President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration last week was a mixed bag. On the plus side, the president gave an inaugural speech that—despite a few wrinkles—was tailored for the occasion.
The speech captured something of the experience and spirit both of Buhari’s campaign and Nigeria’s political moment. Of his four presidential contests, the latest was Buhari’s finest, most sophisticated, and—not surprisingly—most successful. By tinkering with his persona and modifying his political rhetoric, campaign mode and fashion style, his handlers rendered him a less dour figure, lent him a more temperate image, and broadened his appeal among Nigerians, across a diversity of demographics, and abroad.
These subtle and not-so subtle moves enabled Buhari to weather three big storms. The first was the brouhaha over his academic credentials. The second was his campaign’s impecuniosity and loss of momentum following INEC’s six-week postponement of elections. And the third challenge had to do with persistent concerns about the state of his physical health. His sudden disappearance from campaign events had as much to do with the speculations as Governor Ayo Fayose’s categorical claims that Buhari was gravely sick.
Buhari’s remarkably short inaugural text managed to bring the vicissitudes of his campaign to bold relief. He thanked “the millions of our supporters who believed in us even when the cause seemed hopeless.” And then he saluted “their resolve in waiting long hours in rain and hot sunshine to register and cast their votes and stay all night if necessary to protect and ensure their votes count and were counted.”
On paper, former President Goodluck Jonathan was supposed to have a savvier social media team. Buhari always projected the image of an orthodox and rigid figure stubbornly trapped in the past. Such a reputation should have translated into poor ratings among social media habitués. But two factors altered that equation. One was an apparent recognition by Buhari’s team that it would be disastrous to disregard the enormous power and reach of social media—and, thus, of the youth who have adopted that architecture of communication as their dominant arena. What we saw, then, was the Buhari campaign’s vigorous presence on social media.
The other factor was something of a gift. Four years ago, Jonathan had swept into office on the crest of an atmosphere of optimism that I, for one, found strange. The refrain by many who backed him was that they were for him, but against the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It was a bizarre kind of endorsement, entirely founded on a fiction. For Jonathan was as faithful and conventional a product of the PDP machinery as could be found anywhere. And he had a public record that was middling at best.
It did not surprise me in the least that Jonathan ran a failed administration. Going by his pre-Presidency CV, his presidential mediocrity was all but guaranteed. But because Nigerians had permitted themselves to expect great things of him, his ineptitude—which seemed to me inevitable—struck a raw nerve with many. In a sense, the social media revolt against Jonathan mirrored the profound disaffection among young Nigerians who had believed or deployed the amazing idea that there was the PDP and there was Jonathan—and that the two were not related. Jonathan had capitalized on the narrative of his days as a shoeless youngster. Many Nigerian youngsters had come to extrapolate that a president who once knew grim privation would be an assiduous advocate for his country’s forlorn youth.
They were stunned to realize that Jonathan measured his country’s wealth in terms of the high number of Nigerians who own private jets. They felt betrayed when, instead of fighting corruption, he waged a war on the word itself, declaring that stealing was not corruption. They turned against him. Buhari’s victory was proof that many of Nigeria’s youth swung their affection to the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
In his inaugural speech, Buhari fittingly acknowledged “those who tirelessly carried the campaign on the social media.” He was also gracious in underlining that those who voted against him were not devil incarnates but citizens in good standing exercising their democracy-given prerogative.
“Having just a few minutes ago sworn on the Holy Book, I intend to keep my oath and serve as President to all Nigerians,” he said in one of the finest moments in his first speech. He drove home the point by asserting, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.”
I’d suggest that Buhari’s path to historic greatness, if he will rise to it, lies precisely in belonging, above all, to the youth of Nigeria. If Nigeria has failed to rise to its potential, that failure has been most woeful with regard to the misfortune that has been bequeathed to the young.
There are Nigerian youngsters who don’t know, because they were not born yet, that there was a time when Nigerian schools offered sound, rigorous education. There are many who are not aware that, once upon a time, there were hospitals in Nigeria that gave excellent healthcare. They don’t know that there was a time when students didn’t have to hop into bed with their lectures, or pay cash, for grades. They don’t know that there was a time when known armed robbers were not treated to knighthoods in the church, garlanded with national honors, and festooned with chieftaincy titles.
If Buhari is to make an impact as a president, he must wake up everyday and take a long, contemplative look on the faces of his children and grandchildren. It’s about them, and about their counterparts all over Nigeria. The youth—otherwise called the future—offer Buhari the surest path to greatness as a leader.
So here was something that left me a little cold about Buhari’s inauguration. Despite their heroic role in getting him elected, I did not see many young people up on that inauguration podium. Instead, there were the same old faces, among them some of the most unprincipled and shameless designers of Nigeria’s misfortune.
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