ENGAGEMENTS by Chidi Amuta
The bare concrete parade ground of Eagle Square will tomorrow be animated by the symbolism of state ritual. Like most structures in Abuja’s homeless architecture, Eagle Square was originally designed by soldiers in power as a tribute to the legacy of parade grounds, a venue for rehearsing their trade. It has now become a favourite open air theatre for political drama of a democratic variety.
In the periodic rituals of party conventions and changes of governments after elections, Eagle Square has found a new meaning and a conferred symbolism. Endings and beginnings of dispensations and administrations are now staged here every four years. With the passage of time and the gradual consolidation of Nigeria’s quirky democracy, Eagle Square parades and succession rituals are fast assuming the status of resonant festivities of state survival. In the process, a hitherto useless concrete open air afterthought by Julius Berger has become a place where elected leaders go to hand over power to their successors. As symbolisms go, Eagle Square is now in competition with the equally meaningless assemblage of concrete slabs called the Abuja Gate. There is another one: the lifeless concrete floor where our presidents go on Armed Forces Remembrance Memorial Day to lay wreaths at the grave of the Unknown Soldier!
Old and new statesmen, dignitaries of all hues, emissaries from the courts of kings and helmsmen from far and near will gather there tomorrow to see Buhari go and Tinubu come. An impressive display of Nigeria’s permanent sense of ceremony will see soldiers march in countless formations. The air force may risk sending up pilots into the air to fly in formation. Assorted dance troupes from all corners of the country will showcase our rich variety and diversity. It all comes down to one thing: the use of ceremony to consolidate the legitimacy of democratic leadership succession and a display a sense of order.
Gradually, by the sheer force of repetition, we are seeing the cultivation of a tradition of orderly power succession. People contest elections and either win or lose somehow. Those who win prepare to assume power. Those who may not have won but feel entitled to a victory song are asked to ’go to court’!. The courts take their time to do whatever they wish with the instruments at their disposal.
It does not matter how imperfect the electoral contests are or the quality of leadership that emerges in each season, the order of state and society as well as the continuity of the nation are sustained in an emerging tradition of rites of state passage.
As part of the banality of seasonal shifting of state furniture, the outgoing president shows the new man of power round the office and residence of the presidency. The incoming First Family measures new drapes and arranges to write off the palatial furniture in the Villa. The incoming president and the outgoing one agree a transition arrangement. The new president learns how to be president by moving to Defense House where he gets used to the rituals of daily presidential routine. The months of transition allow the new president time to choose a team out of the multitude of lobbyists and hustlers swarming around him. The rituals and routines of power succession are part and parcel of the orderliness that distinguishes a working democracy from the disorderly power grabs of anarchic successions.
Above all this, however, the ceremonies that will take place at Eagle Square tomorrow must be understood for what they are. They are rituals in the service of order. Order is in turn the surest guarantee of the survival of the state without which all our strivings as a society could evaporate in the swirl of anarchy and a descent into a state of nature. As A. Kaplan puts it in his new book, The Tragic Mind, “It is the panoply and mystique of power and hierarchy that reinforces order.”
Events like the recent coronation of the British king or the inauguration of the US President every four years are not pointless hollow rituals. They are instead part of the consolidation of the tradition of order and continuity without which a society is swept away in the vortex of disorder and casual pedestrianism. The British writer Tony Tanner puts it more pointedly, “Authority requires awe from which emerges legitimacy.”
Yet our ceremony must go beyond the ossified conservative variety that we witnessed with either the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II or the coronation of her son as King Charles III. While museum type adherence to tradition serves to maintain and sustain extant monarchical traditions, a republican democracy still needs the ceremony and pomp of statehood for a different set of reasons. A republican democracy such as ours forged from an amalgam of disparate national traditions needs the ceremonies of an artificial unified nationhood for many reasons. Our citizens need to look forward to periodic ceremonies of leadership renewal. People need to get used to certain fixed rituals as emblems of nationhood. We need the ceremonial reaffirmations of the bonds of community. We need a consolidation of the symbols and rituals of oneness so that national unity becomes second nature.
Through the military parades and displays of strength, we are reassured that the sovereign is in tact and strong enough to protect us all from dangerous compatriots and hostile adversaries. Watching the march pasts, the parade of armed services emblems, the tidy uniformity of steps and formations of service personnel, the awe of state overwhelms the onlooker. On sober reflection, it dawns on you that the ceremonies of statehood are a consummation of the idiocy of the nation state as an artificial construct. They dress it up to appear powerful, frightful and coherent. But in reality , it is all make belief!
Nonetheless, as a celebration of order, the ceremonies of state reassure the citizenry that leadership is in tact and alive to its responsibilities. Order is disrupted when leadership is doubtful and sovereignty is shaky. Anarchy is not necessarily the absence or total collapse of responsible leadership. It also includes woeful governance, a fundamental departure from civilized codes of organizing society. Disrepair or disequilibrium in the state of affairs in a nation marks a departure from order. When the normal order of things is replaced by pervasive abnormality, disorder becomes the new normal.
The origins of such disorder date back to ancient times. Greek tragedy is our readiest showcase. When in Sophoclean tragedy the king goes astray, the polity and society are unhinged. Anarchy ensues. Epidemics and curses rage unhindered. The angry gods are only assuaged and ordered is restored when the old reign ends and a new order is emplaced. A new order ensues when the monarchy is restored. The restoration of order is celebrated through ceremony, dance and displays.
Tomorrow’s ceremony of succession is perhaps not quite like any other one in recent times. But the outlines are familiar and resonate with classical models. In today’s Nigeria, order as a feature of our national life is on recess. Very few Nigerians can bear witness to normalcy as we once knew it in the last eight years. As we speak, our nation dangles on a precipice between treacherous survival and a perilous anarchy.
