’s support for Jonathan that it adapted the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to #BringBackGoodluck2015. This bizarrely and ill-thought campaign was condemned both within and outside Nigeria, forcing the President to order its removal.
In an interview with the icirnigeria.org, the Anambra State – born production engineer said his support for the two leaders was born out of patriotism for Nigeria, adding that just like he never met the former president, he is not desirous of Buhari noticing or endorsing him.
“We are interested in the character of the President (Buhari) not his person and that is why we are not interested in him knowing us.
“I supported Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election bid because I felt he was the right president for Nigeria,” he said. “I never collected a dime from him. In fact, I never met him.”
According to him, a series of revelations, among which were allegations of huge amounts of money exchanging hands among Jonathan’s campaign team and the case against Sambo Dasuki, former National Security Adviser, NSA, to Jonathan opened his eyes to the corruption in the last administration and switched him over to Buhari’s side.
“I became totally won over with Dasukigate. I had thought, like many Nigerians, that it was a witch-hunt but when individuals started confessing that they collected money from the former National Security Adviser, I became convinced that about the President’s anti-corruption campaign,” he confessed.
“How could somebody misappropriate over $2 billion meant for arms procurement? Do you know what that money could have done in the war against insurgency?” Okpalanma queried.
So far, #iStandWithBuhari, according to Okpalanma, has over six million registered members from Nigeria, London, France, Italy, Holland, China, Ireland, South Africa, Cameroon, United States, etc.
Despite running several adverts, getting branded cars, customised gift items and a posh office at Ademola Adetokunbo Crescent, Wuse 2 in the Federal Capital City, FCT, the organisation has denied collecting money from politicians. It insisted that it runs on donations from members and royalties from printed t-shirts.
“We raise money within ourselves and also get N100 royalty from each printed t-shirt with our brand, #iStandWithBuhari. For instance, a printer in Kaduna printed 1, 000 t-shirts, while two in Kano and Jigawa States printed 400 pieces each.
“We don’t want to collect money from politicians, even though many are willing to fund us, as we are mindful of the war against corruption. We don’t want a situation where we are accused of collecting money from people that will later be probed or prosecuted,” the political campaigner said.
Despite strong reservations about the sincerity of the group from Nigerians, among them social commentators and supporters of Buhari, Kayode Ogundamisi and Gimba Kakanda, Okpalanma is not perturbed.
According to Kakanda in a column in the Premium Times, there is not much difference between #iStandWithBuhari and Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria, TAN, a group that was virtually the campaign team of Jonanthan.
“Between TAN and #iStandWithBuhari, I don’t see any difference. If anything, TAN and YEAA (Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha, a similar Abacha – era campaigner) pursued justifiable interests, the electoral capitals of their principals. Theirs were sycophancy with a defined purpose.#iStandWithBuhari, happening months after the elections, for, as one of them argued, the defence of an elected leader, who has the military and the para-military institutions and the civil service at his beck and call, isn’t only sycophantic but unessential.
“They are a collective of ambitious partisans desperate for relevance. If indeed the partisans need such profligate movement to get Buhari working, it means they don’t even trust the man. Which is ironic,” he said.
For Ogundamisi, Nigerians should apply caution to prevent being used for some selfish gains. In a series of twits that had lots of support on Twitter, he pointed out that the President’s victory at the poll showed that Nigerians already stand with him. He advised the group to deploy its resources to informing the government about the current realities on ground.
“Muhammadu Buhari is the symbol of a collective will of our people to change #Nigeria the #iStandWithBuhari campaign is #TAN rebirth & wrong,” the activist said.
Despite the backlash caused by the revelations about his identity, Okpalanma is not giving up and said the March rally would go on.
“All of us may have had our different political inclinations in the past, but we are doing this for Nigeria. On 31st March 2016, I will march on the streets with my family to tell the world that I support President Buhari’s fight against corruption and that I believe his government means well for Nigeria.
“This is my personal conviction and belief, and as long as the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria confers on me the rights to freely associate & choose at all times, I have made my choice and I will stand by it,” he said.
The Presidency declined commenting on the #iStandWithBuhari campaign and its activities. When asked if President Buhari knew about or supported the organisation, Senior Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, simply said “No comment”.