By Adagbo ONOJA
Would President Buhari not benefit from exploring the similarities between his and Ezeulu’s situation as depicted in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God? This is the question observers are pondering following the high dosage of criticism directed at the president by the end of the week yesterday. Taken by the constituencies each of the critics or set of critics represent, it is argued that there is something the president might learn from how Ezeulu, the protagonist in the novel (mis) handled his own situation. Although Arrow of God is a fictional representation of reality, the thin line between representation and reality might provide the basis for why the president may need to read or re-read the novel, as the case may be. Notwithstanding the wide differences between Ezeulu and the president in terms of time and space, analysts believe the substantive issue is the politics of leadership and power. Critics see similarity in both protagonists’ conflicted or self-alienating sense of power, which is what has come out in avalanche of criticism hollowing out the president, variegated as the critics and criticisms are. Here is a haphazard list.
Dr. Junaid Mohammed thinks the president’s ideas are simply antiquated. Muhammadu Sanusi 11, the Emir of Kano first criticised the president or the government for refusing to deregulate the forex market officially, a point he drove home most forcefully penultimate week with a very dramatic implication of that policy direction. Professor Charles Soludo, his predecessor in the Central Bank of Nigeria asked the regime to stop looking back and face the future. That is to end the relapse into the blame game and find its own bearing. While Junaid and the emir refract dominant tendential temperaments in Kano or northern Nigerian politics, Soludo’s is the voice of the emergent technocratic establishment in the country.
Then enter the Kaduna Mafia that people thought had taken control of the president once he won the election. Professor Ango Abdullahi attacked the president, decrying the quality of his cabinet. Who can be more Kaduna Mafia than Abdullahi? That is mafia as understood in Nigerian politics, not in the generic sense. Lawal Kaita from the president’s home state of Katsina told Saturday Sun, (August 13th, 2016, p.5) that he is yet to see Change. “The good change we expected, we are not getting. We are getting bad changes”.
On August 29th, 2016, Cardinal Anthony Okogie entered the fray through the instrument of an open letter which touched on most of the issues bogging people’s minds – the overarching direction of the government vis-a-vis the reality of misery on the ground, the quality of the cabinet, non-inclusiveness, selectivity in anti-corruption war, social transformation with particular reference to the implication of over-administration of education therein. Okogie brings in the ecclesiastical establishment, some of whom warned against Buhari and Jonathan candidature in the 2015 polls in the first place. Nigeria was too giddy to bother then. Others such as Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah had earlier on described the anti-corruption war as misplaced because corruption itself is a manifestation of a deeper rottenness.
A day before Okogie published his letter, the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) described Buhari’s policies as anti-workers, a major statement given the size and the patriotic credentials of that consistent constituency. If only Nigeria had listened to the NLC ever before now.
Voices stretching from Ebenezer Babatope aka Ebino Topsy, Abubakar Tsav, Pat Utomi, Olisa Agbakoba, Junaidu Mohammed, Lee Maeba and Frederick Fasheun told the president to intervene or the country could shut down (Vanguard, August 11th, 2016). With a crack politician such as Ebenezer Babatope on that list, the doom they talk about could be something to think about. More so that others such as Reverend Father Mbaka, Najatu Mohammed and Kano emir have equally drawn attention to one variant or the other of such possibility.
At this rate, it may no longer shock if the president’s party comes up with an open letter. Why not when even members of the upper crust of the establishment who have been trooping to the seat of power seem frightened or concerned too? Each of General Gowon, Obasanjo, Abdulsalami, Professor Wole Soyinka and Pastor Tunde Bakare have all come out to ask people to be patient and to assure that Buhari would not disappoint or words to that effect. Since patience is only applicable to something late in coming, they are all, by implication, saying there is problem on the ground.
But, what might be that problem? From the criticisms above, they could be reduced to the question of overarching direction, quality of ministers, exclusionary practices, alleged selectivity of targets in the anti-corruption war and the main but unmentioned dimension of the crisis in governance – the implosion into cabalistic spaces of power and, therefore, the quality of gate keeping. Do these problems show illusion on the part of the critics who might have been expecting the president/government to have been otherwise or is this an Ezeulu crisis confronting Nigeria in the 21st century?
