Nigeria’s year of profound hope took place when they voted in President Muhammadu Buhari. For many disgruntled Nigerians, not much has changed, and for them the country has taken a major three-decade step backwards. In 2015, President Buhari, a former military dictator who was subject to Fela Kuti’s acerbic criticism, was voted into power. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and hope from Nigerians, that the much needed change would come.
But Nigerians had the same optimism in December 1983 when Buhari was Head of State. In an editorial piece written on September 2, 1985 and published by West Africa, a weekly magazine, the report read: “When the military returned to power at the end of 1983, Nigerians welcomed them with overwhelming enthusiasm. Widespread rigging of the elections of that year had created a general disillusionment with the civilian rule; the economy was on the verge of collapse principally because the politicians had failed to provide the leadership to tackle its problems and there was a yearning for a strong leadership which could prevent disaster. And perhaps minimize the hardship which citizens had to bear as a result of the economic crisis”.
30 years later, Nigerians, disillusioned by civilian leadership, this time in a “more robust democracy” wanted a leader who was tough, a strongman who could decisively deal with the corruption, and address the human security challenges facing the country. The psyche of a Nigerian that a leader must be hard, is to some extent what has led it to the current predicament. For many, the problem unfortunately lies in the inability to differentiate between firmness, and mere obtuseness. President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was probably the best chance Nigeria had to cut off totally from a military past. However, critics viewed Jonathan’s leadership as weak, and ineffective. In the face of a raging Boko Haram, multiple corruption cases, and a lack of focused leadership, Nigeria was sailing into various icebergs, a high youth unemployment rate, electricity challenges and various other social and economic problems.
Just like in 1983, so was it in 2015. An excerpt from the article published in 1985 reads: “The Buhari regime started well enough. It had promised to make the Nigerian system, both economic and social, work and to its credit had succeeded in introducing a measure of discipline into Nigerian life. Its harsh economic policies were seen by citizens as necessary for averting disaster, they received strong public support and helped slow the rate of deterioration in the economy”. “Buhari’s perception of the needs of the Nigerian economy, however, was essentially conservative and at variance with the expectations of the Nigerian public. While citizens hoped for policies that would lead to an early resumption of economic growth, he saw his priority as achieving stabilization, even at an unacceptably low level of production”.
The more things change the more they stay the same?
So what has anything changed really? The 1985 budget projected a growth rate of 1% while 44% of the country’s foreign earnings serviced debts. Nigeria’s growth rate for 2018 was put at 1.9% and much of its revenue was spent on debt servicing. Beyond economic austerity that Nigerians regarded as a sacrifice they had to make, Buhari’s rule as military head of state, just as he is a civilian president was filled with “the persistent blaming of all the problems on the previous regime…what hurt most was the loss of individual freedom”.
Why then did Nigerians still vote in Buhari despite his track record as a failure in leadership? Nigerians, one would argue, have been conditioned to look at leadership through the lens of dictatorship and military fatigues. The transition, mentally, to look beyond coup plotters and military men, and to elect technocrats and men of learning is lost on a huge section of the Nigerian population. For a country that boasts of a pool of individual talent, it has unfortunately failed to register a good political leadership.