November 18, 2015

Nigeria: Political challenges, and the Canadian example

THE generally peaceful conduct of the March 28, 2015 Nigerian presidential election and the gracious acceptance of defeat by the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) strongly signaled that Nigeria may have turned a new page, politically. Other indicators of a new turn for Africa’s largest democratic country and economy are the following firsts in the country’s annals: the widespread innovative use of technology for the process—the use of card readers; the overthrow of the ruling  PDP by the General Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC) through the ballot box after 16 years of dominance; the election of four none indigenes of a state (Lagos State) as members of the Federal House of Representatives; and the above-average performance of the National Electoral Commission in ways that suggest considerable independence of the electoral umpire.

Although news reports suggested a poor turn-out for the second-tier of the 2015 elections into governorship and state parliamentary positions, the relative voter apathy did not becloud the overall plaudits that the current political process has earned locally and internationally. So, too, did the reports of violence leading to death in sections of the country and the localised electoral malpractices not detract from the respectable scorecard of the electoral commission.

Sadly, the euphoria of the victory may have started varnishing sooner than one had expected, with some critics declaring to the new president that the honey moon is over! The anti-corruption ship of President Muhammadu Buhari, whose mandate is coupled to a campaign promise to eradicate corruption, appears to be tottering even before it set sail. For as unfolding developments indicate, the same familiar politicians who had faced various corruption charges in Nigeria’s recent history have materialised to control key organs of the country.

A high point of the emerging pessimism was the poor public reception of General Buhari’s ministerial list and the shoddy melodrama that defined their screening at the country’s Senate presided over by Bukola Saraki, who is on trial for a 13-count charge on alleged corruption and false declaration of assets. In a country where everyday people have developed an uncanny ability to crack jokes out of grievous disasters, the ministerial screening has been publicly derided by some as a “dramatic show” with “star attractions.”

Others saw it in the light of a Biblical allusion to the sinner in the Bible whom Jesus Christ simply told to go and sin no more, to the astonishment of his traducers. And so while Nigerians, many of them young people who showed unusual active interest in the last election, were hoping for a reflection of youth in the cabinet, and that the nominees would face tough questions during the screening exercise, familiar faces in the political landscape were simply asked to “take a bow and go.”

Furthermore, the embarrassing state of the country’s political process is amplified by comparing it to the events that unfolded last week in Canada. Justin Trudeau, 43, was sworn-in as the new Prime Minister of Canada two weeks after election, complete with his new cabinet. In Nigeria’s case, it took four months for the President to come up with a ministerial list, and while they were being assigned portfolios, a different set of old “suspects” were being named as Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of key Committees at Nigeria’s Senate. Amongst them: Andy Uba (Public Accounts); Joshua Dariye (Public Procurement); Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (National Planning & Economic Affairs); Joshua Dariye (Solid Minerals); Murtala Nyako (Special Duties); Barnabas Gemade (Housing); Jeremiah Useni (Deputy Chair, Defence), etc. A cursory review of the resumes of these fellows reveals that most of them are suspected architects of Nigeria’s woes dating back to the years of military dictatorship presided over by Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Seeing these political veterans resurrect in new roles in this unfolding political dispensation under the watch of APC chieftains is a mockery of the idea of “change” that Nigerians clamoured for, and worked hard to ensure the overthrow of the PDP stranglehold on the country.

Taken together, the ministerial list and the list of chairpersons and deputy chairpersons of the various Senate committees underscore the growing pessimism in the political process in the land and on social media. The two lists highlight the depth of Nigeria’s political challenges and the need for Nigeria’s youthful generation to truly seek change beyond their exertions on social media.  It is on this score that the political developments in Canada have the potential of becoming a comparative foil for Nigeria’s teeming netizens.

With the increasing interest of younger Nigerians in Canada as a favourite destination for educational and professional advancement, Justin Trudeau and his refreshing diverse cabinet may become an inspiring model—imperfect as it is with the absence of at least one Black Canadian, in recognition of the contributions of Blacks in Canadian history and their being the third-largest visible minority group in Canada.

A friend had swiftly taken to social media to recommend to his fellow Nigerians, a quick excursion into the real change that just took place in Canada. Besides the historic gender parity in Ministerial appointments, there are other remarkable aspects of the new 30-member cabinet constituted by the youthful Trudeau as so succinctly captured by Joan Bryden for The Canadian Press:   “Fully 18 of the newly minted ministers are rookies who won election for the first time last month…The cabinet includes two aboriginal ministers, two disabled ministers, one openly gay minister, a refugee from Afghanistan and four Sikhs — one of whom was once wrongly accused of terrorism, tortured and detained without trial for almost two years in India.”

Problematic as comparing Nigeria to Canada may be, given the stark differences in the histories of the two countries and their uneven levels of development, the new turn that Canada is taking should inspire Nigerians. Many are yearning for tangible changes in governance and had looked up to  Buhari as a messiah of change.

But with the ongoing recycling of yesterday’s analogue-age men to run crucial affairs of state, real change may just remain a mirage. It doesn’t matter if the politicians are photographed with an Ipad during electioneering campaigns or burnished with monies looted from state treasury.

This ministerial list and the new senate line-up in Nigeria contrasts so sharply with the kind of change that the citizens had dreamed of; they point to the futility of slaktivism, even activism, that is not backed by working in the political trenches to overthrow the Ancien regime—no matter its political nomenclature: PDP or APC.

Fortunately, technology continues to offer hope for the possibility of the “Cheetah generation” overcoming the “Hippo generation,” to borrow the felicitous expression of the Ghanaian economist George Ayittey. With the growing application of biometrics and e-governance, the twin monsters of corruption and poor leadership which are choking Nigeria’s development will definitely suffer severe concussions.

Two developments easily justify my argument: The last elections in Nigeria which showed desperate politicians preferring the old and more vulnerable manual voting system to the card readers, and the recent front-page report by a leading Nigeria newspaper that  Nigerian politicians were trying to evade the Bank Verification Number (BVN), a biometric identification system that the Central Bank has launched to curtail illegal banking transactions in the country,  underscore the potential of technology as Nigeria’s saviour. But whether the current leadership of General Buhari would unequivocally demonstrate the will to widely deploy new technologies of change and appoint refreshing officials to pursue the real change agenda, appears to be an unsettled question.

Perhaps the announcement on Wednesday, November 11 of the portfolios assigned to the new Ministers may significantly rekindle hope in the possibilities of some action in leadership at least at the executive level. President Buhari, almost half way into his first year in office, must go beyond his anti-corruption rhetoric to the much-needed urgent action. The example of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party in Canada shines forth for him and his allies in APC to follow. Time is slipping away, Mr. President, and the veteran politicians are regrouping to resist change

Nduka Otiono is a writer and Professor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.