When President Muhammadu Buhari launched last week the national re-orientation campaign unbelievably branded “Change begins with me”, public opinion concluded that he was on a trajectory to baptize and consecrate an old programme that failed more than three decades ago. The launch brought back painful memories of the much maligned and controversial War Against Discipline crusade that marked the high point of Buhari's tenure as a military dictator between December 1983 and August 1985.
Buhari's "change" mantra, the platform on which he was elected president in 2015, might have run out of energy already even before it was launched in a formal ceremony. It has taken the government more than one year to realise the large chasm between the promises made during election campaigns and the sad reality that confronts citizens on the ground.
Following Buhari's election victory, he pleaded with everyone to give him time to implement the historic and radical changes he promised during presidential election campaigns. Nigerians obliged him and waited patiently. After more than 16 months of no visible change, everyone is running short of patience. The longer the nation waited, the more people became frustrated, angry, hysterical, and famished. Nothing destabilises ordinary people as the realisation that they have no jobs and the little money they have could only buy little or nothing in the marketplace.
No matter how unblemished Buhari's “Change begins with me” campaign might appear, I would argue it was introduced at a wrong time to an audience increasingly cynical of political leaders. It will take more than half-truths for the government to transform civil society to a point where everyone can start believing again. When people look ahead, they see no reason for hope. They cannot see anything on which to hang their hopes. Everything they sight is covered with mist, misery, economic anguish, and crushing hardship.
I have heard citizens ask several forlorn questions. Does Buhari's government have a human face? Does Buhari's government have compassion for ordinary citizens? Does Buhari have a human spirit? Does Buhari have any consideration for the troubles the citizens have been grappling with? These questions reflect badly on the government.
During the official launch of the "Change begins with me" campaign, Buhari spoke like a pastor possessed. He spoke about major challenges that confront the nation. The aspect of Buhari's speech that I disagreed with vehemently is this. Buhari said: "Our citizens must realize that the change they want to see begins with them, and that personal and social reforms are not theoretic exercise. If you have not seen the change in you, you cannot see it in others or even the larger society. In other words, before you ask ‘where is the change they promised us’, you must first ask how far have I changed my ways ‘what have I done to be part of the change for the greater good of society'."
Buhari's personal assessment of who should take responsibility for initiating change in Nigeria is wrong and misplaced. It is not the responsibility of ordinary citizens to play a central role in changing the nation. Ordinary citizens did not destroy the country economically and politically.
The APC and Buhari promised Nigerians during election campaigns in 2015 that they had unassailable plans to radically transform the nation. Why that promise has become difficult to implement is a question that must be directed to Buhari and the APC leaders. The government has been in office for more than one year and no one has seen the government make any significantly positive impact on the lives of the people. It is inappropriate for the government to shift to ordinary people the responsibility to transform the country.
Those who rode to election victory on the platform of radical change have the fundamental obligation to introduce the change they promised. If they cannot introduce change, they should admit failure and apologise to the nation. Government cannot abdicate its responsibility to implement a programme of change it promised the people.
Buhari said during the official launch of the national re-orientation campaign last week: “The resultant effect of this derailment in our value system is being felt in the social, political and economic spheres. It is the reason that some youths will take to cultism and brigandage instead of studying hard or engaging in decent living; it is the reason that some elements will break pipelines and other oil facilities, thus robbing the nation of much-needed resources; it is the reason that money belonging to our commonwealth will be brazenly stolen by the same public officials to whom they were entrusted; it is the reason why motorists drive through red traffic lights; it is the reason that many will engage in thuggery and vote-stealing during elections..."
Buhari spoke of vote rigging and thuggery as if these were not the hallmarks of politicians desperate to win elections by all means. He spoke of public officials raiding the treasury freely and unchallenged. Yet he forgot to mention that these violations and criminal activities occurred because the government was not as responsible as it ought to be; the government was not as accountable as it should be. Owing to these lapses, crooked politicians and public servants took it as axiomatic that they can embezzle public funds and get away unpunished. These things have happened and continue to happen because the government encouraged acts of banditry by keeping silent, by looking the other way rather than apprehending and prosecuting the culprits.
When citizens see public servants, politicians, and senior government officials abusing national laws and getting away untouched, they get the message it is alright to perpetrate crimes against our society. It is true the foundations of our social values have collapsed but ordinary citizens have nothing to do with the failure.
When Buhari said “Every one of us must have a change from our old ways of doing things, we cannot fold our arms and allow things to continue the old way", I felt he was preaching to the wrong audience. Ordinary citizens struggling to make a living are not responsible for pillaging the treasury. The real perpetrators of open and secret crimes against the state and the people are the politicians, members of the privileged class, and those government officials who believe they are above the law.
Buhari has been in office for 16 months. It is therefore appropriate for people to ask whether Buhari has the little magic stick to save Nigeria. This question must be asked because it seems obvious the president is reinventing old policies that did not work three decades ago.
During the time he ruled as military head of state, Buhari was so displeased with the level of indiscipline in the society that he devised, in concert with his deputy Tunde Idiagbo (now late), the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) campaign intended to whip the citizens into line. The WAI campaign was problematic in various ways. First, people were compelled to do things they did not want to and were not used to. Second, people felt they were forced to observe alien codes of conduct; they did not see any value in behaving the way the military government defined and fashioned public behaviour.
A number of people became victims of the war against indiscipline for the short period it lasted. If you were caught jaywalking in inappropriate places, you were forced to kneel in public spaces. If you were caught dashing across major highways and refusing to use pedestrian bridges, you were punished on the spot. Those who urinated in public or jumped queues in bus stations or airports were also dealt with instantly. During the campaign, people adopted the official code of conduct manufactured by soldiers on the streets.
Buhari's "Change begins with me" is likely to suffer the same fate as WAI. Public campaigns that are implemented with force or military coercion can only last as long as the source of that force exists. The moment the public heard that Buhari’s government had been overthrown by Ibrahim Babangida and his fellow travellers in 1985, everyone rushed to peel off their WAI stickers from their front doors and all public buildings. The message was that we didn’t need stickers to behave properly. No sooner did WAI die than Babangida’s government inundated the nation with his government’s brand new acronyms. Remember MAMSER, DFFRI, and all those pretentious slogans.
One of the reasons why government projects fail in Nigeria is that the initiators are usually the same people who violate the laws. Buhari implied during his launch of the "Change begins with me" campaign that Nigeria has become a country where nothing works. That is true. Things don't work because our leaders have not served as good role models. When leaders violate laws, everyone behaves the way they want. The question is: Why has Nigeria become a country where virtually everything has ceased to work? Why does everyone carry mobile phones in their hip pockets even when network services are difficult to access? Why do citizens drive in roads with dangerous potholes and refuse to hold government to account?
Why do citizens accept poor standards of service? To answer Buhari's question, the collapse of Nigerian values reflects the failure of public and private institutions in the country. It reflects also the failure of political leadership, and the failure of the public to stand up and hold political leaders to account for their transgressions.
Buhari must be informed that political sophistry does not fill an empty stomach. Are we too impatient with our political leaders? Are we too difficult to be governed? Do we expect too much within too short a time? We will return to these questions in another essay.
Our kind of democracy is the democracy that confers authoritarian powers on the president and state governors. It is the democracy that preaches respect for rule of law but secretly encourages the breakdown of law and order. Our democracy does not tolerate public questioning of political leaders.
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