In the media coverage of the March 28th, 2015 Nigerian presidential election across the world, only The (UK) Guardian, as far as I know, went as far as proclaiming the election of General Muhammadu Buhari as something revolutionary, (See “Nigeria’s election of Muhammadu Buhari is truly revolutionary”, theguardian.com, March 31st, 2015). Although it was an opinion authored by a Nigerian, it must also be The Guardian’s self understanding that explains the acceptance of the qualifier – revolutionary – in the headline and it is that qualifier that makes all the difference. That is, difference in terms of powerfully drawing attention to the anti-thesis of that word revolutionary since each word in a sentence makes sense in relation to what it is not. In other words, the appearance of the word revolutionary has made it an imperative to focus on the dialectics of the Buhari victory. That’s the point about this piece.
There is no argument about it that Buhari’s coming is a revolution in that, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, there is convergence of perception between a vast segment of the power elite and their global network on the one hand and the masses or the downtrodden about who should be the president of Nigeria. It is such a coalition of very willing but divergent partners behind the impending government in Nigeria. But does that convergence of diverse interests remind us of anything in history? It should.
In December 1983 when Buhari became the military head of state, it was not his own agenda. This is a well known narrative which even Shehu Shagari, the civilian president whom Buhari overthrew, gave further credence to recently by re-telling the story. Buhari’s qualification for the job as far as the core group in the military which organised that coup in 1983 was concerned is the integrity upon which the credibility and acceptability of the putsch could be erected. But, in asserting integrity, Buhari fell apart with elements of that core and ‘they’ eased him out of power twenty months later. Thirty years after, nearly the same sets of actors, including its international expressions, have gone to bring him back and basically for the same reason. But is it the case that he has accepted their terms or have they bowed to his own understanding of the crisis in Nigeria or have they reached a compromise on that?
What is great and most promising about Buhari is not his puritanism. It is not his anti-corruption stance either, critical as that may be. While on this point, it might be proper and fitting to remind the reader of Bill Clinton’s argument during his visit to Nigeria in 2000. According to Clinton, even if no corrupt leaders had stolen Nigeria’s oil revenues, Nigeria would still be no where if it has not invested the revenues strategically. Finally, it cannot be Buhari’s ‘War Against Indiscipline’, popular and acceptable as that is with Nigerians. What is fundamentally appealing about Buhari in the quarters which think critically about the Nigerian condition is what is best illustrated by how the government under him in 1984 went out of its way to adopt the minority report of the Study Group on Privatization of State Owned Enterprises, (SOEs) essentially on the basis of the argument captured by just this sentence that: “in the absence of a twin proposal that the would-be beneficiaries of the privatization of NET (as the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, (NITEL) was then known) should also start a telephone company and build their own earth stations, the extent to which privatizing NET would defraud the Federal Government on a permanent, continuing basis, is too scandalous and mind-boggling to be contemplated”. It is a long report located in the political economy of Nigeria, concluding that it was the private sector, in collaboration with management of NET, that duped the organization and that selling NET/NITEL would amount to “rewarding open theft”.
In other words, what defines the essential Buhari is a particular understanding of the trouble with Nigeria as illustrated immediately above. In the context of the fact that majority of the interests, particularly the external axis of the convergence of interests that has brought him back to power favour neoliberal globalisation, might Nigeria be heading for a tendency tussle? Or has there has been a shift on Buhari’s part that such would not arise? It is an important question to pose: how does Buhari fulfil the strategic imperative of keeping this beautiful coalition intact even if only because it is so beautiful but without compromising on economic development strategy and undoing himself?
Since the mid 1980s, a powerful minority has been arguing for the Nigerian State to step back and allow the private sector to engineer social transformation of a basically agrarian economy as against state interventionism in the productive areas. Unfortunately, that model against which Buhari rebelled in the mid 1980s has failed woefully for the past 30 years, fundamentally de-industrialising the country and delinking the Nigerian State from the Nigerian people in terms of responding to popular interests through the multiplier effects of an industrialising economy. Instead of that, it has been a clear state of anomie as retrenchment, inflation, poverty and anguish or hardship questioned settled meaning of life in the larger society.
There is thus nothing farfetched about a tendency tussle and, by implication, what might turn out to be the Buhari paradox: the reason he is always ‘invited’ to take power is also the reason he gets into trouble in the exercise of power. Is there a middle ground or can he find a way of maintaining his erstwhile position without antagonising many if not all the other members of the coalition that saw him back in power? Or can he accomplish such a shift without demystifying himself in less than a year and proving the out-going president right that Nigerians would only appreciate him after he has left power. It is never going to happen that Nigerians will truly appreciate Dr Goodluck Jonathan in the sense of regretting but it would have happened if the Kilimanjaro high expectations from Buhari still rest in speculation one year after assuming power.
It is clear to everyone by now that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Nigeria or Nigerians. There is also nothing amiss about Nigerian federalism. The trouble with Nigeria is the Nigerian economy. In addition to the skewed structural manner of its integration into the world economy just like every other African economy is the crisis of the business model. The time has come to interrogate the belief that the basically subsistent Nigerian economy can be transformed via private sector primacy. It is of strategic importance that, this time, a president with a history of a previous intervention in this process is in charge and can lead the interrogation with particular reference to reversing the trend whereby the power elite in Nigeria has interpreted deregulation to mean the auctioning of State Owned Enterprises, (SOEs) when deregulation ought to mean no more than opening up the economic space to competitors with SOEs.
And this is where the second plausible conflict would come from. In the name of tackling inefficiency, corruption and unprofitability, every regime since about 1990 has been transferring public enterprises into private sector hands. If Nigerians know the details of how this has been carried out, it will prove a more combustible spark than ethnicity, region or religion in Nigerian politics. In the interest of stability, it is not healthy for them to know the details but will there be no corrections? Already, there is something troubling about this. Buhari is saying that his new approach to corruption is to draw the line from the day he assumes power on May 29th, 2015. There is something tactically beautiful in saying so but can Nigeria turn the corner without looking back in terms of what has happened to the country particularly in the case of so-called privatisation exercise to which everything great about Nigeria has perished even though it is expressly disallowed by the Nigerian Constitution? The provisions of Chapter Two of the much criticised but subsisting 1999 Constitution forbids the management of the economy along that trajectory.
In Nigeria, undoing the past is complicated. Although there is no way of moving forward without addressing the past, how to do it without risking unintended consequences is even more complicated. Only someone who has no plans to go for a second term in office can do it, something that is damned too early to even think about in the case of Buhari.
Somehow, it has to be done because Nigeria is evaporating. And it shows in the world’s relief that Nigeria could pull it through without the much feared chaos and bloodshed with which the March 2015 elections was associated. It feels great for the world to be so concerned about one’s country but it must worry all that the world should worry about peaceful conduct of election in a country which has been independent for 55 years and is 16 years into democratisation. It suggests strongly a country about which something is fundamentally amiss. Is something fundamentally amiss about Nigeria as a country?
That is a question that can be answered both ways. Many would recall what Bill Clinton also said in Ghana in 1998 about Nigeria being beyond comprehension. He was speaking during an African tour from which Nigeria was excluded in exasperation with the Nigeria’s military dictatorship then. There is also the joke within the upper echelon of the diplomatic elite about a former American Secretary of State and a former UN Secretary-General declaring in response to a question as to where they hope to live in retirement that it has to be Nigeria. When asked to explain the basis of such a seemingly bizarre choice, they all reportedly said something like: which other country bounces back like Nigeria at precisely that moment when one thinks it is finished?
Even the Nigerians can be very frank about the country. General Olusegun Obasanjo, the only individual lucky enough to have ruled the country twice, first as military dictator in the late 1970s and second, as a ‘democrat’ from 1999 to 2007 said in a speech in 1994 that Nigeria has remained “a country perpetually potentially great, almost permanently in crisis, regularly threatened with disintegration, prolongingly devoid of democracy, and economically plundered and mismanaged, forever talking about democracy but forever retreating from democracy”.
In one word, Nigeria is beyond comprehension. Even the British who crafted the country by cobbling the north and south in 1914 are not an exception in the politics of stereotyping Nigeria. According to one of Nigeria’s most informed elder statesmen, the unwritten British view of Nigeria is that of a country where “the best may be impossible but the worst never happens”.
All these could form the basis of an argument that there is something fundamentally amiss about Nigeria. More so that to these jokes and stereotypes could be added the complexity of the federation. Unlike India, Russia, ‘Britain’, Canada and just about any other in the world, there is no one hegemonic ethnic group with the capacity to define the character of the Nigerian State and bend it to its will, for better or for worse. There is also no religion or language or just about any such symbolism providing a centre of gravity. To make matters worse, Nigeria came to independence in October 1960 with each of the three major ethnic groups highly socialised in ethnic politics, entangling nation and state building in a arithmetic of power – which candidate from which ethno-religious group takes which position at a particular point and which one balances it best, etc – instead of transformative politics.
Of course, there are those who argue and correctly too that the arithmetic of power has been a creative management of this complexity in the sense that at the time the Nigerian power elite came up with such formulae as recruitment by quota into the military, the Federal Character principle in the civil service, national unity programmes such as the National Youth Service Corp Scheme, (NYSC) and so on, most African countries were still under one party or one-man rule. But it did not make the Nigerian power elite a transformative power elite in the same way that one could say of their counterpart in, say, Singapore. That is particularly so if one reckons with Lee Kuan Yew insisting on a critical perspective of democracy after taking a contextual note of the country he inherited, a country which he said in a 2007 interview referred to recently in the International New York Times as unusual in the sense of what he called the ingredients of a nation: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny” but, rather, “a combustible ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Chinese, Malays and Indians gathered in a city-state of no natural resources”. While, for Yew, it was a case of recognising a problem with a view to solving it, it was an alibi for absolutising politics of ethnic arithmetic among his Nigerian counterpart.
In Nigeria’s case, all the leaders of the three major ethnic groups made statements to the effect that 1914 is a mistake, 1914 being the year the British colonialists amalgamated northern and southern parts of the country into one country called Nigeria. The north-south dichotomy never quite existed but has been such a powerful construction as to overshadow every other reality. So powerful has been the construction that it overshadowed the fact that Nigerian farmers, for example, do not produce for local but the national market. That is self-evident in the yam traders from Abakiliki in the East going as far as Kano and Maiduguri in the far north and vice versa. But, in the heat or passion of the politics of primordial differences as a way of getting into political office, the north-south division acquired an extra-ordinarily decisive utility. It is in this sense that, in spite of what hagiographers are promoting, it is important to recognise when quality trumps quantity and, accordingly note all those individuals from south-western Nigeria whose backing of Buhari from the far north has finally, formally and completely buried the phantom. After today, nobody talking of north-south dichotomy in Nigerian politics will find any listeners.
It is equally the sense in which the outcome of the March 2015 election stands higher than 1914 because 1914 stood in danger of being undone if this election has been otherwise. It is not because the north or any other region would have risen in revolt but that Nigeria’s historical crisis of a permanent mismatch between the objective and subjective factors for greatness has reached its limit and the next stage would have been an implosion or a revolution, if you like.
The interesting point is that it is elements from the same otherwise comparatively uncritical Nigerian power elite that surprisingly understood this grievous point in Nigeria’s journey and united for a solution by re-inventing one of their own, General Muhammadu Buhari for the task of providing a more disciplined and or decent leadership for the system as the only way to save it. It is difficult to escape this analysis because the fundamental contradiction with the defeated incumbent/regime has very little to do with lack of performance in office but the abject poverty of statecraft, reaching a point where the people in power even lack the skills to steal public resources. It is that lack of stealing skills that exposed governance as utter fraud, infuriating those who, by their class location, would ordinarily not know that much of the details about corruption in government. I contend that it is the revolt against that which has seen Jonathan out. If there is need for proof of this thesis, it is the cluelessness by which a US based Nigerian academic conceptualised the out-going president/regime and which became the all time popular geopolitical byword across the country. So, Nigeria cannot afford to miss the Buhari opportunity.
ONOJA is a graduate researcher in Global Governance @ the University College London