LONG READ: Why there is no such thing as the anti-establishment

In one of the most bizarre events of the 21st century, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, with no record of public service whatsoever defeated the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, an accomplished politician who has served as Secretary of State and Senator representing the state of New York at different times.

Hillary Clinton was heavily favoured to win the elections, by everyone from the mainstream media to the various polls and pundits that participate in the market place that the electoral system has come to represent. Endorsed by legacy media publications like The New York Times, The Economist and The Washington Post and bolstered by support from beloved celebrities Beyonce, Jay Z, Shonda Rhimes and Lady Gaga, it was definitely Clinton’s race to lose. Matter of fact, thanks to heavy representation on the culture via story arcs on political dramas like Scandal and House of Cards, the last one year has felt like one long primer for a possible female president and leader of the free world.

But the American people decided otherwise and chose to ride a wave of sentiment that has been building nationally for a long time now. The term ‘’anti-establishment’’, a buzzword that became a thing thanks to the liberation sentiment of the sixties, has been thrown about a lot and regurgitated this election cycle by a media that has been forced to look towards clickbait in the pursuit for viewership and newer models of revenue.

Today’s anti-establishment concept is one of those media creations that exist mostly to push an agenda. Similar to feel good advertising buzz words like ‘’low sugar’’ or ‘’low fat’’, the term serves two purposes; characterises politicians conveniently into safe, lazy compartments and fires up the public to imagine that in choosing to support a particular candidate, they are choosing to support a person who holds higher ideals than the average politician.

This candidate due to their limited exposure with the workings of the ‘’crooked’’ system, is placed on some form of pedestal and the electorate can feel good about themselves, trusting that they have played their part in sanitizing the system. If only for a little period of time.

The hype machine

In December 2014, the less than two year old political party, All Progressives Congress (APC) held their convention in Lagos and gave their hotly contested presidential ticket to Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general and serial contestant for the highest political office in the land. Buhari came in first, ahead of Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, then governor of Kano state and Atiku Abubakar, a former two term vice president.

Recognising that their candidate was deeply flawed, the APC swung into action by constituting a presidential campaign committee headed by Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, a former governor of Rivers state.

A former military dictator who had engaged in his fair share of gross human rights abuses, Buhari was regarded in mainstream circles as bigoted, blindly partial along ethnic and religious lines. He had also been rejected at the polls three times since 2003 and with each outing, his candidacy had never travelled beyond his core Northern constituency.

But candidate Buhari also had a good thing going for him. In a country where a leadership position, no matter how insignificant is a call to self-enrichment, Buhari had never been known to help himself to the national coffers during his tenures as Head of State, and later as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). An avowed enemy of corrupt practices, Buhari’s one redeeming quality became his saving grace.

His campaign team, took the rusty, behind the times general and soaked him in a river of PR machinations and what emerged was an ascetic farmer and committed democrat who admitted the folly of his youth but had turned a new leaf, thanks to the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the early nineties. In a well-received speech delivered at London’s Chatham House that was the shining light of his entire campaign, Buhari claimed that ‘’the global triumph of democracy has shown that another and a preferable path to change is possible.’’

This Buhari campaign operation was a significant departure from his previous half-baked attempts. Receiving expertise at some point from David Axelrod, who had previously worked as strategist and media adviser to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, no stone was left unturned in presenting candidate Buhari as a viable and desirable alternative to the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.

Tapping on a national disillusionment with the political system that had festered since independence and was exacerbated by the freedom of democracy, the campaign redesigned their man as the outside man. One of the campaign’s masterstrokes was hiring StateCraft Inc., a communication firm set up by professionals Chude Jideonwo and Adebola Williams who had done some youth activation work for the Goodluck Jonathan campaign in its first outing in 2011. Adopting social media engagement, powerful photography and engaging adverts that spoke directly to a whole new generation, StateCraft turned a Buhari presidency, an event initially considered dead-on-arrival into a possibility. And a welcome one too.

Now all of this would have meant nothing if there was any faith left in the incumbent administration led by Goodluck Jonathan, himself once considered an anti-establishment guy only four years earlier. But a crippling insurgency in the North East that led to the death of thousands of Nigerians and displacement of hundreds of thousands more had led to the loss of swathes of Nigerian territory to Boko Haram terrorists. Citizens lived in fear of bomb blasts and gun attacks while miles away in Abuja, the ruling class lived like kings and helped themselves to the national treasury largely unsupervised by Mr Jonathan. Even funds meant to procure weapons for the army were diverted into private pockets of government officials.

Change begins with you

The populace was ready for a change and Buhari, with his staunch anti-corruption agenda and cult like personality seemed like the man for the job. He was sold via the media as an anti-politician who, unbeholden to vested interests, was only interested in getting the country back on track. Beyond his anticorruption rhetoric, he said very little and did nothing to discourage increasingly excited citizens who projected their hopes and fantasies for a better existence on his candidacy.

