By Chido Onumah*
One thing supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari can’t deny is that many of those who oppose him today, almost three and half years after he was sworn in as the fourth president of the Fourth Republic, rooted for him 2015. Many of them are not politicians; they are not angry because Presdient Buhari has blocked their illegal sources of wealth; and they are not people who have cases with anti-corruption agencies. I am one of them.
For this category of Nigerians, it was their belief in Nigeria and hope for an inclusive country and new ways of doing things that made them take that chance. After the Jonathan debacle, very few Nigerians imagined that the country could sink lower in terms of its leader’s capacity to understand and confront its problems. Expectations were high. Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) had made promises.
During the campaign, Candidate Buhari, without prompting, promised to declare his asset publicly on his first day in office and we believed him. The APC promised to address the vexed issue of national unity and integration and we trusted them. Four months after, journalists were still debating with Garba Shehu, the president’s Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity, on the meaning of public declaration of asset.
It was in faraway Ghana, in September 2015, that President Buhari told curious journalists: “I have declared my assets and all that I have four times, and you (the media) have the right to go and demand for my declaration. Instead, I am being harassed.” I am sure if the president had made his asset declaration public, as he promised during his campaign, journalists would have saved him the harassment and embarrassment.
In July 2013, my colleague, Godwin Onyeacholem, and I, wrote a piece titled “2015: Why Buhari Matters.” In it, we argued that Mr. Buhari was perhaps the only politician who could defeat former president, Goodluck Jonathan. In another article in May 2015 titled, “President Buhari: Dead end or the rebirth of a nation?” I argued, enthusiastically, that under Mr. Buhari, Nigerians didn’t expect it to be business as usual and that notwithstanding his foibles—“alleged provincialism and antecedent as a military dictator”—since corruption remains one of Nigeria’s biggest problems, perhaps, “President Buhari, ‘Mr. Anti-corruption’ can deal with corruption and get the Nigerian state to function.”
That has turned out not to be the case. As we have seen, President Buhari’s foibles are not superficial. They are ingrained. On the issue of corruption, I will allow Senator Shehu Sani speak on Mr. Buhari’s anti-corruption war. A preeminent party man, Senator Sani was in the APC until a few weeks ago when a combination of intrigues and highhandedness forced him to resign and join another party, the People’s Redemption Party (PRP). According to Senator Sani, “When it comes to fighting corruption in the National Assembly and the Judiciary and in the larger Nigerian sectors, the President uses insecticide, but when it comes to fighting corruption within the Presidency, they use deodorants.”
But, as we have noticed, fighting corruption should be the least of our concern under a president who seems to make a mockery of the very essence of our survival as a nation. The clear and present danger in Nigeria today is the existential crisis confronting it. Not since the civil war have Nigerians questioned their citizenship the way they have done in the last three and half years, thanks to a president whose philosophy and politics of exclusion and resentment, of “we vs them,” of “97 and 5 percent,” is redefining what it means to be a Nigerian.
President Buhari has foreclosed the prospect of any kind of meaningful conversation on Nigeria and its existential crisis. It will be an egregious folly to allow this indifference to go on for four more years. If Mr. Buhari wasn’t sworn in on May 29, 2015, he would have remained “the best president Nigeria never had.” Now that we have watched him painfully flounder, not knowing exactly what to do and squandering the goodwill of a nation in search of direction, it would be catastrophic to reward him with another four years.
The 2019 election, therefore, will either be about enabling a tribesman or finding a patriotic alternative. As a people, we should be interested in President Buhari’s capacity—his ability to understand what the country needs—to steer the Nigerian state for four more years as he seeks a second term in the February 2019 general elections.
President Buhari may have good intentions, if you believe those around him. But again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. For a nation in a hurry, President Buhari’s tardiness goes beyond the pale. It took him six months to appoint some of the same people he campaigned with, as ministers, creating uncertainty and imperiling the economy in the process. The security situation gets worse by the day and you scarcely hear any coherent response from the president.
It seems Mr. Buhari hardly knows what is happening around him. A few months ago, at the height of the murderous herdsmen/farmers crisis in Benue State, the president sent the Inspector General of Police to personally take charge of the situation. When the president finally visited Benue State, after weeks of public outcry, and was confronted by residents who said the police chief was a no-show, he told a bewildered nation that he did not know that his police chief defied his orders. And, of course, he did nothing.
No wonder when asked in February what he would tell President Buhari if they met, Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, replied: “I will say to him, Mr. President I think you are under a trance.” There couldn’t have been a more apt description of a president we elected almost four years to take charge and pull the country from the brink. I don’t think President Buhari has woken up from that dream. What we have in place of an elected president is a space holder surrounded by a bunch of nefarious enablers.
President Buhari’s listlessness and nonchalance is only matched by his parochialism. Take his handling of the crisis at the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) or the appointment of a new head for Nigeria’s internal security agency, the Department of State Security (DSS). In August 2018, while President Buhari was away on medical vacation in the UK, the acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, sacked Lawal Daura the notorious director general of the DSS and Mr. Buhari’s kinsman after a botched DSS invasion of the National Assembly. He was replaced by Matthew Seiyefa, from Bayelsa State, the most senior director at the DSS. Mr. Seiyefa appeared, at least from media reports, to be doing a good job at his new post, clearing a backlog of unpaid allowances and repositioning the institution in accordance with equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law.
For someone who had been assailed for his manifest nepotism and utter disregard for the country’s diversity, it was expected that the president would allow the appointment to stand. Not President Buhari. A month later, the president, predictably, had to recall “one of his own”, Yusuf Magaji Bichi, from retirement, to replace the acting president’s appointee.
It is an understatement to say President Buhari is stuck in the past. But if that alone was the problem, then it wouldn’t matter. The president has no notion of nationhood. He certainly needs a lot of lesson in running a modern, diverse and multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria. Unfortunately, it is too late.
The beauty of democracy—if we follow its tenets—is the prospect of peaceful and periodic transfer of political power. As a nation, let’s not be afraid to take our chances, to try something different. It may not always work out, but it deepens our sense of understanding and purpose.
We took our chance with Mr. Buhari in 2015 and it has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Now is the time to move on.
Onumah is the author of We Are All Biafrans: A Participant-Observer’s Interventions in Country Sleepwalking to Disaster.