Muhammadu Buhari’s triumph over Goodluck Jonathan in the March 28, 2015 presidential election has unleashed a fever of hope in Nigeria. Everywhere I turn, I encounter among Nigerians the sense that our country is on the cusp of redemption, about to achieve a veritable renaissance.
Nigerians’ expectations are not just great; they are also, I am afraid, ominous. Some of us believe, for instance, that there won’t be a single Boko Haram terror attack anywhere in Nigeria the moment Mr. Buhari takes the oath of office. Abubakar Shekau and his ragtag bunch know better than to provoke Buhari’s ire, some contend. Some think the ugly guy called Corruption will buy a one-way ticket and fly out of Nigeria the day the retired general moves into Aso Rock. What about Nigeria’s electric power woes? Some Nigerians appear convinced that the incoming president will flip some switch and inaugurate a season of uninterrupted electric power.
Well, the president-elect asked for it, didn’t he? He has been more tenacious than most in seeking the presidential office. In fact, four times he asked Nigerians to entrust him with their number one job. The first three times, they declined; the fourth time, they said a resounding yes!
Can you blame Nigerians for coming to think that the man has been so persistent exactly because he is the answer, the secret elixir to put right our misshapen condition?
Some of Mr. Buhari’s close associates have assured me, a, that the man understands the gravity of the task before him and, b, that he’s determined to give it his best, honest shot. I find that inspiring. Still, it appears that many Nigerians are looking not merely for a president who would try but for a problem-fixing wizard, a leader with the magic touch.
But sobering reality stands, stubbornly, in the way. It took Nigerians more than five decades to accumulate their album of crises, from a receptivity to obscene graft to deep ethnic divisions, deepening sectarian intolerance to a coarsening moral atmosphere. There isn’t enough fiber in Buhari’s body to subdue problems that have been five and a half decades in the making. But even if the man possessed the energy, the job requires cash, a lot of cash, in fact. And the reality is that there isn’t enough cash in the treasury to do the job. And even if there were the money, there aren’t the solid institutions to midwife the process of turning a long dysfunctional country into a tip-top society.
The sooner we all reckoned that the M in Mr. Buhari’s first name does not stand for Magician, the better for him and for us. Too many Nigerians believe it’s up to God to clear the mess in their country. But one of the great lessons of history is that people, applying their human intelligence, ingenuity and lofty vision, shape their societies. Even if God were in the business of righting countries, why take on Nigeria—a country whose man-made folly has mocked its rich endowment of natural and human resources? I don’t know of any country in history that merely prayed and fasted its way out of a jam.
In a variant of the divine path to Nigeria’s regeneration, too many of us speak about God “using” So-and-So to fix our country. Again, this attitude speaks to a profound misconception. It suggests that the arduous business of reviving Nigeria can be consigned to some superhuman. It would be up to this Gilgamesh-sized fellow to pick up after the rest of us, to stay awake and alert, ensuring that our lives are in order—whilst the rest of us make merry, have a jolly time.
For years, many Nigerians have nursed what I call a Rawlings fantasy. As a young military officer in Ghana, Jerry Rawlings had inspired some soldiers to spring him from jail as he awaited execution for plotting a failed coup d’état. Shortly after being installed as military leader, Mr. Rawlings approved the execution of General Ignatius Kuku Acheampong, a former military ruler, and other generals. While Rawlings remains a divisive figure among Ghanaians, in some quarters reviled as passionately as he is venerated in other quarters, he is an altogether heroic, even messianic, character among Nigerians. Ask Nigerians what must be done to combat the scourge of corruption in their country, and one of the top answers would be, “We need Jerry Rawlings here.”
For some Nigerians, then, Mr. Buhari is the nearest thing, our Rawlingsian approximation, our made-in-Nigeria facsimile of the real deal. Some Nigerians are convinced that, on Mr. Buhari’s inauguration, there won’t be enough room in prisons for all the doomed agents of corruption.
Mr. Buhari’s body language, so far, has been impressive. He has refrained from encouraging the notion that he is a “fixer-aller,” that he has a wand that would take care of Nigeria’s broken education, its non-existent healthcare, its antiquated infrastructure, and its numerous schisms.
What Buhari owes Nigerians is to invest his time and energy everyday to turning Nigeria around. But—even at his best—he can only get us so far. Nigeria’s fortune is in the hands of all of us—all one hundred and seventy million of us. If we want a different country, a healthier, more robust Nigeria, we better realize that it’s up to us, not to one man.
Let’s take one example: corruption. Jailing a few corrupt politicians, or even a lot of them, won’t make corruption disappear from the Nigerian space. The police, customs officials, or reporters cannot, with one hand, demand and receive illicit gratification, and, with the other, declare that they want a clime free of corruption.
If Nigeria must be rid of this malaise, then Nigerians must face up to their culpability in fertilizing this unwholesome practice. Every Okeke, Segun, Okon and Musa should resolve neither to offer a bribe nor demand one. We should abandon from the habit of excusing or defending corruption when the accused perpetrators happen to belong to our ethnic or religious group.
The message is simple: there isn’t one man or woman who alone has what it takes to beat Nigeria into shape. That job belongs, not to one man, but to all of us. If we lull ourselves to sleep, convinced that Magician Buhari is going to slay the monster, we will wake up to the nightmare that the monster has grown bigger, steelier and more vicious.
If Mr. Buhari is to succeed, he must define his agenda and stay the course. But—of even more critical import—he’d need Nigerians’ collective commitment and eternal vigilance.