Shortly after President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in in 2015, I visited an elderly man, and we got talking about the country. Readers will recall that the first three months after Buhari became President, there was such stable power supply in many parts of Nigeria that it spawned the myth that it was indeed the start of a new era. This man and I got to the subject of the regular power supply, and he said Buhari had solved the problem once and for all.
“You know what happened?” The man told me. “Buhari flew in a chopper to Kainji Dam one Sunday afternoon, gathered all the engineers, and told them, make this thing work! If you don’t, I will fire you! This man went on to narrate how the engineers were so afraid of Buhari they stopped being sloppy, fixed the machines, and boom! That was how power supply became regular once again.
I did not take the story seriously even though the man claimed that the ex-minister who told him was an eyewitness to that incident. I did not think much of that story either until the myth of Buhari’s “body language” started gaining ground. It has subsided now but in the then social imagination, Buhari’s body language was like Apostle Peter’s shadow – it could heal, even a nation sick to its soul. The lore of a President so charismatic that he could solve national problems without recourse to either rigour or due process percolated the national landscape so much that it made the country amenable to tolerate poor governance and lifeless leadership.
Looking back now, I sympathise with those who created such stories to narrativise Buhari’s purported strong leadership and ability to solve complex problems like he wielded a magic wand. They evince an innate desire for resolution of Nigeria’s issues, but having lived long in a nation where tedious democratic processes have stymied progress, they also know that it might not happen. To make up for the gaps in reality, their imagination fashions a galvanising idea of a benevolent dictator who will get things done even if he has to ride roughshod over encumbering processes. Having created the leadership they desired in their imagination, they projected it on Buhari and hoped he somehow lived up to this ideal.
Whatever his failings as a leader in his first term, people created the Buhari we have had, and they ought to bear part of the responsibility for his shortcomings. Rather than let him become the Nigerian leader, they built a cult of personality around him. They made themselves sentinels, and in guarding his public image against both his sincere critics and traducers, they sowed ruinous toxicity into the political sphere. Part of the problem, as I see it, was the animus generated by the bitter contestation of the 2015 elections. People, those for and against Buhari, did not switch from their partisan modes to become Nigerians again after the presidential election. All their civic duties as Nigerians were instead oriented towards defeating “the other side” rather than safeguarding their economic and social interests.
We have all paid steep prices for hyper-partisanship, and now that the elections have been won and lost, it is time to be Nigerians again.
Having studied post-election atmosphere in a few countries in contemporary societies, I think countries should have elaborate post-election rituals, especially after intensely contested elections. By “rituals,” I do not mean it the way Nollywood, and the religious folk deploy the term – as conjuration of demons and occult powers that would be vanquished in the name of Jesus. What I have in mind is a de-briefing process that purges people of the overload of partisan sentiments that drive the defence of their electoral choices. It might seem paternalistic, but people need to be taught to switch to citizen mode rather than remain perpetual defenders of politicians. We must know that when a politician wins an election, the first things they forget are their manifesto and the people who voted for them. The main item on their mind is power and using it to consolidate their political empire. In that sense, we also ought to abjure partisanship and develop a level of scepticism with which we will challenge our leaders, and demand they take us seriously.
For instance, it is not enough for the people of Kwara State to endlessly bask in the euphoria of overturning the Saraki dynasty with their “o to ge” movement; they now have to make concrete demands of their new government and be ready to make a push for ensuring their lives matter. Otherwise, what is the point of dislodging an oppressor only to allow another one to grow? We need accountable leaders who are transparent in words and in deed, not people who lay grandiose claims to “integrity” but display some of the most egregious acts in their conduct. We also do not need following that overlooks the contradictions in their character. We should reinforce the message that what is at stake for everyone is much more than the tiwantiwa sentiment that underlines most primordial defence of political leaders. We want a country that works, and a leadership that works too, and not merely in our imagination but in reality.
We should refuse to tolerate leadership that gets into office and spends the next six months telling us who stole what amount, for no other apparent reason than to distract from their lack of administrative capability. Buhari’s government wasted a lot of Nigerians’ time feeding us stories of their predecessors’ corruption rather than instituting the change they promised during their campaigns. Those stories were like red meat for their base, and they kept throwing it at them until they were no longer entertaining but, in fact, demoralising. Then, their hypocrisy too began to unravel. Buhari has started again on that path, saying he will call the PDP to account for wasting the nation’s resources since 1999. At this stage, we do not need any more tales of “16 years of the PDP.” Your predecessor stole the country dry to fund the elections? Call the EFCC, not a media conference! Hand them the necessary documents and get to work on what impacts the people’s lives, not settling political scores at their expense.
Finally, now that most of the elections are over, it is also important to re-evaluate INEC and its conduct of elections between 2015 and now. Most of the polls the electoral management body has conducted at both national and state levels have been controversial, and what went down in the past few weeks is a disgrace. We have retrogressed from the gains we made in 2015, and we need a post-mortem of the elections to question if INEC is still capable of managing the responsibilities reposed in it. Are its duties getting too unwieldy for its administrative capabilities? From cancelling the elections a few hours before voting started on February 16, to the logistic issues encountered all through, to the overall lack of coordination, we need to challenge the process through which our leaders get into power. Currently, there have been 58 recorded deaths and many more cases of violence; that is unacceptable.
What is also unacceptable is the issue of campaign financing. Despite INEC’s boasts that it was going to monitor campaign spending to ensure no one goes beyond what the constitution stipulates, we know politicians did not heed those regulations. There were blatant cases of vote-buying and manipulation of the electoral field by frontline politicians. These are serious issues that require redress if we are to progress as a nation. Buhari is already claiming that part of the legacy he is bequeathing Nigerians will be “free and fair elections.” That level of obliviousness to reality is bizarre. We should not be so uneasy with confronting the (il)legitimacy of our favourite politicians’ mandates that we let him paper over the election failures when he claims, “free and fair.” We do not make progress when we simply “move on” without staking our rightful claims as Nigerians to insist that processes work for us, the people.