Let me be clear: whether “Continuity” or “Change” carries the day on February 14, the real name of the thing behind the verbal mask will be—“More of the same.” I have shouted myself hoarse making this point, that Nigerians have been offered a hoax in the form of two canards. And we, though we ought to know better, are buying it.
We have a pathetic, failed president and his misnamed Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) trumpeting airy policies as evidence of transformation, and demanding that we renew our relationship with their brand of woe for another four years. And then we have the APC, which in many ways resembles a branch of the PDP, presuming to represent a rupture, a departure, fundamental change. And the rest of us, who ought to have been wizened by harsh experience to discern duplicity—whatever its disguise—are fervently falling for a dud.
What’s even more disturbing, many of us have fallen in line behind either the PDP and its certifiably failed candidate or the APC and its questionable man without first asking tough questions. And our fervency has led us to all kinds of absurd claims.
On the Internet, many of Mr. Jonathan’s social media warriors don’t bother any more to make the case that their man has been a superlative achiever. Instead, they are content to troll the line that, mediocre as he is, he remains a better bet than Mr. Buhari. Those championing the APC’s candidate project him as a magician capable of waving a wand—and pronto, Islamist insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast would disappear. And, while at it, Mr. Buhari would also uproot corruption.
We have permitted both parties to parrot unverified claims, and we have not taken the time to scrutinize them. It’s hard to imagine any election in Nigeria’s history that has been more consequential than this year’s. I can’t think of one in which the stakes have been higher. Yet, we have been quite willing to bumble into it all rather blind, indeed willfully so. We have not insisted on a serious debate. And I don’t mean merely the formal, staged debate that’s often dominated by sound bites, susceptible to manipulation by well-coached candidates.
I have in mind a more rigorous, sustained debate. It is the demand that each party use every campaign stop as an occasion to differentiate itself, to focus on some aspect of Nigeria’s development impediments or structural deformations, and offer a set of prescriptions. Little of this sort of differentiation has taken place in a campaign season marked by cheap, sophomoric name-calling. Call me naïve if you wish, but I had thought that this was one election where Nigerians would insist, at minimum, on programs that are carefully thought through, and—better still—on hearing from political parties about their commitment to a bolder plan for addressing the systemic, structural defects that have bedeviled Nigeria and derailed its promise.
Instead, like the terribly besotted, we not only stood around and watched, enrapt, as members of our two “main” parties (or what I call two factions of the same party), hurled invectives at each other; more than that, we lent ourselves as manufacturers or second-hand circulators of these facile insults. Where we should have called for debates, we settled for being entertained by politicians bereft of ideas, but versed in the art of taking cheap shots.
In this electoral cycle, no segment of the Nigerian population has been more wretched, in my view, than the broad class of the educated. That the ideologically confused APC, with its huge segment of disaffected PDP “thieftains,” was able to usurp the mantle of “change” is an indictment on the failure (or laziness) of the young, enlightened Nigerians who should have seized the moment.
And what role has this segment played? It’s played cheerleader either for the PDP or APC. It’s bombarded the Internet with the kind of noise calculated to terrorize thought. It has not exposed the fact that the free bandying of abuse is a well-known strategy in politics, the recourse of politicians and political parties with no substance to offer. Whatever happens in February, it’s certain that obfuscation, opacity and lip service to “transformation” or “change” will mark Nigeria’s political game for at least another four years.
Which is a real pity. Nigeria has close to thirty registered political parties. How, then, did we manage to put ourselves in this bind where it’s either the PDP or the APC? How did we arrive at this moment where our electoral choice is reduced either to staying put in the frying pan or electing to hop into the fire?
Clearly, Mr. Jonathan has been overwhelmed by the demands of running a country as complex as Nigeria. From the outset, I had entertained a dose of doubt about the man’s mettle and preparedness for the task. In truth, mediocrity had been the defining feature of Mr. Jonathan’s political career—as a deputy governor, governor, vice president and acting president. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo must be named as the chief villain in all of this. For it was he who designed the scheme that put the destiny of Nigeria in the hands of a deathly sick Umaru Yar’Adua and a certifiably confounded Jonathan.
I’m troubled that the same Obasanjo, a man who as president set records in impunity, mischief and hypocrisy, has maneuvered himself into the role of kingmaker—for the ostensible candidate of “Change,” Mr. Buhari.
I’m not one to argue that there’s no difference between Jonathan and Buhari. There are. Each man will bring certain personal traits and values to bear on their presidency. But those personal stamps will only go so far in a political culture where the unifying ethic is primitive accumulation, the contemptible privatization of public funds. Buhari may bring his famed ascetic style to the Presidency, but he has not convinced me that he has the foggiest idea how to confront the monster of corruption in Nigeria. And especially, when some of the greediest monsters (who are too clever to buy into a suicide scheme) are embedded with him, raising his hand and proclaiming him the answer.
In the end, the best Mr. Buhari can offer may be a personal example of refraining from looting. But that won’t be enough. There will be many wolves around him to wolf what he declines to take. And where does that leave us?
I long came to the sad conclusion that it doesn’t matter who—between Jonathan and Buhari—wins on Valentine’s Day. Until the idea of Nigeria is restructured in a fundamental way, until the most enlightened and visionary elements learn to seize their country and the moment, things, I’m afraid, are bound to remain the same.
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