Outlook of the new Presidency
ONE cannot help but recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic speech to his country’s Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on that sweltering mid-August midnight in 1947 as India, the first of British Empire’s non-white dominions to attain full self-government, ushered in her independence: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
The speech comes to mind, not only because of its poignancy to recent events in Nigeria, but also because the problems and challenges that confronted Nehru at the time are not dissimilar, at least in complexity if not scale, to those that now await President-elect Muhammadu Buhari who, after three previous unsuccessful attempts, finally received the nod of the majority of the electorate to step on to the centre stage to play his part in the latest act of the unfolding Nigerian drama. He comes with the mandate to make sense and order out of a most complex, if not chaotic state of affairs, which has roots in a series of misjudgments from the distant past.
The President-elect does not come without certain advantages to his immense task. First, the present popular demand for immediate positive change and action has given him a mandate to shift dramatically the course of Nigerian policy comparable to that enjoyed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he assumed office on March 4, 1933, at a time of acute national privation and foreboding that the closing of the banks reinforced, as the economic deterioration worsened during the winter of 1932-1933.
Buhari possesses for the moment the power to innovate such as few Nigerian leaders have ever enjoyed. Second, he brings personal qualities which are certainly rare in the murky waters of Nigerian and African politics. He comes with rare moral rectitude, an austere and disciplined lifestyle, an iron-will, and courage. Third, the APC, which is a broad alliance of political groups, contains the strong and influential presence of elements inspired by, and sharing, some of the political philosophies of revered political leaders such as Aminu Kano and Obafemi Awolowo.
On the other hand, however, there are also certain disconcerting signs which give cause for worry. First, beyond the vague cry of ‘change,’ many thoughtful Nigerians would have searched in vain through most publications for details of Buhari’s overall plans. True, in numerous press statements and interviews, he reiterated his campaign promises in generality encompassing “tackling corruption, improving education, health care, and employment opportunities, etc. But very few know what the generalities might mean.”
Second, circumstances decisively influence outcome: No leader can perform better than the strength or weakness his society allows. Even great nation-builders, such as the celebrated late Lee Kuan Yew, who transformed Singapore from a colonial backwater into a modern city state in a just about a generation, would have been confounded by the perversity of the Nigerian society, and would have struggled to extract better results from it because of its collective shortcomings. Thus, it is possible that Balewa and Obasanjo, for instance, might have shown themselves fairly competent leaders had they led Botswana.
Another cause for considerable concern to many thoughtful, informed, and sober-minded Nigerians, particularly those from the South, is the President-elect and APC’s attitude to the critical question concerning the nature of Nigeria’s federalism. Both are perceived to be rather unenthusiastic about constitutional reforms aimed at recasting our federation into a highly decentralized one – somewhat along the lines of Canada’s federalism (which has successfully and happily united French-speaking Quebec with the English-speaking provinces).
History teaches us that over-centralized federations rarely thrive or survive. Very often such highly centralized federations are overcome by ethnic antagonisms and distrust (that inevitably arise as a result of hegemonic exploitation, manipulation and control by larger and more powerful neighbours) as well as administrative inefficiency (engendered where local leaders are precluded from dealing with local problems in ways dictated by local needs, cultural values, ethos, and desires). Additionally, in the case of Nigeria, excessive centralization has also rendered the national economy vulnerable on account of the over-dependence on the oil and gas resources of the Niger Delta, as the various states are no longer compelled to develop their own economic resources in order to sustain themselves.
As Nehru said in concluding his inspiring speech: “We end today a period of ill-fortune, and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”
This, too, is the responsibility which now rests upon the President-elect and the APC. While no realistic person expects Buhari to transform Nigeria into a First World country during his tenure, it is not unreasonable to hope that the country will, at least, finally be put on the right track as a result of the opportunity created by the undoubtedly right decision of the majority of the electorate to opt for change.
•Ajose-Adeogun lives in Lagos.