It is 2019 after all, a year with an additional significance for Nigeria, being an election year. In a country where succession is almost always the equivalent of war because of the ‘do or die’ mentality circumscribing elections, the messages from political leaders can be a great guide to what lies ahead. So, what picture of the future do we get from the language of the political leaders in their New Year messages given that language frames reality?
Applying the decoding analytic that meaning as what is unsaid or the silences in a communication, it could be seen that common to all the selected messages are doubts, fears and unease even at the highest quarters. This is what all the reassurances common to the messages point to. Though better crafted and more engaging this time, the president’s emphasis on how “Elections need not be do or die affair, and we should not approach that eventuality in a democracy with trepidation and mortal fear” signifies his worry about an ugly reality. But the sentence is also self-implicating by virtue of him being the Chief Security Officer of the nation and the ultimate determinant of security or insecurity. In other words, that statement could be read as a blame game since, theoretically speaking, the Nigerian State of which he is the Commander-in-Chief has monopoly of legitimate use of violence. The logical implication is that, if elections remain a ‘do or die affair’ in Nigeria, then it means the Nigerian State is not being successful in conducting itself in a manner as to be so legitimate that no groups would approach elections with trepidation or contemplate trumpeting “falsehood and negativity”, to quote the president.
Interestingly, Atiku Abubakar’s equivalent of the president’s self-implication is the language of Nigeria as a perpetual overcomer of difficulties just as it is in Senate President, Bukola Saraki’s idea of wanting Nigerians to make 2019 a year of optimism. Only Bola Tinubu escapes this self-indictment ring because he is framing 2019 as a year of making the right choice by Nigerians. It is a partisan language use but partisanship carries no implications for him in this context since everyone calls him national leader of a political party. Tinubu’s statement, therefore, contrasts sharply with President Buhari’s rather heavy self-indictment in the sentence that “Nigerians desire peace, security, prosperity, inclusiveness and infrastructural development, a nation they can be proud of, a country that can hold its own among the nations” The president is simply saying that Nigerians have been denied peace, security, prosperity, inclusiveness and infrastructural development, a nation they can be proud of. Logically speaking, you desire what you haven’t got, not what you have in abundance. So, unless the president went ahead to explain why this has been the case, the claim of self-indictment remains because it is power that define peace, security, etc. Of course, power is more diverse than government but governments remain definitive in the politics of power and there is nowhere in the world where this is not the case yet.
So, why might power not have been definitive in Nigeria? The president’s message spent a lot of time on this. This is most elaborate in paragraph 10 where gave his regime the journey motif, alleging distractions but which he is sure he is resisting. He puts the distraction this way: “We are resolved to build a country in which the resources are utilized for the benefit of the largest number, and not appropriated by a privileged few in their never ending quest to satisfy their greed. We are on this mission together, and I assure you of a firm commitment to the ideals of a safe, secure, fair, just and prosperous country”. So, again it is back to the narrative of corruption as the trouble with Nigeria. So, why might the president be keen to absolutise corruption in itself without ever raising the question of where corruption comes from? Isn’t that too much of a silence to ignore? Can corruption explain itself? Since the president believes in system rather than individuals, the answer is no, meaning that corruption is not an explanation but something to be explained. As such, abstracting and concentrating on its manifestations such as graft does not excuse failure to contextualize it. That failure makes the president vulnerable to those who criticize him for hiding under an anti-corruption war to achieve other aims. Does Atiku Abubakar, the president’s challenger, escape some of the ‘silences’ in the president’s message?
Atiku’s key contention is that Nigeria can overcome her status of being the world headquarters for extreme poverty but he conditions the overcoming on what he calls “our charting the right course”. The constructivist instinct here is a powerful one as Atiku’s sense of it is that “2019 is as yet a blank page”.
What does he want Nigerians to write on this blank cheque? It is to revive national hope through what he calls visionary leadership? He frames the argument this way: But more importantly, in 2019, I want Nigerians to know that it is possible to have a leadership that is compassionate and that this does not equate to weakness. A leadership that is bold but not domineering. A leadership that is intelligent, but not arrogant”. That is the former Vice-President’s idea of how Nigerians might guarantee for themselves peace, security and material welfare such as employment for the youths. There is something Nkrumahist in this visualization here. Nkrumah asked Africans to get independence and everything will be added unto them. Africans united and fought for independence but that was just when their problems multiplied. It would be interesting to listen to the candidate’s response to this circularity.
