Buhari v Jonathan: the poverty of leadership
16 February, 2015
“If we cannot compel greatness in our leaders, we can at least demand basic competence. We can insist on good, educated leaders while we wait and pray for great ones. Even divine leaders have needed precursors to make straight their way.”
- Chinua Achebe
A common saying that I have retained from my childhood is: “let’s call a spade a spade”. You might ask me what else one would call it. Well, you could call it shovel I should think, since they are, admittedly, remarkably similar tools. So, let’s call it what it is. Nigeria is in a mess institutionally and territorially; and yet it holds tremendous potential promise. Both these realities are seemingly pulling it in opposite directions, sometimes violently. It is perhaps no wonder that a country cobbled together and compelled into forced cohabitation by colonialist Britain, continues to struggle against itself half-a-century since apparent political independence. It is after all, a foetal nation, conceived in the imagination of interlopers, raised by soldiers and run for much of the past four decades by a very small cabal of self-serving gangsters. Presidential elections have become war-like, and temperatures habitually rise to such an extent that it is impossible to pretend that the candidates or their sponsors and supporters aspire to office either to serve the public good or at least to do a job as set out in the job description or employment contract.
The 2015 elections are no different and it has been as polarising as ever. Reason has departed many of us; although perhaps that is a permanent condition for a sizeable number of us. There are a multitude of candidates as usual and, unsurprisingly, two are considered front-runners: the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and perennial challenger Muhammadu Buhari. As usual, the public debate has been poor with only a handful of sensible debates going on. Even the typically impressive input from the former central bank governor, Chukwuma Soludo only managed to elicit an uncharacteristically disjointed rant in response from the office of the finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
In the five years that he has been president, Jonathan has shown neither the mental fortitude nor the courage needed to lead this, admittedly complex, country. Now that the time has come to explain what he has done so far and justify why anyone should believe in what he might do in future, he has predictably come unstuck. Jonathan, like Olusegun Obasanjo before him, has developed the arrogance of incumbency which, coupled with the collective self-delusion of the ruling political party (with their belief that they have somehow cornered the market for a corrupt patronage system, and that they would inevitably continue to produce the president for decades to come), has made him vulnerable and weak to political attack. His inability, or unwillingness, to decisively address the issues of electricity, oil and gas, Boko Haram and rampant unemployment as well as his cavalier attitude towards public perceptions of public-sector corruption means that he has failed to deliver on what he promised. And even in the areas of infrastructural development, industry, privatisation as well as agriculture (where he has made but only token progress), he has been utterly unable to make a case for himself to the electorate. Instead of seeking to assert what he has done, admit the numerous errors he has made and state what he plans to do, he seems to always be responding from a defensive position. Jonathan fails to understand that he appears to lack urgency in the very matters on which the public demand the utmost urgency. He simply fails to lead decisively and fails to listen to the led. At times, it seems, he fails to think, otherwise the decision to pardon former Bayelsa State governor Diepreiye Alamieyeseigha would have been to him an obvious non-starter. Carrying on from the Yar’Adua presidency of which he was a major participant, Jonathan has squandered (in addition to tremendous goodwill five years ago) not-insignificant oil savings from the Obasanjo administration, and has failed to save new money despite governing, for the most part, in an era of relatively high oil prices.
The offence that really affects the emotional consciousness of the Nigerian populace has been the story of the shocking kidnap of hundreds of schoolchildren, by Boko Haram. Although, there were, and are, many political forces at play with regards to this tragic issue, Jonathan’s hapless non-strategy for dealing with the problem has made him appear consistently helpless to confront it. And yet, just as important and affecting is the sheer lack of progress on electricity despite tremendous promises before the 2011 election; and the manner in which the planned reform of the oil & gas sector has been allowed to stall irrevocably and the draft watershed legislation watered down.
Buhari is incomprehensibly ambitious, desperate for an office for which he is clearly incapable. He has been head of state before so we know exactly what he is capable of. But, like Obasanjo (successfully) and Babangida (unsuccessfully), he wants to make a triumphant return. The voters have said No three times already but, still, he asks again, despite declaring in 2011 that he would never do so.
