Simon Kolawole: Is ‘Project Buhari’ falling off?

by Simon Kolawole

There is a confession I’ve been longing to make: I never expected Candidate Muhammadu Buhari to win the 2015 presidential election. Although I have never hidden my soft spot for him for decades, I somehow expected President Goodluck Jonathan to be returned by any means. I had my reason: I thought no sitting president could be defeated in Nigeria. He has CBN, NNPC, INEC, police, military and even FRSC at his beck and call. How would he lose? We all saw the ridiculous results that returned President Olusegun Obasanjo to office in 2003. That made me conclude that it was impossible to defeat an incumbent president. I was sensationally wrong.

I underestimated (or, as George W Bush would say, I mis-underestimated) the depth of public anger against Jonathan. Things had piled up — Boko Haram, Chibok girls, Madam Patience, allegations of missing $20 billion and strange theories on “stealing is not corruption”. And with the awesome media machinery of the APC, Jonathan had become irreparably damaged. He and the PDP had come to represent everything wrong with Nigeria. Most Nigerians wanted change by all means. It was a mass movement that grew by the day. Buhari finally walked into the room at the right time and became the symbol of hope — and change. There and then, something new started.

During electioneering, so many things were being written and said about Buhari by overzealous marketers, especially on Twitter and Facebook. These guys, some of them overpaid, knew nothing about Buhari. Because of the over-marketing, unrealistic expectations were being sold to Nigerians. I feared, and I wrote (on January 25, 2015 — to be specific), that Buhari was being set up for failure. I had only one expectation: that Buhari would put an end to the mindless impunity in the conduct of government business in Nigeria. That was more realistic. I sympathised with Jonathan because of his soft nature, but he was clearly no longer in charge of his own government.

Stripped of the extreme exaggerations and Utopian expectations, Project Buhari was a bold statement by Nigerians that they could resolve to vote out a sitting government — contrary to my initial doubts. Embedded in “change”, implicitly, were expectations that Buhari would be markedly different from Jonathan — if not, why vote him out in the first place? There were legitimate expectations that Buhari would function better, put people of quality and integrity in his government, and address the basic needs of the people. However, there were also unrealistic expectations, particularly on social media, that he would turn stone to bread.

Is Project Buhari failing? His inexplicable delay in appointing a cabinet, his statement on 97% vs 5%, his handling of the Shi’ite sect and Biafra agitators, the activities of the herdsmen and kidnappers, allegations of rising dictatorship, and, above all, the nose-diving economy have seriously undermined his government. Everywhere you turn to these days, you hear people say “this is not the change we voted for”. The ousted PDP is saying it is time “to change the changer”. The person on the street is disillusioned as economic hardship bites harder. Many who campaigned and voted for Buhari are queuing up to “apologise” for their role.

To worsen matters, his wife, Aisha, took the unprecedented step of openly criticising her husband on BBC Hausa service. It appeared she deliberately picked the medium — reputed as the most listened to in West Africa; picked the language — so you can’t say something was lost in translation; and picked her words — my husband has been distributing appointments to those I don’t know despite my being married to him for 27 years, APC members are angry that they’ve not been rewarded for their sweat, this government has been hijacked. When your spouse criticises you so brutally and globally, you are in trouble. You don’t need another opposition party.

But is Project Buhari really failing? I think our perceptions of, and expectations from, the project are different — and so will be our assessments. The March 28, 2015 election, I think, was not a vote for a Joshua to take us to the Promised Land. Rather, it was a vote for a Moses to lead us out of Egypt, to take us across the Red Sea with his rod of integrity, to defeat an incumbent, to change government. The mistake many made was to see Buhari as both Joshua and Moses. Immediately he won the election, they went to sleep. Even things he knew nothing about, like immediate improvement in power supply, were attributed to his legendary “body language”.

The initial Buhari euphoria was like the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea and then settling down on the banks for a picnic: eating, drinking, blasting music and “rising up to play”. Unfortunately, the Promised Land is still years away — all we did was leave Egypt in the first phase of deliverance. Even after the Israelites left Egypt, the Bible says they spent three days in the Wilderness of Shur looking for water to drink. When they eventually found water at Marah, it was bitter. They couldn’t drink it. They soon turned on Moses and asked to return to Egypt, saying life in slavery was “better”. Does that sound familiar today as some people sing “Bring Back Our Corruption”?

To me, the significance of Project Buhari was that: one, Nigerians can get angry with the ruling government; two, the anger can lead to a mass movement; three, this anger can be politically mobilised; and four, the anger can translate to votes that will count. Logically, therefore, Nigerians can get angry again; the anger can lead to another mass movement; the anger can be mobilised again; the anger can translate to votes that will count again. In fewer words, the same action can be repeated in 2019 if Buhari does not deliver the goods. The Buhari Project is therefore not about Buhari — just as French kiss is not about France and bear hugs are not usually with bears.

