As we reflect on the swearing in of Mr. Muhammadu Buhari as president, he and his fellow Nigerians have three causes for cheers. First, this is not an anointment. The new president is not the anointed surrogate of any known political Godfather. Mr Buhari is no inheritor of the unfinished script of any known political big man. Nor would there be any need to look over his shoulder in the event that he missteps along the rocky route.
His task is made both simple and very complex to that extent. He merely has to act out his convictions and obey both his conscience and the will of Nigerians who gave him an overwhelming mandate. But on the other hand, he has to calibrate his path and navigate the terrain of a vastly altered nation.
Second, he is not new to apex political power in Nigeria. So this is not, strictly speaking, an inauguration. Refreshingly, Mr Buhari is not going to be an apprentice president. So we can be spared the avoidable stumbles and foibles that became the hallmarks of Mr Jonathan’s drab and bumbling presidency.
Buhari needs no one to teach him neither the ropes of power nor the footsteps of a president. Nor would there be anything in the grandeur of presidential power that should excite him. The guards of honour, mounted cavalry, red carpet receptions and the fawning of multiple sycophants would not move this stern patriarch and old soldier. Quite frankly, there is no uncharted territory for this president except that the country over which he now has to preside presents novel challenges of governance.
Third and most importantly, I do not recall that Mr Buhari was endorsed by comedians or squads of Nollywood jesters. So both the new president and the public that voted for him know for certain that the business of Nigeria is likely to be taken and conducted seriously under this man.
In many ways, then, the eve of Mr. Buhari’s return to power is indeed a cathartic moment for the nation. This is that moment when we jettison illusions and nearly every received assumption comes up for re-examination. Under the crushing weight of cumulative betrayal and pain, the Nigerian public has a right to expect that Mr. Buhari’s ascension should mitigate or even end our afflictions. I am not so steeped in the optimism of the moment.
Quite on the contrary, it is a matter of urgent national community service that we save our public from a crisis of expectations and the tragedy of communal delusion. The media and those who make it their business to manage public expectations should moderate optimism with caution while ensuring that needed national salvage and reform are greeted with understanding. Nonsense does not just walk away because you have managed to vote out a predatory leadership.
The best approach is perhaps to indicate, from the onset, what Mr. Buhari’s victory does NOT mean in order to help our public understand what this mandate includes. Mr. Buhari is not exactly new to the terrain of presidential power in Nigeria. He has eyed the job five times in living memory. The first time, he snatched it at gunpoint, leaving a mixed trail of praises, orderly queues and a bit of blood, tears and horse whip marks on our bare backs. There were of course the endless jail terms for sins committed by mere political animals. Because of our collective painful memory of that draconian prefecture, our public expects Mr. Buhari to do penance for his past sins in the first place while addressing present challenges. As a first condition, therefore, Mr. Buhari and his friends in the APC must rediscover that compassion without which even the best government becomes a mechanism for authorised sadism.
Refreshingly, after three previous unsuccessful democratic applications for the job of president of Nigeria, Mr. Buhari has clinched the job on the fourth attempt. This means that we can assume a certain level of keenness and therefore preparedness for the job. A man who repeatedly cries and claws for the same opportunity over and over must have something in mind. Nigerians have just said through their votes that such a man deserves a chance to be heard.
This contrasts with the majority of previous instances where people have assumed the highest job in the land without preparation or even seeking the job. It is safe to assume in this instance that Mr. Buhari wanted this job so badly that repeated failures did not deter him. The fact of these repeated trials should have strengthened his resolve and fine-tuned his vision. It is therefore safe to assume that he may have found time to re-educate himself on the changing challenges of the Nigerian situation. To that extent, Nigerians have a right to expect a qualitatively better leadership from Buhari.
In a sense, then, Mr Buhari has his job well cut out by the circumstances that defined his re-emergence. Simply put, his is the task of national restoration, a restoration of the fundamentals of Nigeria’s nationhood. In the dying days of Mr. Jonathan’s tragic overlordship, we got to that point where the basic beacons of our nationhood largely disappeared. The state was contesting its very territory with armed insurgents of a primitive origin.
The freedom of citizens was effectively curtailed by both desperate poverty and insecurity. The actions of leaders left a big doubt as to the dividing line between right and wrong since acts of impunity (including ‘common stealing’ of billions of dollars straight from the till) by state operatives had no consequences. The institutions of state became actors in a gigantic gangster chronicle whose ramifications are yet to fully unfold.
Clearly therefore, the nation now desperately needs a leadership that can re-establish the beacons of our nationhood. Morally, somebody needs to serve as a model of national morality, reminding us all of the dividing line between right and wrong. Strategically, the territorial integrity of the Nigerian federation needs to be clearly and unambiguously underlined. Its protection and defence ought to be the minimum indicator that we mandated a sovereign to reside in Aso Villa.
More importantly, the institutions of the Nigerian state must now be freed from the deathly vice grip of embarrassing corruption so that they can once again function in the service of our people. There is a very African shorthand for Mr Buhari’s mandate in this regard. When miscreants invade and usurp a homestead, the usual question is whether there are no responsible elders at home. Only an elder with a demonstrable record of stern discipline and principled heroic leadership fits the role profile of Nigerian leader at this moment in time.
In this regard, a lot can be said for the crop of ageing generals who fought in the Nigerian Civil War. Whatever their individual failings especially in their post-war public roles, these gentlemen- Gowon, Obasanjo, Danjuma, Babangida, Buhari, Abdulsalami etc.- remain the last credible vestiges of genuine nationalism. They lived true to the nation on whose behalf they wore the uniform and flew our service colours. To them, the unity and territorial integrity of the nation was a cardinal doctrine of service and a good enough cause to die for.
Mr Buhari is lucky in a sense. He will likely be the last of this generation to wear the mantle of apex national leadership.
But he will largely be a transitional leader. Therefore, his mandate is a triple one: to restore the fundamentals of our nationhood, to change the present from a hell hole to a place of hope and, finally, to bequeath the future as a frontier of new challenges. The leadership of that future belongs to the independence and millennial generations.