Like Jonathan, Buhari has done what most politicians do: make empty promises. For example, he promises, in his manifesto, to “Create a Social Welfare Program of at least Five Thousand Naira (N5000) that will cater for the 25 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens”, without stating how he would fund it. His manifesto also makes some illogical but superficially grand statements, such as a promise to:
“create an additional middle-class of at least 4 million new home owners by 2019 by enacting a national mortgage single digit interest rates for purchase of owner occupier houses as well as review the collateral qualification to make funding for home ownership easier, with a 15 to 30 year mortgage terms. This will equally help our banking system migrate from short to long term perspective of their role in sustaining the economy”
Buhari, if elected, would fashion out of thin air a new four-million strong addition to the middle class, and the magic tool with which to achieve this would be the compulsion of private-sector banks to forcefully lend at single-digit interest rates? A significant number of people would become “middle class” simply because they would have borrowed to purchase their homes? Not that, as a result of greater employment and entrepreneurship, people would be able to afford to purchase their homes, and that economists might choose to tag them middle class?
Promises without a credible way to pay for them or a workable plan to execute them are nonsensical at best! After all, Jonathan promised a lot in 2011, many of which have not materialised! The case against Jonathan is fairly clear i.e. uninspiring and clueless "leadership". However, the case "for" Buhari remains to be made. It is not simply that it has not been convincingly made; only that it has not been made at all or put more plainly, Buhari appears a thoroughly poor choice for any political leadership position. Should Buhari win in March, it would only confirm that Nigerians agree with him that leadership requires no preparation, no pertinent skillsets, and no rational policy underpinning. That an un-educated, ostensibly unintelligent, former soldier with no discernible experience of employment or entrepreneurship can, for a fourth time, ask us if he can be president of a ridiculously diverse 180m people, $500bn-plus economy, and receive our assent. And apparently, his only qualification is a disastrous 20-month stint as a heavy-handed, authoritarian military head of state - a position he acquired by forcefully aborting the democratic government of Shehu Shagari and subjugating the constitution (an act of treason no less). Just to think that but for Buhari’s insolence, we may well have been spared not only Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha but also Obasanjo's second coming. I wonder what Dele Giwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other executed members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP), or the unfortunate, exterminated inhabitants of the communities of Odi and Zaki-Biam would think of that!
A tragedy unfolds
We are watching a tragedy unfold (and, yet, we are “suffering and smiling” our way through it). We have on the one hand, an incompetent incumbent and on the other hand, a ludicrous and ill-suited candidate (one whose very candidacy is shocking enough, talk less of being taken seriously as a leadership contender). But instead of an "Occupy Nigeria" to demand that we want different candidates, that they must meet some minimum requirements e.g. have been in senior leadership positions, no older than, say, 50 years old, and can put forward properly-costed policy objectives and are, yes, degree-educated! After all, Nigeria is a country of mostly young people, who are becoming increasingly technologically savvy, are (or want to be) educated and who are full of many hopes and dreams!
Now, quite apart from the huge problems that Nigeria faces today, we are also sitting on a time-bomb: a huge and fast-growing population, and unless that size "problem" is converted into an "asset", we are heading for untold chaos over the coming decades. So, in addition to dealing with the immense issues of the day, successive governments need to be planning for the future of these peoples e.g. roads, railway, water, electricity, jobs, education, healthcare, security, housing etc.
The public debate
In our ridiculously low-quality public debate about Buhari v Jonathan (punctuated only by moments of sensible arguments by the likes of Chukwuma Soludo and Jide Akintunde), I have read some people online refer to Buhari as “honest”, “transparent”, “has integrity” and “good record”. I have even read someone, as shockingly as it might seem, refer to him as having the “best personality” and "loves his neighbour as much as he loves his family and himself”. Sounds like a mythical messiah to me, but as words to describe the unintelligent, autocratic, heavy-handed major-general who committed treason by aborting Nigeria's democracy in 1983, and under whom $2.8bn of oil money disappeared while he was the petroleum minister and who in the intervening three decades since being deposed has done nothing (not worked, nor run a business nor studied), says more about us Nigerians than it does about Buhari!
I certainly welcomed Soludo's intervention in the debate, especially as it brought the topic of the economy to the fore. Otherwise, I might have been stuck dreaming of increasingly clever ways of keeping myself immune from such base conversations as Muslim/Christian ticket; federal character; "I'm going to eradicate corruption if you elect me"; and whether a candidate for president has formal education beyond primary school!
