The Good Ol’ Days
Positive reminiscences about the past are often reflective about how we feel about the present. When people speak about “the good ol’ days,” it is often because they are disappointed with the current state of affairs. Rather than constituting a mere altruistic appraisal of history, expressions of nostalgia, in their tendency toward a superlative interpretation (or even a tactical reimagining) of the events of the past, are inherently strategic. Nostalgia often provides the means for conjuring a bygone utopia as a basis for setting an agenda for the future.
News coming out of Nigeria these days is dominated by the atrocities of Boko Haram, the most widely known being the 2014 kidnapping of over two hundred girls in the town of Chibok; and the most tragic being the recent mass killings in the town of Baga. More recently, the insurgents have grown more confident, capturing towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency and how it has been handled by the Nigerian government has drawn global attention to the glaring incompetence of President Goodluck Jonathan and the seeming helplessness of his administration in dealing with the many problems that his country is facing: lack of security, chronic unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, and the near total collapse of the institution of governance.
Nigeria’s political history has been one of chaos and decline since the early years of independence when public utilities functioned slightly more efficiently and public office holders seemed better prepared for their jobs. Political leaders exuded a more civil temperament and demonstrated a greater sense of commitment towards addressing the challenge of nation building. Yet the seeds of destruction were planted in those early years, notably, in the form of nepotism and corruption. Like their counterparts of today, many politicians of the 1960s and 70s were fraudulent, stealing ten percent of contract money. Today, however, politicians and their agents may embezzle up to 200 percent of contract money when one single contract is awarded twice, contract money released twice, and the contractor vanishes without even visiting the site of the project.
Nigerians all over the world are known for their enterprise and an unusual tenacity to succeed. And there are many excellent Nigerians who would do a great job with an opportunity to lead the country. But the terrain of national politicking is corrupt, dangerous and suffocating, forcing many men and women of great ability to recoil and watch from the fringes while the nation struggles under an inept and a kleptomaniac political class.
Too Much Bloodshed
So many lives have been lost within the past five years. And while religion apparently plays a considerable role, greed, acts of political desperation and the lack of visionary leadership are some of the major reasons. In 2011, following the declaration of Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the presidential elections, an orgy of violence was let loose in the northern part of the country, allegedly by the supporters of General Buhari Mohammed, many of whom apparently thought that the election was rigged, and had hoped that their candidate would win. The victims who lost their lives were mainly college graduates enrolled in the mandatory national youth service away from home. It was not difficult for many Nigerians to link the barbaric killings to a statement allegedly made by Buhari to the effect that the nation would become ungovernable if the elections were rigged. Many felt that Buhari, who is running again at this year’s presidential election, did not strongly condemn the deadly violence or that there was a striking disconnect between his political body language and his verbal appeal for calm. Buhari’s name became an anathema nationwide, ringing with the inklings of an ethnic jingoist, a sectional leader and a polarizing figure who lacks the temperament and civility to lead the country.
All that is now history! Buhari’s name has changed rather dramatically from a scary overture to an enchanting leitmotif. It is significant that Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the southwest-based Action Congress (AC), and many disgruntled political “caterpillars and juggernauts” from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) were able to work together to form a new, much stronger opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC). It is also significant that Buhari managed to beat all the contenders, including the politically sagacious Atiku Mohammed, a former vice-president, to emerge the presidential candidate of the new party. His dramatic win speaks to the fragility of the Nigerian democratic system, notably, the amorphous identity of political parties and the money-, and power-driven pragmatic vista of Nigerian politicians.
Social media platforms have played a significant role in perpetuating the Buhari nostalgia. They are inundated with comments, both sponsored and unsponsored, debunking the alleged misdeeds of the retired general: distancing him from nepotism, the 2011 post-election killings, and the saga of the missing 53 cash-filled suitcases; defending him against the allegation that he awarded a disproportionate portion of the PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund) budget to the advantage of a particular segment of the country, and explaining that he had nothing to do with the alleged disappearance of 2.8 billion naira from the coffers of the NNPC (the government-owned oil company) during his tenure as petroleum minister. His alleged fanatical support for Sharia and his ostensive fundamentalist leanings are also dismissed as specious accusations arising from the inability, or a vindictive refusal, of critics to properly contextualize and objectively appraise actions and statements emanating from the general’s past. On the other hand, Buhari is now often credited with a record of a disciplined fiscal management and the capability to protect and maintain the territorial integrity of the country. He is portrayed as someone with the required strategy and courage to end the Boko Haram insurgency. These comments are in dramatic contrast to the anti-Buhari sentiment that pervaded the political space just over four years ago. The Buhari nostalgia now seems unstoppable.
A Failed Presidency
In analyzing the basis for the new Buhari wave, it is tempting, but would be erroneous, to suggest that Nigerians are rather too gullible or that public memory in the country is extremely short. The Buhari nostalgia has less to do with the past deeds (good or bad) of the former military dictator than with the pervading air of gloom that currently envelopes the country. It is important to highlight certain key events of the past six years and assess the state of the nation as a precondition for exploring the best options for the future of the country. I will try to do this in as few words as possible.
