Nigerians Have Another Chance to Avoid the Mistakes of 2015

President Muhammadu Buhari.
27 February 2019

When Muhammadu Buhari won the 2015 presidential elections, he famously promised in his inaugural address: "I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody". He reached out to the south-south promising to "invest heavily" in amnesty projects and extending his "hand of fellowship".

But this conciliatory tone did not last long. In July 2015, when questioned on the Niger Delta amnesty and inclusive development, Buhari replied: "I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, who gave me 97% cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%." In this vein, the APC media machinery commenced a process of walking back campaign promises. One of the first casualties was the infamous "100 Days Covenant" and Buhari was able to complete his first hundred days with no targets or achievements.

For those who had a problem with this, the media team had a new label: "wailing wailers". In September 2015, Femi Adesina was denouncing critics of the government. In December 2015, Ibn Na'Allah of the APC sponsored a bill to legislate a jail term for any person who used social media to make "an abusive statement" against government officials. Fortunately, pressure from civil society killed that attempt. But these were signs of coming intolerance against critics.

Unfortunately, Nigerians reacted by giving Buhari a latitude arguably few past leaders have received. Instead of holding the government to expectations of high standards, many pledged their unconditional support. When Buhari failed to appoint a cabinet for months, Nigerians defended him. When he appointed alleged corrupt people into his cabinet, Nigerians excused this. When he failed to come up with an economic blueprint for months and then drove the economy into a recession through arbitrary fiscal and monetary policies, Nigerians justified it as a consequence of anti-corruption. When Buhari disappeared for months on medical tourism without communication, Nigerians supported this. And when the unjustifiable surfaced, like the 2016 budget (so-called Budget of Hope) which was peppered with waste and inconsistencies, everyone was blamed except Buhari.

This idea of excusing Buhari was applied even when the government was blackmailing critical or dangerous opposition instead of investigating, prosecuting, and trying corrupt public officials across board.

But what have we gained from these rationalisations? Consider the supposed fight against corruption: the capacity of federal policing, investigating and prosecuting systems was not improved, the judiciary was not strengthened and Buhari never took unprompted action against corrupt party and cabinet officials. Consider security: the security of Nigerian lives was given less priority than the security of Nigerian economic assets. Boko Haram continues to attack targets at will while the presidency censors information and ambiguously insists that the group has been "technically defeated". Conflict between pastoral herders and farmers over grazing routes is still troubling towns and villages in the country's middle-belt.

A massacre of members of the Shiite sect in 2015 by the army killed some 300 people including children. A 2017 bombing by the air force of an IDP camp in Rann had left 167 people dead; a similar bombing in Numan killed 86 people. Till date, there has been no accountability for these crimes. From Agatu to Southern Kaduna to villages in Nassarawa, Adamawa, and Taraba state, Nigeria's towns and villages flowed with the blood of innocents.

Those unaffected by violence and insecurity have been affected by the economy. In May 2016, Buhari's government raised the pump price of fuel to 145 naira per litre, exceeding the 141 naira suggested by the Jonathan era that sparked the Occupy Nigeria protests. By the end of 2016, Nigeria's economy had gone into a recession and the country is still suffering from the effects of this. Today, the unemployment rate is at 23.1 per cent, increasing from 18.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2017. In 2018, the World Poverty Clock reported that 86.9 million Nigerians lived in extreme poverty, almost 50 per cent of a population of 180 million.

But we have come full cycle. Now that the elections are over, we have a chance to avoid the sycophancy of 2015. Even at the risk of being termed wailers, we must put aside the role of supporters and take up the responsibilities of an active citizenry. We must stop making excuses for elected officials and lowering the bar of governance to satisfy political expediency. The next few months will determine the outcome of the next four years: we can either spend the time congratulating the administration and affirming support or we can push for democratic representation and accountability. We will either be servile to government or we will be served by government.

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