When the masterful writer, humanist and seasoned anti-oppression campaigner, Wole Soyinka, decided to chime into the debate, I was naturally full of hope that the debate would be elevated even further. However, I must state categorically that, to a fan of Soyinka, like myself, his opinion piece on the issue at hand, titled: “The Challenge of Change – A Burden of Choice” is surprisingly weak on arguments and disappointingly one-sided. To be frank, I was dejected by the nature of his pseudo-apologies for Buhari’s crimes and otherwise unsuitability. Soyinka's plea for a “leap of faith” in Buhari's elective favour is, to my mind, entirely baseless. It is without any evidence, even of the circumstantial (and, therefore, dubious) sort. Soyinka offered no rationale whatsoever for making this leap of faith personally and even less as to justify why the populace should follow suit. Despite posing the obvious question in reference to Buhari: “…is there such a phenomenon as a genuine “born-again”? It is largely around this question that a choice will probably be made”, Soyinka nevertheless proceeds to answer by merely asserting that surely Buhari must-have-would-have changed by now. If, understandably, the reader still doubts whether our own living legend, the Kongi himself said this, well please read this beautifully-crafted piece of prose-poetry from the article:
“It is pointlessly, and dangerously provocative to present General Buhari as something that he provably was not. It is however just as purblind to insist that he has not demonstrably striven to become what he most glaringly was not, to insist that he has not been chastened by intervening experience and – most critically - by a vastly transformed environment – both the localized and the global.”
How exactly has Buhari demonstrably striven to become what he most glaringly was not? He was not democratic (having bull-dozed his way into power by instigating a coup d’etat against the democratically-elected Shehu Shagari), he was not an inspirational leader able to coordinate a range of views and skill-sets from others, and he has not been an adherent of secular government in a country of numerous religious affiliations and degrees of non-affiliations. He was instead an autocratic dictator who stiffened dissent harshly, assaulted and imprisoned thousands of citizens without due process and executed people with retroactive laws. Have we forgotten how he sanctioned the kidnap, drugging and attempted smuggling of President Shagari’s former adviser, Umaru Dikko, from England? Or his decision to unceremoniously expel hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians from Nigeria? So, since there is nothing to suggest that he has striven, demonstrably or otherwise, to become what he most glaringly was not, what proof do we have then that he has been chastened by intervening experience(s)? He has not been prosecuted or punished for his crimes, and he has never shown contrition for his actions. In fact, he speaks triumphantly, like a self-appointed saviour, with a natural right to lead us – a reminder of Obasanjo’s messianic zeal.
Is one being unfair to Buhari? Were his crimes all in the past (even leaving aside the lack of punishment) and has he now been born anew? Has one under-estimated the extent of Soyinka’s research into this candidate’s present character? Well, let us examine the evidence. In February 2015, a few days after Soyinka’s piece, Buhari was interviewed on the American news channel, CNN. It was indeed illuminating to watch a clear demonstration of the contempt in which this callous candidate holds Nigerians. When confronted about his past criminal atrocities, and was asked the question: “have you changed or is this what the Nigerian people have to look forward to?”, Buhari mustered a smile and brazenly responded:
“Well, all those things you mentioned, with a degree of accuracy of actually what happened, was then under a military administration and while that military administration came under my leadership, we suspended the parts of the constitution that we felt would be difficult for us to operate under in those circumstances. I think I’m being judged harshly as an individual, that what happened during military administration can be extended under multi-party democracy.”
No remorse, no contrition, no apology. Only that he was a military dictator then and the democratic system we have now wouldn’t permit him to behave like that today; that is, it is not necessarily that he wouldn’t want to.
It seems to one that Soyinka was being pointlessly and dangerously provocative by presenting Buhari as something that he provably was not, and is demonstrably still not. Otherwise, how do we convince ourselves that a former military dictator of extremely doubtful competence, and yet doubtless heavy-handedness, must have somehow become benevolent overnight? Such a leap of faith – and since faith refers to blind belief (i.e. belief in the absence of proof), this means a leap into the known-known (Buhari's character), in the hope of a known-unknown (Buhari's reformed character) and on the basis of blind belief – is wilful, wishful-thinking at best. And yet, comparing Soyinka’s rhetoric now to those which he elucidated in 2007 and 2011 when Buhari repeated his perennial "please elect me" question (having first posed it in 2003), one can only conclude that Soyinka has also (as unpredictable as such may have seemed before now) succumbed to the prevailing irrational condition afflicting a significant and seemingly-growing number of Nigerians at present: that is, the religiously and confidently-held belief that anyone but Jonathan will do. As though, it could not possibly become worse; and as if Jonathan – incompetent though he is – is the worst leader Nigeria has had. For the avoidance of doubt, he is not!
In his 2007 article “The Crimes of Buhari - The Nigerian Nation Against General Buhari”, Soyinka was characteristically scathing:
“The grounds on which General Buhari is being promoted as the alternative choice are not only shaky, but pitifully naive. History matters. Records are not kept simply to assist the weakness of memory, but to operate as guides to the future. Of course, we know that human beings change. What the claims of personality change or transformation impose on us is a rigorous inspection of the evidence, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances. Public offence, crimes against a polity, must be answered in the public space, not in caucuses of bargaining. In Buhari, we have been offered no evidence of the sheerest prospect of change. On the contrary, all evident suggests that this is one individual who remains convinced that this is one ex-ruler that the nation cannot call to order.”
