Here is the summary: before the 28th of March 2015, Nigerians could be classified as an unhappy and distressed group of people. This was not just a passing wave of depression; the national mood had been continually dampened by wave after wave of Boko Haram attack in the north and the growing suspicion that the deadly group could strike somewhere else in the country. Nigeria was equally tense because of the failure of the federal government and military to re-capture the over 200 kidnapped girls from Chibok in April 2014, the recent sharp decline in the value of the national currency, the evident ineptitude of the Goodluck Jonathan led-government, and the sudden postponement of national elections by six weeks apparently to ‘fight Boko Haram’.
However, since the 28th of March, life has returned to Nigeria; everyone seems optimistic about the country’s future and the national mood can be best described as boisterous. The obvious reason for the quick turnaround is the crumble of the much-talked-about power of incumbency and the emergence of an opposition party candidate as president. Goodluck Jonathan’s defeat in the presidential elections and the ascendance to power of Muhammadu Buhari has been vaunted on every global medium as previously unthinkable in Nigeria, and indeed it is; but there is an undertone to Nigeria’s transformation that has not been trumpeted as much as it could be – the importance of catalytic leadership. Nigeria is not a changed country because a new president was sworn-in on the 29th of May, it is a new country because catalysts in positions of authority demonstrated exceptional leadership in the days leading up to and succeeding the 28th of March, 2015.
The first of the catalysts is the incoming president of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari. A self-confessed converted democrat whose reputation for discipline and integrity were insufficient to earn him national recognition and success at the ballot at three previous attempts suddenly ascended to the level of messiah. Much can be said about the political machinations that resulted in his emergence, but there is much more to be said about the man. Unlike his opposite number, he exuded calm and tact throughout the campaign process, always looked assured and presidential, campaigned solely on ideas, employed a youthful team of media experts, and chose a class act (Professor Yemi Osinbajo) as his running mate. Unlike Namadi Sambo (Jonathan’s running mate), Osinbajo hit the ground running and connected easily with the common man. His credentials stood him out, but his demeanour elevated him even further; it was as though the people by themselves had chosen him. Even more dignified was the fact that the Buhari campaign team hardly ever engaged in any form of negative campaign, which was the trademark of the Jonathan campaign team championed by Messrs Femi Fani-Kayode, Ayo Fayose and Doyin Okupe; they seized every opportunity to rubbish the personality of General Buhari and to predict all manners of mishap if he ever became president. On the flip side, there was no hint of desperation from the Buhari camp, and this singular trait endeared him even more to the people; from interviews on Al Jazeera and CNN to a world class speech delivered at Chatham House, London, he looked and spoke like the incoming Nigerian president, and now he is.
Another Nigerian whose serene character calmed a tense nation is the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega. His task was never an easy one and it was made much more difficult by the endless allegations of electoral fraud all over the country. Nearly everyone expected that the will of the people will be subverted, especially when the long-confirmed election dates were shifted. Many assumed that this was a ploy by the ruling government to adjust conditions in its favour, while others guessed that it was an opportunity to force Jega to proceed on extended leave. In the end, Jega successfully marshalled a team of over 170,000 people across the nation to implement the use of electronic card readers for the first time in Nigeria’s history which went a long way in easing the fears of citizens about the outcome of the elections. Even when complaints begun to filter in from all over the country about under-age voting and electoral violence, Jega never appeared flustered or overwhelmed by the job; rather he took responsibility for the onerous process of data collation. He was extremely meticulous in verifying numbers and cross-checking results, and even took the time to school an unruly party chieftain about the intricacies of decorum in public settings. If he wasn’t already a national hero, Jega was crowned on the 31st of March, 2015. He was the definition of calm under pressure.
Finally, perhaps the most significant catalytic leader in Nigeria these past few weeks is the outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. Suffice to say that he was way in over his head with the job of a lifetime, he was verbally assaulted and insulted for the better part of six years by an insatiable population demanding good governance. He was often deficient in tact throughout his presidency, but it can be argued that his greatest act as president was performed the night of March 31, 2015 when he placed a congratulatory call to his opponent before the last votes were counted. Such statesmanly actions have been so rare in Nigerian politics that even members of his political party criticized him for conceding so cheaply. By requesting a meeting to begin discussing transition plans before his opponent had been officially declared winner, Jonathan singlehandedly forestalled the shedding of innocent blood, endless court cases and utter chaos in his country. He has been deified in several sections of the country, and while that might be a stretch too far, he definitely should be commended for preserving the best of Nigeria’s democracy and laying the standard for his peers across the continent.
