For over a year, I have refrained from public comment on Nigerian politics and the issues confronting our beloved country. Not because I had ceased to care, but because I had found myself struck dumb by the sheer magnitude of issues to respond to. Each time something happened and I moved to respond, I would find something even more upsetting had happened by the time I got round to trying to respond. And so it continued. The last piece I wrote about Nigerian politics was a passionate piece on the 29th of May last year as President Obasanjo was being sworn into office for the second time. In that piece, titled Four Years On, I had recalled the euphoria and ecstasy that had greeted his first inauguration which I had myself witnessed at the poolside of the Nicon Hilton in Abuja where Muslim and Christian, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw, Igbira, Igala and Yoruba all let out a collective whoop of joy as he pronounced the final words of his oath “So help me God”.
In that piece, I had pleaded with the President whose close associates consistently proclaimed as having a deep and passionate love for Nigeria and its progress, to ensure that in his second term, the mistakes of the first were corrected. It is now universally acknowledged by all, including the President that the first term was not a success. Never mind the conflicting reasons proffered for this. For while the paid lackeys and praise singers who surround him, even in this second term, would have it that the first term was unsuccessful because of the difficulties in creating a semblance of stability and of trying to appease the varied political interests to whom he owed his first election, an impassioned observer could pick several holes in that argument. I have always argued that in spite of the constraints the President faced in his first term, there were many things that went wrong, that did not need to have done so. What political interests for instance led to his U-turn on large presidential convoys and sirens? Yet that was a simple way in which a clear message could have been sent to the common man that it was no longer business as usual, that a different kind of government had arrived. There were other more subtle ways in which the mismatch between presidential speak and presidential actions sent varying messages to the populace. The shenanigans in the political parties, the selective application of anti-corruption laws, the events culminating in the yet unresolved and now virtually forgotten brutal murder of one of Nigeria’s greatest sons, a personal friend and serving minister of the President, all served rightly or wrongly to undermine public perception of the President and what he stood for.
In the early days of the President’s first coming, I remember engaging some friends who worked closely with him on some of these issues then. Their response, often predictable, was always, “It is still early, give Baba time, you know the rot had eaten deep before he came”. I always responded with the analogy of a man setting out from Abuja to Lagos on foot. Everyone knows that going from Abuja to Lagos on foot is, as the old lorry inscription has it, “Not a day job”. Yet when the man sets off northwards in the direction of Kano, ignoring the minor fact that Lagos is south of Abuja, there is no point saying, give him time, because in a million years, he will never get to Lagos. This is not to say that the President was heading so far off from his desired destination, but was merely to underline the point that there was certainly room for a more nuanced acceptance of constructive criticism from Aso Rock. And that became the constant refrain all through those first four years……”give us time, things were so bad” and it was trotted out in response to any and every criticism of the government.
Following the publication of my article at the beginning of the President’s second term in office, I received quite a lot of responses, many of which berated me for, as one of them put it “treating the issues with kid gloves”. As I wrote that piece, I was conscious of the conciliatory tone I was adopting, something I had done because I wanted to engage, and not just enrage. And yet, a year on, I find courage to write again and plead for a mature and honest reading of the situation in our country and the need for a way forward.
In Abuja, earlier this year, I sat with a group of friends late into the night as we debated the state of the country. Of the four, all young professionals like me; three were unequivocal in their condemnation of the stance and attitude of government. They spoke of people, personally known to them, whose circumstances had suddenly changed courtesy of the All Africa Games and CHOGM. They were united in their disgust. I resolved to play more of an observer role in the discussion, since I wanted the opinion of the men on the ground. On the other side, the fourth friend, though acknowledging some of the government’s shortcomings, was equally passionate in his belief in “reforms” and the dividends they would bring. As far as he was concerned, most of the complaints raised were a natural consequence of reforms.
This brings me to the central premise of this piece. In recent months, it has become the refrain of government spokesmen to attribute any negative fall-out from any policy or action of government to the natural painful consequences of reforms. As they often point out, rebuilding a better, more prosperous Nigeria, requires sacrifices from the people and the led. They go further to add that no apostle of change has been ever beloved during the process of change. Finally, they often describe any critics as being part of the cabal of interest groups who have benefited from the old order and are therefore resistant to progressive change, or of naively supporting this cabal through their criticism.
There is no doubt that change is a painful, difficult and complex process. Most would agree with this premise. However there are many drivers of change and many ways of bringing it about. Students of the force field analysis school of change management will well recognize the picture of change as a process in which forces for change oppose the forces against change. The idea is that, instead of trying to build up the forces for change into a formidable weapon to bludgeon the dissenting voices into submission, strategic alliances are built with key players on the opposing side who can be won over, leaving behind a gradually diminished core of support for the forces opposing change.
