At 5pm on the 31st of March, 2015, when news filtered out of President Jonathan’s concession phone call, there were scenes of jubilation on the streets in many places, sighs of relief that it happened without bloodshed by many, and indifferent surprise or simple indifference in some places. Online (on Twitter) you had tears, jubilation, gloating, shock, cost counting, rationalisation and indifference. Change had come.
A year after, this celebrated “change” leaves a taste that gets more bitter by the day. Some have begun to question how we could have not seen the signs at the time; how we could have so easily fallen for what an increasing number now describe as a scam.
Statements from the President and his spokespersons (official and volunteer) have not helped but rather further alienated many by the arrogance and lack of empathy on display. From the “tough luck” to those who are bearing the brunt of a misguided FOREX policy, to the “go and fight Boko Haram” to those expressing legitimate concern about a foreign policy direction. From the “we do not have a magic wand” to those spending most of their productive hours on fuel queues, to “go and fight the pipeline vandals yourselves and stop complaining” to Nigerians asking about the drop in the availability of electric power. From blaming “bureaucrats”, “rats”, “the Senate”, “a cabal” for the “padding” of the budget; to the blaming of “Judiciary”, “due process”, “rule of law” and “democracy” for the inability of the government to make any headway with its promises.
Many predicted most of the policy moves made by this Government before the elections. President Buhari had ruled the country in the not too distant (and certainly not forgotten) past. The proverbial leopard spots could not be changed (or hidden forever) even by the most expert re-branding.
But I want to also argue that the reaction and response to criticism by this Government and is supporters was also predictable given the flavour of (online) political discourse pre-election.
What we sowed…
What irked the most about the election cycle was its framing by many as moral choice, a choice between good and evil rather than (as it truly is) a contest between flawed candidates. A framing that claimed to force everyone to take a side and condemned in the strongest terms those who took the wrong side. Even those who sought neutrality or other options in a needlessly binary political conversation were branded as either “closet PDPites” or put down with slogans like “A vote for KOWA is a vote for GEJ.” It was an all or nothing, either for us or against us situation.
A concept as nebulous and equivocal as Change was raised to a theological aspiration, a moral virtue of some sort. The Change Agents were missionaries who would be canonised when the election was won. Questions about the meaning and content of this Change were dismissed. Intellectuals fell over themselves writing (interesting) articles to describe the change that was to come. Nobody bothered to ask what the primary embodiment of this change thought it should be. I remember genuine concerns about Gen. Buhari’s economic ideas (given his record and some of his – at the time- more recent statements) brushed away with slogans like “The Osinbajo lead economic team made up of brights like Fashola, Fayemi and Utomi will be the brain of the government. The President will provide the will to put them through”.
This framing also contributed to the suspension of common sense among many who you’d expect more from, and more seriously the use of intellectual prowess to propagate misrepresentations and outright lies. We fondly remember the seizure of the Economist incident, GTbank end of year charges, Maps of Nigeria without the North east states, exaggerations of military setbacks, election postponement as a prelude to a coup, the interim emergency government plan, the arrest of Jega during the election, $20 billion, N7 trillion, £13 billion…
…We now reap…
The election victory on March 31st was seen as a triumph of good over evil. A victory that was won against dire odds (it may have not been, but for the pressure exerted by the United States, according to President Buhari). It only followed that a sense of triumphant arrogance would be the default posture taken by the Government and its supporters. It didn’t take long before groups who contributed most of their votes to evil were chided for “putting their eggs in the wrong basket”. The President himself, in his famous “97%” remark calmly explained how he owed those who voted him more than those who didn’t (of course withing the bounds allowed by the Constitution).
In the beginning it must be admitted that many (including some who voted the vanquished evil) hoped that this “change” would be as promised or even more and were ready to give the government a chance to get into its stride. I won’t repeat a description of the many and several ways in which, from May 29th, these hopes were dashed one after the other. What was interesting was the response to criticism when it expectedly came. And as the mistakes continued to pile up as well as the criticisms it became amusing to see the defenders tie themselves up in knots in an ever more difficult and unfamiliar task of playing defence.
Take the whole drama with the Ministers. Remember the idea in beginning was that a team was ready, long before the elections, made up of the best brains in the country. Many expected ministers to be sworn in within a week of the hand over. Then the delays. The defenders went to work reminding us of the rot that has to be cleaned and the need to think deeply before choosing ministers. We even had a rumor of the DSS screening potential candidates to ensure their spotlessness. And as the matter dragged and people began to wonder how country could run without a cabinet the President then made a statement claiming that the Permanent Secretaries (as technocrats) were capable enough to run the ministries with the Ministers being mere “noise makers”. Immediately articles were written explaining the wisdom of this and how most of the work was done by Permanent Secretaries anyway. Ink had not dried on those pieces when the President (with much fanfare) announced his cabinet nominees. Of course it was populated with the people that basically everyone expected to be on the cabinet from the get go. Of course many were not spotless and were clearly just political appointees. Then the fiasco of a Senate screening of Ministers without portfolios (the “Bow and go” episode). By the time the Ministers were ready to start work, their ministries – lead by the competent Permanent Secretaries- had already put (or padded) together an embarrassing budget which the President (and his Ministers) then presented without knowing its contents. By the way, the decision of the President to be the Minister of Petroleum was also rationalized by the same crowd (“That Ministry is Sensitive and a source of a lot of corruption. It needs ‘body language’ more than other sectors”) who are now silent and conveniently point the finger at the Minister of State for the lingering fuel supply crisis.
Criticism of these things were met with unofficial “Your hero is not coming back” and official “Wailing Wailers” slogans plus the usual goal post shifting strategies (compare the reaction to the America will know” statement with “you know more of the budget than I do” statement) and, as it became too glaring to defend, by simple unlooking (Boko Haram attacks, Agatu, Chibok girls) and or the adoption of a petulant “go and die” stance (The President’s visible irritation during the recent Al-Jazeera interview a case in point).
Some have accepted that maybe an error was made a year ago (of course with the usual “GEJ was never an option” caveat) and are now advocating the same things many said again and again and were shouted down. It is now wisdom that an insurgency is a complex thing and cannot easily be defeated in a day. That fighting corruption is more than just arresting high profile persons with weakly prepared cases against them. That candidates must be scrutinised and we must hear what they (and not their packaging company) have to say about their policies before elections. That we cannot keep concentrating on the Executive while neglecting the Legislature and the Judiciary. That all the political parties are made up of the same men…
…But have we learnt?
As it stands, we have to make do with the government we have until at least 2019. The hope is that there will be improvement. The question is if lessons have been learned. One positive thing about the period is how many of the so called “Activists” of 2012 morphed into “Change Activists” in 2014 and finally into their true form as the opportunists and political job-seekers and yes men that they really were; and how the narrative on the online political space is no longer controlled by these elements.
But will be wiser in 2019? Or will another savvy media company package another messiah and we will fall for it again? Or will the now hibernating #IstandwithBuhari gang rise again with a novel rationalization of the preceding four years and we get carried away, then as a year ago, with the chants of “Sai Buhari!”?