The ayes vote for the second reason. In other words, nobody had any illusions about the potentials and limitations of the Buhari political orientation. Obasanjo, a key player in Buhari’s second coming, says the man is very stubborn but patriotic. T. Y Danjuma has said that he found Buhari a perfect material for the Chief of Army Staff but not for the office of Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters when they were searching for a candidate for that office in the wake of the demise of Murtala in 1976. Babangida said Buhari had to be removed in the 1985 coup because he was rigid and uncompromising in statecraft. Balarabe Musa said the problem about 2015 polls for his party was that while re-electing Jonathan was risky for the country, Buhari came from a tendency that could be arrogant. Many people were already saying that despite the large turnout during his 2015 campaign rallies which should make him aspire to national leadership even when out of office, he was sure to withdraw to himself as soon as the elections were over, whether he won or lost. Some people are swearing he has done exactly that.
All these have been in the public domain ever since. So, it is doubtful if people took his claim that he transformed into a democrat following the demise of the USSR to heart. Whatever illusion there was could only have been in context. And the context was the question of who could assemble a government that could discipline capitalism because capitalism in Nigeria is totally unregulated and even fake. The more perceptive members of the elite had sensed the imperative for enforcing established parameters for accumulation in a petrodollar state in such a way as to halt the frightening manner in which government itself was becoming a threat to the state. In other words, certain developments under Jonathan flashed signals of an elite without a soul and therefore, a risk of government itself collapsing the state if care was not taken. The sense of such a peculiar threat as a reason for change of presidential baton was lost to the ethno-regional narratives that sell more in Nigerian politics. Anyway, a Buhari had to be found, either in Muhammadu Buhari or someone else with same streak.
There is thus only a specific, narrow sense in which Buhari is disappointing: his evasion of the question of his regime’s discourse of the capitalism he was called upon to discipline. What is the Buhari regime’s understanding of the Nigerian crisis at this point in the 21st century? How might an African country rapidly transit from an economy based on wealth without production to transformative mobilisation of resources built on consensus? How does a non-manufacturing economy absorb millions of unemployed youths who can cause trouble? What is the regime’s pathway to world class infrastructure, especially electricity in the shortest time possible? The regime evaded this. Instead, it offered the jaded logic of yesteryears – public/private partnership, liberalisation, subsidy withdrawal, etc. And it was with the active connivance of some of those who have turned critics today, particularly Pat Utomi who went from Punch to Trust mid 2015 canvassing subsidy withdrawal, the sort of song the emir of Kano is singing till today. It doesn’t matter to them that such policy options have a wider logic in disciplinary neoliberalism far beyond each of them and whatever merit they have. Yet, under the watchful eyes of the IFIs, Argentina collapsed, about the most fundamental reason why it is a member of the G-20 today. So, what are we talking about?
In other words, in addition to the big problem of ending up with a regime that has not come up with a critical sense of where we are, there is also the problem of a national elite that sees progress largely in terms of “we would get there” rather than the product of a deliberate and back breaking process. Of course, we would get there but are we making it on foot or by bullet trains? We cannot just get there without planning, mobilisation and concrete control. To this moment, we have no better model than Singapore in terms of conscious planning and supervision of development. China’s transition did not attain Singapore’s approach. Yet, catching up with Singapore and those other smaller Asian countries that had left it behind was a major trigger for China’s engagement with transition.
Unfortunately, except one critic who is not mentioned here, this is not the point the regime is being criticised on. That is part of the tragedy because the society itself is not very clear. Rather, we are still at the level of trusting the government to be a good guy. No government in Nigeria in the foreseeable future will implement a popular agenda that is not imposed on it because the shareholders of governments in Nigeria do not include the people. As impressive as the president’s residual rhetoric against neoliberalism, Junaid Mohammed might, unfortunately, be correct to say that the government has no economic policy. From the distance, it seems the government is intimidated and overwhelmed. Otherwise, why is it murmuring? Murmuring is an evidence of lack of a story to tell. Whatever it is that the government has in relation to a narrative of Nigeria now and the answers to the questions such a narrative poses is too scattered to provide a holistic guide. The tragedy though is that the elite are no better.
