The image of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate of the opposition APC has changed rather dramatically from a scary overture to an enchanting leitmotif. It is significant that Mr. Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, the southwest-based Action Congress, AC, and many disgruntled political “caterpillars and juggernauts” from the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, were able to work together to form a new, much stronger opposition party – the All Progressives Congress, APC. It is also significant that Mr. Buhari managed to beat all the contenders, including the politically sagacious Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president, to emerge the presidential candidate of the new party. His dramatic win speaks to the fragility of the Nigerian democratic system, notably, the amorphous identity of political parties and the money and power-driven pragmatic vista of Nigerian politicians.
Social media platforms have played a significant role in perpetuating the Buhari nostalgia. They are inundated with comments, both sponsored and unsponsored, debunking the alleged misdeeds of the retired general; distancing him from nepotism, the 2011 post-election killings, and the saga of the missing 53 cash-filled suitcases; defending him against the allegation that he awarded a disproportionate portion of the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, budget to the advantage of a particular segment of the country; and explaining that he had nothing to do with the alleged disappearance of N2.8 billion from the coffers of the NNPC, the government-owned oil company, during his tenure as petroleum minister. His alleged fanatical support for sharia and his ostensive fundamentalist leanings are also dismissed as specious accusations arising from the inability, or a vindictive refusal, of critics to properly contextualize and objectively appraise actions and statements emanating from the general’s past.
On the other hand, Buhari is now often credited with a record of a disciplined fiscal management and the capability to protect and maintain the territorial integrity of the country. He is portrayed as someone with the required strategy and courage to end the Boko Haram insurgency. These comments are in dramatic contrast to the anti-Buhari sentiment that pervaded the political space just over four years ago. The Buhari nostalgia now seems unstoppable.
In analyzing the basis for the new Buhari wave, it is tempting, but would be erroneous, to suggest that Nigerians are rather too gullible or that public memory in the country is extremely short. The Buhari nostalgia has less to do with the past deeds (good or bad) of the former military dictator than with the pervading air of gloom that currently envelopes the country.
It is important to highlight certain key events of the past six years and assess the state of the nation as a precondition for exploring the best options for the future of the country. I will try to do this in as few words as possible.
The inability of the Nigerian armed forces to effectively quell the Boko Haram insurgency is seen as a symptom of the failure of governance rather than a reflection of the ability of the men and women of the military. Many people believe that key military commands have not been provided with the weaponry that they need to fight Boko Haram. This in spite of the millions of dollars that the government claims to have been spending on procuring military hardware to fight the insurgency. The general thinking is that monies meant to prosecute the war have been siphoned into private bank accounts, lining the pockets of corrupt politicians.
Indeed, there are some high profile cases of alleged graft involving key personalities of the Jonathan administration that have yet to be satisfactorily investigated or resolved. These include the alleged disappearance of $20 billion from the coffers of the petroleum ministry (again!), and mismanagement of funds in the aviation ministry. While the aviation minister involved was eventually sacked after much public outcry, I am not aware that that case has been properly investigated. The minister of petroleum still keeps her position though and does not seem to have responded sufficiently to the call by the national assembly to explain the circumstances surrounding the alleged missing fund.
One of the most sensational cases of graft came to light in the country three years ago when a top contractor alleged that Farouk Lawan, a prominent member of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Petroleum Subsidy, demanded a bribe from him. The contractor, in his own explanation, played along by “paying” the bribe while he secretly recorded the process of payment. That case remains unresolved. To add insult to injury, Mr. Jonathan pardoned the ex-Bayelsa State Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was jailed for embezzling public funds. That presidential absolution has cleared the way for Mr. Alamieyeseigha to vie for the Senate in the next election.
Unabated corruption provides the context for understanding the persistence of other big problems like chronic unemployment, an underfunded and a dysfunctional educational sector, a collapsing healthcare system (college professors and hospital workers go on strike regularly—at times for up to six months—to press for improved funding), and a weak supply or the lack of certain basic necessities. Electricity generation is for example at a disgracefully low level (in spite of the billions of dollars that government says it has spent on that sector), paralyzing industrial growth. There are reports that many manufacturing companies have moved out of the country to Ghana where the state of power generation is much better. Overlaying all these problems is the Boko Haram menace that I mentioned earlier, which epitomizes the woeful performance of the Jonathan presidency.
Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in literature, recently condemned President Jonathan’s reign of impunity, likening it to the era of the biblical Nebuchadnezzar. In the same vein, Mr. Soyinka, in an article written much earlier and titled, The Nigerian Nation against Buhari, reminded Nigerians about the anti-democratic antecedents of Buhari. These negative verdicts on the two main presidential contestants throw into sharp relief the challenge that Nigerians face as the February 14 presidential election draws nearer. Yet, a choice—a difficult one indeed—has to be made on that date.
In engaging the challenge of this quandary, I would like to offer a few closing remarks as follows:
Of Jonathan, I should state that his tenure has been a painful and fruitless process of hoping that things would get better. The lacklustre and business-as-usual approach of his administration in the past six years offers little or no basis for a hopeful future. As a popular Yoruba adage goes, the sharpness of the blade of a hoe must match the toughness of the soil to be tilled. The political darkness enveloping the nation right now seems rather too overwhelming for President Jonathan.
Professor Bode Omojola teaches at Mount Holyoke College in the United States.