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Going up the down staircase

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Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, April 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB


The trajectory of Nigeria’s political evolution is once again being mapped out and catalogued in its elections and in the run up to its elections. It will, of course, all end in tears, with depths plumbed anew and plenty of real and virtual conduct unbecoming. This is because what the principal politicians and political parties are in it for is incompatible with the imperative of civic society and good governance. The conduct unbecoming will come as no surprise, we have form. The primacy of manufactured news however will be a game changer and will further undermine a key supposition at the heart of democratic choice. Such are the horns of the dilemma we are impaled on in the age of manufactured news; news is no news if it does not embrace fear, promote partisanship and reinforce prejudices. It is far too feral. Fears are given foundation, prejudices reinforced and we are further disposed to thinking the worst of each other.

At the heart of government in a presidential system is the president. A president capable of articulating a vision and pursuing it is a president that can reshape a nation’s narrative. Where that heart of government fails to articulate, it beats at best irregularly and governance is largely ineffectual. President Buhari’s recent unintended consequence was as usual unleashed on an unsuspecting nation from foreign climes. Does he let loose abroad because he feels himself in an environment that encourages unburdening and baring your mind? Regardless, there is need for pause as we prepare for the next irrevocable step in the election cycle. In throwing his hat back in the ring, he has declared his intention not to do the honourable thing.So, whither from here? How in the twenty-first century are we to escape the embrace of an underwhelming president hidebound in the twentieth? Can Nigeria endure another four years of visioning that at times has been soporific, at others missing-in-action? Perhaps it is not yet the time, Nigerians are still learning. What hoops should our political parties have to jump through before they are properly so recognised? What hurdles should citizens crest to entitle them to a PVC?

It would appear that Buhari has so bought into the legend created to facilitate his 2015 election that he occasionally imagines it to be true. On such occasions he forgets the limitations the legend was created to blur and believes himself able to reflect consequential thoughts. The missives that follow are generally delivered with scant regard for collateral damage. Over the next nine months, the electoral cycle will sorely test Muhammadu’s minders as they struggle to keep him tethered and on script. Messrs Keyamo, Adesina and Shehu will be kept busy cleaning up after Candidate Buhari and will likely find comfort in manufactured perspectives. When I was much younger and failed to respond to the question put to me, my late father would say, “Where was Mungo Park born? He died in Bussa.” No matter how fervent the efforts of his spin doctors, their aging principal’s penchant for going off script will only get worse and he will surely sorely test the credulity of a nation betrayed by hope.

Adesina’s lame attempt to deflect the true import of Buhari’s General Theory on the lack of industriousness among Nigerian Youth merits a Mungo Park. So too by the way does the president’s own perambulation, by which route he failed to answer the question put to him and instead chose to go on a frolic of his own, ending up with the unintended consequence of demonstrating how detached he remains. Short of an upheaval of unimaginable dimension, we are in for four more years of the same. The paucity of prospective presidents (by which I mean candidates with a realistic chance) is an indictment of the post-independence political generation and its failure to positively mentor. I beg your pardon! I misdirect myself.

To the extent that they did mentor their successors-in-title, they prepped them for self-service rather than selfless service. In my view, the major opportunity lost by this administration was the opportunity to place a marker down on the distinction between politics and governance. The hope reposed in Buhari was that by reason of his much-heralded personal integrity, he would be able to take the political stripes on his back while those better endowed for the purpose got on with good governance.

Sadly, he failed. Being a man of integrity requires more than an aversion to being bribed. It requires the ability to call a spade a spade; it requires the ability to rid himself of the knaves he rode into office with on his white horse; it requires that he rise above the parochialism he received with mother’s milk; it requires that he reflect all sides of our obvious and nuanced fault lines; it requires he be – first and foremost – a Nigerian. He has failed but not with malice aforethought. The Yoruba would say of our president that “ko le se ju ira e lo”. That broadly translates as, he cannot perform beyond his knowing and ability. The reason there is so much disappointment and disaffection with President Buhari is that too many people mistook the imagery nurtured by a well-oiled campaign machine for the reality of a man stuck in a time warp. My wife’s late father used to say, No hope, no disappointment. The message of Change peddled by the APC in the lead up to the 2015 elections asked us to invest hope in Buhari, without the caveat of, it depends. What we got was a lack of focus and abysmally poor messaging. The title of this article is taken from a 1980 paper written by Walter Wriston of Citibank to explain ostensibly anomalous foreign exchange markets.

The president’s personal integrity is reportedly beyond reproach. Be that as it may, in and of itself, it is not enough. We require a 21st century president that has the capacity to speak to and for all Nigerians; a president willing to bleed for Nigeria rather than one who fails to act while fellow travellers serving at his pleasure continue with their conduct unbecoming. General Buhari is done with bleeding, he is very much in the evening of his life and shows every inclination of easing into the run-in with as little stress as possible, and with all his predispositions and prejudices intact and in tow. The only silver lining I see in his return is the prospect of an Osinbajo unshackled and given greater latitude to advance the governance agenda, as in the original blueprint. That of course presupposes a gelded President in a gilded cage. Osinbajo is taking his fair share of stick and so he should. He was on the ticket that the APC placed before the country in 2015 and cannot avoid collective responsibility for those parts of the job not well done, and there have been a few of those. He failed to adequately discount the degree to which he would have to stand four-square behind all manner of inanities, inconsistencies and injurious disregard.For that reason, he has had to eat double helpings of humble pie. In his travails, we are reminded that politics is far more the art of the possible than is acknowledged by observers and practitioners alike.

That the vice president has served and continues to serve with insufficient regard for his own legacy and legend speaks volumes in an age in which self-interest is too often placed before a higher call to duty. He would do well however to share more effectively the work he has done and is doing on good governance so that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater.

Politics is rarely linear and human foibles will always come into play. Our perennial recklessness will be given new vent as our politicians – in the thrall of elections – show little restraint and even less comportment. Those that ought to know better do not wish to know better and those that cannot know better bestride the nation, clothed in honourable and distinguished garb. In spite of our straightened circumstances, we are yet to learn. This political class will once again return for another bout of feeding at the trough. Those skilled in bombast will assure us that we progress, albeit we do not see it. Our progress is as that of one climbing the down staircase, more apparent than real. That is the vertigo you’re experiencing. The sheer weight of our population means that we must progress at a furious pace if we are to remain where we are, let alone place a foot on the Up staircase. We must identify and enumerate the metrics we shall employ in adjudging ourselves as going up the Up staircase rather than the Down one.

The irony in our president’s listing of the unwarranted expectations of our indolent youth was clearly lost on him. The expectations he listed in evidence such as free health and free education are no more than a nation of our potential and promise ought to be serving up to its citizens anyway. Yet again, Fela was an acute observer when he sang, for Nigeria public dey, citizen no dey. The title of this article is taken from a 1980 paper written by Walter Wriston of Citibank to explain ostensibly anomalous foreign exchange markets.


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Muhammed Buhari
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