So, there is a strategic stalemate the resolution of which seems to be calling presidential leadership to question regarding a critical understanding of the crisis at hand and a more transformative view of it on the one hand and the tactics of managing power on the other. It is the tactics of managing power that would make his reading of Arrow of God an imperative, notwithstanding the contextual differences. Some people may say that while Ezeulu’s problem was extreme sensitivity to limits on his powers as the priest-king of Ulu deity, Buhari’s is about a conception of power that is uncomfortable with contradictions. Similar to the kind of worldview by which George W. Bush could declare ambition to rid the world of evil, Buhari tends to see things in black and white. Such a contradiction free view of things can lead him to dangerous blinds, with implications for the country. Imagine starting the war on corruption in a rentier economy without the required conscientisation and elite consensus that could have safeguarded it. That was not done obviously because the president believes anyone who didn’t see corruption as bad is either corrupt or stupid. Now, he is complaining that the judicial process is slow or even subversive of the war.
Almost every one of the critics above has something to say relating to lopsidedness in appointment. True, facts are interpretations but what is the context that warrants the appointments that have been made to be made the way they have been? Again, in the absence of a discourse of power by the regime, lopsidedness can be difficult to justify. If the regime had defined itself in terms of clear value orientation, then no one would expect to see those who do not believe in such a value framework in the government. And if such people make noise, they can be told to sit down and stop being hustlers. Initially, it seemed the president was moving in that direction. That was absolutely supportable. All that fizzled out in no time. But even if that were sustained, there is such a thing called inclusiveness. Notwithstanding the tendency to reduce it to funny ethnic arithmetic in Nigeria rather than class, generational, gender and regional balancing, it is a concept that makes for stability when seriously operationalised. That is not happening too.
But, it is in his new flirtation with neoliberalism that Buhari might find Ezeulu’s experience helpful. Remember Ezeulu’s pragmatism or, was it opportunism, in sending his own son to the missionaries, saying that the white man had come with power and it was strategic for him to have his eyes there. If it brought anything good, his son would bring home his share and if not, so be it. That decision was a vote for neoliberalism of that era. Today, Buhari’s government has basically the same attitude, in different forms though, a preference with serious implications if newspaper stories of people committing suicide as escape from the humiliation of the constraints of neoliberalism. Why, for instance, is state farms not an option to consider by the government in a country with over 70 million unemployed youths? It is this claim about government having no business in business that is at the heart of the problem. To get out of the present stalemate, government must, up to a point, have business in business. It is when that attains a certain level that business frees itself of government by enforcing democratisation.
Of course, at the present rate, the government could successfully open rail links here and there, produce rice even abundantly and so on but Nigeria would still not transit from a disarticulated economy and the next generation, if not the next government would have to do the same thing all over again. What is happening is that the response to a major crisis that could engulf everyone is reduced to inappropriate concepts and jargons of “accumulation by dispossession”. In this context, the emir of Kano is only right to the extent that the government itself is operating in a directional vacuum. Otherwise, the question of whether to devalue or defend, as the cliché goes, is always complicated everywhere, more so for ‘Third World’ governments. For most governments, it is more political than it is economic. Foreign exchange management cannot be reduced to the technicism that is enveloping the debate now in Nigeria. This much the Kano emir admits when he told the Financial Times earlier this year that some of the measures are good for the economy and reflected a strong political will to change the system. In any case, the dramatic example of forex accumulation by absentee speculators has been going on in Nigeria long before Buhari came in.
As things are, it is neoliberalism that will bring shame to this government. Is it not a great paradox that Buhari would be the leader under whom oil subsidy would be removed at one fell swoop, many times over what any other presidents ever contemplated, including rugged ones as Obasanjo? And the government had to tell lies in doing that by attributing it to forex shortage. Was forex shortage the reason for subsidy withdrawal in 1986 and subsequently? These were not styles anyone would have associated with the Buhari paradigm.
It is not strange to expect the tension around and about Ezeulu in that novel to speak to contemporary condition of leadership in Nigeria. That would go along Achebe’s mission of the writer and literature as teacher. In fact, there is a sense in which Achebe’s construction of Ezeulu’s predicament in Arrow of God provides an apt comparative reference for President Buhari, both in the question of the grand direction of government as much as the question of tactics of managing power. It could, indeed, be morning yet on creation day!