In his remarks to new foreign envoys, President Muhammadu Buhari listed what would engage his utmost attention in the remaining three years of his second tenure. He outlined these priority areas to include: growing the economy, poverty reduction, access to quality education, healthcare, improving productivity. Others are increased agricultural output, energy self-sufficiency, expansion of transportation and infrastructure, improving governance and social cohesion as well as national security.
No doubt, these are areas worth the attention of any President who knows that the job is a duty to be done, not a prize to be won. Indeed, every leader is always conscious, if not apprehensive, about the judgment of history. The desire to leave something enduring as evidence of a work of a lifetime is often with every leader, every president. Every president believes he will be judged by history for his success or failure in fulfilling the promises that brought him to office. That’s why leaders are not judged as ordinary people. The decisions they make, some are small, domestic, and innocuous. But as management experts, Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein and coauthors of “Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep it from Happening to You”, noted, “some of the decisions leaders make are more important, affecting people’s lives, livelihoods, and well-being”. I’m inclined to think President Buhari and his top aides know this. Nonetheless, it appears that the constant thing missing in the president’s ambitious plan is a clear vision and action plan to actualise his priorities.
While it may be true that “all politics is local”, as late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neal famously said, leadership is entirely another story. Ground-level execution and net-working are very vital leadership skills. Also, essential are framing and communicating broad-based, sweeping issues of national importance dear to the hearts of the citizens. Nothing less will do. But as has been noted several times, what did Buhari promise he would do when he campaigned for the presidency? Has he been able to accomplish them? As he is doing his last lap in office, these questions should weigh heavily on his mind, because in the end, it’s the judgement of history that every president fears the most.
Some of the questions presidents often ask themselves are: will I like to be remembered as a preserver of my nation’s peace and unity? Or as the man who has enforced the law with equity and fairness to all, or a president who presided over the division of the country? The judgement of history often doesn’t come fast, but historians do. But there is always a good place in history for any leader/President who wants to succeed. The starting point is to define his goals, his vision and purposes of his government in such a way that gives coherence to his administration.
He cannot realise these goals, this vision and purposes if they are packaged in a mishmash manner. Most critical is the fact that the presidency is not a prize to be won; it’s a duty to be done. So, ultimately, a President is judged by the many things he initiated and accomplished. These include legislations; programmes/policies that affect the lives of the peoples in a profound, positive ways and that can move the country forward. In that sense, a President is like a shepherd who knows what stirs the hearts of the people and makes better choices that work in their overall interests. Therefore, the challenges that the country faces and the concerns of the citizens are often millstones around the president’s neck, and how he solves them, determines how, in the end, history will look kindly, or harshly, on him. From my point of view, this is the point of difference between rhetoric and reality. This is why presidents are not judged like other men. It’s because leadership makes all the difference. Again, that is why, in the words of Edward Murrow, “difficulty is one excuse that history never accepts”.
Looking at how history judges leaders, specifically in this respect, how kind or otherwise, history will judge President Buhari, I find quite illuminating what renowned political historian Robert R. Caro said about lessons in power. As he observed in his works, Caro, a student of power and leadership, said that “no one can lead who does not first acquire power, and no leader can be great who does not know how to use power”. Very often, he said, “the trouble is that the combination of the two skills is rare. He noted that the temperament and behavior of the ambitious, cynical player, adept at amassing power is often at odds with those of the daring and imaginative visionary able to achieve great things with that power.
I also find Caro’s deep understanding of the inner workings of power, the nature of power, the complexity of ambition, and the role that the greater good can indeed play in the making of a leader, very relevant to the leadership question of Nigeria today. This is why: power reveals more than it hides. It is evident that what leaders do while they are trying to get power is not necessarily what they do after they have it. When a leader gets enough power, when, according to Caro, he doesn’t need anybody anymore – then we can begin to see how he always wants to treat people, and we can also see that – by watching what he does with the power so acquired. That is the point where Tip O’Neal, in his memoirs, noted that, both the President and his aides begin to assume that they have succeeded in “capturing the presidency”, and now have the country “figured out”. Isn’t this crystal clear now in our politics and in this administration?
Before the history of his presidency will be written, it’s interesting, historians must record, that president Buhari rode into Aso Villa, the seat of power, like a knight on a white horse, looking ready, prepared and capable. There was warmth and excitement in the country when he came in 2015. There was optimism that after three failed attempts, he succeeded at acquiring power that he can use it for very large purposes. That excitement seems far-gone now. Why, because, too many of the troops he brought with him were political amateurs, with a chip on their shoulders, some very arrogant, some divisive.
They have morphed into what we now know as “cabal”, something the president’s wife, Aisha, has complained bitterly about on several occasions. Every administration do have it in some form. But the danger is when they become a stumbling block to achieving the president’s agenda for good governance. In that respect, many people believe, rightly or wrongly, that where Jonathan used a steak knife, Buhari is wielding a cleaver, sometimes giving the notion of an imperial president.
History will record Buhari as the President who though raised a powerful voice against poverty in the land, yet under his leadership, Nigeria became the “poverty capital of the world. Our healthcare system is a shambles. His wife has said so many times. Same with our education. He will also remembered as the president under whose watch insecurity assumed an unprecedented level the president under whose leadership the economy grew progressively worse, unemployment, national debt, interest rates, inflation soared to a crazy level. Today, there are fears that the economy may slide into another recession, the second time in four years. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has witnessed two consecutive quarters of negative growth, with the second quarter (Q2’20) growth of -6.10 percent. Today, Nigerians are being suffocated by outrageous electricity tariffs, high fuel price and other government’s policies. These are not legacies any president wants history to remember him for.
Despite all this, I still believe history will be kind to Buhari if he can put his ears on the ground, his eyes on the ball and his hands on the plough and focus on the issues that matter to Nigerians. With less than three years left in his presidency are ample opportunity to restore his reputation and secure a decent place in history. He needs to act nobly at this critical moment, in all critical sectors. More than anything else, he should bear in mind that in the end, a President is judged by history by his own actions and decisions, and not by the errors of his Cabinet members, because the buck stops with him. It is never too late to make amends. That’s the essence of a second chance.