There’s something about this year’s presidential election in the US that is oddly reminiscent of Nigeria’s 2015 presidential polls. Many Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, can’t quite fathom how the country’s two main parties ended up with candidates with such significant ethical or mental deficits and who inspire little popular enthusiasm. After eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, one that restored gravitas, dignity, a humane touch and intelligence to the White House, there’s a certain anxiety that the next president will be something of a letdown.
I remember feeling profoundly bewildered about the two candidates advertised as Nigerians’ real presidential choices in 2015.
Whatever the cause—whether he had feeble political spine or the political opposition sabotaged him at every turn—Goodluck Jonathan failed to rise to the challenge of leadership. He left the impression of a malleable man, too fickle for the wolves that were his coterie and cohorts, easy to manipulate by some of the sinister men and women he trusted for advice.
How press a case for the reelection of a man of such meager achievements, a president whose mediocrity was writ large?
Yet, some of us also warned of the dire prospects of handing Nigeria to a man quick to appropriate the rhetoric and mantle of “change,” but slow—if not reluctant—to offer even the merest outline of his vision of change. Above all, the All Progressives Congress (APC) never persuaded me of their difference (in terms of principles and policies) from Mr. Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). And Candidate Muhammadu Buhari of the APC struck me—as I told an interviewer—as a dud-in-waiting. The man seemed entirely to belong to a different time, a long vanished analog moment. Nigeria stood in need of a man able to combine deep intellectual insights with sharp political instincts. It needed somebody with the mental acumen and physical stamina to broadly envision its transformation—and the path towards it. I had no doubt that Mr. Buhari was not that man.
Even so, when I entreated Nigerians to renounce both the PDP and APC and seek a third option, the overwhelming response was to accuse me of irresponsible idealism. We were stuck, I was told; we were without any other choice. It was too late in the game to take on the task of championing a third political path. Like it or not, we had to embrace the one party or the other.
We did just that. Disdaining the once imperious PDP, ignoring every other party in the race, most Nigerians cleaved to Buhari and the APC, the candidate and the party whose mantra was “change.” It didn’t matter that they hardly defined what change meant, that they merely hoisted up brooms at rallies. Having put Nigeria and its affairs in their hands, many a Nigerian returned to the business of daydreaming that God—or some superhuman—would take up the task of solving the problems we work hard, individually and collectively, to create.
A year and a half into his administration, it is clear that President Buhari is overwhelmed. He has said as much, in oblique as well as direct terms. His wife, Aisha Buhari, has joined the likes of Junaid Mohammed and Senator Bukola Saraki in proposing that some forces inimical to Nigeria’s interests have hijacked the current administration.
The immediate crisis facing the Buhari administration is a severe shortage of cash. For decades, a parade of Nigeria’s visionless leaders frittered away their country’s oil earnings. Sometimes they just stole the funds. When they invested the earnings at all, it was on gigantic projects that had little connection to the vital interests and lives of the Nigerian people. Nigeria has never had a leader who remotely resembled the late great Singaporean prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Yew had his negative side, including a notorious impatience with critics, but he envisioned his city-state as a first-tier economy—and worked assiduously to steer Singapore towards that lofty dream.
Mr. Buhari as well as Nigeria’s governors and local government councilors have little at their disposal. Yet, this impecunious circumstance is not the sole reason for the current disaster in Nigeria at every level of governance. Those who run Nigeria, the president included, have found in the dwindled oil revenues a perfect excuse for their failure. But I’d suggest that, even if they were to get a sudden infusion of cash, they would remain steeped in mediocrity.
Cash is important for running any social community, but leadership is far more critical. And leadership has to do, above all, with vision and imagination. For a man who sought to lead Nigeria as compulsively as Mr. Buhari did, it is astonishing that he has no bold blueprint. He does not appear to realize that Nigeria’s educational sector needs to be revamped, that the country needs something called a healthcare plan. He has no plan in place for addressing Nigeria’s colossal unemployment crisis. For that matter, his approach to fighting corruption is shockingly ad hoc and jaded, hardly more effectual than what passed for anti-corruption efforts under former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan.
In her widely discussed BBC interview, Mrs. Aisha Buhari served notice that she might not support her husband to run for reelection in 2019. Her statement got me thinking: it is about time Nigerians began to think about creating a coalition of progressive, enlightened and visionary citizens to seek political power at every level and undertake the task both of founding their country and realizing its potential. It would be a tragedy to wait until 2019 and, throwing up hands in despair, declare again that we must cast our lots either with the PDP, despite its long history of failure, or the APC, which is just as bereft of ideas.
Talking of visionary leadership, I am rather fond of recalling a TV program in which Steve Kroft, a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” an American news program, interviewed Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai. The correspondent began by asking what the sheik was trying to do. The sheik’s response was instructive in its clarity: “I want [Dubai] to be Number One—not in the region, but in the world.” Next, the reporter asked, “What do you mean by Number One?” The sheikh had a ready response: “In everything: higher education, health, housing, just [giving] my people the highest way of living.”
The journalist then remarked to the sheikh might have chosen to transform his kingdom within the longer span of a generation, not at the hurried, sweeping pace of a few years. Eyes sharpened, Dubai’s ruler came back: “I want my people to live [a] better life now, to go to the highest schools now, to get good healthcare now—not after twenty years.”
“60 Minutes” showed that the sheikh had carefully chosen young, soundly educated people to supervise critical areas of his transformation agenda. Apart from their youth, these aides were also seized by a palpable dynamism and can-do spirit. By contrast, Mr. Buhari and his predecessors make a habit of entrusting too many critical assignments to old, superannuated men and women who are set in their (bad) ways and obsessed with personal aggrandizement.
Time is short, 2019 around the corner. It’s time Nigerians of developmental vision and moral acumen coalesced around a political party to ensure that the PDP and APC do not crop up as our sole default choices in two and a half years.