A few years ago, I read two influential books on modern American Presidency: Richard Elliot Neustadt’s “Presidential Power,” and James David Barber’s “The Presidential Character.” For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, these books came to mind again during the recently concluded Democratic and Republican Conventions. Why do men and women spend exorbitant resources on electoral clashes just to assume an office that comes with a lot of headache and sleepless nights? I wondered. Military dictators, I sneered, have it made.
Still, the modern American President — “if he has the power to persuade and has a professional reputation, along with public prestige” — has the power to do a lot of good, to change the course of history. On the other side of the Atlantic, very little is known of the Nigerian Presidency, and for that matter, the Presidency of most African countries. For a continent that is only recently escaping from the tentacles of military dictatorship and one-party rule, reliable empirical data is scarce and hazy. For instance, how does Nigeria’s Aso Rock function?
Because we do not know, it is difficult to tell if a president or presidency is mediocre, above average or praiseworthy. We generally do not know the domestic and international battles a president has had to wage. We have no inklings of what his gains and losses are; what his pains and agonies are; or, for that matter, if history and posterity will salute and vindicate him. For the most part, we judge and criticize a president from our ethnic, religious, and or economic vantage point. Rightly or wrongly, high and low criticism has become a feature of the Nigerian space.
Since the summer of 2007, I have penned more than half-a-dozen articles concerning President Yar’Adua. Of these, the most grief-causing was “If President Yar’Adua Dies.” My motive was misconstrued even though the essay was a probability rendition: what may happen should the President die in office. Seen from another prism, it was a peek into the future in terms of the political, constitutional and social ramifications of such a possibility. I wanted stakeholders, opinionmakers, and decision-makers to come to grips with the ramifications of such an event.
As with all the head of governments Nigeria has ever had, Musa Umar Yar’Adua has had his share of criticisms, vilifications and abuse. It is hard to tell who has “suffered” the most: Abacha, Babangida or Olusegun Obasanjo? At the rate Nigerians are writing about President Yar’Adua, he just might top them all. In less than 18 months, Yar’Adua has been through the cutters and grinders. He’s been pounded, jabbed at and slapped around. Whatever anger and disdain people had for Obasanjo seems to have been directed at Yar’Adua.
Babangida, Abacha, and Obasanjo all had three things in common: the single-minded pursuit of the destruction of Nigeria; the institutionalization of fraud and sleaze; and the weakening of the nation’s institutions. No matter how history is written and interpreted, these men will be found in the deepest part of a raging hellfire. We cannot — we cannot — say the same of Yar’Adua. Yes, several allegations have been leveled against him; but he is different. He is a different man. Since he is fundamentally different, it is upon us to encourage him to thread the path of righteousness.
It is unfortunate that even before he was sworn in, he was seen as an Obasanjo minion: a lackey stationed in Aso Rock to do Obasanjo’s biddings. It is also unfortunate that Yar’Adua is disliked around the country the same way Goodluck Jonathan is despised in Bayelsa State. I plead guilty for taking part in the “war” against both men. I questioned their patriotism. I questioned their worldview. I questioned their ideologies and their philosophical bent. Indeed, I questioned their readiness and suitability for the presidency. I didn’t think they were the men for the job.
Was I wrong in my judgment and pronouncement? Perhaps. May be I and many others who wrote, and continues to write about the President are angry chiefly at the process and the system that brought him to power. May be we are angry at the fact that the Constitution and the will of the people was curtailed. May be we are annoyed at Yar’Adua for his unquestioning obeisance to Obasanjo and for agreeing to complete Obasanjo’s dastardly errands. May be what we have is transferred annoyance. There are several may-be and several unknowns and the unknowable.
In recent days, I have been rethinking Nigeria, rethinking the presidency and rethinking what it means to be the president; and also, what it means to be a Umar Musa Yar’Adua. He is not a military dictator, he is not an absolute monarch, and neither is he a power-crazed fellow with a disposition to do magnificent evil. He has no semblance to or affinity with Abacha, Babangida or Obasanjo. In all likelihood, this was a man who wanted to do good for the nation, but got caught in the PDP/Obasanjo web; and who is now unable to extricate himself from a macabre dance.
In rethinking President Yar’Adua, I have no intention to sing his songs or help in assembling an orchestra. My concerns — and indeed my main concerns — are that (a) by our endless criticisms, we risk driving him to the abyss, and in so doing may make him make the wrong choices; (b) we make the challenges of nation building so unbearable that he fear taking bold risks; (c) that our persistent finger-pointing may poison the atmosphere, thereby making it hard for the critics and the President to engage in dialogue and mutual exchange of ideas.
His success is our success. And so also are his failures. No one will truly benefit from his meltdown. Therefore, it is to the glory of everyone concern that he succeed. I am not saying we should forgo our constitutional responsibility to state, to society and to our conscience. No. Only that it is the responsible and proper thing to do for our country and for a President who seem shaky and unsure and is being pulled and pushed from different angles and by contending power centers. To be a social critic comes with some measure of responsibility.
I repeat: To be a social critic comes with some measure of responsibility: responsibility to the nation-state, to society and to ones conscience. To continue to beat the President, even in his hours of health difficulties, is not only asinine, it is unconscionable. What’s the point in always seeing failure in his handiwork? What’s the point in always reading ulterior motives to his thinking and pronouncements? I am convinced that if we give the President breathing space, he will readjust his thinking and vision, and will come around to the side of the people.
To be clear: by this submission, I am not asking that social critics and commentators give the President a free ride for eternity. I am not asking that they abandon their constitutional responsibilities. I am not asking that they turn blind eyes to constitutional infringements and irresponsibility. But I think we should (a) scale back on the never-ending attacks; (b) that the vociferousness of the attacks and criticism are becoming counter-productive; (c) that self-censorship is needed at this time, and especially with this president; and (d) that it is time to open formal and informal avenues for dialogue on how to save our failing and disintegrating country. This President seems to be the listening kind. He needs and deserves our support.