The tragedy of a presidential illness
President Muhammadu Buhari is back home and is now at work in Aso Rock. That sentence, a poor reportage of stale news, speaks to our collective relief at seeing the president as usual resplendent in his white baban riga, at his desk.
The enormous relief at his return is still washing over the nation. He was away for 50 days. And for 50 days, this nation was on tenterhooks, consumed by fear, concern and anxiety. And hope was progressively marginalised. Presidential spokesmen positively muddied the waters when they unnecessarily tried quite gallantly but pathetically vainly to deny what was patently undeniable: the fact of the president’s illness.
I join millions of my compatriots in welcoming Buhari back home. It is the lord’s doing. Or, perhaps, more appropriately in this case, it is Allah’s doing.
It should not be difficult for Buhari to pick up from where he left off more than 50 days ago as of this writing. He is lucky to have a vice-president who is committed to the ideals of governance they share and did a splendid job of minding the complicated shop by the name of Nigeria. His administration remains on course. Splendid.
The president’s illness was a sad and cruel reminder that illness is no respecter of persons. All mortals, presidents and truck pushers alike, are subject to the grim decision of the Grim Reaper entirely at its own discretion. The president is human; so is the truck pusher. I see the president’s illness as an interruption on his programme of salvaging the country. It shook the nation as much as it shook his own immediate family. Pox on illness.
To put it perhaps crudely, when he was ill, we were all ill. The president is the repository of our hope in the future of our dear nation. In his hands lies the nation’s capacity to renew itself – and raise its own hopes for its better future. When the president can’t, the nation can’t. That is the real tragedy of the president’s illness. Pox on illness.
The tragedy of the president’s illness also lies in its capacity to force the sun to stand still while the nation writhes in confusion. You cannot think of the president’s illness without letting your mind drift to the dark reaches of what could be. The fear that the illness could incapacitate the president and force him to let go of the levers of presidential power constantly bubbled on the surface of our thoughts. Fifty tough days. Many people were sleep deprived.
In the heat of the presidential campaign in 2015, I wrote a widely-circulated essay titled The Buhari Phenomenon. In it, I argued that Buhari could not have been motivated entirely by the love of power to contest the presidency three times earlier. He was on his fourth attempt then.
Wrote I: “It is no longer difficult to see that the general is clearly motivated by nobler and higher objectives than his alleged greed for power, whatever his detractors might say. For one, his quest is (a) clear evidence that unlike many, he has not lost faith in the present and the future of our country. Buhari believes that our country is not a lost cause.”
I wonder how many of us still believe in the Nigerian nation, warts and all. Buhari occupies a rather unique place in our national politics. He is the only man so far who contested the presidential election four times. He went to long distance, beating the late Chief Awolowo to it. The first three times, the trophy eluded him; he grabbed it the fourth time. He is about half way into his first four-year term. It is right to stop and ponder over his achievements or lack thereof so far.
When he assumed office on May 29, 2015, he did not hit the ground running. This was contrary to all expectations. We thought that a man who had sought the mandate of the people four times would be sufficiently armed with a programme of activities he would unleash on the nation from day one of his assuming office. In time, he earned the nickname of Baba Go-Slow. In a piece I wrote for this paper, I thought it was best for him to take firm steps slowly. Immediate effect, the phrase the military employed to define their supposedly action-packed regime, has become blasé. I nearly ate my words when I saw I had been rather too generous. There must have been a method to his slowness but the people and the country expected to urgently put a good distance between them and, to borrow from the late President Jack Kennedy, the years the locusts ate. Nigerians equate slow speed to doing nothing. This is a kia-kia nation. Let no one forget that.
When Buhari swore in his ministers five months or so later, he said he took his time because he wanted to place round pegs in round holes. But it was not the wow moment; it was the haba moment; as in haba, he could have done better with the assignment of portfolios to his ministers. Some round pegs; some round holes.
It seems to me that if we judge the president by what he does rather than how he does it in attaining his objectives, we would be lost in the woods. Buhari has gradually shifted our national political ethos from the usual bread-and-butter system to the fundamentals of effectively responding to the development needs and the demands of the poor people who gave whatever they had that he might have enough money to run his campaign to unseat an incumbent with deep pockets.
The people expected him to fight corruption because they believed only he had the courage not to compromise on corruption and with the corrupt. He has not failed the people here. Sure, the public, baying for vengeance, would be happier to see the former big men in a bone-shaking ride in a crowded Black Maria on their way to jail. I do not think the president’s objective is to crowd the jails but rather to deprive these men and women the right to enjoy their loot while laughing at us.
The first point to note here is the administration’s new approach to the prosecution of the anti-graft war. In the recent past, EFCC regaled us with allegations of stealing levelled against former public officers. Now the commission produces evidence of stealing – cash hidden in unlikely places by big men who should know better; mansions in the names of children; exotic vehicles whose prices befuddle the mind.
The commission has passed from allegations to proof of itchy fingers. And the world, the whole world, can see that those who argue that corruption in high places has retarded our national progress and development are not talking piffle. This will take some time to sink in.
What is of particular interest to me is that Buhari has also changed the nature of our political campaigns. In 2015, he became the first politician in our country to be partly funded by the people. The young men and women who worked for him were volunteers. They did not ask to be paid. It was a privilege for them to make a contribution towards his election. In doing so, they introduced something else: the poor, honest man whose competence is proven, has a chance to make it in our elections. The days when elections were the business of those with deep pockets are about over. The talakawa are coming.