Everything in and about Nigeria is in a waiting pattern. Everybody, Nigerians and foreigners alike, are waiting on President Muhammadu Buhari. This pattern is a profoundly sobering lesson. It is also both a risk and an opportunity.
I had an interesting conversation over the weekend with the CEO of a mid-sized Nigerian firm. “Many businesses are at a virtual standstill,” he said. Then he added: “My company and many others are sitting on our cash, not investing much, because nobody knows where [President] Buhari is going to move and how. We don’t know the shape of his economic policy. We don’t even know whether fuel subsidy will stay or go.”
Nigerians and the world have taken a deep breath, waiting to exhale. It appears that what Mr. Buhari does next, hopefully soon, is going to determine how we all are going to exhale.
The chastening lesson is that there’s something fundamentally askew with Nigeria as a nation-space. The fate and fortunes of 170 million people should never hang on the whims of any one person.
At a symposium on Nigeria that held last March at City University of New York (CUNY), I spoke dimly about the blithe reference to Buhari as the “answer.” It was not that I sought to belittle what the eventual winner of the presidential election represented. But I was troubled, even on Buhari’s behalf, about a certain hysteria and cult of personality that was fast building around one man. The man had to have the prerogatives of divinity to be able to discharge the burden of the exaggerated expectations some were in a hurry to hang on his shoulder.+
At any rate, if Buhari were the “answer,” I asked, then what could the “question” possibly be? Certainly, if the question were the malaise of corruption, then it would take far more than Buhari to tackle it. If underdevelopment were the crux, then, again, we would need more than Buhari to address it. If the monster were nepotism, a culture of mediocrity, a wretched educational system, coarsened cultural traits, even the ravages of Boko Haram, the solution must be broader than one man, however estimable.
I saw rather clearly that when some fans characterized Buhari as the answer, they were playing an old, tiresome, ruinous game. It is a game of abdication, a consignment of responsibility to somebody else—and, often, to divinity. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s coterie used a variant of the same game to fuel their (ultimately aborted) third term game. A certified mediocrity and misanthrope like Obasanjo was proclaimed the solution to all of Nigeria’s crises. If we didn’t change our constitution to enable him to stay in power in perpetuity, then we were doomed, his hirelings declared.
Even as the late President Umaru Yar’Adua lay dying in a Saudi hospital, some profiteers from his absent government insisted that he, and he alone, could steer the ship of state. How about former President Goodluck Jonathan, the self-styled transformational leader? Even as he daily proved that the weight of the presidential office exceeded his capacity by far, those within his inner court hailed him as the last word on governance.
More often, Nigerians imply that God is responsible for their desultory condition. Obasanjo squandered something in the region of $16 billion on electric power, only to achieve the magic of a worsened power supply in Nigeria. Rather than offer a sober narrative about the anomaly, he asked Nigerians to pray to God to improve the situation. When we intone “God is in control” or “We’re trusting God” or “In God’s time,” we imagine that we are demonstrating profound piety. In reality, we are putting our infantilism, false sense of sanctimoniousness, and refusal to take responsibility on full display.
Which brings me back to Buhari. He ought to realize the grave danger of encouraging the illusion that he has all the answers to Nigeria’s crises, indeed that he is the “answer.” And the sooner he comes to this realization, the better for him and for the rest of us.
Therein lies a great opportunity. What Nigeria needs is the same mechanism that has served—and serves—every great, thriving nation: institutions. Nigerians don’t need a superman who lectures them from the rarefied heights of Mount Olympus on corruption. We will be better served to have anti-corruption laws, agents and institutions that will search out and prosecute the corrupt, even if they happened to be related to the sitting president. We need a culture that abhors corruption far more than we need a president who fumes at some of the corrupt.
So far, there has been no material difference between Buhari’s approach to fighting corruption and, say, Obasanjo’s or Jonathan’s. Nigerians have read a lot of speeches from Buhari and his associates, but have seen little action. We heard that US officials revealed that a minister in President Jonathan’s administration had stolen an astonishing $6 billion. That spectacular revelation was ill advised. It should have come in a formal indictment of the minister involved.
The government’s revelation merely created some media frenzy, even circus. And that frenzy has all but fizzled out. Perhaps it was fodder for conversation at bars, as Nigerians swilled the next Orijin beer or savored the next plate of goat meat pepper soup. Where is the enduring outrage? Where are the protests and demands for the unmasking and prosecution of the culprit?
The lesson here: statecraft is not an “amebo” affair; it does not consist in titillating the public with shocking, spectacular disclosures. My fear is that the Buhari administration has, in fact, potentially compromised its case. The depraved former minister in question, now duly forewarned, would be busy finding and shredding incriminating documents and enlisting potential witnesses in a massive cover-up.
Buhari must avoid the trap of becoming a monochrome president, daily making hay out of the coming war against corruption. He should know that Nigeria is a broken address. Nigerians and the world are waiting to hear what his educational policy looks like. They are waiting for him to define his healthcare policy. They look forward to learning about the planks of his economic policy. They’d like to know how he proposes to reform the judiciary, the police, and the civil service. They are waiting to learn what he proposes to do to enthrone ethical values in Nigeria, and to make his country one founded, truly, on the rule of law.
Above all, we’d like to see him define the contours of his broad vision, one hopefully inspiring and lofty enough to draw Nigerians and friends of Nigeria to it. If a new Nigeria is to emerge, it will take Nigerians’ collective energy, not one man’s quixotic strivings.
Buhari ought to realize that Nigerians and the world are waiting on him. That pattern should not go on interminably, else Nigerians stand to pay a stiff price. He alone is not—cannot be—the answer to the complicated question of Nigeria.