Nigeria has come a very long way as a democratic entity in 16 short years, and the promise of democracy is only just beginning to yield its first bud. It is very imperative to congratulate the entire nation for an uncommon outcome, but also to specifically congratulate the youth for their invaluable role in the process through social media mobilization and their full involvement. Lastly, the de facto leader of the opposition party, Bola Tinubu must be applauded for defining a credible opposition party and strategizing endlessly to break the chokehold of the Peoples’ Democratic Party on the national life of Nigerians. This is a new season of catalytic change, and may the ripple effects of these elections long live in Nigeria and help in transforming the African continent.
This article was first published on Applause Africa
It is the season for change! Passions boil over in Nigeria particularly regarding the upcoming presidential elections. It is the season for promises; candidates dust off their worn-out manifesto books and recant the same assurances as before – jobs for youth, unending power supply, boost for the agricultural sector, reduced reliance on oil, improved road infrastructure and bla bla. One could almost recite a politician’s words before they are said. In this age of enlightenment, the ‘smarter’ politicians have taken their strategies much further than posters and radio jingles; they have begun to speak the language of the people – distributing loaves of bread, bags of rice, and gallons of kerosene. A country which promises so much always finds a mysterious way to deliver so little.
Every four years since 1999, Nigerians have been blessed with the privilege of anticipation; there is almost a certain assurance that the coming four years will be more blissful than the past, and with this hope, citizens trudge to polling booths, form (often) orderly queues, banter endlessly with strangers in line, and then perform their civic duty, finally beaming with pride. They do this in the hope that their votes have some value, or in spite of the awareness that they are simply public evidence for the electoral machinations that take place behind closed doors. “It is better to do something than nothing”, they say. If there’s anything Nigerians have in abundance, it is a combination of endurance and hope.
As Nigerians prepare to cast their ballots in less than a week, there appear to be two weird options – a vote for an undesirable past, or an unfortunate present. Nigeria’s present is shameful and distasteful, to say the least. I believe that President Goodluck Jonathan was an accidental president and six years have done very little to help him get to grips with the task, or to step up to it. I am not foolhardy enough to assume that it is a smooth job and that all parameters of governance are within his control, but as a citizen, I am far from impressed with the results of his government. His media voltrons may trumpet his achievements in agriculture as loud as they please, but it is really difficult to bandage a stinky wound. One is forced to believe that the few successes of his administration have occurred in spite of his leadership, rather than because of it. Even if he were a really smart president with the right vision for the country, he perpetually fails to inspire any confidence in the citizenry, and history has often proven that perception is reality. Not many honest Nigerians are proud to mention Goodluck Jonathan as the best man to lead Nigeria through the series of crises that currently cripple the nation; worse still, the entire world can’t get enough jokes out of our president.
With our unfortunate present being sub-optimal, the alternative doesn’t immediately look desirable. General Muhammadu Buhari has strangely become the messiah of the country at the fourth time of asking for a democratic mandate, 32 years after he scuttled a democratic government through a military coup. Oh yes, he was a relatively young high-ranking soldier who ‘rescued’ the country from the throes of an ineffective civilian, and ruled with a tough disciplined hand. Oh yes, he should not be held solely accountable for what happened 30 years ago; he has changed!
Oh yes, he has the reputation of an incorruptible straightforward man, but is he really messiah? What happened in 2003, 2007 and 2011? Why was Buhari’s candidature the subject of derision even four years ago, when everyone told him to give up on his inordinate ambition and enjoy retirement? How come at the age of 74, he has suddenly emerged as the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria since mobile phones? It is often said by his campaigners that he will bring his military experience to bear in the fight against Boko Haram, but I cringe at the thought that there is not much evidence of the role he has played in the past eight years as an ex-military leader from northern Nigeria to quell this insurgency. If truly he understands their language, what help has he offered to the current administration to fight these brutish animals?