Arguing that “resilience is domiciled in our national psyche and together we shall win forever”, he goes on to celebrate the uncanny ability of Nigerians “to perform our best when the worst is upon us”. Sinking further into the deployment of Banal Nationalism, Atiku urges all not to lose heart and hope because “Nigeria is no stranger to overcoming difficulties
So, what is the big difference between Buhari and Atiku? It can be located in the concepts they privileged. While Buhari identifies corruption as the ailment to be cured, Atiku sees the problem in a capitalism that works. That is what his privileging of the word resilience means although the dangerous link between resilience and capitalism did not come out clearly in his message. Whether he, as a person, knows the connection or not, there is a sense in which the distinction between the defunct National Party of Nigeria, (NPN) and the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, (UPN) that the late Professor Claude Ake developed is applicable here. For Ake, the difference between the two is that, unlike the NPN, the UPN could make capitalism work in Nigeria and, is to that extent, more perilous because it knows the meaning of defensive radicalism. It can win over everyone skillfully such that workers, for instance, might find itself with nothing to protest about because the system would be so efficient in discipline, reward system, etc.
If the same template is applied to Atiku’s discourse, then he can be graded as being more progressive than Buhari but progress that comes with its own questions. For instance, where is the formula Atiku is going to deploy to accomplish capitalist transformation he implies when no one has heard him make reference to the kind of strategies the very few countries which have been able to join the club of industrial prosperity adopted? He was making reference to Lee Kuan Yew at a point but he has gone silent on that now.
The ideological contrast gets more confusing when the language use is stretched further. Buhari speaks of a “vision of a Nigeria that works for all”. Atiku speaks of “visionary leadership that sees our economy and institutions working again as they did in our golden era”. While Buhari fails to anticipate and answer the question why Nigeria is not working for all since, (he fails because he doesn’t see the corruption he talks so much about in its historical, class and global context), Atiku also fails to state when the golden era he talks about occurred and in what terms and for whom. By 1999, some scholars such as Ibrahim Tahir were telling the PDP, Atiku’s party, that Nigeria had become a pressure cooker and everyone had become angry with everyone else. But Nigeria has only failed to work for some people. It has never failed to work for some others.
Is this to say that there are no memorable statements from Mr. President and his challenger? There can be no agreement on this but very few would contest the candidature of this sentence in the case of President Buhari: We are motivated by nothing other than service to motherland and service without selfishness or personal interest”. It would remind some readers of where Michael Billigs was contrasting the rape of motherland to the rape of actual mothers in his book Banal Nationalism. While rape of motherland can lead to war between two countries, rape of actual mothers can only send the rapist to jail in a world where rape is still almost impossible to prove in a court of law. But, in 2019 in Nigeria, defence of motherland is rated higher than the privations of actual mothers being raped here and there or dying in IDPs, maternity wards and so on. Rather, it is the presidential election for which motherland is at stake. See the reality language use can create through framing.
From Atiku, the candidate sentence might be none other than this: But it will not just happen by itself. We have to make changes from the top all the way to the bottom. We already have the vision, the vision of a nation that is a beacon of hope for the Black Race and the world at large, what we lack and what 2019 can provide, is the leadership that has the capacity to translate that vision into reality”. It is full of problematic claims but it is the closest to a grand vision because it situates Nigeria and her problems in its global context.
The lesson in all these is that communications such as a New Year message from political leaders are no lies or propaganda. Rather, they are narratives which imply the reality they want to see. The problem with such messages is how the narrators came by the narratives and not alternative narratives. That is, why does Buhari focus on corruption, corruption, corruption and not any other narrative? And why does Atiku choose resilience and not some other organizing concept? These are the problems with narratives and the reason why all narratives must be deconstructed or put back into its context. Unfortunately, context itself is not objective either, especially in the Nigerian situation where the voters are already fixated on either Buhari or Atiku that they are not even interested in asking these candidates to explain themselves. In fact, to even attempt that is to risk being portrayed as a mad man. Such a society can only get the leadership it deserves. Happy 2019, indeed!