The biggest mistake the Buhari camp made after his victory was to think that the March 28 election was all about him. I have this feeling some people told him he won the election on his own strength, on his own popularity, on his own invincibility. Buhari’s critics allege that he sees his victory as an opportunity to exact revenge on his enemies, both real and imagined. These were the same fears that made power brokers reject him thrice — and a lot of people are now in the mode of “didn’t we warn you” as the script plays out. It is not as if I expected Buhari to be a completely new person at 73, but some things have continued to surprise me about him in his second coming.

For instance, he has never been an economic genius, so I am not surprised by many of his damaging public pronouncements on the economy. That is Buhari unfiltered. However, I am surprised by his failure to put together a crack team at a time the economy needed the best hands to get out of the woods. Nigeria has grown beyond the capacity of some of the people he put in charge of economic matters. It’s like running a Rolls Royce with the engine of a Beatle. Or expecting Whatsapp and Instagram to run on Nokia 3310. I am still surprised that it took him six months to make appointments that eventually offered Nigerians virtually nothing spectacular.

All said and done, nobody should be apologetic for supporting Buhari. To the extent that Project Buhari was primarily about the power of Nigerians to decide the country’s future, the project has not failed. In phase one, Nigerians used their thumbs to push out a ruling party. On that note, it was mission accomplished. In phase two, if Buhari disappoints (and I do think Nigerians have given up too easily), I expect voters to go a step further by properly interrogating the candidates that parties put forward in 2019. The 2015 election was to vote Jonathan out; the next must have higher and tougher standards. It must be more than defeating an incumbent.

I hope the political parties know that Nigerians are now highly mobilisable. The parties should prepare to field candidates who are ready to engage with Nigerians on the basis of ideas and track record. The dynamics that shaped 2015 will most likely be different from what will shape 2019. I am expecting an evolution in our practice of democracy. This, I believe, was kick-started with Project Buhari 2015. It took me by surprise that it worked. It means, I suppose, that Nigerians have finally earned the power to decide who rules them. In that case, Project Buhari is going very well. Change began with us — and must continue with us.

“I hope the political parties know that Nigerians are now highly mobilisable. The parties should prepare to field candidates who are ready to engage with Nigerians on the basis of ideas and track record. The dynamics that shaped 2015 will most likely be different from what will shape 2019”

Did you see the Chibok mother who tied her teenage daughter to her back like a toddler? It drew a tear from my eyes. You wouldn’t understand what it means to a mother that after over two years of mental torture, of uncertainties, of raised and dashed hopes, she was seeing her “baby” again. And to think many of the abducted girls’ parents have died after falling sick over the misfortune. I thought Mrs Aisha Buhari, as a mother of four girls, would be there to celebrate this moment — but she seems more interested in APC internal politics. Hopefully, we will secure the release of the others sooner than later. And, O God, may we never experience this tragedy again. Amen!

A lot has been written and said about the living room, the cooking room and “the other room” in the light of the public spat between President Muhammadu Buhari and his wife, Aisha. I would, nevertheless, implore spouses to spend more time in the “upper room” (prayer room) to uphold their husbands and wives, especially those in public office. If my wife were president, I promise I would never go on BBC to give her a public dressing down under the pretext of speaking the minds of some disgruntled party members. God forbid. Buhari’s chauvinistic response was worse than the original sin, I must add. Couples must always support and respect each other. Harmony.

There is one thing I always avoid: arguing with people over their personal spiritual experiences. If you tell me you encountered spirits, I have no way of knowing if it is true or not. It would be unfair of me to dismiss your claim. Former presidential adviser, Dr. Reuben Abati, has been heavily lampooned for saying he experienced demons in Aso Rock. Actually, my perception of Aso Rock is that most of the people who go there easily get carried away by power, money and influence — such that they become demons and start tormenting Nigerians. If demons are tormenting Aso Rockers in return, then it is a case of in-fighting. Family.

I got to meet Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr a few years ago through a mutual friend, Oronto Douglas. The way we started chatting and joking and laughing, you would think we grew up together. He was so simple. A gifted writer and journalist, Ken and his siblings lived through the trauma of the execution of their playwright father after a very controversial trial presided over by Ibrahim Auta, now the chief judge of FCT. Ken carved a niche for himself in his chosen field. It is very painful that he exited the world at just 47. Coming while we are yet to recover from Oronto’s death, this is a shattering blow. But that is the end of all mortals. Ken only went ahead of the rest of us. Adieu.

– This article was first published on ThisDay Newspapers.

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