Every tenure of power is a gallery of omissions and commissions. At the point of exit, the man of power pauses, looks back to wave goodbye amidst a confetti of both real legacies and many unfulfilled good intentions. No exit from power is totally devoid of the rituals of accountability. Even the tenures of unpretentious fascists and outright autocrats exit with some kind of balance sheet. It does not matter if they be statistics of untimely deaths, dilapidated roads, or a parade of destitutes, orphans and widows. The exit moment is the moment to record both worthy footprints and lofty intentions aborted. An avalanche of hurried commissioning and inaugurations has become the standard fare of Nigerian power farewell seasons. For President Buhari, that hour of historical inevitability is around the corner. And the man and his squad have risen to the occasion. A 90-page summary of achievements has just been issued by palace chroniclers. It is a telephone directory of roads constructed or contracts ongoing, terrorists liquidated, kidnap victims rescued, meetings attended everywhere in the world and addresses read to sundry listless audiences. In fairness, some projects like railway lines, some major highways, roads and bridges are hard to deny. Not to talk of the limitless foreign trips still ongoing. Arms and fighting gear have been bought for the armed forces and may have claimed more innocent civilian casualties than enemy combatants. Also undeniable is a long list of expressions of presidential good intentions up to the launch of some phantom ‘Project 2050’ only a few days ago! But Mr. Buhari’s scorecard and legacy can only be measured in two broad realms. First is his degree of success in doing what he and his party, the APC, promised Nigerians in 2015. His promises were in three broad areas: ending insecurity, fixing the wobbly economy and containing rampaging corruption.
Mr. Buhari made these promises voluntarily. It was on his own accord. No one put a pistol to his head to extract these commitments. It was willful and voluntary. Based on a persisting myth of the man in the public mind, the electorate voted for him. Even after being declared winner of the 2015 election, Mr. Buhari could be seen at the airport carrying his own bag and generally dramatizing the austere, simple patriarch on a mission to right the wrongs of a nation that had long gone astray. He had promised to sell off some the excess luxury jets in the presidential fleet, tone down the pomp of state and manage resources more frugally. In all three areas of his enabling manifesto, it was a season of great expectations. As he heads for the exit door, Nigerians are now in a better place to assess Buhari’s mantra of “change”. The pomp and ceremony of state has magnified. The presidential fleet of luxury jets is still fully in place. The First Family has more all less transformed into a royal household. The number of presidential flight miles has ballooned. The scale of insecurity is unprecedented. The military is in active combat deployment in 33 of our 36 states. Kidnapping has grown into a national industry recognized even by banks as a revenue head. Banditry and casual armed robbery are new commercial undertakings. Urban cultism, violent political thuggery and a culture of violence have come to stay. A lively trade in human body parts is thriving. An odd mixture of an epidemic of cybercrimes and ritual killings have come to define our society. In Buhari’s Nigeria, the digital age and primitive superstition mix freely with a Pentecostal obsession for instant salvation. A new hunger for instant martyrdom among Muslim youth marks a hurry to go to heaven and partake of the promised rewards. Terrorism and instant jungle mob justice in matters pertaining to faith have led to lynchings of innocent kids who dared proclaim a different faith.
The economic programme of the Buhari administration is the virtual disappearance of professional economic experts from the cast of policy makers. A presidential Economic Advisory Council has been empanelled and disappeared soon after inauguration. National economic policy making and implementation have been left in the hands of a politicised Central Bank Sheikh Governor and a hapless Finance Minister who could have fared better managing her family’s monthly grocery budget. Completely flabbergasted by the abracadabra economic policies and management style of this presidency, brilliant world class Nigerian economists have kept a distance. As a consequence, Buhari is about to hand over to his successor an economic hell hole. A president who inherited the Naira at 185 to the US dollar is about to hand over a sorry N750 to the dollar to his successors. The mountain of external debts is in excess of $40 billion while the domestic debt stock is now in excess of N30 trillion. In dollar terms, both external and domestic debts are closer to $100 billion dollars. Debt service now gulps a whopping 105% of national revenue. An estimated 30% of our daily oil production is stolen under the supervision of government officials and security personnel. An unverified N7.2 trillion is going to be burnt on oil subsidy in 2023 alone. Our unemployment figure is hovering around 40%, one of the highest in the world. Droves of young talented and highly qualified Nigerians troop out daily to Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and even Rwanda. On the troublesome issue of corruption, Nigeria’s reputation has been amplified in the last eight years. We are among the top 5 most corrupt nations in the world. Yes, there was rampant corruption under Buhari’s predecessors but the quantum and prevalence has become frightening.
