I wish to enter 2016 by voicing my disappointment at President Muhammadu Buhari’s inaugural media chat.
Remember, he waited 30 years to return to the leadership of Nigeria, having been summarily thrown out in 1985.
And then he battled for at least 12 years to win that chance, finally realizing that ambition in May 2015. That was seven months before he faced his interviewers in December’s live interview.
And yet, President Buhari arrived largely unarmed, unprepared and uninspiring.
I do not mean he had lost his outrage or his reformer-posture; he just did not arrive with persuasive substance for his supporters, let alone his critics.
Yes, it was evident that the Nigeria leader intends to fight corruption. This was his unique selling point and the single most important factor which propelled him into office. And yet, presented with the prime time opportunity on live television, he did not make an inspiring case.
To be clear: it is important that he intends to get every penny from everyone who has stolen from Nigeria, as tough as that task sounds. But it is even more important to ensure that those funds are not re-looted and that, through clear and specific laws and structural changes, such practices are discouraged in the future.
I hoped to learn of an informed vision of the Nigeria he is engineering, but didn’t hear it. I hoped to learn of the Nigeria he hopes will emerge of his efforts in the next 50 or 100 years, but didn’t hear of it.
In other words, 30 years after he must first have punched the walls of his detention cell in anger, 12 years after he first tried to win the presidency, and seven months after he arrived in Abuja, Mr. Buhari seemed to be more outrage than strategy.
Everyone knows that the Nigeria leader inherited a tough task. But that is exactly why despairing Nigerians chose a man they perceived to be equal to the task.
Eight months into this monumental assignment, Buhari has not made the waves that those Nigerians expected. Perhaps it was too much to have expected that he would arrive with a machete, chopping off the limbs—including the human among them—of all the problems.
Until the media chat, however, he was merely thought to be holding his cards close to his chest.
The problem is that at the event, those cards were not in evidence. Many of his answers were no answers at all; some were half-informed, and a few were not inspiring. It is now unclear whether his government is unwilling, or just being slow.
I mean this only in description of Buhari’s performance, not in indictment of his presidency. In the election of 2015, he was vastly-superior to his immediate rival, an incumbent who did not seem to know what time of day it was.
But now, Buhari must show the potential for which he was elected: vigorous, confident and exemplary leadership. That challenge requires him to get to the bottom of the menace of corruption, which is sadly rooted in some of his friends and former colleagues in the military. I have written in the past that unless Buhari is willing and able to reach those tap-roots of corruption in Nigeria, he will not win the acclaim of a good job.
The other challenge before him is the nurturing of democratic values, without which other reforms would be laughable.
This is one of the reasons why I say he arrived at his media chat unprepared, claiming his government would be irresponsible to allow bail for a man granted bail by a court of law.
That, in effect, defeats the objective.
Let me be clear: nothing would please me more than to see every thief of federal funds picked up at the first smell of such a crime and held until jailed and every penny recovered.
But that is illegal. Outrage—even political power—is no law, and there can be no democracy without the rule of law.
It is critical to remember that the oath Mr. Buhari took last May was administered not by the Secretary to the Government, but by the Chief Justice of the Federation. This underlines the constitutional separation of powers, and reminds anyone who may be tempted to feel differently of the primacy of the law.
This means that doing the wrong thing out of concern that someone else might do the wrong thing is, in the end, simply vanity. Illegality does not justify illegality. Technicalities do not justify technicalities.
Mr. Buhari attempted to justify the illegalities being perpetrated by his government by citing the atrocities allegedly committed by its targets, saying they are certain to jump bail if given the chance.
No Nigerian who gave his vote to Buhari wants to see such an outcome, but it is eminently preferable that such people jump bail than to have a government which chooses to fiddle with the law and the protections it grants against authoritarianism, even benign authoritarianism.
Equally disturbing, for me, are the two distinct standards Buhari hinted of: the first being against those he has something against, and the other in favor of those he pretends he has nothing against.
The first is represented by people like Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser, and Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the so-called Indigenous Peoples of Biafra. In their separate cases, each man has seen bail duly granted him by a court of law voided and violated by Buhari’s government.
But the same Buhari then says of his predecessor in office: “See, the former president wrote to the governor of Central Bank and said ‘give N40 billion to so, so and so, and then he gives account.’”
It is of deep concern that Mr. Jonathan—who is going around the world hoodwinking people about what a success he was as President of Nigeria—has not been asked to answer questions relating to this offense alone.
Buhari speaks of the documentation of many other “atrocities”. One of them is evidently that of Mr. Dasuki, the poster-child of Nigerian corruption whose tenure turned the NSA into an ATM for the executive, at the expense of the country. According to the president, the victims include “over two million people displaced—most of them orphans—whose fathers have been killed.”
But while Dasuki is being routinely and illegally denied bail—by the executive, not the courts—Buhari is saving Jonathan any embarrassment whatsoever.
I wonder why, and worry about whether this indicates the way former leaders who have clear cases to answer will be let off.
Finally, until Buhari tried to justify why his government is violating Nigeria law in order to protect Nigeria’s interest, I did not know his “anti-corruption war” had begun.
It would be nice to have clear rules of engagement, and to know the role of the ordinary Nigerian in its prosecution.
Let it be clear that fighting corruption is only part of the challenge. The objective is to reinvent Nigeria. And that challenge is bigger than anyone, and capable of consuming anyone.
Happy New Year, Nigeria.
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