The parable of the husband’s cane
One other outcome of our democratic experience since 1999 is how demanding and insatiable the Nigerian voter has become, and because political office holders and the professional political class are yet to fully decipher and understand the implications of this, they continue to make similar mistakes and draw the same responses from the same public that voted them into power.
I have no better illustration of this than the manner in which the critics of the incumbent administration at the centre are beginning to sound exactly the same way they sounded about two years ago under the Jonathan administration. Check the social media, some newspapers, and listen to the conversation on the streets. The personnel in power have changed, there is a new party in charge at the top, but public conversation has gone back to its old ways. Questions are being asked about the meaning of change and the dividends it has brought to the people.
Some commentators are openly apologizing for voting President Goodluck Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) out of power. Some fierce supporters of change and the All Progressives Congress (APC) are openly voicing their regrets. And as was the case under President Jonathan, there are hilarious skits online, mixing song, drama and dance, making fun of the new dispensation and its architects. More than one pro-change and anti-PDP newspapers have had cause to do scathing editorials, including the very newspaper that was the anchor-point for change in 2015.
Many of the affirmations are relatively the same: the President is a good man but he is surrounded by incompetent people who have their own agenda, so they say, or that the Ministers are not doing their job and right now, there is a loud protest against the ability of one Minister to manage something as simple as taking a sports delegation to the Olympics. The number of people calling for the man’s job is growing. Oftentimes, it is also said that communication is the problem.
I used to hear that a lot. And it was always as follows: The President’s team is not communicating his policies properly and in one year, while a lot has been achieved, nobody is show-casing those achievements (!), as if communication is a bullet. But these are the same stories that we used to hear. All kinds of experts are all over the airwaves voicing opinions about how best to run Nigeria, and promises that have not been fulfilled and an economy that is causing raw pain. Not even the President’s wife has been spared: her wrist-watch, her handbag, and even her grammar (!) – this formed the substance of a pedantic attack by a self-confessed Buharideen. It really looks as if there is now a formula for criticizing the Nigerian government.
Every excuse that is given by government is met with the riposte that the government is burning its goodwill with the people, or that someone should just help and change the narrative. Jonathan-bashing is fast becoming unfashionable, the critical mass including those who marched for change are asking for new tunes. And I am far from gloating. But certainly, this love-them-today-despise-them-tomorrow did not start with the Buhari government. I am actually trying to make what I hope will be considered an essential point about the burden that Nigerian politicians have to bear. In a number of public interviews and interactions recently, I have argued that it is not easy to rule Nigeria or any part of it.
When President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office in 1999, he was the messiah who helped to stabilize the country after many years of abuse by military dictators, and in terms of policies, persona, focus and drive, he rescued the country. But the moment he picked up fights with his Vice President, and later got embroiled in the politics of third term self-succession, his support base began to grow apart, and he became the target of vitriolic criticism from even his most ardent supporters and benefactors.
We dismissed President Umaru Yar’Adua who succeeded him very quickly as “Baba Go Slow” even if his failings were excused on the grounds of ill-health and the shenanigans of an Aso Rock cabal. President Goodluck Jonathan’s ascendancy in 2010 was driven by the activism of the civil society and both genuine and bathroom constitutional experts who insisted that the Constitutional rule on succession in the event of the death of the incumbent must be respected. Thus, he became Acting President and he later won an election, on his own steam in 2011, to become President of Nigeria. For many Nigerians, his coming to power helped to make one point: that Aso Villa is not the birthright of any ethnic group, that the rule of law is superior to the rule of men, and that the final decision about who rules this country at any particular period rests with the people. It didn’t take long before the same people began to attack the Jonathan Presidency, goaded on by a vicious opposition at first, until the people themselves took ownership of the rebellion against their own revolution.
