Last Tuesday, a colleague and long-time friend of mine gave me lift inside the campus of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Just as the car was about pulling up for me to alight and walk into my office, he contemplatively stated that it had been his belief that any person – just any person – would be better than Buhari as president. “But now I have known that I wasn’t correct,” he said with some air of despair. Obviously, he no longer sees any reason to hold on to his earlier belief that Buhari is the worst thing that can happen to Nigeria.
This was not the first time I was hearing people express this sentiment since the coming of the Tinubu administration. The hardship inherited from the days of Buhari has not only failed to abate, but in is indeed exacerbating. Worse, there appears not to be any real hope for better days under the current administration as it has so far shown no signs of departing from all those acts of misgovernance that have held the nation down over the years, such as fiscal rascality demonstrated in the needless spendings on SUVs,. presidential yatch etc.
No sooner had Buhari left power than many Nigerians began to wonder whether we are not in for tougher days under his successor. A doctored photo was being circulated on social media showing the former president peeping from behind a curtain or door, smiling mischievously and saying (as indicated via an accompanying write-up) “Nigerians make I come back?” The message is clear; things aren’t getting better – nay they are getting worse – with Buhari no more in charge.
I remember during the build-up to the 2015 presidential election, some supporters of Atiku Abubakar had argued that he may not be the ideal president Nigeria needed but that.just anybody would be better than Buhari. In one virtual forum I belong to, someone cautioned against such a sweeping statement in view of the vagaries of the political space like ours, but his opinion was roundly shouted down by those holding on to such views.
Similarly, as the last presidential election approached, a vocal supporter of Peter Obi told me that even if Obi failed to win, he would be consoled that it would no longer be Buhari, as no one can be a worse president. It’s understandable that people had such mindset given the unprecedented multi-faceted ordeal experienced by Nigerians in those eight years of the rule of the Daura farmer.
However, this mindset also reveals that something is wrong with the way we view our situation and the diagnosis we have made of our perennial problems. One thing very clear about our 63 years journey so far as a nation is that we have been condemned to the fate of always having to look back to sadly acknowledge that yesterday was better than today. So, if eventually we adjudge the Buhari days, with all the nightmares they brought, as better than the unfolding Tinubu days, it wouldn’t be the first time we’re finding ourselves make such curious judgments; it’s something we have unfailingly done after each regime has been succeeded by another.
Let’s we forget, the Jonathan days which many of us now remember with so much paradisical nostalgia had also got us all gasping for good governance. In fact, it was largely on the back of this mass discontentment that Buhari rode to presidency. Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka’s now infamous “From Good Luck to Bad Luck” new year message of January 1, 2015 drew its life and meaning from this prevailing national disenchantment. A friend of mine was dead right in his habitual remark that Jonathan wasn’t wonderful as a president, but that it was the woes being experienced in the hands of Buhari and his men that was making the former president look like a saint. The possibility of Buhari having his own turn as a saint is now very much a reality.
On October 22, 2015, five months after Jonathan left power, I was traveling from Uyo to Calabar through Itu and the extent of road delapidation was just insufferable. Frustrated passengers, mainly from south-south, could not but express their anger at their “brother” who was president for five years and “couldn’t tar a kilometre of road” in his region. Years earlier in 2007, I heard a similar remark from a passenger who sat with me in the front compartment of a bus traveling from Onitsha to Lagos. “Some people (referring to immediate past president Obasanjo) deserve to be tied and shot. How can one rule a country for eight years and built absolutely nothing?” the young man spat out as we wrestled with bad road and the attendant traffic gridlock from one spot to the other.
In the mid-1980s up till 1990s, older persons such as my father used to talk about the “good old days.” I still remember vividly the jubilation in our compound on that Sunday in 1990 when Col. Tony Nyiam announced that the Babangida government had been overthrown and the huge disappointment that followed when it was eventually learnt that the coup had been foiled. Nobody liked the reality that the Babangida regime, seen as the cause of the “huge” suffering in the land would continue to hold sway; ironically this was a time petrol sold at less than one naira a litre (the pump price was 60kobo per litre)!
Similarly, in the early 2000s when the present democratic dispensation was still a few years old, some commentators had begun to acknowledge that the days of Abacha were better in terms of economic indices like exchange rate and inflation rate. I remember a number of television guests, largely on AIT and Channels TV, recalling how Abacha, despite his poor human rights record, was able to keep the economy much relatively stable.
Today, when I speak to younger persons, I often find myself nostalgically talk about the “good old days” of late 1980s, 1990s and even early 2000s. Ironically, these periods were, in the eyes of my father and others, the worst days of Nigeria (in comparison with the “better” days of 1950s, 60s and 70s).
To be sure, nothing that happened under Buhari was strange to our experience as a people. It was the same manifestation of leadership and institutional failure which has historically kept us down. The difference, however, was that its symptoms (in terms of impact on lives of the citizenry) manifested more glaringly than ever before. Unlike what it might have seemed like, Buhari’s government never introduced any previously non-existent ailment, rather it merely nurtured our long-existing malady to a more debilitating level, and the Tinubu government, just like others before it, appears bent on outperforming its predecessor in this unholy task our successive leaders seem committed to. This has been the trend since 1960 and that explains why yesterday will always be better than today.
