“The Greatest Tragedy of the 20th Century” and the Reformer’s Risk in the Buhari Presidency
By Adagbo ONOJA
Break-up of Nigeria has become such a fascinating past time for all manner of discussants in the aftermath of the Buhari ascendancy. Though nothing new in Nigerian politics, it is, this time, witnessing a bonding of the excessively simplistic, the hysterical, the consistent, the megalomaniacal, the studied and the politically determined about it in a heightened manner in sometimes silent and sometimes loud foot works that can be very entertaining. Geopolitically imagined by powerful forces within and outside the country for a long time now to be a candidate for break-up; seized by a spate of violence across the country; drowned in pro break-up antics even while forces for continuity build up, Nigeria actually reminds one of the last years of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, (USSR). That is the last mega state to break-up.
Many would say Nigeria is too far gone and that a break-up would occur but many more would say that those who have worked for and/or schooled themselves on the inevitability of a break-up of Nigeria may be in for the greatest shocker of their life by assuming break- up for everyone to go his or her own way. The very opposite of that could turn out to be the case because the contradictions moving the country towards the precipice are the same contradictions making its oneness an imperative. These contradictions do not work out in a linear manner as those shouting fire! fire! in the market are thinking. Break-up could happen but the dialectic process could unfold in such a way that the system the elite created consumes them rather than the country. Every system has a way of purging and re-inventing itself. The extremes of poverty and misery in Nigeria disturbs the ‘natural’ order of justice to the point that Nigeria may escape but not those implicated in the sustenance of the social injustice architecture administered on a hapless populace for decades.
In other words, people are saying that just as the excesses of the ‘divine right of kings’ or of ‘taxation without representation’ produced revolutionary outcomes in Europe and North America respectively, so might that be the case in Nigeria’s pregnancy with change. Instead of the country breaking up, the anti-thesis of the current stalemate could produce a situation which clears the mess and unites the people on a much, more progressive and modernist vision for a new beginning. Nobody dismisses break-up is not all wishful thinking or madness even as most argue that the thought of it must be thriving because of the introspective construction of the contradictions in ethno-regional identity terms rather than the systemic nature of the crisis.
While the discursive forces for and against break-up are at it, it makes sense to link the plausible greatest tragedy of the 21st century to that of the 20th century for whatever it is worth. This is with particular reference to those who feel that Nigeria is beyond the sadness and joy, as the case maybe, of Nigerians. It is also God’s own statement in the possibility of Africa and the black world to overcome and contribute to human civilisation. For those reasons, the sequence of events, the strategic and tactical errors, leadership miscalculations, opportunities missed and areas of mismanagement in the lead up to the collapse of the defunct USSR seems inviting all over again.
Political power is always the take-off point in discussing the fate of nations. The contrasts in the case of the defunct USSR and Nigeria of today are many but the grounds for comparison are not too few either. Mikhail Gorbachev thought that the defunct Soviet Union was sick and needed to be reformed. President Buhari thinks Nigeria is more than sick and needs hypodermic infusion to be stabilised. But Gorbachev was not a typical Soviet leader just as Buhari is not a typical member of the Nigerian elite. The sense in which they are not typical members of their respective national elite is open to interpretation. For Gorbachev, the sense invoked here is that he was a product of later stages of the development of Soviet Communism in contrast to the cadres of the early years. For Buhari, it is in the sense that he is a fundamentalist, not in a religious sense but the sense that the world, for him, is made up of good and bad guys. It is a thinking process fraught with failure to contemplate contradictions about how what is good and what is bad could depend on what is on the ground rather than whatever fixed meaning anyone has of those words. One man’s meat is another’s poison is an old wise saying. As such, his reform, like Gorbachev’s own, appears to be providing the latest jump off point for all manner of agitators for reconfiguration of the Nigerian State.
Some say it is too centralised, suffocating and counter-productive, developmentally speaking. Others say they are marginalised. Yet others say they have not received adequate compensation for being the ground from which oil which Nigeria depends is found. So, they want to control ‘their’ resources through a revenue allocation formula that guarantees that control. There is the renewed claim of Islamisation too which is tied to herdsmen violence that has put the Fulani identity at the receiving end of varied representation. These four or five complaints are the ones any consistent customer of major Nigerian newspapers comes across. The agitations seem to have become most intense since the return of General Muhammadu Buhari to power after defeating an incumbent in the 2015 presidential poll. The reasons for that could range from opposition’s checklist of regime incompetences or ‘corruption fighting back’, depending on where one stands. Whichever is the case, the Buhari presidency appears to be in the throes of the reformer’s risk. None of the grudges can be dismissed. Whether they are adequate grounds for pronouncements and actions that privilege break-up is a different matter.
But those open and close agitations, in one sense, resemble the scenario in the USSR at the point of its implosion. The Soviet Union was generally in crisis as at the time Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the headship of the USSR in March 1985 following the demise of Konstantin Chernenko, his predecessor as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Opinion vary but key manifestations of the Soviet crisis at the time Gorbachev took over normally include crisis of frightening decline in science and technology; agricultural failure; crisis of innovation and immobilism; industrial stagnation in relative terms; the question of what next about democratizing after achieving social transformation and the dead weight of the engagement in Afghanistan. It is in the sense of these manifestations that the USSR is said to have become a debate prior to Gorbachev’s emergence.
