Nigerians want change. They desire fundamental changes to the way things are currently in their lives at the visceral level. The trouble is that Nigerians themselves don’t seem to have decided or even determined what kind of change they wish for themselves. Change for what and to what? Here is a very basic question: what do Nigerians actually mean by “change?” What does the “change” they seek look like?
I think the idea of change in Nigeria has something of the Elephant and the blind men scenario to it. The difficulty with creating transformational change in Nigeriahas much to do, in other words, with the very fact that “change” means 170 million things in Nigeria.
That is, every single person in this country has a notion of the change that maters to them. In this election cycle, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari will once again embody people’s desire for change. Now, for some, Nigeria will need to change the Jonathan presidency for a Buhari presidency, because to these Nigerian supporters of Buhari, “Jonathan is weak and colourless,” as I’ve heard his critics say. He does not have the carriage of a president, nor the menacing aura or oomph! of power around him, and so he has proved too malleable; incapable of dealing with critical national issues of corruption or Nigeria’s security challenges. Jonathan’s image of a “weak, corrupt, and inefficient manager” is now the foil for Buhari’s promoters, who sell his image as a former “military strongman” who could get things done quite summarily.
The image of a disciplined, incorruptible, and efficient manager with a wealth of experience tucked in his beltmight yet prove more intoxicating than “Sapele Water” for voters in this election. Suppose, as it might likely happen, Nigerians elect Mr. Muhammadu Buhari as the next president, what does he bring to the table? Realistically? Late 20th century ideas of doing things.
The world has moved on to imponderable things since 1975, when Muhammadu Buhari was first made governor, after Brigadier Musa Usman, of the then North-Eastern State, with its headquarters in Maiduguri under the Federal Military Government led by the late General Murtala Muhammed. Buhari was governor over what has now become the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency, that vast area almost larger than Great Britain, stretching from Lake Chad to the Adamawa straits that once covered what is now the contemporary Borno, Bauchi, Adamawa, Gombe, Yobe and Taraba States of Nigeria.
Buhari governed North Eastern Nigeria as a young man in his 30s, and now in his 70s, his age presents a national security concern. Why? Because at 73, Buhari’s mental faculties are far slower, more ponderous, subject to slips, memory loss, manipulation, and to the general laws of thermodynamics. No matter how anyone cuts it, the Buhari of 1975-1985, is mentally and physically, not the Buhari of 2014/5. Yet of course, there are those who will argue, and they’ll have a great point nonetheless, that experience – the kind of solid experience that Buhari brings to the table – ought to count for something. Indeed it does count, particularly given the fact that Buhari, as Minister of Petroleum and Chairman of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) from 1976-1979, brings with him a very crucial knowledge of the boardroom intrigues and the politics of the international oil business.
Obasanjo ran the Petroleum Ministry like a personal fiefdom. Since then, the NNPC and the Ministry of Petroleum, has been run literally like a nation within a nation: it is a power unto itself; powerful beyond measure, and not subject even to legal or parliamentary sanction. It has been made above the law. The Minister of oil in Nigeria could literally raise and fund a private Army of mercenaries and military contractors from anywhere in the world, that can overthrow Nigeria’s government and countermand its clearly ill-equipped, poorly staffed, and badly managed Armed and Police Services.
So, if Buhari’s mission is to restore Nigeria’s national sovereign integrity, he has a powerful resume, but otherwise, he also comes with the kind of insider knowledge that can further compound Nigeria’s woes. But above all in this equation is a fundamental problem that most Nigerians have yet to fathom: Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State functioned under a different ethos: it was a military system based on fiats and decrees, and their enforcements were brutal and extra-legal.
Under a democracy, the president is guided and circumscribed by a set of laws that limit his power to issues Decrees and insist on immediate action. But Nigerians may actually be suffering from the Stockholm syndrome, in wishing the return of Buhari, because they are yet to witness in Jonathan, a saving grace. Nigerians long for the “olden days” of brutal military efficiency.
Which brings me to the crucial question: what do Nigerians really want from a president in a Federal Republic under a constitutional rule? First, we must bear in mind that under the rule of law, the President cannot go beyond his constitutional authority, otherwise he might himself be subject to legal scrutiny and sanction.
The president of Nigeria cannot or should in fact not have the power to recruit, discipline, or sack any officer of the Civil service, for instance, even though the Civil Service reports to him. Such a power is conferred by parliament on the Civil Service Commission. In other words, the powers of the executive president may be enormous but theyare contained by the Acts of Parliament that establishes the Executive branch, serviced by an independent Civil Service which every president inherits.
So, my argument is quite simple: it does not matter which party is elected to the Presidency of Nigeria in February 2015, until Nigerians learn the ways that the democratic system works, change will not come. Infact, neither the PDP nor the APC has clearly articulated any broad framework for refocusing Nigeria. All we have are broad indistinct talking points about corruption, the economy, national security, and how two individuals – Buhari or Jonathan – are expected to perform the kind of magic needed to save a country. None of these men, I’m afraid to say is a magician.
They cannot act beyond the structures available to them: no president has the mandate to arrest or prosecute anyone for corruption, for instance. It is the job of the police to investigate, arrest, prosecute criminals, and even stop crime before it is commissioned by using embedded tactics. It is not the job of the president to run sting operations; just as it is not under his powers to establish a police system. It is the job of the National Assembly.
What the President does is to recommend for appointment the Head of the Nigerian Police to Parliament, who thereafter reports directly to the president, although in a more coherent system, the Head of the National Police Services should report to the President through the Attorney-General under whose office, in collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs, a National Law Enforcement system should be properly established by an act of Parliament. It is the National Assembly that establishes Nigeria’s National Security protocol, not the president.
In other words, the trouble with Nigeria is not about the failure of individual presidents, it is a more terrifying thing: it is total systemic failure. We have an inefficient public system. Nigerians should ask themselves why and how this happened, and move to change it by electing capable legislators who should be able to keep the administration of state on the straight and narrow by oversight.
As I will again repeat, this election will turn out to be neither about Buhari nor Jonathan; it should be about the collapse of the state and the withdrawal of citizens’ buy-in to the idea of Nigeria. So, again, the question: what change do Nigerians desire? The answer is blowing in the wind.