Even the former head of the anti corruption agency (EFCC) had to be investigated for corruption related allegations. He never returned to his post after an investigation whose report remains shrouded in mystical secrecy. Between industrial scale corruption and an epidemic of killings, abductions and kidnappings, there is a lively contest for front page news position in the Nigerian media. Spirited efforts to track corruption seem to have been arrested and detained by corruption itself. No one can vouch for the integrity of the judiciary either. There may be no point worrying about the minutiae of the quantum omissions, commissions and missteps of the Buhari presidency. He has failed woefully on all his manifesto promises. Perhaps governments are doomed to failure. Missteps and errors in governance seem implicit in the business of government. Unforeseen economic factors like fall in oil prices could derail budgetary estimates. A global calamity like the Covid-19 emergency could happen. A bad cabinet can foul up good plans. Unintended happenings at home and abroad could show up and convert mangled good intentions into a pile of visionary rubble. Even in the absence of unforeseen happenings, bad things can happen to well meaning good people. Worse still, a government devoid of executive capacity but with an overload of good intentions is a calamity waiting at the point of exit. Mr. Buhari has lately owned up to his baggage of errors. He has even had the unusual humility and courage to ask Nigerians for forgiveness for the grave hurt he has obviously inflicted on the majority. He has in turn informed us of his retirement itinerary. He is set to return to either dusty Daura or to his kith and kin in Niger Republic at least to justify the illicit ‘export’ of our resources spent on projects in that country. To most Nigerians, Buhari is free to retire wherever he likes.
Even without formal retirement, he was hardly there for or with us anyway. In our hours of pain or need when the soothing words of a compassionate leader could have healed a nation in pain, he either ignored us in quiescent indifferent aloofness or jetted out to wherever the wind carried him. In our hours of pain like when our youth were murdered over SARS or when Covid-19 ravaged the land, the President had to be begged to show up and console a grieving nation. Now that he has to go home as a matter of compulsive necessity, we can only wish him the best of retirements. He can also take the forgiveness of Nigerians for granted. We are a magnanimous nation when it comes to how we treat our past leaders. We forgive our errant leaders and we forgive each other. That is what makes us exceptional as a people. Mr. Buhari knows this. As a military leader, he jailed people for several lifetimes and was forgiven. He ordered people flogged in public for the crime of queuing up in hunger lines and he was forgiven. He lined up hustling young men at the Bar Beach and shot them in cold blood for alleged possession of narcotics. Innocent people were arrested and locked away for months on his orders and we forgave him. He kidnapped a big political animal (Umaru Dikko) in the streets of London, crated him for onward cargo delivery to himself in Nigeria. For that, too, he was forgiven. As a leader, Buhari is easily the greatest beneficiary of the habitual magnanimity of Nigerians among all our leaders. For all his serial transgressions against us, we have even rewarded this man with so many positions of trust over the years. Since he is retiring in fairly good health and opulent circumstances, we can only hope that Buhari will now begin to reciprocate the magnanimity of Nigerians through acts of philanthropy and genuine community service. Over and above the pitiful performance record of the Buhari presidency now in its last days, however, we need to locate the higher historical significance of his mission in power. Where does he stand in the ranks of Nigerian leaders? What is the ultimate purpose of the Buhari presidency in our national quest for nationhood? Where does he fit in the context of democratic governance and genuine economic development? Contrary to the popular misgivings that I will highlight presently, I think that Mr. Buhari may have an enduring significance in our national history. We may even find some use value for this lucky Daura general.
