By Bode Omojola
Positive reminiscences about the past are often reflective about how we feel about the present. When people speak about “the good ol’ days,” it is often because they are disappointed with the current state of affairs. Rather than constituting a mere altruistic appraisal of history, expressions of nostalgia, in their tendency toward a superlative interpretation (or even a tactical reimagining) of the events of the past, are inherently strategic. Nostalgia often provides the means for conjuring a bygone utopia as a basis for setting an agenda for the future.
News coming out of Nigeria these days is dominated by the atrocities of Boko Haram, the most widely known being the 2014 kidnapping of over two hundred girls in the town of Chibok; and the most tragic being the recent mass killings in the town of Baga. More recently, the insurgents have grown more confident, capturing towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency and how it has been handled by the Nigerian government has drawn global attention to the glaring incompetence of President Goodluck Jonathan and the seeming helplessness of his administration in dealing with the many problems that his country is facing: lack of security, chronic unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, and the near total collapse of the institution of governance.
Nigeria’s political history has been one of chaos and decline since the early years of independence when public utilities functioned slightly more efficiently and public office holders seemed better prepared for their jobs. Political leaders exuded a more civil temperament and demonstrated a greater sense of commitment towards addressing the challenge of nation building. Yet the seeds of destruction were planted in those early years, notably, in the form of nepotism and corruption. Like their counterparts of today, many politicians of the 1960s and 70s were fraudulent, stealing ten percent of contract money. Today, however, politicians and their agents may embezzle up to 200 percent of contract money when one single contract is awarded twice, contract money released twice, and the contractor vanishes without even visiting the site of the project.
Nigerians all over the world are known for their enterprise and an unusual tenacity to succeed. And there are many excellent Nigerians who would do a great job with an opportunity to lead the country. But the terrain of national politicking is corrupt, dangerous and suffocating, forcing many men and women of great ability to recoil and watch from the fringes while the nation struggles under an inept and a kleptomaniac political class.
So many lives have been lost within the past five years. And while religion apparently plays a considerable role, greed, acts of political desperation and the lack of visionary leadership are some of the major reasons. In 2011, following the declaration of Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the presidential elections, an orgy of violence was let loose in the northern part of the country, allegedly by the supporters of General Buhari Mohammed, many of whom apparently thought that the election was rigged, and had hoped that their candidate would win. The victims who lost their lives were mainly college graduates enrolled in the mandatory national youth service away from home. It was not difficult for many Nigerians to link the barbaric killings to a statement allegedly made by Buhari to the effect that the nation would become ungovernable if the elections were rigged. Many felt that Buhari, who is running again at this year’s presidential election, did not strongly condemn the deadly violence or that there was a striking disconnect between his political body language and his verbal appeal for calm. Buhari’s name became an anathema nationwide, ringing with the inklings of an ethnic jingoist, a sectional leader and a polarizing figure who lacks the temperament and civility to lead the country.
All that is now history! Buhari’s name has changed rather dramatically from a scary overture to an enchanting leitmotif. It is significant that 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 People’s Congress (APC). It is also significant that Buhari managed to beat all the contenders, including the politically sagacious Atiku Mohammed, 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 PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund) budget to the advantage of a particular segment of the country, and explaining that he had nothing to do with the alleged disappearance of 2.8 billion naira 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.
Professor Bode Omojola teaches at Mount Holyoke College in the United States (firstname.lastname@example.org)