“All Of A Sudden Nothing Is Working”. Really, Remi? A rebuttal to Remi Oyeyemi

When I started reading Remi Oyeyemi’s rejoinder to Tunde Fagbenle’s earlier article in SaharaReporters, I eagerly looked forward to a critical but objective assessment of the challenges facing Nigeria since the attainment of independence. Alas, and if truth be told, his piece in the 13th March edition of SaharaReporters did not measure up to my expectation. Instead of taking a holistic or systemic view of the Nigerian state construction quandary, Mr Oyeyemi heaped the blame for all the country’s wrongs on President Muhammadu Buhari. In away, it was not entirely Mr Oyeyemi’s fault. Our respected and well-meaning compatriot, Tunde Fagbenle, gave Mr Oyeyemi the opening the later needed to niggle an old adversary, and in the process, to commit grave analytic and factual errors.
We won’t be having this debate if Mr Fagbenle had got his definition of leadership right, and Mr Oyeyemi had not jumped into the fray without first detecting and rectifying the palpable error. The flawed definition did not start with Fagbenle and is unlikely to end with Oyeyemi. Fagbenle merely ran with the characteristic Nigerian view of a leader–a larger-than-life, super-human, do-it-alone personality. This suits Oyeyemi perfectly. Using the (flawed) template supplied by Fagbenle, Oyeyemi feels justified to rate Buhari low on preparedness for, and actual enactment of, the President’s role.
However, the concept of leadership is much more complex than one founded on “saintly”, extraordinary, god-like personalities. As it so happens, Buhari never once sees himself that way. He is an icon, no doubt. At the same time, he looks up to icons in various sections of our society—particularly in political parties, the legislature, the judiciary, the business community, the civic groups and cultural organizations—to play their parts. Under this broader notion of leadership, Fagbenle is a leader. So is Oyeyemi. That, of course, is a story for another day.
If I may now return to the issue on the table. “All Of A Sudden, Nothing Is Working”. Right or wrong, that was the caption that our highly acclaimed columnist, Tunde Fagbenle, chose for his article on the incipient Buhari Administration. That is the caption that Remi Oyeyemi seized upon to launch a vitriolic attack on a regime that he never once liked. It also happens to be a regime that is barely one-year old, and is only just starting out to clear the Augean stable of corruption and maladministration that it met on arrival. That is the message that Fagbenle would have successfully communicated were it not for the unfortunate choice of caption. The message did not get through, but the caption did. It was this otherwise misleading caption that Mr Oyeyemi, a self-confessed opponent of Buhari’s presidency, was later to put his own spin on.
Mr Oyeyemi is right on one thing: it is not true that ‘all of a sudden, nothing is working’. He is dead wrong, however, to assert that the breakdown started with Buhari or that Buhari is doing nothing to restart the broken engine. Barring mass migration from reality towards 419/jibiti delusions, who does not know that nothing ever worked in Nigeria since independence? There is nothing sudden about the present feeling of paralysis and inertia. If nothing is working now, it is because making sure that nothing in the public realm works properly has become a tradition in our country. There is a simple historical explanation for this and here it is: The past (and to a certain extent, the present) generations of leaders have always been more interested in seizing and colonizing the state apparatus than in exercising the power of incumbency to serve their publics. As I argued in my book (THE ROUTE TO POWER IN NIGERIA: a Dynamic Engagement Option for Current and Aspiring Leaders, Palgrave/Macmillan, NY, 2009) past generations of leaders routinely applied a combination of force, deception, and appeal to ethno-religious sentiments to capture or retain power. The group in whose hands power momentarily fell often looked after itself but did little to advance the interest of the commonwealth. Past generations of leaders would sooner bleed a public entity dry (or failing that, privatize it) than make it work for the good of the collectivity. So it is that leaders came and went without leaving any notable legacy behind. In plain language, they made sure they were served and waited upon, but paid no attention to the delivery of essential services, notably, police protection, electricity and water supply, health and medical care, quality education, and clearance of traffic gridlocks on public highways.
I do not want to be understood as making excuses for anybody, least of all, President Muhammadu Buhari. Fortunately, and bearing in mind what he has accomplished thus far, the President does not need anyone making excuses for him. It is certainly not true, as averred by Mr Oyeyemi “that nothing ever worked since Buhari has taken the reins of power”. Definitely there are challenges, but it is untrue that Nigeria is comatose. The President is himself acutely conscious of the enormity of the challenges facing Nigeria. He said so in so many words before and after he was sworn in. Needless to add that weathering complex and mounting challenges is basically the raison d’etre of government. Show me one country that faces no challenge, and I shall show you one that needs no government or system of public administration.
While still on challenges, we ought to stand back and ask ourselves if we have been fair in our assessment of Buhari as a person and Buhari as President. His opponents never fail to portray him in the worst possible light. I recall that months before the 2015 elections, newspapers and magazines were awash with stories of a Muslim fundamentalist hell-bent on Islamizing Nigeria and having the gut to run for president. The Muslim fundamentalist was, to make matters worse, a scary military dictator who would clamp his opponents in jail at the least provocation. His military background didn’t even cut him out for a civilian leadership role, least of all, that of President of a heterogeneous society like Nigeria. Then the man, Buhari, became President. All of a sudden (copyright reserved, Fagbenle), the Muslim fundamentalist waged a relentless war on Boko Haram’s extremism. He even took the unprecedented step of cancelling state-sponsorship of Hajj and the pilgrims. And to the disappointment of his former detractors, the “scary Buhari” no longer scared anybody. Well, not exactly anybody. Treasury looters still tremble at the sight or mention of Buhari. So do those who have EFCC, Code of Conduct, and allied cases to answer.