First, Buhari has demonstrated that the Nigerian nation is resilient and can survive the worst leadership accidents on its path. For most of his eight years in office, Nigeria was literally on autopilot. Neither the gross misrule nor serial incompetence of the last eight years diminished the will of Nigerians to live together as a national community and get on with their lives. In fact, the conventional wisdom in the streets is captured by this saying that “this, too, shall pass”! It is perhaps best to see Buhari’s incompetence and misrule as an eight year long stress test of Nigeria’s resilience as a nation. The things that could have drowned other nations have happened here and yet Nigeria is still standing as one nation. The number of poor people has skyrocketed from 40 million to 130 million in less than a decade and there are still no street riots. The inflation rate has gone up from less than 9% to nearly 20% under Buhari and yet our people have remained faithful. We saw hitherto peaceful and harmless herdsmen of yesteryears emboldened into armed killer gangs on rampage all over the country and no one has declared war on the Fulani as a Nigerian people. We have seen our youth rise up against police brutality during the ENDSARS protests and once the annoying SARS was disbanded, peace returned. Government has consciously sowed division among the regions, ethnicities and faiths in the nation and yet our people have instead embraced each other as one people, blaming bad politics for bringing division among them. Secondly, the various positions of authority that Mr. Buhari has been entrusted with over the years say something curious about Nigeria’s power distribution, system of rewards, leadership selection standards and criteria of leadership evaluation. In his career, Mr. Buhari has been a state governor, a two term Minister of Petroleum Resources, a military Head of State and a two term democratically elected President. These are not just fancy titles and honorary accolades. They are serious positions of strategic responsibility and executive authority with consequences for the lives and livelihood of millions of Nigerians. In effect, we as a nation have at different times placed Mr. Buhari in charge of the plight of the world’s largest and most important black nation. Yet no one recalls any giant leaps or outstanding breakthroughs made under his watch. No policy highpoints.
No developmental strides. No diplomatic splashes. No great policy reforms. No milestones in nation building. Not even one memorable quotable speech or moment of insightful illumination on any aspect of national life. Just a plain drab, boring and inconsequential stretch. Given the embarrassing display of incompetence and ineptitude that have become the hallmarks of the presidency that is about to end, Buhari may have opened an inquiry into a worrisome part of the group psychology of Nigeria as a nation. Many questions arise. What character of nation would place this series of strategic positions in the hands of a man of doubtful competence? What system of reward and leadership selection would opt for palpable mediocrity in a nation of millions of sparkling intellect and competence? The answers are many and varied in their speculative breadth. There may be a fatal flaw in the psychological make up of the entire national populace that makes us frequently settle for the fifth eleven. It may also be that Buhari himself possesses a superior wisdom of the Nigerian power mechanics that is not obvious to the common eye or mind. He may be something of a power genius. In that case, he may possess something that most of us do not. It is only a person of uncommon political wisdom that can hoodwink a nation of otherwise smart people for so long to concede him this number of important leadership positions in one life time. The speculations do not end there.
There may be something in the power configuration of the Nigerian state that makes it amenable to periodic power heists led by all manner of pretenders. At a personal level, there may even be something inherently questionable about a citizen who consistently seeks and ascends to lofty public positions knowing that he possesses neither the intellect, competence, knowledge nor vision to discharge the minimal obligations of such important positions. Taken together, all these speculative possibilities are at play in the Buhari scenario. I doubt that any serious historian can do justice to this chapter of Nigerian history without seriously coming to terms with the ambiguities of the Buhari anomaly or phenomenon. He himself may have taken the lid off his serial deceptions when he recently beat his chest with satisfaction to say that he has accomplished all he set out to achieve in power. Even if we take just his elected tenure as President only, there remains an abiding value to Buhari’s abysmal failures. Mr. Buhari and his discordant choir may have set a gold standard as to what future Nigerian leadership must NOT be like. In that sense, it can be argued that Mr. Buhari has more or less defined the agenda of any serious future government in Nigeria. The political shorthand seems to be a consensus. In order to be minimally acceptable, any future government must NOT be any thing like the Buhari presidency. Instead, future generations of Nigerians are likely to recall the Buhari era almost in a startle after a nightmare and swear in tears: NEVER AGAIN!
• Chidi Amuta is a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic.