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Why the history books matter – Part 1


President Muhammadu Buhari

In his Daily Trust column of April 15, titled Running for the history books, Mahmud Jega raised some critical issues about the Buhari presidency and advised the president to start thinking about the verdict of history on his eight years as leader of the most populous black nation in the world. Buhari ran his second and final presidential race on February 23. With no more presidential race to run, he can now afford to think less of politics and more of statesmanship and pay greater attention to the shape of Nigeria after his two terms in office.

As he turns himself from a politician into a statesman, (a tough process, to be sure), he still has to contend with politics. Politics put him there and politics it is. But the interesting point here is that this is his last chance to carve a special niche for himself in the history books. Like all leaders, his thoughts must constantly drift between the present and the future. It is how that future judges a leader that either puts him in the pantheon of great men and women or on the list of those who came, saw and left erasable impression on their times in office.

Jega’s argument, delivered with his signature humour, challenges Buhari to now constantly do a critical self-assessment of his place in our national history. How the president sees the role he has played so far in leading this fractious and atomistic nation would either encourage him to go ahead with his policies as they are or tweak some of them to attain some critical new objectives towards the greater good of the country. No leader of a country by whatever title he is known – president, prime minister or chancellor – can afford to ignore history and its verdict. Leaders make countries and, in the process, make themselves. When history looks back to Buhari’s time on the Aso Rock throne, it would look for those things he did that either lifted his country above the run of mediocrity or, perish the thought, sank it into the cesspool of mediocrity, as in more confused.

Danger lurks here. We must not forget that as we encourage Buhari to think of running for history. The present matters more because without it, the future is vague, a stuff of dreams. Leaders who listen to the shrill voice of history more tend to make some serious mistakes in the present with the result that they fail to shape the future in the present. Trying to please history is like courting a future disaster and thus, the harsh judgement of history. A leader needs to listen to the present to get some idea of what the future is whispering in his presidential ears. A sense of balance is what I am talking about.

When we talk of the verdict of history, we are talking about legacies. I am a sucker for legacies because they are the building blocks of human progress and development. At Newswatch magazine, as I once pointed out in this column, we tried to get the state governors about to end their two terms in office in 2007 to talk about their legacies and assess their place in our national history. What did they think their people should remember them for?

We drew a blank. None of them had given a thought to it. They had been governors and that was enough reason for their people to remember them. Did they not build a hospital or two? A primary or secondary school or two? Construct a road or two? They understood their place in our national history in purely political cosmetic terms, not statesmanship. Statesmanship brings to the people those values that enrich human lives and make life less brutish and more civilised. The future, for every nation, is both the beckoning of the rainbow and the long trek towards the sun rise. But, of course, an intervening variable, not strange to human frailties and faulty judgements, can also redirect a nation to waddle towards the sun set.

Does the verdict of history matter? It does. The verdict of history is an expression of favourable or unfavourable opinion after the fact. Whatever that verdict might be, a former leader cannot be called back to account for his failures or misjudgements in office. Not everyone has the luck of a leader and a writer like the late Winston Churchill who once quipped: “History will be kind to me because I will write it.”

The verdict of history matters because it is the basis by which a country’s progress can best be assessed. A man seeks power because he believes he has what it takes to either fix his broken country or fix some broken elements that hobble the country’s forward movement. When he is done, history must assess his performance and deliver its verdict. But the verdict of history is complicated, not least because leading a country and making a difference is a truly complicated business. The gods, in the shape of luck, interfere and they intervene.

If, on the advice of Jega, Buhari begins to run now for the history books, he must deal with two fundamental questions about his presidency, namely: What was Nigeria like before me? And what would it be like after me?

I am sure that many Nigerians are beginning to ask these same questions. They would be seeking answers that lead them to form informed views about what the president promised on assumption of office in 2015 and how he delivered on those promises eight years later. The elite, always the elite, would be kind enough and patriotic enough to begin too to suggest what Buhari must now do to, together with those who refuse to check out of the country like Andrew, “salvage” it. In this two-part column, I wish to put up my suggestions too about what the race into the history books should mean to him. I do so as a pretender to the elite club.

To begin with, I take due note of some important intervening variables that are already beginning to look like the basis on which Buhari and his presidency would be judged now and in the future. In the normal course of human development, we should expect a better country by 2023 than the president found it in 2015. He came to fix a country he felt was partly broken. But events have not been too kind to him so far. There are more challenges now than he met in 2015. Too many things have changed for the worse and are erecting huge question marks on his judgement as a president and as a patriot. We have helplessly watched our country descend into the Golgotha as the poverty capital of the world with 90 million people living in extreme poverty under the president’s watch. That alone is not a small challenge for the president. Poverty is a destroyer mentally and physically.

In 2015, the greatest challenge the president saw was caging corruption and freeing the country from its vice-grip. But today, the challenges are much bigger and more complex and complicated even than caging corruption. Our country now faces some huge existential challenges. We are more divided along the major fault lines of ethnicity, religion and sectionalism than in 2015. Corruption refuses to budge, laying some of the anti-graft soldiers by the heels. Insecurity digs in with the tribes of kidnappers, bandits, killers, armed robberies, herdsmen and Boko Haram in effective control of large swatches of some northern states – Zamfara, Katsina, Borno, Adamawa and Taraba. You might see them as the conspiracies of bad luck every leader must contend with.

These are some of the challenges we want him to tackle to rescue the country from criminals and give it back to the people. But these challenges, critical and overwhelming as they are, are normal in all countries and climes. They are ever present. The difference is only in the degree to which they conspire to make or mar a presidential term, not in the fundamentals of criminality and the challenges of making a nation out of a collection of tribes.
(To be concluded)

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