Then, Soyinka was sure that rigorous inspection of the evidence was required, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances; and yet, in 2015, Soyinka says the opposite:
“I have studied him from a distance, questioned those who have closely interacted with him, including his former running-mate, Pastor Bakare, and dissected his key utterances past and current. And my findings? A plausible transformation that comes close to that of another ex-military dictator, Mathew Kerekou of the Benin Republic.”
Now, Soyinka (of all people) indulges in wishful speculation and offers us behind-the-scenes assurances from Bakare (Buhari’s eminently “objective” running mate / vice-presidential candidate in 2011 no less). Well, one would respectfully suggest that Soyinka make use of the record books to assist any weaknesses in his, admittedly long, memory. After all as he himself previously asserted, records are kept, in part, to operate as guides to the future; pertinent one might say, now that the future of Nigeria is at stake, the futures of hundreds of millions of hopes and dreams.
Despite this about-turn in favour of the former soldier, Soyinka is nonetheless a deservedly-towering public figure in Nigeria; one that has been willing on numerous occasions to suspend the pen and actually take matters into his own hands to further the cause of Nigeria’s deliverance from the hands of the ruinous cabal that has conspired to stunt its progress. Recall Soyinka taking over a radio station at gun-point, or spending two years in Yakubu Gowon’s prison for daring to attempt to broker a peace between Biafra and the rest of Nigeria at the time of the civil war, or escaping Nigeria under the threat of death, or his numerous public demonstrations. So, Soyinka has suffered personally for his bravery, and we must never forget this; we must never let this momentary lapse in judgment detract from a phenomenal life.
And yet, one must make a mental note of this moment because, hitherto, for half-a-century and much of his adult life, Soyinka has been largely consistent, both in rhetoric and temperament. As such, his shift in four-to-eight short years is nothing short of seismic, as several commentators have pointed out (see for example Chuks Iloegbunam’s “Wole Soyinka and his seismic shift” and Remi Oyeyemi’s “Wole Soyinka v Tokunbo Ajasin: The Ghost of Buhari’s Past”.
In his defence, Soyinka perhaps mindful that time might yet prove his leap of faith utterly misguided asks us to keep our eyes open:
“We must not be sanguine, or complacent. Eternal, minute-to-minute vigilance remains the watchword. Whatever demons got into a contestant to declare the spread of Sharia throughout the nation his life mission must be exorcised – indeed, are presumed to be already exorcised. Never again must any leader ban the discussion of democratic restoration in the public arena. Nor must we ever again witness the execution – even imprisonment! - of a citizen under retroactive laws. This persistent candidate seeks return, but let him understand that it can only be as a debtor to the past, and that the future cannot wait to collect.”
In effect, Soyinka cajoles us to make a one-sided pact with Buhari, even when the latter has voiced neither remorse for, nor promises of a non-repeat of, past-transgressions. Although, just a few years ago, Soyinka lamented Buhari’s lack of remorse and noted the lack of evidence at any type of change in the latter, Soyinka now says we should take a leap of faith…a leap of faith in the hope that Buhari has been chastened by intervening experience, something that was all too glaringly missing from the recent CNN television interview that Buhari did. Soyinka, a legend in my mind though he remains, has done a U-turn of immense proportions, with no explanation, other than the fact that he has joined the unintelligible “anyone but Jonathan” chorus.
In the event that Buhari “breaks” the one-sided pact that Soyinka recommends, one in which Buhari has played no part or pledged any allegiance (and therefore of which he could, with good reason, argue that non-compliance does not amount to betrayal), Soyinka offers only a meek redress:
“If this collective leap of faith is derided, repudiated or betrayed under a renewed immersion in the ambiance of power or retrogressive championing, of a resumption of clearly repudiated social directions, we have no choice but to revoke an unspoken pact and resume our march to that yet elusive space of freedom, however often interrupted, and by whatever means we can humanly muster. And if in the process, the consequence is national hara-kiri, no one can say that there had been no deluge of warnings.”
How can Buhari betray that which he never promised? After all, as Soyinka himself reminded us in 2007:
“Buhari – need one remind anyone - was one of the generals who treated a Commission of Enquiry, the Oputa Panel, with unconcealed disdain. Like Babangida and Abdusalami, he refused to put in appearance even though complaints that were tabled against him involved a career of gross abuses of power and blatant assault on the fundamental human rights of the Nigerian citizenry.”