Inevitably, these elections will be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is most unfortunate that in elections such as this, citizens do not choose their candidates; they are constrained to choose among the decided candidates. Neither Buhari nor Jonathan readily appeals to my senses, but one must emerge. I believe that several million Nigerians will vote for Buhari, not because they are fully convinced of his credentials, but because they can’t imagine voting for Jonathan. I also believe that several million Nigerians will vote for Jonathan, not because they believe in his capacity to govern with wisdom, but out of sentiments and fear of returning to the past.
And so, in all these, from where cometh the change which we so desperately desire?
The year was 2010, the month was October, and it was the first day. I crouched into a seat on the third row of the 18-seater Toyota Hiace bus at Ojoo, Ibadan and committed my trip into God’s hands. I was on my way to Lekki, Lagos where I was scheduled to be guest speaker at one of the numerous golden jubilee celebrations taking place across the country. I spent the next two hours searching the recesses of my brain for enough solid points to stun my audience with enough reasons to not give up on Nigeria. It was my intention to convince them to defy their better reasoning, ignore the voices of many who claimed that Nigeria had achieved nothing in 50 years of corporate existence and proceed with the belief that the future was bright. I don’t know how successful I was in passing that message across on Independence Day two years ago, but I know that my audience nodded with understanding intermittently. It wasn’t the easiest speech I have ever made, but I gave it my best shot and was rewarded handsomely with a fat white envelope. But wait, how did I get here?
Holidays are solemn occasions in Nigeria, but some holidays mean more to us than others. October 1, 2010 was very symbolic, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of our independence from British rule. It was also the first opportunity that Goodluck Jonathan had to coordinate a national celebration as substantive president of the country and he wasted no time in issuing a N10billion budget. This was going to the mother of all celebrations because we were apparently the first country on earth to attain the pristine age of 50. All hell was let loose with the astronomical budget, with even the Nigerian Senate surprisingly condemning the budget and slashing it drastically to N6billion. The common theme for Nigerians was “What is there to celebrate?” Just like all commentators of the day, I found myself rattling off endlessly on the list of failures of the country until I got a call inviting me to be guest speaker at a golden jubilee celebration. I instantly picked my topic: “Independence or In-Dependence?” and continued to develop my thoughts along the lines of our inability to break-even after fifty years until I realized that I was expected to give an upbeat presentation and not state the obvious. My heart sank!
For several days, I struggled to string coherent thoughts together as I became overwhelmingly aware of the failures of civilian rule under Azikiwe and Balewa giving birth to military domination by Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida and Abacha, with Murtala Muhammed’s regime being the brief interspersing of reasonable leadership. I recalled Shagari’s civilian docility and shook my head even further. It was much easier to narrate the history of politically-motivated killings all the way from Tafawa Balewa to Adekunle Fajuyi, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed. Political assassinations seem to be a Nigerian staple and having grown up on tales of S.L. Akintola, Dele Giwa, Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Kudirat Abiola and others, it wasn’t much of a shocker to realize that the murders of MKO, Bola Ige, Marshall Harry and others would never be resolved.
When I finally decided to realign my thoughts and deepen my research, I began to glean some speckles of gold dust amidst the murky waters of Nigerian history. I remembered that in sports, our soccer team was ranked 5th in the world in 1994 and claimed Olympic Gold in 1996; I remembered that one of the most skillful footballers on the planet, Ronaldinho referred to a certain Nigerian number 10 as his idol; I remembered that our music has been heard across the world and the documentary on Fela Anikulapo’s life has aired successfully on Broadway; I realized that Nigerian movies have been premiered at the world’s biggest film festivals and our screen stars have rubbed shoulders with the world’s best; I realized that our writers have claimed the highest literary prizes on the planet and the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart was celebrated in 50 cities across the world. I realized that in 2001, the most beautiful girl in the world was a Nigerian teenager, as was the first winner of the Nokia Face of Africa contest; I realized that the designer of the world’s first hybrid electric car, the Chevrolet Volt was a Nigerian; I realized that the inventor of mobile polyphonic ringtones and the designer of the world’s most expensive phones and suits was Nigerian. I realized that the Managing Director of the World Bank was a Nigerian woman; and that the only African to ever be Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations was Nigerian. All in all, I realized that Nigeria had so much to be thankful for, but always found a way to hit the top of global headlines because of the failures of a handful of political hooligans and some beggarly elements. I turned my speech around, spoke from my heart and left Lagos the following morning with a renewed passion to seek out the best of Nigeria.
On this solemn occasion of Goodluck Jonathan’s first anniversary as President, I have found myself treading that familiar path to ask myself how we found ourselves once again complaining bitterly about the state of our nation. We never really liked Umaru Yar’Adua because of the circumstance of his emergence as President in 2007, but Nigerians almost unanimously supported Goodluck Jonathan’s noiseless push to succeed him as President. We somehow believed that he was going to be a different brand of leader and his first few utterances as President seemed to prove us right. When he declared his interest in the 2011 race, Nigerians voted for him en masse and they knew what they were doing. The race was a clear popularity contest between Jonathan and three-time contestant, Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected Buhari. We were not hoodwinked. We liked Jonathan because we knew very little about him and the very little we knew appeared to be good. So, did we make a wrong choice back then? Hindsight is 20:20, but at the time, Nigerians did what they thought was right.
A lot has changed in our history over time. Gone are the days when one naira exchanged for $0.55 in 1980, now we speak of N159; gone are the days when we overwhelmingly sent Ghanaians packing in 1983 and laughed at their worthless currency, now there are almost more Nigerians than Ghanaians in Ghana and the Ghanaian economy rolls on like a locomotive engine. Perhaps the peak of embarrassment that Nigeria has received from Ghana, besides the fact that Ghana’s only oil refinery seems to be thriving perfectly with oil imported from Nigeria, was the coming of the Ghanaian Deputy Energy Minister to Lagos in 2009 to deliver a lecture on “How Ghana Kept the Lights On”. What a shame on us! Gone are the days when young Nigerian students received mouth-watering scholarships to study in the best schools in the UK and returned to lecture at Nigeria’s universities; these days, people who are lucky to escape to Uganda and Gabon are swearing to never set foot on Nigerian soil again.
When Abubakar Tafawa Balewa visited the United States in July 1961, he was accorded the highest honours in the land; received personally at the airport by Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President of the United States, met at the doors of the White House by President John F. Kennedy, accorded audience before a joint session of the US Congress (one of only 112 people ever to do so in US history), awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree of Laws by New York University (America’s largest private university), granted honorary citizenship of the cities of New York and Chicago (America’s two largest cities), granted audience with the UN Secretary-General and cheered endlessly by joyous Americans. These days, Nigerian politicians are being carpeted sheepishly by British lawyers, ridiculed and convicted while we struggle to explain our inability to bring them to judgment on their own soil. Far behind us are the days when Obafemi Awolowo built the Cocoa House (then Africa’s largest skyscraper) from the proceeds of agriculture, far behind us are the days when Nnamdi Azikiwe and Odumegwu Ojuwku fought tirelessly for equal representation of the Igbos; far behind us are the days when Ken Saro Wiwa gave his last drop of blood for the emancipation of the Ogonis; these days, Tompolo, Boyloaf, Asari Dokubo and their fellow militants strut confidently in the corridors of Aso Rock in defiant demonstration of the fact that their struggles were for personal aggrandizement.
So on a day like this, when there couldn’t be a clearer diversity of opinion between Nigerians in the corridors of power and Nigerians on the edges of rickety Lagos buses on the achievements of Goodluck Jonathan, it is appropriate to look backwards before looking forwards. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency almost makes Olusegun Obasanjo look like a saint, but this is really not about Goodluck. True, he has done next to nothing to establish his credibility, but our challenges precede him and would possibly outlive him. No one can say for sure how we got here, but we find ourselves in a very desperate position and urgently in need of salvation. The call rings ever louder for true patriots to arise and take their places in politics, in business and in the civil sector. 2015 is far too long for Nigerians to wait for a comprehensive overhaul; we stand the risk of pandering yet again to the sweet talk of some phony politician who might have never had a belt to keep up his school shorts. The time is ripe for us, especially the young generation, to lay out a clear agenda for our future and design a roadmap for getting there. Nigeria belongs to us and our children and Goodluck Jonathan will not always be here to listen to our complaints. We have to reclaim our country by all means and shape her as a prime destination for progressives. We may not know exactly how we got here, but we can hardly move on into a bright future without a clear understanding of the past and a firm rejection of the present. Nigeria deserves better.
You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun