As a reporter who keenly followed what transpired in Nigeria before, during and after the annulled 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, it was an act of courage and statesmanship for President Muhammadu Buhari to accord June 12 a pride of place as a national Democracy Day. But then, if we will be honest, only a Buhari could have taken such decision without any backlash from the North. It is even more remarkable that two presidents from the south had failed to redress that injustice in the manner Buhari did when they had the opportunity to do so.
As Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka wrote yesterday in the first part of his interventions on June 12, only those without a sense of history would diminish what Buhari has done on the issue. In his article in the 12th July 1993 edition of the rested CITIZENS magazine which I quoted in my book, ‘POLITRICKS: National Assembly under Military Dictatorship’, the immediate past Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu wrote at the time: “We are today stuck at the crossroads…small problems have become bigger problems, mist on the tracks has turned into a thick fog. From here, moving back is impossible without terrible costs and moving forward extremely difficult”.
Sadly, when the president addressed the nation yesterday on such a momentous occasion, he failed to inspire our country to a national healing process that he started with the recognition of June 12. While the diversity of our country should ordinarily be our greatest strength, its mismanagement has also, over the years, sown the seeds of discord and division. When, as a result of that situation, some parts of the country feel alienated, it is the responsibility of the leader to address their grievances, regardless of how such people choose to exercise their franchise at election periods. And there could not have been a better opportunity to tackle this problem than the one presented yesterday.
It may not be his fault but the reality of our existence in Nigeria today is that President Buhari has become a very polarising figure and it is difficult for the country to progress under such circumstance. A bland speech which rehashed his usual rhetoric and spoke more to the past than the future was a great disservice. This is despite the fact that when he was sworn in on 29th May without the traditional inaugural address, his handlers had told Nigerians to wait till June 12.
Let me be clear here: I do not buy the tales of any agenda by President Buhari to ‘Islamise’ or ‘Fulianise’ Nigeria, whatever those terms mean. I know, for instance, that if it had been President Buhari attending NASFAT programmes the way Vice President Yemi Osinbajo attends the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) programmes, all hell would have been let loose. And there is nothing to suggest that the young men who have realized—like their counterparts from other parts of the country—that there is more money from kidnapping and armed robbery than in herding cows are taking instructions from Aso Rock. It is a challenge of insecurity for which ethnic profiling is most unhelpful.
However, President Buhari takes vicarious responsibility for the manner he has chosen to address or ignore these challenges. We have learnt from the example of many failed states that when ethnic or/and religious differences are magnified in a milieu where there is a preponderance of guns in the hands of sundry criminal cartels, redressing grievances offers a more productive approach in leadership. When those in charge of affairs are perceived—in fact, being accused, even if wrongly—to be promoting agenda that are at variance with their oath, it is easy for some unscrupulous politicians to manipulate feelings of relative deprivation, especially when benefits (including political as well as economic) decline and expectations increase.
While, as President Buhari himself admitted yesterday, politicians may be magnifying our fault lines, the real dividing line in Nigeria is not religion or ethnicity but rather the dwindling opportunities for personal advancement. Nigeria has for years been a state in retreat given the way government is becoming removed from our lives and that is what we must deal with. It started with public utilities in which people began to buy generator to provide their own electricity and then we moved to digging boreholes to provide our water. Then we subverted the public schools for private schools of all hues. While our health institutions followed this tragic decline and neglect, everybody also started providing their own security by erecting iron gates and employing security guards with communities relying on vigilantes.
These are some of the challenges we must confront as a nation. But doing so would require a leader who can galvanise everybody towards a common cause. That explains why it was disappointing that the commencement of his second and final term in office which also coincided with the inauguration of a new Democracy Day was frittered away by failing to address the heavy burden we all bear through the threats to our individual survival and the clear and present dangers to our communal faith in Nigeria. On a day when words of courage, healing and reassurance could have rekindled national unity, the president missed an opportunity offered by history and the occasion he so brilliantly created for himself to inspire us to a higher national purpose.
In every sense, this is an anxious moment for Nigeria. The lives of citizens in several parts of the country are daily threatened as a result of unparalleled insecurity and a serial retreat of the state in the things that matter. Under the system of government in operation, the president is both a chief executive of a ship in perennial turbulence and the chief re-assurer of a family in perpetual doubt. His utterances at critical moments must therefore renew our faith and hope in the Nigerian project. Yesterday, President Buhari failed to meet those expectations.
Fortunately, he can still redeem himself. Where he failed with words, the president can, in the coming weeks and months, assure us with concrete actions: Bold decisions that will help in reviving the economy; strategic appointments that reflect our diversity and a body language that shows the whole country as his constituency. If President Buhari can do all that, he will begin to instil in Nigerians a renewed sense of unity and collective pride. That will in turn strengthen optimism of an egalitarian society that leverages the talents of our people as we build “a nation where peace and justice shall reign”.