The place we once called home is not quite like what we all used to know. Fear lurks in every street corner and every highway. Our urban neighbourhoods have become the abodes of violent gangs and dangerous cults. Our rural areas are swarming with militias of no nomenclature. Our tertiary institutions established for learning the secrets that have transformed other nations into abodes of sweetness are now hotbeds of cybercrimes and dark bloody rituals. The faiths that ought to prepare our people for salvation through brotherhood and fellowship on earth have been invoked by devilish power mongers to divide us along all known lines.
Mr. Buhari as president for eight years may have given of his best to the nation as he now repeatedly insists. But the results on the ground speak of a yawning gap between what was promised and what has been delivered. Maybe the odds were against his best efforts. Maybe some numbers just failed to add up. It is even possible that he and his crew hardly knew the landscape well enough. In order to change a given reality, you must master it in order to dominate it let alone bend it to the popular will. We expected. We waited. And we hoped. We remained patient along the way. But at this hour of exit and renewal, there is no sweetness here or anywhere in the vicinity.
As we await the parades and fireworks tomorrow, this tragic and depressing reality is the fierce urgency of this hour. This dark sack cloth is the backdrop for the elaborate ceremonies that will regale dignitaries and guests tomorrow. But the essence of tomorrow’s inauguration must not be lost in the symbolism of the moment of ceremony.
Therefore, beyond the pomp and displays that will happen in Abuja tomorrow, both our leaders and citizens must see beyond the glitz of the day. We expect to hear in the words of the presidential inaugural address definite take -aways and memorable words to hold on to. The day belongs to the incoming leadership of Mr. Tinubu and Alhaji Shettima. Perhaps this is the moment that Mr. Tinubu was anticipating when he exclaimed “Emi lokan”- It is my turn. It is his turn to renew our hope, to reactivate the commitments that have kept us together despite odds. He needs to go beyond any suggestions of a personality cult in the making to utter words to kill the mocking bird of campaign season animosity and madness.
Beyond words, we need deeds to redefine our nationhood. It is not just a restoration of a semblance of order in our normal daily existence that is urgently required. That is a necessary starting point. Nigerians now need to step out of their homes and be sure to return safely. People need to travel our highways and be certain to get to their destinations without the risk of being kidnapped or murdered. The poor of today need hope that tomorrow will uplift their situation. The next generation of Nigerians must not continue to live life encaged in the helpless knowledge that even they too will bequeath poverty to their own children. Purpose must replace futility if Mr. Tinubu is to justify his feeling of entitlement to aspire to presidential power. Otherwise he will have wasted his time and that of every other Nigerian.
Our schools need to be open year round to impart knowledge and not disperse ignorance and deepen superstition. The sick and infirm must seek and find succor and healing in clinics, health centres and hospitals that cure rather than kill people who seek their help. All these and more are the minimum irreducible demands of the moment to begin reversing the disorder that the departing dispensation unleashed on us as a legacy.
But beyond these immediate and choking challenges, a serious new leadership must take another look at the Nigeria in which tomorrow’s succession ceremony is taking place. After a brutal civil war, Nigeria was remade in accordance with a new national order in 1970. Structurally, the nation was reconfigured from regions into states. Psychologically, a new sense of reconciliation and renewed unity was inaugurated. Economically, the oil boom was born to empower government and people to tackle the things that money could buy- infrastructure, human capital development, international sagacity etc. The new Nigeria was one in which young Nigerians embraced education because there was a job waiting at the end of the road. While that order prevailed, it seemed as if there was indeed a Nigerian dream which was attainable in a life time. The honest worker knew he would earn enough to save for his children’s education and perhaps a modest retirement home in the village.
Our new post war national order was guaranteed by a strong federal might presiding over states that could hardly pose a political threat to that authority.
Today, that order has literally dissolved. Separatist pressures from ethnicities, regions and communities now freely threaten the dwindling might of the federal guarantor of a receding national order. That previously overwhelming might is now easily outgunned and overrun by all manner of fierce contenders. Guns and uniforms that used to confer superior authority by frightening citizens into conformity are now two a kobo at the roadside market and readily in the hands of casual thugs and free ranging cultists.
The monopoly of control over economic resources has been burst as marauding gangs of thugs and official armed agents help themselves to resources ranging from oil to precious minerals in far flung locations. There is a thriving separate market specializing in ‘Zamfara gold’ in Guangzou, China! Our entire ungoverned spaces are squarely in the hands of vicious armed non state militants. Sometimes, the official security forces equipped with costly weapons of war have had to seek the help of local hunters armed with charms, amulets and Dane guns to ward off roving gangs of marauders and killers armed with AK-47s and GPS devices.
The power of the social media with a cacophony of millions of loud discordant voices has drowned the previous authoritative voice of the government which is now often lost for direction and message. The alternative power of information carried by cheap cell phones in literally every hand portends a transfer of the power of information from the high and mighty to the low and many. A new society has been born complete with its own values and powers of choice. The youth that Nigeria can hardly provide for are redefining the Nigerian dream through the immense creative profitability of technology as well as its potential for devastating criminality. Our children are now being taught to count money in billions. Anything less glamorous depresses them into open revolts.
The power of overwhelming corruption has blurred the distinction between government coffers and private treasure vaults. In Nigeria, both are literally one and the same. In some quarters, the state and its treasures have been privatized. As a defining force of the Nigerian political and economic ecosystem, corruption defeated and humbled Mr. Buhari and even took him hostage without a whimper. How Mr. Tinubu defines corruption and approaches it will perhaps be the most interesting engagement of his presidency.
The beauty of tomorrow’s ceremonies is that they will quickly yield place to the stark realities of a new era: Nigeria AB, Nigeria After Buhari. Interesting days indeed.