Any way, the Nigerians who are now complaining that Buhari is too soft or “too slow” were also those who found the measures instituted on his watch as military head of state too draconian. Muhammadu Buhari, the civilian President, is in sharp contrast to Olusegun Obasanjo, that is, Obasanjo who started as a non-threatening military head of state, only to transform into a no-nonsense civilian President. Could it be that Nigerians were ready to cut ex-military Obasanjo some slack as civilian President while holding President Buhari to higher standards of mildness and civility? This is a question we must honestly answer. Will there be no commotion if, “all of a sudden”, “Papa go-slow” swings into action, sacking incompetent and corrupt civil servants, suspending corrupt judges, dropping non-performing Ministers, and disregarding frivolous court orders? Can he act swiftly and decisively against malfeasance, sloth and indiscipline (like his Tanzania counterpart, President John Mugufuli) without Nigerians making the loudest noise about his military antecedents?
It is indeed a credit to President Buhari that, despite the complexity of Nigeria and the fickle nature of our compatriots, he has stayed focused on his anti-corruption campaign. Already, he has recovered trillions of Naira stolen by thieving politicians and unscrupulous civil servants. And yet, detractors say “nothing is happening”! Things are happening—quietly. When additional measures are taken to improve access to service, the results will begin to show. Above all, if President Buhari and his team succeed in dealing corruption a mortal blow, many of those now criticising the President will change their tune. Corruption, after all, is the bane of our society. Things will never work unless this monster is caged and vanquished. Hasn’t any one already seen the connection between the Boko Haram’s intrepid raids on defenceless communities and the sordid goings-on in the office of the former National Security Adviser? “All of a sudden”, the money meant to purchase the arms and ammunitions needed to defeat Boko Haram ended in private bank accounts! “All of a sudden”, Boko Haram kept waxing strong!
Security of life and property, urban and rural water supply, access to improved health, medical care and qualitative education, timely generation and distribution of electricity and other energy products, acquisition and optimum deployment of petroleum refinery capacity, rehabilitation and development of the infrastructure—none of these is attainable unless the government lays the proper foundation for clean government. If nothing else, Buhari’s past record fully recommends him for the role he is playing to combat pervasive corruption and rampant indiscipline.
Mr Oyeyemi might wonder who this Balogun is. I am accordingly disclosing my interest in the topic under discussion. I am one of those who campaigned vigorously for Buhari as far back as 2011. Although his bid for the presidency turned out to be unsuccessful, I was undeterred. I fully supported his 2015 presidential bid. I practically invented the hashtag-2015TimeforChange. I am not a “water carrier” in the manner envisaged by Mr Oyeyemi. I walked into Buhari’s camp with my eyes open and my thinking faculties fully operational. What I find alluring about the President is the contrast between the man as he really is, and the sketch put out by his detractors. He and I had never met when, in 1984, he instructed that I be recalled from my UN job in Addis Ababa to head the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria/ASCON. It was not until twenty-six years later (in 2010 to be precise) that he and I met face to face. That meeting gave me an opportunity to engage him on burning national issues. His response to my pointed questions convinced me that he truly loved Nigeria and that he would leave nothing undone to get the country to work for all. From then on, I became his fervent supporter. I support him, not out of gratitude for appointing me ASCON Director-General without applying or lobbying for the position, but because he strikes me as one who would not shy away from tackling Nigeria’s daunting challenges head-on.
I am not alone in following Buhari with my senses intact. The youths of Nigeria, whose intelligence Mr Oyeyemi underrates, are well-informed and thinking individuals. Thanks to the recent advances in information and telecommunication technology, and the widening access to social media platforms, the youths of Nigeria no longer follow anybody blindly. They don’t follow fascist-oriented, right-wing transactional leaders (i.e., leaders in the Adedibu or Trumpian mold). They do not worship the tribal flag. And they are not swayed by sectarian cyphers and symbols. Mr Oyeyemi may not like this, but this growing capacity for autonomous thinking is progress. That our youths can set ethno-regional prejudices aside and reflect on the future of our country is something worth celebrating, not something to disparage. In short order, therefore, I am glad to be one of the “water carriers” that washed the grit off the faces of our youths and enabled them to see beyond their narrow ethnic Bantustans!
The younger generation has sent a powerful signal to the elders. The youths are saying that the time is now to rise above petty ethnic antagonisms, outgrow bigotry, and participate in the construction of a state that we could all be proud of. This is precisely why I find Mr Oyeyemi’s undisguised gravitation towards ethnic, specifically, Yoruba, exceptionalism, highly exasperating. My objection to ethnic posturing is anchored not on an instinctive distaste for ethnic identification, but on my fear of the damage that bigotry can do to human’s boundless capacity for autonomous thinking. Besides, mediocrity reigns supreme when leaders are recruited and their performance is assessed against one sole criterion, ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Nothing will ever work where a public official’s ethnic origin counts more than his/her competence, or where a corrupt official can rely on “his people” to shield him when caught with his fingers in the public till. For us to advance as a nation, we the People, must evolve and begin to take a strategic view of challenges.

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