Yet, the current government seems intent on alienating every voice raised in criticism. It is either you are for us, or you are against us. This unsophisticated approach is not only counterproductive but fosters a sense of the Messianic, in which ” We are persecuted because we are doing the right thing” becomes the dominant theme. This unproblematic reduction with its echoes of Fascism is profoundly undemocratic and only serves to dangerously polarize the populace and alienate voices of reason.
This form of response to criticism is even more dangerous because it blinds the object of criticism to the possibility that there may be some kernel of genuineness in the heart of the criticism. It is beginning to seem that unlike in the first term, where the chorus was “Give us time”, in this second term it is going to be “It’s the reforms now, it’s the cabal”
Using the apologia of reforms and a cabal, I will now study some of the scenarios that have called into question the sincerity and commitment of this government and explore whether the negativity they have aroused can be ascribed to reforms or the work of a cabal.
When the stadium in Abuja began to be built in 2001, I was, like most Nigerians, a vociferous critic of the project, arguing that it was a misplacement of priorities in a country where nearly eighty per cent of the population lacked the basic ingredients of a dignified human life. My friends in government then, responded by saying it would not be financed from the coffers of the government, but by a new and unique form of private investment. Even then I argued, could these “private funds” not be better harnessed elsewhere? Over time, the argument changed to how much the hosting of the All-Africa Games would boost our economy and our international stature, a trite aphorism trotted out again in response to criticism of the vast amounts expended on hosting CHOGM. A similar response emerged to criticism of the frequent overseas travels of the President.
There is an ancient Igbo saying, which I am sure exists elsewhere, that beauty begins at home and radiates outwards. Was criticism of these projects a natural consequence of reforms? Or the work of a cabal?
Is it the work of a cabal or a natural consequence of reforms that Bola Ige, and a host of other prominent figures have been murdered and their killers not apprehended? If, as it appeared in Abuja, earlier this year, that many have forgotten, some of us have not.
More recently, the President criticized some governors, implying that they were squandering government funds on “burying their Mama and doing birthday for their Papa”. On the surface, a worthy criticism, particularly in our society obsessed, as it is, with ostentation and flamboyance, even in the midst of dire poverty. But many of us recall a flamboyant daughter’s wedding in foreign shores, a recent burial, complete with aso ebi of a presidential grandmother-in-law and so on and so forth. So whence the principle?
The problem in Anambra State lingers unresolved. While the, as yet, legally recognized state chief executive is deprived of the police escort that is his entitlement, various non-governmental figures still boast of a retinue of policemen. Another cabalistic scheme or fall-out of reforms?
The state of the roads in the South East is another good example. When the contract for the strategic Onitsha-Owerri road was awarded to a little-known Greek company, there was an outcry from many Igbos who doubted the capability of the firm to deliver. Two years or so later, we have government officials wringing their hands as the predicted scenario has come to pass. And a government that prides itself on its war against corruption says it is helpless considering the vast amounts already paid out to the company. Now where is the hand of reforms or a cabal in this sequence of events?
The recent petrol price brouhaha is another example. A simple reading of the protest as the quibbling of the rich as a subsidy, which we are told, favours them, is removed ignores several other variables including the simple fact that the price of petrol in Nigeria profoundly influences the price of everything else. It also masks the problem of trust, the fact that a majority of the population are unwary of a government that keeps making promises, which it does not fulfil. Because there is a lack of coherence, a mismatch between what is uttered and what is practised, the populace are dubious.
I remember laughing a couple of years ago as I looked at the back cover page of a Nigerian magazine with a government sponsored exhortation to “buy Nigerian textiles” while the inside pages were filled with government officials and their spouses decked out in the latest foreign textiles.
This is not to say that there are no pockets of progress – in the telecommunications sector, in the right to free speech (at least until the recent crackdown on the press and organized labour), in financial crime, in transparency in budgeting (?) and in the regulation and monitoring of the pharmaceutical industry. But it is my suspicion that these pockets will remain just that- pockets- without a bold, coherent, consistent and overriding vision uniting them.
In building this vision, there must be room for constructive criticism. There must be an honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of government policy and practice, with an acknowledgement of shortcomings. Ascribing all criticism or weakness to a natural consequence of reforms is short sighted and unproductive. Which is why the government must listen carefully, when people like Chinua Achebe, not especially known for crying wolf where there is none speak out.
Wheeling out a paid lackey to respond in vituperation, ignoring the substance of the criticism is counter-productive. Equally unhelpful is branding all critics as selfish and frustrated as has become a common refrain. As my egbon, Segun Adeniyi recently exhorted small scale, Nigerian investors in his column; it is time for the Nigerian government and proponents of reform “to shine their eye”
Anya is a Nigerian writer and doctor currently based in the United Kingdom