Why has Nigeria never had an inspirational president?

In a crisis, all eyes turn to the leader. People want to hear something reassuring, something that gives them a sense of direction, something that makes them feel in capable hands. Because a crisis is a scary experience. Especially if we have no idea how or when it will end. Nigerians may be used to crisis, but they are not used to this kind of crisis. Pandemic, lockdown, insecurity and economic hellfire all in one. Hence, anytime it is announced President Buhari will make a speech, people tune in, hoping to be reassured, desperate not just for information, but also for inspiration.

Buhari’s speech this week announcing the continuation of the lockdown was, like all his speeches, painfully uninspirational. Dull. Wooden. Unmemorable. Read from a script with the body language of a man announcing changes to the train schedule. That he did not even acknowledge the spate of armed robberies and insecurity in the lockdown states of Lagos and Ogun was in of itself unforgivable, but the entire performance was just not it. And make no mistake, at presidential level, politics is a performance. Words matter. As does how you deliver them.

Britons remember Winston Churchill not for his policies, but for his stirring speeches during World War II. Despite being America’s president for 12 years, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is best remembered for a single line from his 1933 speech during the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This is not about bashing Buhari. After listening to him speak this week, I started thinking of how other Nigerian presidents had performed in this sphere. Even ardent fans of Goodluck Jonathan are unlikely to claim he was an inspiring speaker. Neither, I suspect, would Musa Yar’adua’s supporters. Obasanjo can be very witty and memorable in conversation, but his presidential speeches were no less dull and uninspiring. Abacha? Forget it. Babangida is widely agreed to have been likeable in person, but no one says they were ever inspired by him or anything he said. In fact, I doubt any Nigerian can recall a moment they felt inspired by any Nigerian head of state. This in a society full of fascinating characters. Why has a country where interesting personalities abound never produced an inspirational president?

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Because the leadership selection process in Nigeria makes sure to weed out the kind of person who could become an inspirational president. To become Nigeria’s president requires the support of a hodgepodge of power cliques who control the political sphere in various areas of the country. The major power groups are centred in the north because this is where most of the votes are, but there are also various influential cliques in the south.

Because the leadership selection process in Nigeria makes sure to weed out the kind of person who could become an inspirational president. To become Nigeria’s president requires the support of a hodgepodge of power cliques who control the political sphere in various areas of the country

If you think you are going anywhere without the support of the dominant cliques of the moment, you are being naïve. Go and ask the presidential candidates who have tried it. These cliques are generally dominated by political godfathers in association with the most influential traditional rulers, religious leaders and moneybags. They are mostly men, and they are mostly men with significant egos. Most, especially the political godfathers and moneybags, got to the top not because they were the most talented, but due to their readiness to do anything for money and power, including kill and use violence when necessary. They are generally unburdened by the pesky constraints of morality. But while they usually have large egos, they are simultaneously insecure because they know deep down, they are not the cream of the crop. People like that tend to be very petty. If a “Nigerian Obama” came along, someone who was clearly inspirational and likeable, they would hate him instantly and do everything to marginalize him.

They would feel threatened by him (or her) because if you have the potential to command a national following – not just an ethno-regional one – then you cannot be controlled by gatekeepers. That’s why MKO Abiola had to be brought down. His sweeping June 12 victory shocked Babangida and the northern power groups around him. A Yoruba man popular with the northern masses? And financially independent at that. This guy would be uncontrollable. The nightmare of the numerous power cliques that run Nigeria is an uncontrollable president. By definition, this disqualifies anyone exceptional.

This is the part where I’m supposed to offer a solution. Where I say if we do X and Y, this problem can be solved. I could do that. I could use phrases like “electoral reform” and “systemic change”. I could talk about “transformational leadership” and how Nigeria needs a new kind of politics. But you’ve heard all that before. Those are nice-sounding buzzwords that have nothing to do with the reality of on-the-ground Nigerian politics.

The first step towards solving any problem is facing it honestly and squarely, at its core, not its margins. The core truth is that Nigerian politics has always been a wretched compromise at the national level. Because Nigeria itself has been one long wretched compromise. “Compromise” being a kind word considering how the country came about in the first place. The wretchedness of the Nigerian compromise is best exemplified in the idea of the “rotating” presidency. The north rules for 8 years after which it’s the south’s “turn.”

So, if by some chance, a brilliant transformational leader with a realistic plan for developing Nigeria emerges in the north in the next few years, he or she has no chance of becoming Nigeria’s president until 2031 at the earliest. How does that make sense if you really sit down and think about it? I think in fifty years, people will look back and wonder at some of the absurd arrangements being accepted today in the name of this wretched compromise.

That Nigeria is not working is not a coincidence. It is high time we acknowledged that the 923,000-odd square kilometres which constitute the space called “Nigeria” needs to be radically reimagined and reorganized. This is a normal historical process. Most countries that exist today did not exist a hundred years go or existed in a different form. Great Britain, the creator of Nigeria, is constantly being remodelled. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are run very differently today from the way they were 50 years ago when all power resided in Westminster.

In his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war this January, Wole Soyinka urged Nigerians to ask themselves a simple question about how Nigeria has been constituted: “Have we been had?” I think this is a good question to start reflecting on seriously. Otherwise, the Nigerian experience will continue offering nothing more than simply more of the same.

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