Four years ago today, I sat at the swimming pool of the Nicon Noga Hilton in Abuja watching the inauguration ceremonies. I had just come off a strenuous night on call, but wanted to watch the ceremonies on television and so instead of heading home to the uncertainties of NEPA, I headed for the poolside bar at the Hilton, where a number of my friends had converged to watch the ceremonies. I recall the huge cheer that went up from us all, waiters and guests, bartenders and gardeners as President Obasanjo pronounced the last words of the oath ” So help me God”. There was a palpable sense of relief and hope and joy. We had all wondered if this moment would ever come to pass, particularly in the light of predictions that the President would not live to assume office. Perhaps the relief was more palpable for those of us who had lived through the dying days of the Abacha years in Abuja, when we lived in the secure peace of the graveyard. The moving thing was that around that pool, were people from different parts of the country, different religious convictions. Yet at that moment, we were united in our joy. It was like the day, Nigeria won the Olympics gold medal for football in Atlanta.
In a matter of days the euphoria settled. The announcement of the cabinet, the shenanigans surrounding the emergence of the Senate President sent warning signals, but I like many others clung to hope. Things were going to be different, the President had said so. These feelings were bolstered by certain attempts at righting the wrongs of the past – realignment in the military, the setting up of the Oputa Panel.
Over the next two years I watched as people I had known come to Abuja with the proverbial “nylon bag” acquired the accoutrements of wealth. Their waistlines thickened, their fingers and wrists glittered. They were not only legislators – ministers and staff of the Executive were not left out. No eyebrows were raised about this in the quarters that mattered. The President castigated the National Assembly for their extravagance and yet weekly sat down to dine with his massive coterie of aides, ministers and Special assistants. We watched as many of the jobbers we had known in the Abacha years swopped the Abacha badges for PDP badges, forming Obasanjo Atiku Solidarity Movements and Groups. And we wondered if this was what we had cheered so heartily for around the pool. Soon after there was a national strike called by the Association of Resident Doctors to protest what in effect amounted to a pay cut. Being close to the executive in my local association, I was party to the negotiations that followed. I got an insight, first hand into how this, our democratic government worked. And I was appalled. Within the hospital where I worked, intrigue ruled the corridors. As long as you were in the right books of the powers that be at the Villa, nothing else mattered. There was a supposed embargo on employment, but on an almost weekly bases, new staff joined, almost invariably related to some government official or other. Work became more and more frustrating as these “favoured” staff worked to their own schedules.
Outside the hospital, a massive national stadium was springing up, at a cost of thirty eight billion Naira. I argued with friends in government about the wisdom of this endeavour. They replied that it was financed through innovative means, not a kobo of government revenue was going into it. When I retorted that it was an injudicious application of such a huge sum, even if offered on a platter of gold, the answer was a resounding silence. Day by day, things crept along at snail’s pace. Evidence accumulated that our cheers at the poolside were at best misplaced, at worst premature.
The Literary Society I had co-founded with friends stumbled on with the support of mostly foreign organizations. The support from the Ministry of Culture seemed to evaporate after a cabinet reshuffle when the new minister asked what he had to gain from our programmes. Soon after I left for further studies abroad, a welcome respite.
From a distance I watched as some things got better but the larger picture deteriorated. Many of the sensible figures in government melted away, the attorney-general was murdered. It became increasingly clear that this was the reign of Eze Onyeagwanam (King Do-Not-Advise-Me).
I was home on a visit two months ago. The main changes were at the airports which were clean and air-conditioned, with shuttle buses and functioning baggage carousels. And of course, the ubiquitous GSM phones. Never mind that I picked up a new word “to flash” which means to ring someone and cut off before they pick up, so your number appears on their phone and they can ring you back bearing the cost of the call. I hear it was a survival strategy occasioned by the high cost of calls on the new phones. The universities were closed due to ASUU strikes. For most of my stay, we relied on the generator for electricity, which had to be judiciously used, as there was major fuel scarcity. Meanwhile election campaigns went on as candidates crisscrossed the country, crying for continuity. Asked about the fuel crisis, the cry was sabotage. A month later on a return visit – both crisis and sabotage persisted.
Four years later I sit praying silently for my country as another inauguration goes on. I pray that the President who I was always assured loves Nigeria with a deep passion, puts that passion to work. I pray that he has the courage to confront the deep-seated problems of our country and not opt for cosmetic changes. I pray that he opens his ears and listens to the people of Nigeria, not just the small coterie that hover around the corridors of Aso Rock, whispering sweet nothings into his ears. I pray that he has the humility to accept his limitations and a large heart for all, bearing in mind that he is President of us all. I pray that when as he promises he picks a slim line cabinet based on merit, that he gives the appointees a free hand to carry out their jobs. I pray that he will find the courage to dispense with some of the gaudy accoutrements of power- the noisy sirens, the glitz and glamour- and focus on the things that matter to our people. I pray that he will carefully select those around him and rein them in or kick them out when they step out of line. I pray that he learns that every critic is not an enemy and is probably a better friend than many around him. I pray for success for him in this second tenure, for failure will be disastrous for our country. May God bless our country and us all.