In many ways, this Buhari as anti-establishment disrupter who distanced himself from Abuja upon leaving office in 1985 and kept no oil block for himself was merely a social media creation. And as tempting and appealing as it was to buy into this narrative, it was also a fundamentally false one.

Buhari was an early beneficiary of post-colonial Nigeria. He was born without a silver spoon but joined the army and enjoyed postings and tours abroad at a young age. He rose rapidly through the ranks, serving as governor of the north eastern state and federal commissioner for petroleum and natural resources (oil minister.) By the time he seized power as a Major General in 1983, he was 41 years old.

Buhari’s command was short lived as he was removed in another coup by 1985 but he was appointed chairman of the PTF over 10 years later. He was presented to the electorate as a frugal, ascetic senior citizen but Buhari as former Head of State is invited to attend the Council of State meetings that acts as an advisory role to the present. He is also entitled to all the benefits and packages that past leaders have claimed for themselves.

If Buhari genuinely does not wield any power in Abuja it is only because he has refused to exercise his franchise. He remains a part of the political establishment as he’s ever been. The narrative of Buhari as an outsider was just deployed to win elections by making him more relatable to the common man.

Breath of fresh air

In an interesting twist, Goodluck Jonathan, the man whom President Buhari defeated at the polls and who represented the establishment machinery was in 2011 cast in a similar role as the outsider. It was one of the biggest deceptions ever.

Jonathan was navigating a humdrum life as a civil servant when he was invited to represent his people as deputy to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in 1999. Jonathan became governor when Alamieyeseigha was sacked in 2005 and was hand-picked by President Olusegun Obasanjo to play the role of running mate to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua two years later. When Yar’Adua passed, Jonathan was sworn in as president to complete the tenure.

By the time Jonathan was seeking a fresh mandate in 2011, his campaign team came up with the fictional tale of Goodluck Jonathan the boy from the creeks who had no shoes while growing up. He was presented as a breath of fresh air, a departure from the career politicians who felt entitled to power and yet, got nothing done. His educational bonafides were played up- he had a Phd,- as well as his ethnicity,- he would be the first President from a minority ethnic group.

As a native of Bayelsa, he was also the first person from the oil producing region to attain such heights. And the master stroke. Jonathan was not a power grabbing politician. From his stint as deputy governor to his rise to the presidency, he had never actively sought to lead but was always called upon by chance and events beyond his control. Surely even the gods favoured him. Apparently, there is no getting more anti-establishment than that.

Proponents of this logic had conveniently ignored the fact that for 8 years, Jonathan had been a member of the ruling class and was as responsible for the failings of the political class as any other politician. Bayelsa remained as backward as he met it when he left the governorship position, he held no contrary ideologies, and had become leader of the rent seeking PDP.

This quiet truth was glossed over and by the time his anti-establishment profile was repeated long enough and imbibed by the populace, it became fact. Even in office, every decision he made, including assenting to a bill to criminalise gay marriage has been pro-establishment. Nothing edgy about his style at all.

The anti-establishment myth is one that people create for themselves as a direct reaction to years and years of being played by the system. This holds true most especially for democratic societies. Politicians lie to get elected, then ignore the electorate right until they need to get elected again. They lie a little more and the cycle repeats itself. In convincing themselves that they can break this abusive cycle, the people begin to feed into a fantasy that they can influence outcomes only if they can just get a person that is willing to champion reforms as dictated by the people.

But strong persons do not bring about change, systems and institutions do and it is these network of systems that serve as the engine room for the process of nation building. It is these same institutions that the politicians and leaders rely on to do the work they are expected to do. No one man or woman is independent of the society they arise from. Thus, every leader needs their own establishment, a nexus of people that make up a team. These teams are comprised of people. It is people that build a system and decide for themselves, by their actions or non-actions if it should work or fail.

Birth of a nation

History is replete with populist movements that came about as direct reactions to the collective angst of the era. Most of them have ended in disaster. The 2016 Hollywood film, Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker is a fictional account of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner, a mentally unhinged black slave that culminated in the gruesome murders of over 50 white persons.

According to Parker’s film, it was personal for Turner as he was avenging the abuse of his wife at the hands of some slave owners, but it was also about something bigger, as he and his fellow slaves had been brought down to their knees continually, their humanity degraded by the horrors of slavery.

It did not end well for Turner and his murderous gang, all 55 of them, who were executed by the state after a militia force was drafted in to restore law and order. Nor did it bode well for the over 200 slaves who were killed by various mob actions around the country.

From the legendary exploits of Spartacus of the ancient Roman Empire to the contemporary Arab Spring uprising in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, and the recent decision of Britain to exit the European Union, anti-establishment revolts almost end up in confusion and disarray, with things occasionally worse off than they were.

Buhari was ushered in with so much hope that his presidency was always at the risk of being crushed under the weight of all that expectation. He went about running the country solo for a while, giving the impression that he was painstakingly searching for the brightest and best from the left field to assist him.

Imagine the crushing disappointment when he finally named usual establishment suspects like Amaechi, Tunde Fashola and Chris Ngige, experienced politicians with varying levels of competence who had all contributed their quota to leaving Nigeria in the mess that it is.

And those who expected the new president to start locking up treasury looters pell-mell have found themselves disappointed at his administration’s rather imprecise corruption fighting tactics. Apart from Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser, the EFCC has not been able to nail any high profile corrupt person. Buhari has also acted deaf to the calls for restructuring and return to federalism that would genuinely highlight his anti-establishment credentials.

Ideologically, Buhari has shifted towards the socialist and communist spectrum with his welfarist and capital controls and while this is a departure from the PDP era of capital cronyism, cannot be said to be outside-the-box thinking. In any case, these methods have not provided concrete solutions to the country’s economic woes.

In many ways, the APC is the PDP all over again and President Buhari has inherited inadequacies like an obstinate refusal to communicate and relate with the populace, a disturbing lack of empathy especially following tragic events and a phobia for taking responsibility from his predecessors. These traits are all in keeping with the reviled ruling class which Buhari was elected to destroy.

The beautiful let down

Some would claim that this American disillusionment with the conventional political system dates back to 9/11 and the second coming of George W Bush. Citing evidence that has now been dismissed as less than credible, President Bush led the country to two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that burdened the world in terms of human and material resources.

The next electoral cycle, the country turned to a fresh faced skinny junior senator who spoke like a dream and promised change. On his way to the oval office, Barack Obama trumped Hillary Clinton who was punished for her initial support for the Iraq war and John McCain, a war hero and veteran politician, a tough sell with all the anti-war sentiment going around.

Those who call this particular election the anti-establishment one because of the unlikely triumph of Donald Trump fail to recognise that America already elected the anti-establishment candidate, as- much as someone can be qualified as such in 2008.

Bernie Sanders talked a good game against Hillary Clinton in the primaries but all his independent democratic socialist tendencies failed to obscure the fact that he’s been a career politician since the nineties and as a serving junior senator, is a firm part of the establishment. He may turn down donations from special interest groups but his views (LGBT rights, income equality) are pretty much consistent with the liberals who represent a significant portion of the population.

Donald Trump on the other hand is known to have flip-flopped on every major issue. The biggest accomplishment of his campaign was convincing voters that a billionaire businessman who benefited from the heyday of capitalism is on the side of the working class and represents their interests. Of course post-victory he has begun to retreat into the safe spaces of conservative liberalism. His acceptance speech was a departure from the dark portrait of America he painted weeks ago at the Republican Party convention. Reading from a teleprompter, Trump dialled down on the hate and the misogyny and delivered a message of unity and healing.

Staunch conservatives who have been thirsting for and have convinced themselves of a ‘’Trumped up’’ vision of America where walls spring up daily and immigrants are side-lined and sent back to their countries might again find themselves in for a beautiful letdown.

President-elect Trump who fiercely objected Obamacare, Obama’s signature health care intervention package while on the campaign trail with choice words like ‘’disaster’’ and ‘’catastrophe’’ has told the Wall Street Journal that he is actually in support of the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act. This does not represent a total reversal as some parts of media report it, it is only that his earlier support for these sections of Obamacare was drowned in the din of campaign hullabaloo.

No such thing as a hero

And this is the summary of all that is wrong with the anti-establishment idea. Since the dawn of civilization, societies have always run on systems and institutions. It is the only way to ensure law and order. Human beings make up these systems and so any system at any time can only be as bad or as decent as the people who make them up.

Presidents do not govern in isolation. In democracies, they lean on support from their executive team, from the legislature, the judiciary and the press and govern within the ambits of the Constitution. So there is a limit to how much an individual can push their personal agenda.

Students are taught, in schools and at home, that becoming the best at whatever they choose to do requires hard work and experience and consistency. It seems at odds that we teach our young to aspire to these qualities then go ahead and show them during elections that it is exactly for these reason that they cannot aspire to the peak of their political careers.

The notion that people are compromised by their experience and years of service seems hypocritical and blanketing and glosses over the responsibility and culpability of the larger majority in encouraging unequal systems.

Building desirable, equitable societies is a collective effort and everyone from the surgeon in the theatre to the church pastor has their part to play. Blaming Abuja or Washington for all that is wrong with the system is a naïve, uniformed way of approaching modern societies and ignores fundamental and structural problems that can only be addressed by frank conversations. This can only result in the kind of manipulation where a particular candidate is sold as the messiah, simply because they are the outsider, or because they make promises that are more rooted in fantasy than reality.

No one person, independent of the system that produces them can change the world and it is unrealistic to expect them to. Such thinking only promises failure and sets everyone up for sorrow. And tears. And blood.

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