ONE of the unique things about modern Presidents, political scientists say, is the ability to command the nation’s attention. They are perhaps the only public leaders with the ability to select issues for public discussion, and set the terms of that discourse. Even though every President is expected to respond to events and circumstances of great public concern, the extreme importance of their office means that whatever they say or do will be considered news, indeed, big news.
President Muhammadu Buhari did exactly that last week when he declared that as a beneficiary of a free and fair election in the country, he would bequeath same to his successor and Nigeria in 2023. He said he was already looking forward to a peaceful handover. He said he was morally bound to fulfill that wish. He made this commitment at a dinner with members of his legal team for the 2019 presidential election last Thursday night in Abuja before leaving for the United Kingdom. On a peaceful handover in 2023, the President was reported to have said, “morally, I want to have a clear conscience. I swore by the Holy Book that I will abide by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria… I hope that by 2023, I can handover quietly to whoever succeeds me and I wish him the best of luck”.
His predecessor, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan had already set a good example for any responsible leader to follow. That’s one of the ways every leader will be judged by history. But, sometimes, tremendous moral strength is not enough to keep to a promise made. President Buhari needs all the help he can get to make it happen. Lawyers and hangers-on are the ones who may be dissuade him from fulfilling this oath because they profit from it. He must accept the outcome of the ballot, whoever that fellow might be. As Jonathan elegantly stated in his memoirs, “My Transition Hours”, “democracy is not just about fulfilling all righteousness by treating the people to the ballot box that you bring out on Election Day. Democracy boils down to legitimacy and ensuring that the people have the necessary dividends. Elections must offer valid choices”. Political scientists have documented that some Presidents run aground in the presidency the very moment they begin to confuse their own destinies with that of their countries and the citizens.
As I wrote in this column three weeks ago, the desire to leave something permanent behind as evidence of a work of a lifetime is often with every leader, every president from the days of their youth. It’s about looking ahead to posterity. Indeed, eyes on the future, every president believes he will be judged by history for his success or failure in fulfilling the promises that brought him to office. In this case, what did Buhari promise he would do when he campaigned for the presidency? Has he been able to accomplish them? I believe as he is doing his last lap in office, these questions weigh heavily on his mind. He sees, I guess, a conflict between his role as president of Nigeria who “belongs to no one”, and his role to ensure equity and fairness to all as he swore to be, and not a president of a section of the country as his critics often allege. 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 achieve 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 make 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, I find quite illuminating what renowned American 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, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives 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, we must recall 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.
From my point of view, the bright spot in Buhari’s presidency is his war against corruption. I’m not talking politics here. More than any administration in this democratic dispensation, no government has tackled official corruption as this government, forget the allegation of witch-hunt. In that connection, history will look kindly on him as one leader who responded forcefully against graft in the country. On the flip side, history will record Buhari as the President who though raised a powerful voice against poverty in the land, nonetheless, under his leadership, Nigeria became the “poverty capital of the world”. 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 and stop the blame game. More than three years left in his presidency are ample opportunity to restore his reputation and secure a decent place in history.
The issue of a peaceful handover is not entirely in his hands, but he has a big role in the way it happens. He must allow seen and unseen forces distract his attention. Former President Goodluck Jonathan has left a big shoe in that respect for Buhari by not interfering in the 2023 elections and who emerges as his successor. Nothing creates more bitterness and scuppers a peaceful handover than when a sitting President by any sleight of hand determines the outcome of an election or refuses to handover to someone who emerges the winner just because he doesn’t like the person’s face. The people decide who governs them, not the President.