So, the suggestion that Buhari impeded Nigeria’s “progress” doesn’t seem to me to add up. Hard historical evidence shows that we have always been on a downward trend from the very beginning – yesterday was always better. The effect of unrelenting bad governance and institutional decay will always accumulate with time
Our problem – and this has to be said with emphasis – has been that we have failed to uphold those wholesome ideals and principles that should undergird governance in a state. Top on the list of these ideals are transparency and accountability. It’s these ideals that differentiate successful and struggling nations. Without these ideals being instituted as the ultimate canons of governance in our country, no political structure or economic policy and strategy adopted by us will work.
In the part 2 of my write-up “Fuel Subsidy and a Nation’s Endless Drama of Failure” published in this column on June 11, 2023, I had observed how we have continued to change structure and system with little or no result just because our problem isn’t about that. I wrote: “as a nation we have been on an endless merry-go-round of adopting, jettisoning and re-adopting political arrangements with none seeming to work for us, even when all have worked elsewhere. We started with the parliamentary system that has for centuries worked perfectly in UK only to abandon it for the presidential system that has also failed to work for us despite working for America and others whom we copied from. Today some persons are pushing the idea for a return to parliamentarism as a way of reversing the fortune of our nation.
“Similarly, we started with a federal structure that granted a reasonable degree of autonomy to the federating units only to soon embrace a unitary system in the name of preserving our unity (America is highly heterogeneous and yet has excelled with federalism), and today we have a system that is neither exactly federali nor unitary and many people have been clamouring for the so-called restructure to return to where we started in 1960. (This is notwithstanding that the unitary system has worked excellently for UK, Japan and other countries).
“The fact that nothing works for us is a strong indication that our problem does not lie in the kind of political or economic system we practise but on the efficiency and moral health of the process that drives whatever system we have settled for. We merely adopt systems without having the institutional efficacy and governance discipline to properly steer it. This explains the fact that such system or ideology is soon jettisoned for another without solving the underlying problem that keeps us failing.
“Another hard-hitting example will be found in the power sector where we started with a highly efficient government-run electricity generation and distribution system inherited from the colonial masters, then ran it to almost comatose before opting for a privatised arrangement; and having tasted privatisation in the last eight years, not a few have called for a return to the old system!”
We can go on to cite other examples, but suffice it to say that all we need is a new way of governance, both in philosophy and strategy. I believe every Nigerian appreciates this need. This was obvious in the last presidential election where the “Obidient” movement no doubt represented the most vocal expression of this sentiment. Obi himself, at least judging by the public utterances of the candidates, appeared to be ahead of others in terms of appreciating the need for a new way of governing our nation.
However, while I voted for Peter Obi I was not so much optimistic that his victory would inaugurate the much-desired paradise. This is based on my evaluation of his time as the governor of Anambra State where he surely had a lot to show in terms of physical development but quite little in terms of instituting those values and ideals of governance which absence has been our bane as a people. For instance, during and after his eight years in power, the civil service in Anambra did not change to be different from all others in the country where bribery, extortion and other forms of abuse of office thrive. (Corruption in civil service is one of the reasons our yesterday is always better than our today). Under Obi, officials of the state judiciary were still doing their routine thing of fleecing unsuspecting members of the public who came to swear affidavit. The Anambra State Traffic Agency, ASTA (now ATMA) established by Obi did not operate in a way different from the extortionist habit of other law enforcement agencies in the country. And quite prominently, the party he led, APGA, did not show any superiority over other parties in terms of electoral conduct, both in primary and in general elections.
So, while I desired for emergence of an Obi presidency, I was not so sure that our endless cycle of always having a better yesterday would end if he won. If he didn’t change the value system in the Anambra public sector, what were the chances that he would do so at the federal level where he would face far more institutional and political complexity?
Furthermore, still in regard to ideals and principles of governance, I did not see any convincing evidence of ideological unity between Obi and all those politicians that sought power with him on the platform of Labour Party. What I saw was a motley bunch of opportunists riding on the tide of the “Obidient” movement to win elections as legislators or executives at different levels and nothing more. It’s therefore not surprising that those of them that have successfully entered the National Assembly have been quick to join in the squandermania long-characterising that arm of our government as none remembered the “Obidient” gospel of frugality in governance when they accepted with both hands the N160m SUV largesse. Like Senator Ben Obi had said in the past, what we call political parties in Nigeria are mere “rainbow coalitions of strange bed fellows.” There’s no ideological basis for their alliance.
The reason for highlighting the above is not to spite Obi but to call attention to the fact that the solution to our problem is beyond filing out at every election to elect a new president. We need to start looking at the reasons why all our leaders fail to leave behind stronger institutions after their time in power. I can’t remember any former leader including Obi telling us how he succeeded, for example, in removing nepotism and favouritism from public recruitment process such that people are employed irrespective of not knowing anybody, or in sanitizing the civil service such that the old culture of corruption has gone or at least become minimal. Yet these are the real problems that have held us down and not the amount of roads and bridges built or not built.
Imbued with this knowledge, we can begin to better scrutinise our leaders and aspiring leaders. We can start setting the right agenda for them; an agenda not much about building roads or schools but about instituting those lofty ideals that have made great nations what they’re.
Changing this system is a far more bigger task than what can be achieved in one election cycle. It’s rather a titanic fight, a historic struggle to stop the nation from its endless backsliding that continues to translate to yesterday always being better than today. And no miracle should be expected in any four years. It’s a long walk to freedom.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.