I have often argued that the entire Nigerian political machinery that bears the name “government” is little more than an arrangement to enable a few individuals to mindlessly loot the resources of the larger collectivity.
This argument has been eloquently illustrated in several ways this current electioneering cycle. Let’s look at some of the anecdotal evidence.
First, there’s the postponement of the elections for six weeks. Here’s a short synopsis of how that event transpired. First, National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki, went to Chatham House in London to declare that he had advised the Independent National Electoral Commission to postpone the elections. According to the NSA, the case for postponement rested on two planks. One was the poor distribution of permanent voter cards, with thirty million such cards lying in INEC’s various offices across the country, uncollected. The other was the security unease in the country’s northeast zone.
Many Nigerians hastened to portray Mr. Dasuki’s suggestion as a partisan attempt to give some air to President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign tottering, deflated campaign. There’s no question that the eventual postponement served Mr. Jonathan. The president’s campaign seemed to have little momentum and traction. He seemed to reel, a panting political boxer whose back was against the ropes, guards down, as the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) pummeled his torso.
I was appalled that Mr. Dasuki failed to see the sad neo-colonial mindset implicit in his choice of a think tank in the UK to make a public case for postponing the elections. Even so, his central contention—that the elections were not viable, with 30 voters yet to pick up their biometric voter cards—made eminent sense.
Mr. Dasuki’s call to postpone the elections triggered such a deafening decibel of partisan bickering that few people were able to pay attention to the NSA’s other remarkable pronouncements. Speaking in an uncharacteristically undiplomatic tone, Mr. Dasuki had accused some Nigerian soldiers deployed against Islamist insurgents, Boko Haram, of cowardice. “Unfortunately we had a lot of cowards, so there was a problem in the recruitment process,” the NSA, who is a retired colonel, told his audience in London. According to a BBC report, he accused some soldiers of “[giving] every excuse in this world not to fight.” In an obviously testy mood, he warned, “If you don't want to fight, it's not your fault, get out of the army.”
These were strong, direct words. In effect, he repudiated the oft-repeated argument that the soldiers were ill equipped, poorly armed for the assignment of combating Boko Haram. Mr. Dasuki noted that how fleeing soldiers often surrendered large caches of weapons to the Islamist fighters. How could soldiers with such weapons claim they were inadequately armed, he argued?
As the debate inspired by the NSA’s Chatham address raged, Nigeria’s security chiefs echoed him. If the elections began on February 14 as they had been scheduled, they said, then their services would be in no position to guarantee security around the country. However, if the election dates were shifted by six weeks, the Nigerian armed forces said they would have enough time to dislodge Boko Haram fighters from their entrenched locations throughout the northeast. In the end, INEC was compelled to move the elections to March 28 and April 11, 2015.
The whole messy deal, I suggest, buttresses my opening contention: the dominant ethic that shapes Nigeria’s public space is the empowerment of a few gluttonous parasites who hijack the resources of the state.
Both INEC and Nigeria’s security apparatuses knew, four years ago, that elections were coming in 2015. What then explains INEC’s sloppy preparations? Why, despite its array of staff and budget, was the electoral commission unable to do a sounder job of distributing biometric voter cards?
Many were skeptical when the Nigeria’s military said they would rout Boko Haram in six weeks. Yet, once the elections were postponed, the military began to surprise critics. In battle after battle, soldiers decimated the insurgents. They have been able to recapture scores of towns, large and small, that the insurgents had seized with relative ease over the past two years.
Nigerians ought to wonder: what the heck changed? Why is the military doing in a matter of weeks something it had failed to accomplish in several years? If some of the soldiers were cowards, as Mr. Dasuki stated at Chatham House, had the military authorities injected them with some courage-boosting hormone? Or is the decisive turn in the war a result, perchance, of Nigeria’s alleged recruitment of mercenaries from South Africa? Or does it owe, even, to the gritty spirit and determination of soldiers from neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon?
I’d suggest that none of the foregoing scenarios explains the turnaround. Instead, we are witnessing a rare act of what’s possible when the ruling class in Nigeria is desperate enough to embrace the idea of governance as a mechanism for addressing problems. The mindless accumulation of wealth serves as the singular agendum of the Nigerian political class. Like his predecessors, military and civilian, President Jonathan and his co-operators of the Nigerian state are wedded to this debilitating ideology. But for the first time in the country’s electoral history, an incumbent government at the center was confronted with the prospect of utter defeat. In order to stave off that prospect, their military wing suddenly brought their “A” game to the table. That, I conjecture, explains why the military became transformed overnight into a nimble, diligent bunch able to stare down Islamist insurgents.
It serves the interests of the military arm of the Nigerian state to showcase itself as a responsive, primed-to-deliver force. I don’t think that Nigerian soldiers became less cowardly. Nor do I believe that it’s all about the infusion of a few South African mercenaries. I doubt that warriors for hire have what it takes to so decisively reshape the fortunes of a war that, until a few weeks ago, was a series of humiliating retreats for the Nigerian military. More likely, President Jonathan and his civilian as well as military cohorts saw the doleful sign writ large on the wall. They realized that, unless they rose to the challenge of taming the insurgents, their political access to state largesse would be doomed. So, the military got cracking, both to save the incumbent president’s job and to preserve the interests of its top brass.
But Mr. Jonathan has not been able to wean himself altogether from the old rubric. Since the postponement, he’s appeared to depend on the logic of doling out raw cash—dollars, no less—to buy political mileage. Once the elections were postponed, the president seemed re-invigorated. He began to zip around the Nigerian landscape, but not necessarily to spell out ideas or to press the case that he has been, in truth, a transformational leader. Rather, his junkets have been, literally, about buying affection and political traction. By some accounts, he’s taken to holding cash-sharing conclaves with traditional rulers, ex-generals, civic “activists” and a host of so-called “stakeholders.”
A dollar-boosted president, who looked all but lost a few weeks ago, has been strutting the stage with a new spring in his gait. But he’s merely exuded the swagger of an operative who is infinitely more loaded than his opponents, but with dollars instead of ideas. The Punch of March 15 2015 carried a telling headline: “Jonathan rains dollars on South-West Obas”. The paper reported that some obas received as much as $250,000 each!
In a season where presidential “endorsements” have become a minor, dollar-denominated industry, nobody is asking where all the slush funds are coming from. Or, for that matter, why the president—who enjoys a clear edge from the reign of free cash—didn’t deem fit to use all that money to reshape Nigeria for the benefit of all citizens.
If raw cash has given Mr. Jonathan what amounts to a political resurrection, the relative lack of cash has hampered the opposition APC. In fact, the postponement of polls represented a kind of masterstroke for the PDP. The ruling party has the leverage to conjure up cash from all kinds of places, including public treasuries, the oil sector, the energy sector, banks and other corporate entities. The APC is similarly funded from state funds. But with revenues to states dwindling, the party’s purse suffered. Unable to do much without money, the APC’s presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, shipped out to the UK. The party seemed to go into a state of hibernation. It was one more moment when the APC proved itself to be Siamese twins with the PDP. And since the party is not distinguished in its vision, but shares, with the PDP, the same ideology that money rules—it went into a state of suspended animation once cash ran low.
Whichever faction of the ruling class triumphs in the 2015 elections, Nigerians will have the next four years to think hard about a system that empowers a few looters to disinherit the rest of us. And they will discover that the whole system must be radically uprooted and restructured if our condition is not to remain hapless.
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