It was to this situation Gorbachev responded with the reform package which became known as perestroika and glasnost but which created the division and the struggle for power that eased out the Soviet Union eventually. A group in the power set up objected to any reform on the ground that such would amount to tampering with the fundamentals of the system they knew. Others took the opposite position. Gorbachev pushed on with opening the democratic space through elections, saying that perestroika or restructuring was beyond slogans. However, it turned out that the camp in favour of reform underwent its own split, with one section there for full electoral opening, meaning the death of the Communist Party itself while the other mini-camp wanted full liberalization of the economy.
Unfortunately for Gorbachev, a paradox played out. Boris Yeltsin whom Gorbachev saved from the drudgery that the Communist Party disciplinary system had thrown his father and, by implication, himself, emerged as an effective figure to lead the movement for fuller reform. From the Moscow Party chief that Gorbachev appointed him earlier on, Yelstin acquired the autonomy to hit back at the party as well as the system. Mobilising around disaffection relating to the restructuring, he was in a position to make a claim on power by early 1990 by marching on the Kremlin with a population mostly estimated at a quarter of a million protesters and issuing a sort of an ultimatum for a Soviet multi-party State to Gorbachev. His fortune went up in May 1990 with his magical election as Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, a position which gave him symbolic but also actual disciplining powers on Gorbachev.
Caught between bitter camps, Gorbachev and his reform became a roadmap without roads. The anti-reform and the pro-reform caucuses were giving no quarters on which direction was best for the polity. Apparently balanced in capacity, no side could pull through much. However, by March 1991, the Yelstin group could stage a peaceful demonstration in spite of a ban to that effect. One outcome of that was the resounding defeat of the plan to ease Yelstin out of the parliament. Instead of successfully easing him out, the vote count went 532-286 in his favour to Gorbachev’s dismay. On August 19th, 1991, a coup attempt began. It was the handiwork of those opposed to Gorbachev’s reform, an obvious resort to force to resolve the impasse. By the third day, the coup had failed for the planners. Instead of the coup working for those who staged it, it was exploited by Yelstin who climbed the tanks to address his supporters after troops declined orders to shoot him.
Gorbachev who was outside the Kremlin during the coup attempt came to depend on Yeltsin for briefing, the power shift implications of which was not lost on him as Yelstin was the voice making the demand for restoration of democracy/Gorbachev to the coup plotters. Meanwhile, Yeltsin was already dismantling the Communist Party by seizing the party’s property and then banning it as far as Russia is concerned. And all these were by decrees, not any laws made in any parliament. His final act was the decree on “Economic Sovereignty of the Russian Federation”. Ukraine independence followed. Fifteen other republics followed Ukraine. On Christmas day in 1991, President Gorbachev resigned and, with that, the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist as a behemoth. His office was taken over by Yeltsin.
The first irony had played out. Yeltsin who was said to have been hand-picked by Gorbachev with the marching order to “shake up the corrupt Moscow party hierarchy” ended up seeing the death of the party altogether. He got the opportunity to hit at the party which his biographer said he had joined under Khrushchev. The second irony might be how Yelstin himself lost control of the reform process as the poverty, corruption, pronounced inequality gap in wealth and criminality that followed the liberalization of the economy created its own crisis. His response to it in the context of the history, territoriality and global crisis of the time defined his political battles. The classic of that was his shelling of the parliament on October 3rd, 1993. It had been under occupation by the opposition. Yelstin feared being impeached. He was equally confronted with the Chechen separatism which broke out in 1994. But none of these overwhelmed him from a second term in office which began from 1996 till 1999 when he resigned.
The third irony is how Vladimir Putin whom Yelstin mysteriously and single handedly picked and installed as successor came to describe the end of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century”. Till today, he is busy responding to what a scholar of Putinism calls the humiliations inflicted on Russia by those who won the cold war and a mode of regaining pride in Russian identity wounded by falling from a great power status to a semi power. The scholar in question does not accept that Putin craves a return to the Soviet system but the consolidation of the Russian nation-state, a task which is said to have warranted postponement of pluralism and in which Putin has, in her view, remained a success, notwithstanding how he is seen from outside Russia.
Gorbachev, like Buhari, met decay. He sought to reform decay. His reform agenda produced an anti-thesis in the anti-reform movement led by Yelstin, a process which saw the implosion of the USSR itself. But Yelstin too could not escape the consequences of neoliberalism. His authoritarian response to that crisis and his desire to find someone tough enough to hold the ground led him to install a successor whose background, (education, career, nationalism, and links to Yuri Andropov, a previous Soviet leader with distaste for liberalism) detested any compromise with nationalist humiliation or ‘humiliation’. If Yelstin were still alive, he would have probably been shocked by the synthesis of the Gorbachev thesis and its anti-thesis in the Yelstin alternative reform into a hard headed Putin somehow re-assembling a new USSR.
The lesson is that history or reality can be such a zig-zag process, making plausible ironic turns and unintended consequences the key points for attention in all cases. The second lesson is that President Buhari is running a big risk with a reform whose contradictions could produce a completely different outcome from the good guy he associates his reform with. The level of poverty and misery; criminality, corruption and the wealth gap in Nigeria today are the same features that undermine all reforms, pushing political leaders to such an atrocity as shelling a parliament or finding the state crumbling under the combined weight of these features. Lacking the option of shelling the parliament or postponing political pluralism in Nigeria now, lacking the mental and physical energy to be completely in charge, lacking the technocratic capability to supervise implementation and lacking the high tech personality to overwrite high capacity interests, the Buhari presidency runs the reformer’s risk. It is not about whether he has performed or not performed. That’s a completely different debate. It is about the forces at work. This is totally an academic conclusion but it may not be far from the situation on the ground.