The process of basing governance on public choice of a popular leader can lead to bitter disenchantment, if the assumptions of the chosen leader’s effectiveness or transformative vision prove to be unfounded. In democratic systems that are strictly time-bound, this disenchantment becomes the driving force behind the process of selection whenever electoral contest approaches. In recent times, the call for change has become a force of seemingly unstoppable power in several democratic political arenas. The common consequence of this, as evidenced by electoral outcomes in nations where leaders who exhibit wholly different characteristics have emerged, such as in France and the USA, has been the rise of individuals whose attachment to institutional organisations is less stringent than their propagation of personal ideologies and presumptions.
Nigeria experienced the outcome of this syndrome in 2015 when, for the first time in its history, an incumbent head of state was adjudged to have lost an election. However, while the election of former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, was widely hailed as the installation of a new era of transformative change, the reality has turned out to be fraught with elements of disappointment with, and challenges to, the presumptions of many of those who had publicly supported the renewal of the former general’s mandate. In recent weeks, public disenchantment has been articulated by some disappointed advocates of the retired General’s return to power in no uncertain terms. The publication of a number of opinions aimed at drawing the President’s attention to anomalies and aberrations of prevailing conditions in the land have become a shrill torrent of near abuse. This perception of the climate of public opinion has been exacerbated by the utterances of some senior political figures, who have set the tone of the national conversation.
Prominent among these have been former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the most respected voice of northern radicalism, former Kaduna State Governor, Balarabe Musa. In what was reported as a tense exchange between the always outspoken elder statesman, Obasanjo, and reporters, he is alleged to have said that the time was not ripe for him to pronounce whether he would support a return bid for General Buhari in 2019. Given the highly vocal vehemence with which he abandoned the Peoples Democratic Party that had granted him its ticket for two terms in favour of giving tacit but nonetheless effective support to the call for change when his protégé, Goodluck Jonathan, was under siege, Baba’s reluctance to pronounce support for a second term for President Buhari was surprising, but barely two weeks later the sage did not disappoint public expectations. He has now released a comprehensive advisory epistle in which he asks President Buhari not to contemplate running for a second term in 2019.
In a comprehensive New Year conversation with The Sun newspaper, ex-Governor Balarabe Musa delivered a compulsive overview of the government’s performance so far, in which he gave the President a low mark for both performance and comprehension of the true needs of the populace. He expressed a sense of disappointment that was only partially relieved by the decency with which the one-time firebrand couched his comments. According to him, the President apparently misunderstood the real nature of the call for restructuring, which, he said, was an imperative that no Nigerian leader should ignore. Balarabe believes that national history has exposed flaws in governance and public affairs that any genuine patriot must be able to acknowledge and address. He regretted what he saw as President Buhari’s unwillingness or inability to understand this imperative. Coming from someone whose pedigree as a leader of the masses in northern Nigeria can hardly be ignored, Balarabe’s commentary should be a wake-up call for those who have begun to tout the continuation of President Buhari’s leadership of the nation for a second term.
A story that sought to explain and prophesy positive consequences of President Buhari’s agenda also appeared on the same page that carried the comments by Balarabe Musa. In this report, the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria (VON), Hon. Osita Okechukwu, a political appointee and stalwart supporter of the former General, declared that in this year the major objectives of the administration would begin to be implemented. He asserted that long delayed action on infrastructural renewal and political restructuring would soon commence. This conjunction of opposing opinions indicated that a profoundly fundamental process of concern over the ability of government to govern has taken hold of the national psyche. Nothing reflects public will in a modern democracy more than the proliferation of expressions of either support for, or disenchantment with, the ruling administration in the popular media. The advent of social media has raised this conglomeration of opinions to a new level of sensitivity. However, commentaries in traditional media still carry substantial weight and the extent to which conditions that exist in the wider national comity provoke expressions of either support or criticism from concerned citizens must be taken seriously by those who either lead or aspire to lead the governing process.
Public commentary is a vital element in the establishment of political credibility for those who participate in governance, as representatives of the people’s will. For this reason, those who make it their duty to proffer interpretations of public observation or reaction to the consequences of governance or even to the nature of daily existence as this relates to governance must be heeded with caution and acuity by leaders whose credibility often depends on the effectiveness with which they fulfill the expectations of their supporters. While critical open letters, which are purported to be advisory epistles to such leaders, are often regarded as being meant not for the leader so much as for the disenchanted follower, the medium is an effective tool for both encouraging and defining strategic change as a truly transformational aspect of governance. It is in this context that two of such epistles have been widely circulated, both through the traditional media and by way of new media posts in recent weeks. The first of these was a well-written and extremely passionate letter by the highly admired columnist and editor, Dele Momodu. Entitled “Mr. President, Man Shall Not Live by Power Alone,” the article can be described as a classic specimen of the genre. Right from the title, which is obviously designed to spark popular interest, it is adversarial while being at the same time also solicitous of the President’s attention. The second of these open letters was authored by the playwright and university drama lecturer from Benue State, Ambassador Iyorwuese Hagher, whose record of public service includes a term as a senator in the aborted Third Republic parliament, followed by two ministerial tenures, and then an illustrious record as Ambassador to Mexico and High Commissioner to Canada. His short open letter, entitled “You Have Betrayed Democracy and Promoted Genocide,” is a powerful rejection of expectations of glorious service from the change regime. It is a frightening declaration of disturbing presumptions of inter-ethnic disenchantment arising from the much-reported clashes between nomadic herdsmen and settled agrarian communities in Benue State. These two letters demand the attention of all serious patriots in Nigeria because they are both timely and topical.
Momodu’s epistle is loaded with dramatic declarations, which are pointedly couched in language that is aimed at raising public awareness of the author’s claims to political prescience. For example, in the second paragraph of this nothing less than sensational epistle, he says: “Kindly permit me to be as brutally frank as possible. As a stakeholder who made his modest contribution to your emergence as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I owe you nothing but the truth. I was not a member of your party when I volunteered to support your mission and ambition in 2015. I was elated when Nigerians succeeded in chasing away the profligate and reckless government of the PDP, led by President Goodluck Jonathan. I was one of those who unleashed terror on that government and I subsequently presented you with a compilation of my articles in which I criticised and advised the then President, free of charge. I never expected that our situation could ever get worse under the APC government that almost literally promised heaven and earth. But it has become evident that it is easier to govern by words of mouth than by force of action.”
This is a typical example of the main thrust of the Momodu epistle, which is largely a chronicle of personal and public disenchantment emanating from his perception of the government’s failures. However, it is clear after a comprehensive reading and re-reading of this epistle that Momodu’s grouse about his declared former champion is over the issue of whether the President is planning to contest for a second term. It is also quite interesting that while Momodu’s letter makes it clear that he will not support the idea of a Buhari re-run, he does not inform his many readers (remember this is an open letter) in any detail what or who or what type of systematic replacement he will tout for this time around. His letter is a cry of pain that reflects the inarticulacy of a beleaguered populace confronted with the failure of a hope that could be regarded as, to say the least, both uninformed and overrated.
The Hagher epistle is shorter but actually a much more devastating and definitive critique of managerial deficiency on the part of the Buhari administration albeit directly linked to the handling of the escalating crisis between nomadic herdsmen and agrarian communities. It turns out that Hagher had communicated with the President in a supportive manner much earlier, as pointed out in the following excerpt from his letter: “I am pained that you ignored my advice in my private memorandum to you dated 30th July, 2016. I had warned you of the possibility of a horrendous genocide in Benue, Plateau, Taraba, Southern Kaduna and Adamawa states. I asked you to be proactive and stop the genocide that has been ongoing but which would burst out in the open and shock the world within 18 months. Your office replied my letter on September 28, 2016, and the reply was couriered to me in the United States, thanking me ‘immensely’ and giving me the assurances that the advice would be heeded. With the current situation on ground, I regret to now inform you that it is 17 months since my warning and prediction and your government did nothing to pre-empt or prevent the genocide. The nomadic terrorists have finally accelerated the ethnic cleansing in Benue State. They have strategically moved against the Tiv, the largest minority ethnicity in northern Nigeria. These perpetrators believe that if they can ethnically cleanse the Tiv, then nobody can stand in their way to possess the land and carve a new geo-polity and demography for the Middle Belt.”
No one who reads this can deny the profoundly alarming premonitions that Ambassador Hagher’s words will generate in political discourse in the nation. Even the President himself, assuming that he will bother to read a missive that should have been meant for his eyes only but which has been shared with the masses, must certainly be anxious to defuse the sentimental fears expressed by Hagher. The ambassador, just like Balarabe Musa, is another senior citizen whose origin should be regarded as making him a natural ally of any transformational leader from Nigeria’s northern states. With that in mind, Hagher’s incredibly bitter excoriation of President Buhari’s handling of a predictable security crisis is bound to raise serious public anxiety over the continued efficacy and viability of the President’s role as leader, and especially as provider of stability for the nation.
This brings us to the core of our observations on the growing climate of anxiety in Nigeria’s polity and the real issue that has encouraged us to put our thoughts together in this particular commentary. In every dynamic democracy, change and the hope for improved delivery of service to the people are constants. However, the call for change might sometimes be regarded as an opportunistic summons to overturn an incumbent’s mandate as occurred in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election. It appears that this impulse was recognised as the real driving force behind the process by Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, in spite of his desire to renew his mandate at that time. It was this recognition that motivated the presumptive alacrity with which he conceded defeat. It has been argued that he had no choice both by Jonathan’s supporters, and especially by some of his former party members who actually abandoned his cause. The truth is that he could have at least challenged the conduct and outcome of several of the polling centres, where failure of the system and questionable practices were evident. His decision to ignore this reality and choose an alternative destiny was apparently based on his belief that it was more important to avoid provocative and contentious arguments that might generate hostility because the urge to see the exercise as having installed change in the nation had become the bellwether of the public will.
As the nation moves towards another season of partisan contestation, the public mood is once again being gradually goaded into the expectation of change. This is happening precisely because the consequence of their choice in the last contest has disappointed a substantial and vocal proportion of the electorate. Widespread disenchantment has once more generated the populist urge for change. It is this reality that those who are pushing the agenda of change for the President’s attention are probably hoping will influence the outcome of the next contest for choosing a national leader. This is bound to become an increasingly prominent aspect of Nigerian political discourse. The fact that public events as well as critical conditions are collaborating to make the call for change the basic reality of public concern should promote true transformation of a social reality that will improve Nigeria’s future.
•Barrett wrote in from Bayelsa State.