On Friday, 29 May, our so-called democracy day (1 October to me), I was at Tafawa Balewa Square to witness the swearing-in of Mr Akinwunmi Ambode as the 14th governor of Lagos State. I went with a sizable number of fellow old students of Federal Government College, Warri, Ambode’s alma mater, equally delighted to mark the ascension of a product of the unity schools to the governance of the most cosmopolitan and unifying city in a country cleft to the marrow by tribal sentiments and the atavistic fears they stir. Throughout the ceremony of change of guards, a rousing point of which was the loud ovation at out-going Governor Fashola’s entry and when he delivered his handing-over speech, I kept imagining the scene of even greater pomp and pageantry in Abuja where Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and Prof. Yemi Osinbajo were taking their oaths.
It had been a little difficult deciding where to be, Lagos or Abuja, but knowing the press would give a full account of goings-on in the federal capital, I gladly reported to the meeting point of front of the National Museum at Onikan for the short walk to the old centre of legislative power. And as soon as I could, I read Buhari’s speech, the primary document of his promise to the nation as president. I read it more for assurances that he would be true to his promises during the campaigns than for anything new he might say. An inaugural speech is not where I expect an in-coming president to lay out his programme. The broad vision and framework would do for me; better if also exhortatory or inspiring. There would be time enough for the detailed policy and governance things to follow.
As readers of this column will know, I saw the prospect of change through Buhari not so much from the material angle but the psychological. This is a bit woolly, so let me explain, in the hope that at the very least my column of 8 April 2015 entitled “Buhari and Jonathan: Character as Destiny” makes my argument clearer. In my opinion, our malaise grew to a terminal point over the years because as a people we had lost spirit. It may be nebulous to speak of “the soul of a nation” but there can be no doubt that our sense of collective being, often expressed as national consciousness, had reached its lowest point since independence. National consciousness is a function of the history, values and aspirations that define citizenship of a political space, of people-hood in the era of the nation-state. Whatever their shortcomings, our founding fathers were driven by a lofty national consciousness. Indeed, it was the only basis on which they fought for independence from colonial Britain, since there was no prior nation called Nigeria until Lord Lugard’s conjuration of 1914. Thus, while they chafed at the nation’s uninspiring birth, they were nevertheless pragmatic, and even visionary, enough to understand that our destiny was far brighter as Nigerians than as citizens of four hundred odd nationalities or subjects of the kings and other traditional potentates of the time.
Yet, oddly enough, the farther away from our original ethnic and primordial state of existence, the more tribal and atavistic we got. With the common foreign enemy gone, and no strong shared politico-cultural institutions or ties to bind us, the struggle—or the “dream,” as that great theorist of decolonisation, Frantz Fanon, rightly put it—became merely that of taking the coloniser’s place, of “possession—all manner of possession.” In short, of primitive accumulation. The idea of nation-building and civic responsibility was abandoned. As I argued in a much earlier column “The Federal Republic of No-Man’s Land” (The Guardian, 28 March 2011), Nigeria became to successive power-mongers a foreign, unoccupied land, to be looted and the spoils brought home to our real political domiciles—the ethnic community. A nation stuck in that soul-deadening structure of thinking, feeling and participating in government needs exorcism, a reawakening to first order principles.
It was in this light that the passage in which the sentence “We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism” appears detained me more than any other in the inaugural speech. It points, I think, to the proper platform for the task of salvaging our battered country. Without hope, despair takes over the heart. Yet there is no place more dangerous than the heart of a desperate man or woman, one who believes there is nothing to live for or uphold anymore and so everything to die for, desecrate or destroy. Hopelessness and despair lie at the roots of much of what menaces us today. I will end, then, with a slightly redacted version of that passage: “At home we face enormous challenges. Insecurity, pervasive corruption . . . unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages . . . We are going to tackle them head on. . . . We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism. We can fix our problems. In recent times Nigerian leaders appear to have misread our mission. Our founding fathers . . . worked to establish certain standards of governance. They might have differed in their methods or tactics or details, but they were united in establishing a viable and progressive country. Some of their successors behaved like spoilt children breaking everything and bringing disorder to the house.”
Yes, we can solve our problems. May the president find the will to stay true to this vision.