This choice is indeed a burden. There are no absolutes in choice-making; at least no rational ones. Choice is about relativity; that is, pertaining to relative merit. Placed alongside someone even less desirable, an undesirable option would be the better choice. It is clear that this is what this election had come down to, and therein lays the tragedy for Nigerians being made to submit to a future of woeful leadership and national under-development whichever way they vote. A real tragedy especially when one considers the moment of historical significance that we inhabit, an era of in which Africa as a whole has a real possibility of a re-birth, of re-rising into being - a chance to recast its own drama, free of the corrosive effects of the heinous actions of Western and Arab interlopers. A chance, that is, of a recapture of lost lustre. And, yet, Africa’s most significant economy will, most likely (though I would be most glad if proven wrong), be piloted by wilful incompetence whichever way the election of 2015 goes. It is this poverty of leadership options, as presented, that the Nigerians, youthful as they are (and, therefore, heavily invested in Future’s outcomes) should be seriously concerned about and should actively cooperate to displace. Future’s probable theft should bother the Nigerians, should cause them such palpitations that they refuse to acquiesce without a fight. As the phenomenal Noam Chomsky once remarked:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
We are now having a very lively, vigorous even, debate about the relative merits of two candidates with almost equally-perplexing incapacities. Neither Jonathan nor Buhari possess the emotional intelligence required to govern a country so divided: a nation polarised by wealth, ethnicity, religion, education, access to mandatory resources and language amongst other things. Admittedly, emotional intelligence does not necessarily come with formal education. As the ancient Greek thinker, Aristotle, once noted: “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”.
To conclude, let’s call a spade a spade: Jonathan has shown himself to be both clueless in governance, unable to inspire, and also unable to argue his corner in the limited areas of progress under his leadership. Buhari on the other hand is no better and is, in my view, a worse and regressive leadership option for the position of president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, what are we to do? I present three options in order of preference:
Option one: The ideal, in my view, is a wholesale and popular rejection of both candidates and a demand for alternatives from the two biggest parties. That is, an “Occupy Nigeria” (complete with demonstrations, nationwide strikes and a boycott of the election if the same candidates remain) for an issue that is actually worth the effort, unlike the hugely discredited petroleum subsidy issue.
Option two: Since there are twelve other candidates in this election, we should seriously consider one of them, by dispassionately analysing that candidate's merits and vote for him or her overwhelmingly. That would achieve two things: a) remove both the ineffective Jonathan and the unrepentant Buhari from the fold; and b) bring to the fore someone who genuinely has no connection whatsoever to the small cabal of gangsters that have, for half-a-century, subjugated our nation to their capricious whims. And perhaps, we might get lucky and find ourselves under the leadership of an at-least-average chief executive of the federation. Now, for that possibility, however remote, one is willing to take a leap of faith!
Option three: However, in the absence of the ideal, and a far-from-ideal choice still needing to be made, then yes, one would keep clueless Goodluck Jonathan in office than risk a terrifically worse version of a civilian Obasanjo, in the form of an even less-tolerant, less-savvy and, yes, less-capable Muhammadu Buhari.
- Olu Omoyele is the author of the books "Birthing a Nation: Nigeria, A Century in the Making. . ." and "A Plea for Memory", a collection of poetry.
 Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child”, Penguin Books, 2009.
 Chukwuma Soludo, “Buhari vs Jonathan: Beyond the Election”, Vangaurd, 25 January 2015, (http://www.vanguardngr.com/2015/01/buhari-vs-jonathan-beyond-election-charles-soludo/).
 Jide Akintunde, “Buhari as Option for the Defeat of Morality and Rationality”, Nigeria Development & Finance Forum, January 2015, (http://www.nigeriadevelopmentandfinanceforum.org/PolicyDialogue/Dialogue.aspx?Edition=20296).
 Wole Soyinka, “The Challenge of Change – A Burden of Choice” Sahara Reporters, 6 February 2015 (http://saharareporters.com/2015/02/06/challenge-change-%E2%80%93-burden-choice-prof-wole-soyinka).
 Wole Soyinka, “The Crimes of Buhari - The Nigerian Nation Against General Buhari”, Sahara Reporters, 14 January 2007, (http://saharareporters.com/2007/01/14/crimes-buhari-wole-soyinka)
 Remi Oyeyemi’s “Wole Soyinka v Tokunbo Ajasin: The Ghost of Buhari’s Past”, Nigeria Village Square, 14 February 2015, (http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/wole-soyinka-vs-tokunbo-ajasin-the-ghost-of-buhari-s-past.html).
 Wole Soyinka, “The Challenge of Change – A Burden of Choice” Sahara Reporters, 6 February 2015.