By Chido Onumah
“We can’t continue to search the branches of a sick tree for the cause of its sickness.” – African Proverb
As history unfolds in Nigeria, it does appear that “the more things change the more they remain the same”. As a military dictator, thirty two years ago, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), truncated Nigeria’s Second Republic which was reputed for its scandalous corruption. That intervention lasted twenty months. Today, Buhari will be sworn in as the fourth elected president of Nigeria since the country’s return to civil rule in 1999, replacing a government that was associated with monumental corruption.
The transition from Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (GMB) to President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) has taken thirty years from when he was overthrown in a palace coup in August 1985. The expectations are high for the new president considering how corruption and years of ineffectual leadership have blighted a once promising country. But will anything change? Of course, it depends on the people you ask, where they come from and what interest they represent.
Personally, I don’t think it will be “business as usual”, at least on a private level, for Nigeria’s oldest president. Beyond his foibles – alleged provincialism and antecedent as a military dictator – Buhari is famed for his asceticism. President Buhari, 73 in December, obviously is a man who has seen it all. I agree completely that leadership is important and that Nigeria needs a strong and purposeful leader. Chances are that President Buhari will not toe the line of malevolent accumulation which has been the hallmark of leadership in Nigeria. He can bring this discipline to bear in the way Nigeria is governed in the next four years.
Candidate Buhari campaigned on the track record of integrity and anti-corruption. It is understandable, therefore, if Nigerians expect, and indeed, demand from him an end to the bleeding as far as corruption is concerned. Even though he has promised to draw a line between past malfeasance and the new order, I think there are a few politically exposed persons – both within the new government and the opposition – who ought to stand trial for their egregious financial crimes against the country whether as presidents, governors, ministers, lawmakers or contractors.
Indeed, President Buhari does not need to entangle himself in the debate about whether to probe certain ministers and individuals or not which dominated the political space preceding his inauguration. All he needs to do if he is serious about fighting corruption is to empower and make truly independent the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other state agencies responsible for tackling corruption. That way, he extricates himself from the “politics of fighting corruption”.
But looking at the big picture, is this intervention enough to pull Nigeria back from the brink? Nigeria, like many Facebook relationship updates, is complicated. Buhari rode to power at the behest of some people for whom what took place on Election Day, March 28, was nothing but state capture. The fundamental concerns will be how he navigates the interest of this group, his vision of a “new Nigeria”, the interest of millions of disillusioned and deprived citizens, but more important the lack of existential confidence in the nation Nigeria.
Nigeria is a nightmare. Ours is a country of many internal antagonisms and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. These contradictions define our daily existence and relationship with one another; the antagonisms manifest in the mad quest for political power by individuals and power blocs within the country and ultimately their attitude to the nation’s resources. Reputed as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, Nigeria offers very little hope for self-fulfillment and survival.
Many have argued, and rightly so, that corruption remains perhaps Nigeria’s biggest problem. The hope, therefore, is that President Buhari, “Mr. Anti-corruption”, can deal with corruption and get the Nigerian state to function. So, why has the Nigerian state been unable to tame corruption and why has the state itself defied many attempts to make it functional? The answer is simple: we can’t have a functional state without a functional nation. Clearly, we can’t witness the rebirth of this nation, and by extension the Nigerian state, without unmaking Nigeria. In unmaking Nigeria, we have to deal with the fundamental fault lines that throw our nation into episodic convulsions and define our attitude to our common patrimony.
So while we bask in the euphoria of “change”, we necessarily have to rethink Nigeria. Nigerians must have this conversation not minding the intimidation, blackmail and threats routinely issued by those for whom this nation is a “perfect union”. There is an undeniable link between national identity and development. As Francis Fukuyama notes in his book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, “Critical to the success of state building is a parallel process of nation building.” This is the missing puzzle in Nigeria’s quest for development.
The deep-seated corruption in Nigeria is fundamentally structural. Therefore, we have to dig a little further if we really want to tame this canker. Here again, I refer to Fukuyama’s seminal work and his assertion that, “Much of what passes for corruption is not simply a matter of greed but rather the by-product of legislators or public officials who feel more obligated to family, tribe, religion or ethnic group than to the national community and therefore divert money in that direction. They are not necessarily immoral people, but their circle of moral obligation is smaller than that of the polity for which they work.”
What I think Fukuyama is saying in essence is that you can’t deal with entrenched corruption as is the case in some parts of the world without first dealing with the crisis of identity or nationhood. There is no better proof of this notion than the nation Nigeria where the resource that ought to serve our collective purpose and need is pillaged because in the end, nobody really owns it.
It is for this reason that our rulers gratuitously stash billions of dollars – money they may never have access to – in foreign bank accounts; it explains why they would buy and invest in choice property – property they many never live in – around the world. It explains why the president of the federal republic can conveniently make a distinction between “stealing and corruption”; why when a governor or a minister is accused of corruption, for example, his or her “people” will rise in defence. They seem to be saying, “We know Minister A or Governor X is a thief, but he or she is our own thief.”
Essentially, the state, and by extension governance in Nigeria, is about how much of the “national cake” our politicians and rulers can appropriate for themselves and their “people,” not about service to the nation because the nation simply does not exist in their moral universe.
Undoubtedly, Nigeria desperately needs a leader to inspire the people, but we must also have a nation for that inspiration to be meaningful. In the end, this will not be about Buhari but about Nigeria. Buhari can definitely make a difference. If he doesn’t succeed, it won’t be for lack of trying.
People have to feel ownership of this contraption called Nigeria for things to work.
This piece is extracted from an upcoming book: Unmaking Nigeria: The rebirth of a nation.
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @conumah
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