Happy New Year!
This is the modern feel-good, fresh-beginning greeting for people in every culture where this is the first day of a new year. Whatever may have been warped or negative in the previous, we like to wish for better.
In a way, the reverse is the realistic prayer. The truth is that far more of humankind does well each year than did badly; that is in the simple numbers. If we concede that things could have been worse, our prayer at this time of the year really ought to be that our good fortune—our imperfect experience—does not plunge into darkness.
But of course we want better and healthier. Even the darkest of us—think Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau—is somewhere today disbursing greetings of peace and prosperity, just like his principal tormentor, Muhammadu Buhari. Some of us have only nefarious contributions to Time, but we still call on her to bathe us with happiness.
Last week, Shekau returned from the dead, again. He returned to the microphone, again. He raised his voice, again.
Just days earlier, the Nigerian authorities had pronounced Sambisa Forest, allegedly the headquarters of his Boko Haram, cleared and liberated. They announced finding vital evidence as well: Shekau’s.
“We believe that the Holy Book and the flag were abandoned by Abubakar Shekau while he escaped,” announced army chief Lucky Irabor in Maiduguri.
But Shekau must have stopped running, again. Taken a bath and had a meal and fired up the power generator, again. Turned on the video recorder, again.
“We are safe,” he bragged in a broadcast, “We have not been flushed out of anywhere…”
That Shekau is a spoilsport. He knows how to make military leaders and security agencies question their essence. But we must admit that many of these agencies have been overrated for a very long time. There isn’t a single Nigerian, unless he is a paying customer or privileged politician, who believes there is such a thing as a police investigation.
What Shekau has done proves the point. Without the benefit of a seaport or any air field and while being bombed; without the benefit of friendly States in contiguous territories in contrast to Nigeria’s friends in high places; through Nigeria’s superior and pervasive technological presence; through the declaration of a state of emergency in 2013, the cutting-off of GSM phones in northeast Nigeria and the United States’ imposition of a $7m bounty, Shekau has repeatedly survived his and his group’s deaths and burial to again re-assert himself last week.
In other words, Boko Haram’s continued existence, at least in front of Shekau’s microphone and video camera, has far more explanation than the much-vilified President Jonathan era. While all Nigerians must be grateful to the gallant soldiers who have given life and limb to get to the point of annexing Sambisa, the various setbacks along the way are evidence we have yet to achieve a proficient army.
The problem is that, as if to prove our relevance, we have often rushed off to the press and the pubs in celebration of a bit of success, only for Shekau to appear on television, computer and cell phone screens and spoil it all.
What this suggests in us is a mental Sambisa forest that is more challenging than the one our troops have just liberated.
Still, if tradition holds, President Buhari will today read a speech wishing his country well. My close friends know I resent leadership speeches of this variety in any age and in any culture. For me, if you lead, you get to read only two written speeches in any calendar year: the budget address and a state-of-the-state report. A true leader truly invested in the affairs of his people should speak from the heart about what he knows and feels.
Nonetheless, when President Buhari makes that speech, it will be to wish his people a Happy New Year. Because he did not bring a lot of good news last year, it will be a difficult speech, and he will sound hollow.
This is because he has cultivated a serious credibility and accountability deficit none of those of us who bought—and sold—his anti-corruption message must confront.
I was one of them, but his was the superior purchase at the time, and in the same circumstances, I would make it again. You do not use the future to pay for the past.
That is why, one and a half years in, he should by now be speaking authoritatively about what has been accomplished, as a platform for hope and change. Let us remember that Buhari’s entire political raison d’etre was an unprecedented assault on corruption, not economic ingenuity. Still, Nigerians have received neither.
Witness: last week, Minister of Information Lai Mohammed announced, as evidence of the administration’s “success”, that it has recovered 40 brand new SUVs and other vehicles from a former Permanent Secretary who simply took them when he left office. According to the Minister, this is evidence of the government’s well-articulated strategy in the anti-corruption skirmish.
No, my good friend. It is proof positive of an anti-corruption anti-climax. In a true war, that former official and others like him would have since been exposed in a courtroom. What was found of his mansions and businesses and mistresses and bank accounts, foreign and domestic?
And if he took 40 new SUVs and other vehicles, what did his Minister take? What did his colleagues in other Ministries take, given that permanent secretaries are known to own Abuja?
Speaking of officials walking off with public property, the police has just announced the recovery of 30 similar vehicles from some of its personnel who retired last June. They had simply taken them from the police parking in Abuja on their way out.
There is a clear pattern: officials looting the commonwealth while in office, and looting on their way out. If Buhari is not catching, shaking down and jailing these crooks by the hundreds and thousands, his government is, in effect, protecting corruption as an institution.
Let us remember: one of the lasting images of 2016 is of Buhari breaking into excuses when it came time to publish the loot recovery report he had promised. But it is a democracy he swore to protect, and he also owes the bigger report ordered by the court last February to “account fully for all recovered loot [since 1999]".
Add this to the unfortunate impression he has offered, where allegations are made against certain officials, that insiders and those personally close to him are somehow untouchable, and what you have may be a self-destructing administration.
I don’t know what Buhari’s advisers are telling him, but the impression he has carried into 2017 is of a maximum anti-corruption message in words, but a minimum one in action.
Where to go in 2017? There is no ‘Happy New Year’ here. Nigerians must speak up now and often. We must demand accountability, and that Buhari change course.
The media must repeatedly remind Buhari he is an employee of the people, and demand his answering to them more frequently and substantively.
We should not ask Nigerians to expect hope from the soil of doubt, but we may be able to help the government understand what seeds it is putting into that soil.