The Nigeria New Year broke upon the nation with the appearance on websites of an unusual an unusual video of former Nigerian leaders,On the microphones: Yakubu Gowon; Olusegun Obasanjo; Ernest Shonekan, Alex Ekwueme; Ebitu Ukiwe and Oladipo Diya. They are led in a rendition of “Our God, Our Help In Ages Past” by the current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.
A song of praise to God will always find a place in Nigeria, where religion is a huge industry. While it is still unclear whose idea this was, it was fascinating to see so many of our former leaders in one place at the same time united by something other than indifference.
But it seemed to be an incomplete choir. If it was supposed to comprise former leaders, Shehu Shagari, the government of whom was overthrown in 1983, leading to the military leadership of Muhammadu Buhari, was not there. Nor was Ibrahim Bademasi Babangida, who overthrew Buhari in 1985. Nor was Abdusalami Abubakar, the last military leader. Nor was Atiku Abubakar, who was Vice-President to Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007. Nor was Goodluck Jonathan, whom Buhari defeated for the presidency two years ago.
If it was supposed to include current leaders, Buhari was alarmingly, ominously, absent.
Perhaps these absentees didn’t qualify for a microphone in the choir because they have atrocious singing voices, although it is hard to imagine how any voices can possibly be worse than those of Obasanjo and Shonekan. Perhaps it is because of their religion, but Mr. Jonathan, who is a Christian, was not there, either.
Perhaps Shagari, Babangida and Atiku were disqualified, or disqualified themselves, because they are Muslims and didn’t want to be overhead by the Muslim faithful openly singing a Christian song. In which case, it was not a choir of former Nigerian leaders, but of former Christian leaders. That would leave only the question mark over Mr. Jonathan.
But the video was recorded, evidently with Buhari’s approval, and reportedly introduced on Prof. Osinbajo’s Twitter page.
In a brief statement at the end of the video, Diya seems to confirm Buhari’s involvement, giving gratitude to “the President and the Vice-President for thinking it fit to call us together to join in this festival of today.”
Christian worship is one of Nigeria’s only consistent and grown activity. Our churches are spilling over in membership and spilling over the borders and into the industrialized countries. Some Nigerian pastors now routinely number among the 10 richest in the world annually, and they own successful businesses, including schools so “successful” the children in their congregation cannot afford to enrol. Some of them travel the world in exotic aircraft some Heads of State and top business executives can only envy.
In other words, the Christian Church does appear to be firmly grounded in Nigeria. While that may not translate into true faith, the point is that the sad state of affairs in Nigeria is attributable not to an insufficiency of prayer in the land, but to poor leadership.
This is where Nigeria’s former leaders, represented by the star singers on the video, come in. In a comment at the end of the performance, Obasanjo says, “God created Nigeria as we are and God does not make any mistake. We should thank God for that."
True, God is infallible, but man is not. It is man who makes the mistakes. Worse still, and beyond mistakes, man is malicious and malevolent, and nowhere is that better demonstrated that in Nigeria’s contemporary history.
In addition to the problems Obasanjo manufactured for Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, for example, he defined and designed the post-military system which led to the precipice that is prominent in the video.
Here is how Ekwueme put it: "In spite of the mess we try to make of the country, [God] manages to rescue us when we get to the edge of the precipice and we thank him for that."
Of that precipice, Buhari is in power today partly because Obasanjo fought openly against Mr. Jonathan, and demystified the PDP. It may be convenient to ignore the point now, but Obasanjo handpicked and imposed his successors, including Mr. Jonathan. And it was the same Obasanjo who in June 2006 prevented the prosecution of Jonathan by the Code of Conduct Bureau after he had been indicted for false declaration of assets.
In other words, God is not responsible for our mess. Man—some men—are. It is significant that Ekwueme and Ukiwe speak about this mess—this consequence, this precipice—in some kind of past tense, but it is ahead, not behind.
Yes, God does not make a mistake, and He owes no apologies. But the malevolent man makes mistakes, and therefore ought to apologize. Obasanjo has never apologized for any of his, so what has a church song got to do with correcting the errors which brought us here?
We do not need a slickly-produced government music video. What we need is an honest voice to guide the nation, and inspire hope, by acknowledging where we went wrong as a basis for strong ideas to nurture a better future. This is precisely why Nigeria lacks statesmen: hardly anyone possesses credibility and moral authority earned through diligent application in office.
Are our former leaders able to see the danger only in calling for prayer for the future while ignoring their disreputable times in office, knowing they accomplished perhaps only a sliver of what they had the potential to? What credibility has a former deputy leader if he can sing a hymn into a microphone but cannot apologize into the same microphone for horrors their governments and bosses committed?
Remember that in 2011, the government’s Presidential Projects Assessment Committee set up by Mr. Jonathan identified nearly 12,000 abandoned federal projects. Those projects were abandoned by the governments of these same church hymn warriors, but remember that that figure is six years old. Add to it Mr. Jonathan’s abandoned projects, as well as state projects over the past 20 years alone, and that figure could balloon into the hundreds of thousands.
I have always accused Nigerian leaders of holding the people in contempt. Instead of responsibility, they see only authority, a pedestal from which a government can only preach, not serve, and from which they grow rich while the country grows poorer. They think leadership is a favour to the people.
But if there is a former leader today who really wants to help the country, the time for truth and equity is now. Put down the microphone and go into action mode. Collaborate on research and think tanks with your own money in search of powerful policy options and expertise that can be recommended to the government.
Make a sacrifice. Give up something significant you own or to which you are entitled, and make a national cause of attracting the rich and privileged to do the same. Suggest to the government how such resources can be harnessed for specific public projects.
Do you remember Nigerians displaced in various disasters around the country, including during your administrations? Maroko? Makoko? Kaduna? Plateau? The Onitisha Market fires? The floods of 2012? The Boko Haram victims?
The victims are still suffering? Do you care, or would you rather sing them a hymn?