Almost two years into its four-year tenure, the Buhari administration has come up with a campaign theme to publicly canvass its defining ‘Change’ agenda. If all goes the Nigerian way, the “Change Begins With Me” campaign may be coming to a stadium or public square near you any time now, complete with familiar fanfare and authorized clowning. As yet, no one knows the budget for this venture. For an administration that has spent most of its tenure to date blaming the ills of the nation on its predecessors and the generality of Nigerians, the thrust of the message is perhaps predictable.
Simply put, the message is that the change that the administration promised us can only come when we all (all 180 million of us!) change from within on our individual volitions. By the curious logic of this cheap and tainted blackmail, change can only come when and if all Nigerians change their ways. We no longer have to demand that the government delivers the change it promised us!
No one has told us the object of the change and its desired objectives. No one has cared to map out the direction of this change or its policy content. No one has pointed us in the direction of the desired change agents. All we are meant to see apparently is the President, his fabled austere ways, his simple life style, his aversion to corruption and his insistence on saving for the rainy day.
For a leadership that has frequently gone abroad to insult, castigate and condemn its nationals as ‘corrupt’ and unscrupulous, the thrust of the message was foretold. By the underlying logic of this message, the government is dispersing the blame for its incapacity to deliver on its campaign promises to us and thereby shirking its fundamental responsibility to the governed.
In fact, this campaign moves the responsibility of government on delivering the change it promised to the realm of religion, the zone of individual penitence and absolution. Each man or woman is responsible for their own change and salvation subject to the extent of their culpability in the national sin. Yet this movement to the realm of absolute relativism is a moral stance, which cannot even hold water in the most liberal social and political environments.
I wish someone would tell the operatives of this administration that the freedom of choice, which is at the bottom of liberal democracy, imposes a moral burden which is never left to individual volition. Collective social correction is the product of conscious government policy bolstered by the force of law. The burden of correcting even the most errant society is that of government; it is never dispersed and pushed back to the people.
However, the ultimate political motive of “Change Begins with Me” cannot be lost on a perceptive populace. It shifts the burden for possible failure on delivering the ‘change’ agenda to the very people who have been waiting anxiously for some good news. It relieves the government of the burden of responsibility for promises that it willingly made to the people while campaigning for their mandate.
Campaign promises may not be legally enforceable. But the people wait at the next election to cash the cheque of failed promises. When politicians renege on their campaign promises, the same people will queue up at the next election to inflict a fearsome retribution that tallies with the force of history. Therefore, a campaign promise by a political party once made and the party wins apex political power, becomes a legitimate adjunct to the social contract between the sovereign and the people.
Unfortunately, in order to experience a changed social and economic milieu, we are now expected to wait until each and every one of us has embraced change and started behaving like morons of some nebulous moral universe. This is the height of governmental laziness almost bordering on a fraudulent dissipation of the popular mandate. And it has no foundation in any known social theory or political philosophy.
For the avoidance of doubt, the institution of social, economic and political change is the province of governmental action. The object of democracy is that at the ballot, we all cede and surrender our rights to do right, to inflict wrong or seek justice to a sovereign in the belief that they will do right by us all.
Therefore, when Nigerians defied the rains and trooped out at the last presidential election to elect Muhammadu Buhari as president, they did so in the hope that he will live true to the promises he was making on the campaign trail. The summary of those promises was that he would inaugurate a season of ‘change’ for the better. Nigerians had reached a consensus that a massive change for the better was what the nation needed.
We expected our lives to get better, not worse. We expected that someone would restore power to light our way through the dark tunnels of daily life. We expected that we would now travel the land freed at last from fear of homegrown monsters. We had a right to expect that our sons and daughters would at last get a chance to take a shot at the opportunities that our multiple challenges present. We wanted the unemployment queues to shorten so that men and women who went out in search of honest jobs will not die in stampedes of anxiety at the stadium. Those in business had a right to expect that the exchange rate, interest rates and inflation rates would become friendlier so the suffering index would lift the veil of desperation from the faces of many. We expected these and more from a President Buhari because Mr. Goodluck Jonathan’s best was no longer good enough.
Instead, we have seen our fortunes dip dangerously in the last one and half years. The naira in our pockets has shrunk dangerously. Those who left home in the morning as proud employees have returned home with sack letters that amount to death sentences. People walk the streets aimlessly knowing that their quest for opportunity leads nowhere in particular. Avoidable deaths and suicides have become an epidemic. An avalanche of strange social crimes hitherto unknown in these parts–serial rape for sport, gruesome domestic violence, pedophilia and open-air lynching of people for sport – are becoming part of a new normal.
Admittedly, some message needed to be placed upfront to popularize the defining mantra of the administration. But in adopting this strange subversive message, the Buhari administration is behaving true to the history of similar campaigns in the past. We have had all manner of campaigns, branding and re-branding for all manner of programmes ranging from War Against Indiscipline, MAMSER to tourism and investment promotion and others. A succession of ministers waxed lyrical on things they hardly understood.
On the whole, “The Change Begins With Me” is anchored on almost nothing, only silly promises. It is at best the product of knee jerk private moralism at the apex of power, which looks more like idolatry as the days go by. It is hard to see how moralistic sermons about good conduct and change of personal behavior can make sense to youth without jobs, market women with no wares to sell, industrialists with closed factories, the artisan forced by living costs to relocate to his village or students whose breadwinners have lost their livelihood to the ravaging recession.
Ordinarily, the change agents of a regime that anchors its role in rebuilding Nigeria should be both those actively driving the process in government and people whose life circumstances showcase the value and benefit of change. Show us the young graduate entrepreneurs newly empowered to start up something new. Show us hundreds of startups newly capitalized or the thriving farms and contented market women. Show us the middle class with gleaming new cars and new homes.
Show us the power of new demand in the hands of the people as they throng to malls and shopping centers. Show us your retail figures, home ownership upswing, rate of registration of new vehicles and the month-by-month reduction of unemployment. These are the numbers by which serious governments all over the world demonstrate their commitment to good governance. Ask Ethiopia, Rwanda and Botswana even Kenya which is growing in the midst of a fierce anti-terrorist war with no oil to sell.
As a fitting retort to the subversive message of this campaign, we should, in popular parlance, return the insult to the senders: “Give us the Change You Promised Us”.
• Dr. Chidi Amuta is Chairman, Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos