The Chutzpah of an incorruptible President
“Nigeria is not cursed; Nigeria is only held down by greed and the inability of her leaders to manage her mineral wealth. This is also a way of saying that Nigeria really works, but for one per cent of the population – former Heads of State who are among the richest in the country, business front men and women and family associates who control access to the oil wealth and lucrative contracts, lawmakers who are the highest paid in the world, governors and their godfathers who manage the distributive power of various states like a private fiefdom. If Nigeria has a structure that is dysfunctional and resistant to change, it is because it is immensely beneficial to the elites.” – Paul Irikefe, Why Nigeria is not Working (2013).
“DID I just hear you say you belong to nobody?” This was the question that the First Lady, Aisha Buhari leaned over to reportedly ask her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari when he returned to take his seat after his inaugural speech on May 29, 2015 at the Eagle Square. When I saw the photograph on Facebook it made me laugh wildly. This is perhaps one of the resilient qualities that make Nigerians a happy people. It is a mark of the extraordinary creative genius of our people that they know how to interlace candour with humour so as to ease off tension. The moral of the humour, however, is that Buhari shouldn’t say he belongs to nobody. There is, at least, one person who can claim him for herself – his wife.
I am sure that by now that the famous line of Buhari’s inaugural speech, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” has succeeded in firing the imagination of Nigerians and in renewing their sense of confidence in the man whom they chose to be their President. It has also become a subject of intense public discussion, especially in the media. Many years from now, Nigerians may forget the details of the speech, but they are not likely to forget that presidential catchphrase in a hurry. In those simple words are contained the programmatic and paradigmatic orientation of a presidential mission; and it is on the basis of those same words that the high court of history would at a future date sit in judgment over Buhari’s Presidency.
Buhari knows that many Nigerians have had their reservations about some of his closest political allies. During the election campaign season many people asked how a man with a towering reputation for personal integrity could be mingling with some of Nigeria’s most notorious politicians. I understand that it would have been politically unwise, in the heat of the dollarised election season, for a man of modest resources, who was determined to become President of Nigeria, to discard the ‘dirty money’ that boosted his financial war chest. But precisely on account of this, Nigerians have been watching to see how he will manage his relationship with his closest political associates and electoral financiers. Whether he will surrender the task of governance to political gladiators within and outside the APC who brought him to power or courageously take the driver’s seat in discharging his duties to the nation is still a subject of speculation.
When I published my piece, “Miracles, Rhetoric and Change” in these columns of the Youth Speak, The Guardian (04/05/15) well ahead of the presidential inauguration, it was this same situation that I was worried about. “Seen through the eyes of electoral victory,” I said, “Buhari must know that he is first and foremost the President of Nigeria before being a Northerner or a Moslem or an indigene of Daura. He must know that he is going to preside over a nation of 170 million citizens – a complex web of humanity with rich diversity. He will be President not only of the 15 million Nigerians that voted for him, but also of the 12 million Nigerians that voted against him, who voted for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, and of the vast majority of Nigerians who are not card-carrying members of any political party, but men and women who want to live in a land of peace and prosperity. If Buhari allows himself to be captured and suffocated by sectional, tribal or religious jingoists, he would lose the historic opportunity at this fine hour to impose a new ethos of unity over the charred remains of this divided and polarised nation.”
On this basis, it was a welcome relief for me when I heard Buhari make that well-calculated statement while delivering his inaugural speech. The full implication of that remark is that the President is asking Nigerians to hold him accountable for whatever happens under his watch. The audacity of that presidential declaration rests on the assumption that Buhari will work for the good of all of Nigerians, irrespective of tribe, creed, language or political affiliation, and that he will not allow himself to be asphyxiated by self-seeking political, religious, traditional and business elite whose combined influence in determining the direction of Nigerian politics is not only a source of presidential nightmare but also worthy of extensive academic investigation.
In his revealing book Nigeria Dancing on the Brink (2010), former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell introduces his readers to the difficulties and complexities associated with presiding over this huge multi-ethnic country called Nigeria. According to Campbell, since the fall of the First Republic, Nigeria has been ruled by a handful of power-wielding oligarchs who “have held power, lost power, and lived to play again.” Those who aspire to the highest office in the land cultivate the friendship of these oligarchs. Whether from the military, politics or business, these oligarchs seek to protect the parochial interests of their subordinates and clients in order to ensure their continued access to the spoils of office.
This matrix of social, political and economic connections is what determines the fate and fortunes of millions of Nigerians. Whether it is in securing a well-paid job, getting a contract, becoming a minister, gaining admission into university or having the law enforced in a legitimate case, what matters in Nigeria is not one’s credentials but one’s connections – who one really knows either directly or indirectly on the ladder of Nigeria’s power pyramid. It is this hidden wiring that creates Presidents. It can also turn a pauper into an accidental billionaire overnight.
The truth is that when it comes to the real stuff of governance in a country like Nigeria, rhetoric matters less. Those who are presidential kingmakers know how to play their game around the corridors of power if they want the President to succeed or to fail. This was where Jonathan missed the point. Here was a good man who effortlessly rode to victory in 2011 on the crest of popular support. Four years later he had frittered away that tremendous amount of goodwill by surrendering the business of statecraft to an amorphous class of powerful men and women who made rubbish of his presidency right under his nose. Anyone who has read Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics & Death (2011) will understand how this intricate network of cabals can hold a legitimate government hostage.
Without attempting to underestimate Buhari’s capabilities, we must also be very circumspect not to overrate his possibilities under a democratic dispensation. In a country where moneybags know how best to use their resources to lubricate the paraphernalia of statecraft, Buhari must really prove that he belongs to everybody and nobody. He will need a heavy dose of moral stamina to swim against the tide and damn the consequences because he will surely acquire a new class of political foes who will fight tooth and nail to make sure his presidential mission fails.
However, I believe that this wise admonition from J. F. Kennedy should never escape the discerning mind of Buhari: “Of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment of each of us…recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state…our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answer to four questions: Were we truly men of courage? Were we truly men of judgment? Were we truly men of integrity? Were we truly men of dedication?”
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja. (firstname.lastname@example.org) 07066363913.