ENGAGEMENT With Chidi Amuta
In a little over two years, the curtain will close on the Buhari presidency. Of the time left, the final one year will be spent in the drama of political succession. In the festival tradition of our politics, little or no governance takes place in the year preceding the exit of the incumbent. It is a year for the pageant of promises, the displays of thuggish mobs, the frenzied clash of monumental ambitions and the stoking of hopes. Technically, therefore, Mr. Buhari is now left with a little over one year to fulfill all the promises he made us on the eve of his ascendancy in 2015.
In terms of the agenda that he himself outlined of his free will and under no duress, Buhari now has just a little over a year to take us to his promised land. There is only one year to delete Boko Haram from our national landscape; a year to chase away all the bandits, dangerous herdsmen, kidnappers and armed robbers currently tormenting our people all over the country. Buhari has barely one year to migrate some ten million of our 100 million desperately poor into tolerable prosperity. In the same one year, electricity will no longer be epileptic. Most importantly, corruption would end or be reduced to a rare absurdity. If these lofty goals now look and sound laughably impossible, it is because the passage of time does not obey the wishes of politicians.
As we prepare to hand down the verdict on Buhari’s stewardship in the next couple of months, the machinery of regime communication is sharpening its defensive weapons. The arguments are predictable even if mundane. Oil prices collapsed and remained miserably low almost throughout Mr. Buhari’s eight year tenure. The corona virus interrupted normal economic activities and further depressed the economy. The opponents of government engineered a wave of insecurity to sabotage the valiant efforts of the president. This could go on indefinitely. But the fact remains that Nigerians placed their fate in the hands of Major General Buahari for eight years on the basis of the undertakings he gave when he was seeking our mandate. All our glories and calamities are happening under his watch. No one recalls that the president was elected to offer a long list of excuses for failure if he eventually fails.
In the count down to Buhari’s legacy stretch, I suspect that Mr. Buhari and the coterie of political janitors around him may not have found time to contemplate the power of small intangible things when it comes to the legacy of dispensations. There may have been sleepless nights spent on ideas of power and its management but perhaps hardly a second spent on the power of ideas in the management of the expectations of society. Low oil prices, the onset of a global pandemic or low tax returns may be excuses for not embarking on ambitious infrastructure projects. These unforeseen economic contingencies may be excuses for reducing the usual lavish costs of governance. But they do not by any means deprive governments the creative ability to apply the innovative power of ideas to solve urgent national problems. The ultimate legacies of an administration are reflections of the ideas it invoked or ignored.
Power incumbency is a game of revolving obsessions. Every government, elected or self -imposed, defines itself by the obsession it invents and infects the people with it. Democratic dispensations are even more adept at it. The gifted political leader finds a way to sustain his pet obsession until it becomes a plague suffered by all or an infection resisted by many. A scan of recent history shows it: Trumpism in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, resurgence of the Great Russia power, environmental insensitivity in Brazil, experimental autocracy in Hungary, legitimacy of gangsterism in the Philippines etc.
Once emplaced, the life blood of regimes is how successful they are in reducing their key obsession to a big issue which becomes the source of policies and programmes to engage public attention while their tenure runs. When leaders birth great ideas that capture the spirit of the age, they inaugurate major lasting changes and in the process etch their names in marble for generations. Lucky are those societies which experience leaders who dream big dreams of worthy destinations where they want to take society and consciously galvanize their people to follow. The distinction between the ordinary leader and the spectacular leader is in the quality of the obsession they engage the people. The leader whose obsession turns into ashes departs the place of power either as a villain or a miserable mistake of history.
Our national history is not without moments of great dreams, periods of giant leaps and flickers of heroic intervention. There have been moments when some leaders have risen, invoked great ideals that kindled hope and awakened optimism. But what remains remarkable is that the most lasting legacies of our past leaders were simple things that did not necessarily cost heaps of money.
Easily the most consequential leader of Nigeria since independence, Yakubu Gowon had thrust on him the decisive questions of Nigerian history. He and his military colleagues led Nigeria into a very avoidable war and had to fight it, win it and save the nation from early disintegration. A war leader who reunited a fractured nation sounds grand by every measure of statesmanship. After a war that cost so much in human lives and sense of national communitarian feeling, it was Gowon’s task to reintegrate the ex-Biafrans into the federation and implement a difficult reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction. The repair of a nation devastated by war and return to normal life was in every way an all- consuming national preoccupation. It involved the entire nation in an informal consensus. The formal end of the civil war was accompanied by symbolic acts of nation building and the inauguration of a new national order in which the 12 state structure replaced the pre-war four region structure.
But Gowon was not content with merely ending a war and reuniting the nation. He also undertook major economic and political innovations, some of which have become permanent features of our socio political and economic life and consciousness. The migration to a decimal currency with an indigenous identity was a major advancement on the road to authentic nationhood. After months of sustained public enlightenment, the Naira was born on 1st January, 1973. That put an end to the era of the Nigerian Pound, an adaptation of the British pound sterling which was an unstated remnant of the colonial era.
In a bid to align Nigeria more with its economic neighbourhood, Gowon went ahead to spearhead the founding of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975. This was accompanied by the migration of Nigeria from left to right hand drive, thus bringing the country in line with the trend in the rest of West Africa and decisively severing Nigeria from the British tradition.
Murtala Mohammed’s enduring legacy resides in two intangible things. He showed up and stood straight up for Nigeria. He came to symbolize the ideal of one nation under God, ruled according to law by a few good men and women. That was the summation of the Murtala legacy and his abiding mystique in the national consciousness of Nigerians.
Murtala’s real legacy is the demonstration of the possibility of true nationalism through a sanitization of governance. His was perhaps the first real sincere war against corruption through the introduction of consequential governance. Our collective patriotic soul was fired. For once, Nigerians irrespective of ethnicity were united in the celebration of the rise of genuine patriotic leadership. It was tragically brief.
The Shehu Shagari presidency was essentially a restoration of the civil essence of governance through the revalidation of the bureaucratic state. It was our inaugural experimentation with the US- type presidential system. Method returned to the usual insanity of Nigerian politics. Party supremacy was observed to a great extent. There was a return to some sort of politics of ideas. Between the nationalist republican outlook of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the social democratic programmes of the Awo –led Unity Party of Nigeria(UPN), there was a clear ideological difference. On education, for instance, while the NPN insisted on qualitative education, the UPN approach was more quantitative and broad based. Makeshift schools were quickly erected to run shift classes with the aim of educating the highest number of Nigerian children in the states controlled by the party. The legacy of the Shagari presidency therefore was more in terms of a return to civil governance after years of military dominance as well as a return to the politics of method and partisan discipline and internal democracy.
In terms of deploying the power of ideas to impact our nation space, the gold medal goes to former military president Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida’s trick was perhaps to concentrate on institution building for the sake of posterity. Posterity is the homeland of legacies. Nearly everything good that he is remembered for is a triumph of good ideas. The Privatization of unproductive public assets was an idea. The licensing of new generation banks was an idea. The establishment of regulatory bodies- National Broadcasting Commission(NBC), National Communications Commission(NCC), Nigeria Deposit Insurance Commission(NDIC) etc., – were all ideas. Peoples’ Bank was an idea, so were Community Banks, and the drive for rural development. The Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) was just an idea on a piece of paper which Wole Soyinka took to Dodan Barracks one evening and Babangida bought into it. The Open Secret Ballot system of voting was an idea; so was the inevitability of a two party system. The creation of a three -arm national security architecture which led to the establishment of the State Security Service (SSS), Defense Intelligence Agency(DIA) and National Intelligence Agency(NIA) was an idea in response to credible security threats. These innovations were not about throwing money at problems. Nor were they about brick and mortar, expensive contracts financed with huge foreign loans. Nor were they about the showmanship of cutting of ceremonial tapes. They were about reaching far and wide into the national reservoir of ideas, skills and competences to harvest new ideas. It was about finding unusual solutions to familiar problems with the power of new ideas. The most enduring legacies of the Babangida presidency can be found mostly in this series of ideas-driven institutions ost of which have endured over three decades since after he left office.
Babangida had brick and mortar legacies for which many remember him. Many Nigerians credit for instance him with the realization of the dream of Abuja through the construction of most of the infrastructure in the central district of the new city. He did not have the benefit of a bulging treasury as oil prices sank to below $9 except for the brief period of the first Gulf war.
As civilian president, Mr. Obasanjo had an abiding sense of history and an acute sense of legacy. The entire nation was his constituency and he sought the best hands from the diversity of the nation to run the affairs of the state. When on a visit to Anambra state the traditional leaders sought to thank him for appointing many of their sons and daughters into his administration, Obasanjo characteristically drew their attention to the sterling qualifications and outstanding capacity of those he appointed and added: “If there is more from where those came from, please give me…”
Obasanjo had an arcane perception of legacy. He reached for quick wins with lasting significance. He eagerly embraced the digital economy by first embarking on the inauguration of the GSM telecommunications revolution. That unleashed latent energies in the economy by creating multiple collateral economies of telephone services and accessories. He followed this up with an ambitious but sensible banking consolidation and capital market reform. These twin ideas brought a huge percentage of Nigeria’s hitherto predominantly informal economy into the formal spectrum. Market women and common traders began to measure their net worth in terms of equities held in the capital market and the credit worthiness it gave them to expand and grow their businesses. Obasanjo deliberately de-emphasized brick and mortar and white elephant contracts because the nation was over burdened with debts. Instead, he harvested the power of ideas to explore new frontiers while deploying considerable diplomatic muscle to free the nation of most of its debts.
The day Mr. Obasanjo was leaving office as elected president on May 29, 2007, I casually asked one of my junior staffers what she would remember the outgoing president for. The lady reached for her little handbag and brought out her cell phone. “It is this! With it, I am now somebody… Somebody can call somebody and maybe, something good can happen from there…”
The shortest cut to projecting the possible legacy of an administration is by identifying its governing obsession. I have tried endlessly to identify the defining obsession or unifying emphasis of the Buhari presidency. Buhari as a military head of state was more definable. He stood then for discipline and anti corruption. Like most Nigerians now, I would like to hold President Buhari responsible for something remarkable and positive. But I cannot yet find a unifying theme for the current chaotic orchestra. Could it be anti corruption? That has been squandered on the altar of nasty partisanship and sickening nepotism. Could it be a more secure Nigeria? That has degenerated into a democratization of insecurity and danger. Maybe it is economic salvation. That too has yielded the unintended consequence of an unprecedented federal republic of over 100 million of the poorest people in the world.
Yet the ultimate question cannot be excused away. What will future generations of Nigerians remember the eight years of the Buhari presidency for?