I received a slew of responses to last week’s column which I titled “A Case For Abolishing Nigeria’s ‘Democracy.’” Most of the reactions came as emails, but there were a few phone calls as well. The most interesting response was from an anonymous caller. He wanted to discuss my argument that President Goodluck Jonathan was fundamentally ill-equipped to fix Nigeria’s crises.
“You made a very powerful point there,” the man said, before insisting that I did not go far enough. “The issue goes beyond the current president. In fact, it almost doesn’t matter who becomes president of Nigeria in the current circumstances, the result will be the same. Nigeria is arranged in a manner to ensure failure. Regardless of who is at the top, the culture of failure will continue to thrive.”
I usually don’t accept calls from blocked numbers, but I was intrigued by this particular caller’s insight – he identified himself as “a person who knows how things work in government.”
I agreed with him that the trouble was not Mr. Jonathan as such, but a deeper systemic disease. Still, I contended that the Nigerian presidency offers expansive powers and lends itself to imperial manipulation. For one, I reminded the caller, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo summoned the police and army to serve his often illicit designs, including massacres of innocents in Odi and Zaki Biam and the sacking of former Governor Rashidi Ladoja of Oyo State. If presidential powers could be wielded for ill, then what stopped Mr. Jonathan from using the same office to do extraordinary good?
“But you have to ask yourself, what was the man’s record before he became president?” the caller asked.
“Unimpressive,” I said. “And I’ve made that point in the past. Nothing distinguished him as a governor or vice president.”
“But you now suddenly expect him to do wonders?” the caller queried.
Not wonders, no, I said defensively. In fact, the president has turned out to be what I expected – and worse. But there was a part of me that somehow hoped that he would find a formula to outwit his past, to become the success story that nobody had any right to expect him to be, given his uninspiring record.
My (vain) hope was fueled, above all, by Mr. Jonathan’s “histories.” The first facet of this history has to do with the deprived circumstances of his upbringing. During his presidential campaigns, the man himself made much of his shoeless childhood. One somehow expected that a man sprung from such a dismal past would have a remarkable capacity for empathy. I expected – perhaps, hoped is the right word – that he would instinctively identify with the plight of more than 80% of Nigerians who today live his dire past.
I also had my sights on the president’s broader history. One hoped that, as the first president to emerge from the Niger Delta area, Mr. Jonathan would be acutely aware of, and attentive to, his country’s developmental woes. The president’s region, after all, is a study in cruel irony. On the one hand, it’s Nigeria’s oil-producing hub; on the other, it is perhaps the country’s most economically depressed region. Even if the president did not have the temperament, inclination or vision to be a sane, sensible leader, perhaps there would be people close to him from his immediate region to nudge him (push, if need be) to reform a few things.
Alas, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, Mr. Jonathan quickly settled into the familiar habit of Nigerian rulers, concerned with personal privileges. The former shoeless kid now scoffs at the idea of spending only 1.3 billion naira on presidential meals. And he just approved the expenditure of 2.2 billion naira to build a new banquet hall for his Olympian feasts! The child who grew up without a car did not hesitate to add to the number of jets in the presidential fleet. The poverty-ravaged youngster of yesterday now gallivants in spectacular wealth, but has done nothing to address unemployment and poverty in his country.
“Look at those who surround the president,” he challenged, then paused for effect. “Name one individual who sees the president on a daily basis who can be called a visionary.” He allowed another telling pause, then drove home his point. “It’s possible that President Jonathan wants to achieve a lot for himself, for the South-South, and for Nigerians as a whole. But when you’re surrounded by people who won’t give you good advice, what can you do? And I can tell you that these same people around the president try very, very hard to shield him from hearing the truth. For example, if you manage to get through to the president and you offer him sound advice, that’s the last time his advisors will ever allow you anywhere near the man. That’s why any Nigerian leader – whether governor or president – operates in the dark about the realities on the ground. Those around them actually tell them that they’re doing a fantastic job.”
“And they believe it?” I asked.
“Why not?” the caller said. “After all, that’s what they hear on a daily basis from those who come close to them.”
“How about all the criticism in the press? All the hue and cry in the streets?”
“Again, what the president hears from his people is that the press and other critics are being used by political opponents. They’re told that the silent majority is solidly behind them.”
It was a portrait of the Nigerian ruler as a prisoner of sorts to his mischievous advisers, men and women driven by a hunger to feather their nests by misleading their boss. But whose fault is it in the first place? Does anybody force a governor or the president to choose rogue advisers? Did Mr. Jonathan – like his predecessors – not go out of his way to cultivate the company of advisers versed in singing the tune he loves to hear?
At the end of the call, I was more convinced than ever that Nigerians can no longer afford the expensive toy that’s been mislabeled “democracy.” The Nigerian house, to echo Karl Maier, has fallen – and it requires sustained radical, visionary action to fix it. After more than 12 years, there’s no sign that the “democratic” apparatus has a clue how to begin addressing the country’s basic problems (for example, passable roads and toilet facilities). And yet, Nigeria must confront deeper, perennial crises in other sectors. These include a profound pollution of values; a largely collapsed education system; a healthcare system that’s a mockery of humans; an absence of a minimum understanding of what it means to be a Nigerian citizen; a festering sense of insecurity created by the rampant, unchecked use of violence; and the rising rates of unemployment – compounded by the production of hundreds of thousands of graduates who are unemployable.
Those who run Nigeria’s “democracy” are too concerned with what they can put away in their guts to conceive viable answers to these crises. That’s why I insist, again, that the country needs a different path: the enthronement of a class of technocrats willing to fix a troubled edifice.
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