Akin Oyebode, a professor of international law and jurisprudence at the University of Lagos, recently responded to a rather boastful request by President Goodluck Jonathan for Nigerians to grade his performance. Oyebode grudgingly awarded a modest “let my people go” pass grade to the president. In a more recent speech posted on YouTube, the professor seems to indicate a rethink on his earlier lavish award. Perhaps he will now give a C minus or possibly a D. Oyebode’s original grade for the president was most probably given in the spirit of “I want you to work harder,” as a deliberate act of grade inflation conceived to encourage a struggling student. Taking into consideration the major indices of governance and judging from the comments made on social media networks, an award of a pass grade to the president seems ludicrous.
The inability of the Nigerian armed forces to effectively quell the Boko Haram insurgency is seen as a symptom of the failure of governance rather than a reflection of the ability of the men and women of the military. Many people believe that key military commands have not been provided with the weaponry that they need to fight Boko Haram. This in spite of the millions of dollars that the government claims to have been spending on procuring military hardware to fight the insurgency. The general thinking is that monies meant to prosecute the war have been siphoned into private bank accounts, lining the pockets of corrupt politicians.
Indeed there are some high-profile cases of alleged graft involving key personalities of the Jonathan administration that have yet to be satisfactorily investigated or resolved. These include the alleged disappearance of 20 billion dollars from the coffers of the petroleum ministry (again!), and mismanagement of funds in the aviation ministry. While the aviation minister involved was eventually sacked after much public outcry, I am not aware that that case has been properly investigated. The minister of petroleum still keeps her position though and does not seem to have responded sufficiently to the call by the national assembly to explain the circumstances surrounding the alleged missing fund.
One of the most sensational cases of graft came to light in the country three years ago when a top contractor alleged that Mr. Farouk Lawan, a prominent member of the House of Representatives ad hoc committee on petroleum subsidy, demanded a bribe from him. The contractor, in his own explanation, played along by “paying” the bribe while he secretly recorded the process of payment. That case remains unresolved. To add insult to injury, President Jonathan pardoned Ex-Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha who was jailed for embezzling public funds. That presidential absolution has cleared the way for Alamieyeseigha to vie for the Senate in the next election.
Unabated corruption provides the context for understanding the persistence of other big problems like chronic unemployment, an underfunded and a dysfunctional educational sector, a collapsing healthcare system (college professors and hospital workers go on strike regularly—at times for up to six months—to press for improved funding), and a weak supply or the lack of certain basic necessities. Electricity generation is for example at a disgracefully low level (in spite of the billions of dollars that government says it has spent on that sector), paralyzing industrial growth. There are reports that many manufacturing companies have moved out of the country to Ghana where the state of power generation is much better. Overlaying all these problems is the Boko Haram menace that I mentioned earlier, which epitomizes the woeful performance of the Jonathan presidency.
Nigerian politicians are in denial though, continuing as if life is normal and awarding fat salaries and allowances to themselves. Nigerian senators and house of representative members have been reported as being some of the highest paid parliamentarians in the world. Many Nigerians believe that an average Nigerian senator makes more money than President Obama through salaries and allowances that include a controversial constituency grant.
In the minds of many Nigerians, the image of a typical Nigerian politician is that of a bellicose and shameless pilferer with little or no regard for the people and the future of the country, driven by passionate greed, and hooked to a culture of embezzlement which, in its blatancy, approaches a form of moral obscenity.
The Dilemma of Choice
Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in literature, recently condemned President Jonathan’s reign of impunity, likening it to the era of the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar. In the same vein, Soyinka, in an article written much earlier and entitled “The Nigerian Nation against Buhari,” reminded Nigerians about the anti-democratic antecedents of Buhari. These negative verdicts on the two main presidential contestants throw into sharp relief the challenge that Nigerians face as the February 14 presidential election draws close. Yet, a choice—a difficult one indeed—has to be made on that date. In engaging the challenge of this quandary, I would like to offer a few closing remarks as follows.
Of Jonathan: I should state that his tenure has been a painful and fruitless process of hoping that things would get better. The lackluster and business-as-usual approach of his administration in the past six years offers little or no basis for a hopeful future. As a popular Yoruba adage goes, the sharpness of the blade of a hoe must match the toughness of the soil to be tilled. The political darkness enveloping the nation right now seems rather too overwhelming for President Jonathan.
Of Buhari: the disconsolate atmosphere in the country could perhaps motivate a renascence in a man whose democratic antecedents are nothing to cheer about. The question however is whether he has the capacity to transform from a widely perceived sectionalist disposition into a statesman that could lead the nation out of the woods, should he win. Time will tell!
Dr. Bode Omojola.
Professor Bode Omojola teaches at Mount Holyoke College in the United States. A former Radcliffe Institute Fellow in Musicology at Harvard University, Bode Omojola is an ethnomusicologist and a composer. He can be reached through: [email protected]