In 2015, they supported President Muhammadu Buhari, whom they had voted against in three previous elections. Somehow, there has been a touch of melodrama to the Nigerian Presidency since 1999, and it was on that score that President Buhari became the stone that was once rejected emerging as the cornerstone of the building. In the North, his political base, and the South West, which embraced him, he became the messiah that Nigeria needed. Only the South East and the South South looked away. But today, ironically, both the North and the West have become the home of President Buhari’s most loquacious critics. Were many not held back by self-censorship and fear of reprisal, by now, the sound of condemnation would be deafening. I have described the scenario long enough, what are the specific takeaways?
One, the same point I mentioned earlier, that indeed, it is not easy to rule Nigeria. It does not matter how well-meaning and principled you may be, there would be people who would put you under enormous pressure and in trying to please one group and not the other, you would end up creating a basis for criticism and attacks. These pressures come from ethnic groups, family members, old school mates, close friends, party members, political godfathers, old benefactors, the wife’s family, or wives, in-laws, the business community, international agents, investors, existing and prospective: they all want your ears, they want access and they will mount the pressure in every way possible. Pleasing every constituency is not possible.
No matter how hard you try to balance the pressures, you’d still be left with people and constituencies perpetually banging on the door, and they just don’t do that, they run down others who are competing for your time and attention, and before long, as President of Nigeria, you could be held hostage by one or two groups, and when that happens, you displease others who in due course, become critics. Everybody is with you because of what they can get: they are investors not supporters, not even family members. The loneliest job in the world is to be President of a developing and dispossessed country like Nigeria. It presents a great opportunity to make a difference and make history, but it also comes with too many IOUs that may never be satisfactorily repaid.
Two, be careful how you demonize the opposition. If you are in power seeking to retain it, be careful how you wield the axe against the power-seekers at the gate. If they seize that axe from you, they could behead you without mercy. Your pleas when you are at their mercy later, could fall on deaf ears. And if you are seeking power and you get it, with the people hailing you, beware, the same people could turn against you tomorrow. Their loyalty is not guaranteed for too long, at most it comes with a one-year warranty! And never ever forget this folk wisdom: the husband’s cane that was used to beat the senior wife is right there on the rafters, to be recalled for the junior wife. No domestic violence intended (far from it) but if it sounds like a metaphor, well, you figure it out.
Three, don’t you ever over-promise. There is a tendency for power-seekers in Nigeria to promise heaven and earth. They design fanciful phrases, programmes, agenda, blueprints and road maps in which they assure the people, together with timelines, how they will turn Somalia into paradise within 100 days and if not, six months, but at most, one year. These are usually from persons who have no idea how Nigeria works. They know nothing either about the complexities of governance and power politics. They make the fanciful promises, anchored on an even more fanciful phrase, and as soon as the election is won, they return to their consulting firms with their bags of profit, in search of the next client and victim. It is amazing how in Nigeria, most of the leading experts on government and governance are persons who have never spent a day in a government department and have never managed anything complex in their lives.
They arrive in a dollar-driven parachute in the middle of the campaign and they invent slogan after slogan, and strategies that leave potential disaster behind. Let’s say their candidate wins, but as soon as he gets into office, he has to deal with the many lies that have been told in his name, and he finds himself at the crossroads. If he says all promises cancelled, let’s be realistic, he is accused of deceit. If he says anything else, he is reminded that in the United States, where the heart of many Nigerians is, including the intelligentsia, he is told that promises have to be kept. The same people have forgotten that in the United States, politicians talk more about people-focussed policies, and not about such elementary details as the provision of boreholes, food, electricity, and roads. In a developing country, you better watch what you promise.
Four: don’t rely on your political party. The same political party that brought you to power can disappoint you. Incidentally, we are not running a parliamentary system of government. Your own party members have Macbeth-like ambitions and that makes them disloyal. They don’t quite want you to succeed except if that will make them look like potential successors. Your constituency is the Nigerian people. Difficult as they are to please, and habitually angry as many of them are, it always pays in the long run to listen to them. And when you don’t feel like listening, provide leadership that inspires trust, and you won’t fail.