Nigeria’s political discourse is stuck, rather tragically, in a familiar binary pattern. On one side, there are the bashers of President Muhammadu Buhari; on the other, those who feel duty bound to defend the man at all cost. Between the two groups there’s not so much a debate as a shouting match, a verbal slugfest in which all kinds of indignities and epithets are hurled across a hard, sharply drawn line. The one side mocks the promise of Change that’s all but become a mirage. The other side dismisses the president’s critics as the tribe of the wailing wailers.
The exchange of brickbats has obscured rather than illuminated the true quality of Nigeria’s crisis. In their I-told-you-so posture, some of Mr. Buhari’s critics imply—or even stipulate—that Nigerians should have hired former President Goodluck Jonathan to do a second term. They point to the crippling fuel shortage, the dramatic drop in the value of the naira, the worsening state of electric power supply, and the scandal that was Buhari’s inaugural budget as proof that Mr. Jonathan was—and would have been—better. There’s no question that President Buhari’s administration has been, so far, awful. But nothing in former President Jonathan’s antecedents encourages the conclusion that he would have handled the economic challenges significantly better.
In fact, Nigerians rejected Jonathan for the simple reason that he showed himself hardly capable of handling the country’s crises. Some of Jonathanian apologists insist that he failed because some powerful interests ambushed his presidency. Even if one conceded the validity of that theory, a case can—should—be made that a man who could not marshal the considerable assets of his office to neutralize his sworn enemies had no business seeking to run a country.
The mistake Nigerians made, I insist, was not in handing a resounding defeat to Mr. Jonathan and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It was in replacing Jonathan and his party with Mr. Buhari and his All Progressives Congress—a patchwork of conflicting interests. As I warned in several speeches and columns before last year’s elections, the APC is ideologically indistinguishable from the PDP. Indeed, a major faction within what coalesced as the current ruling party came from the erstwhile dominant party.
The evidence is that, for all the years he spent running for the office of Nigerian president, Mr. Buhari had little or no vision of the direction in which he intended to move the country. He took more than four months to produce a list of his ministers, and it turned out to be a rather predictable and tepid cabinet. That timetable said something profound about the man and his statecraft. It revealed that here was an analogic president presiding over a country that should be in digital mode.
President Buhari’s mantra of Change has fizzled, post-election, into effete rhetoric. I doubt that he would sign off on the kind of crude disbursement of public funds that President Jonathan either authorized or seemed helpless to halt. Yet, there is little evidence that Buhari has any inclination to push structural reforms that would lend an impetus to the ideals of transparency and accountability. He seems content to use the same mechanism as his predecessors to wage war on corruption.
Anybody with a sense of history should already see the hopelessness of that approach. Given the scale of corruption, the ongoing prosecution of a few officials is terribly tokenist. And we have already seen that the accused don’t mind the playing the labyrinthine legal game of interminable motions, counter-motions and adjournments. Buhari would have helped the cause far more profoundly by prescribing a set of proposals: to reform financial transactions, document the ownership of assets, strengthen the judiciary, and ensure transparency in the award of contracts.
Last week, Femi Falana gave a poor grade to the Buhari administration in the fight against corruption. The government was far from winning the war, declared Mr. Falana in a keynote lecture he gave in Lagos. He accused the administration of not realizing that the anti-corruption battle was not to be won through regular courts. He argued: “Apart from the class solidarity usually extended to politically exposed persons by judges in all capitalist societies, the situation is compounded in Nigeria by judicial corruption and professional misconduct on the part of senior lawyers involved in the defense of corruption cases.” He continued: “Owing to lack of coordination in the trial of politically exposed persons, corruption is fighting back. Painfully, the federal government is on the defensive as it has failed to counter the deliberate manipulation of the criminal justice system by the indicted looters of the public treasury.”
Mr. Falana was on firm grounds when he speculated that some of the ongoing corruption cases would not be resolved before 2019. According to him, “Even if the defendants are convicted, the cases will be pursued up to the Supreme Court…If the current trend continues, some of the cases will not be concluded in the next 10 years.”
He suggested that the government pursue the establishment of special anti-corruption courts to try all economic and financial crimes. “If the status quo remains unchanged, the Nigerian people and the international community will blame the administration for its inability to secure the conviction of corrupt politically exposed persons with all the evidence at its disposal.”
The absence of new thinking in the campaign against corruption is matched by the Buhari administration’s adherence to ineffectual or failed policies in other areas. The government has yet to outline its program for the country’s electric power woes. Nigeria’s educational system is on life support, a machine that continues to churn out many young men and women who, often, are often ill suited for the modernizing challenges of the 21st century. Yet, Buhari has yet to articulate a policy that would revamp the educational sector. Mr. Buhari has inherited a country that has no healthcare plan to speak. He has shown no evidence of understanding what must be done to change that dispiriting situation. He has yet to offer a blueprint for the country’s antiquated transportation grid. Nor is there a master plan for the management of waste in urban centers. How about a strategy for turning the Nigerian police into an effective, technologically savvy crime-fighting outfit? Zilch!
Buhari is trapped in an old, severely limited, aggrandizing conception of what it means to be a president. He seizes every opportunity to fly out of his country, even when there are fires to be put out. He sleeps soundly even as Fulani herdsmen turn parts of Nigeria into a killing field. The president and his aides pretend that time is on his side, but the reality is that he is in danger of losing a grip on the political and economic situation.
But what’s even more troubling than the administration’s snooze-mode is that there is little sign that progressive-minded or enlightened Nigerians are thinking seriously about organizing themselves into a viable political force in 2019. On social media and elsewhere, those who should be banding together to define a different path for Nigeria are all too busy trading disparaging terms. More disaster lies in wait for all of us if Nigeria’s best and brightest shirk the task of thinking about tomorrow today.
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