Why are we like this?

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My friend, Henry, was a Cameroonian. We were classmates at the University of Lagos eons ago. He was a voluble man. But each time something surprised or shocked him about Nigeria and the Nigerians, he sought me out and asked only one question: “Dan, why are you people like this?”

            I must have offered him an eloquent explanation each time he asked. Then again, perhaps not. Because I cannot remember what explanation I offered him. I do remember, however, that each time he lobbed the question at my ear, I grimaced. I chuckled. I let off a dry cough. He was a discerning man. He took those to mean that I did not know any better.

            I find myself repeating Henry’s question: Why are we like this?

            Last week President Muhammadu Buhari said he would stand down in 2023, the year his two terms of four years each would constitutionally end. Why did he need to make the promise when we know that he is constitutionally limited to two terms in office? I think he was compelled to do so because he too must be hearing the faint sound of the do-gooder drummers, the professional men who are so taken by the sterling performances of all our leaders and would not want them to respect the constitution and their oath of office when their tenure is about to end. He did not give the assurance too soon. Many a Nigerian leader has been lured down the path of personal disaster by the do-gooder drummers. I do not believe that his statement would end the agitation for his third term in office when the time is ripe but it helps to know that right now, he is not trucking with them.            

Why are we like this?

            Wind back the clock. General Yakubu Gowon emerged from prosecuting the Nigerian civil war that ended in January 1970 an undisputed national hero. He had kept his promise to do his duty to his country. He had saved it and prevented Lord Lugard’s much-vilified amalgamation from unravelling. No side won and no side lost in the 30-month civil war because the general said there were no victors and no vanquished. We were all victims.

            On our independence anniversary on October 1 that year, the general unfolded his plans for returning the country to civil rule in 1976. He set himself a nine-point national agenda he intended to accomplish before allowing the civilian politicians with a penchant for making a mess of eating yam pottage, back on the stage. His nine-point agenda, of course, included the eradication of the ineradicable – corruption.

            But in 1974, only two years before we were to hear the sound of the soldiers marching back to the barracks, he changed his mind on his planned handover date. The do-gooders had been at work. They managed to convince him that he needed to stay on because if he left at that point, he would leave his beloved country in chaos and undo his splendid work of leading the country aright. He caved in to the pressure. He was only human. The thought that he if he handed over at the wrong time just because he wanted to abide by the dictum that an officer’s word is his bond, would be a disservice to the country could not have failed to touch the heart of this hero and patriot. 

He was, therefore, persuaded that “…. the situation as of now is that it will be utterly irresponsible to leave the nation in the lurch by a precipitate withdrawal which will certainly throw the nation back into confusion. Therefore, the Supreme Military Council, after careful deliberation and full consultation with the hierarchy of the armed forces and the public, have decided that the target date of 1976 is, in the circumstances, unrealistic and that it would indeed amount to a betrayal of trust to adhere rigidly to that target date.”

Less than one year later, he was overthrown. The do-gooders did not lift a finger to defend him. His over throw rubbished him and marred his reputation. Today, while lesser men walk with their heads high, the messy circumstances of his leaving off force him to keep his eyes down.

Why are we like this?

President Ibrahim Babangida decided his transition to civil rule programme would terminate in October 1992. It did not. The do-gooders who love Nigeria more than the rest of us would not let the man keep his promise. The transition to civil rule programme went over the hill and down the valley. The inappropriately named Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, the brain child of the maverick politician, Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe and a close friend of the president, spear-headed the messy campaign for four more years for the president. I need not go into what they did to jeopardize the transition to civil rule programme. But it is important to note that thanks to them, Babangida, a courageous man who dared where others were willing to apply cosmetics, left office a much-vilified Nigerian leader. He was pushed into doing what he did and he was left to bear the cross; or whatever good Muslims bear when they become victims of their own decisions. 

Why are we like this?

General Sani Abacha did not need to be persuaded to transform himself from a military politician to a civilian politician and president. It was what he wanted. But just to make sure, he was pressurized to walk down that path. Each of his five registered political parties adopted him as its presidential candidate for the 1998 general elections we never had. Abacha was poised on the edge. But an apple suddenly put an end to his ambition just as it also caused God to throw out Adam and his wife, Eve, from the Garden of Eden. We are still paying the price by struggling to eat by the sweat of our brows.

Why are we like this?

On May 29, 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo made history as the first Nigerian to rule the country first as a military dictator and as a civilian president. It was the Obasanjo military regime that imposed the two-term limit on the president and the state governors. Yet, the do-gooders were prepared to forget that as they urged him to amend the constitution and run for a third term in office. He said yes without saying yes. We heard the vaults of the Central Bank of Nigeria yielded to the third term agenda with members of the national assembly being persuaded by the sight of mint-fresh Naira notes to support the third term agenda via elaborate constitutional amendments. But the entire constitutional amendments suffered the indignity of a baby thrown in the gutter with the dirty bath water. Because he said yes without saying yes to the third term drummers, Obasanjo never suffered the loss of face that the other two generals did.

Why are we like this?

And now, Buhari, who is in his first year in his second four-year term in office. Why are the drummers so ready so early to push him towards the precipice by sowing the seeds of a third term agenda in his mind? 

I think there is an element of sadism at play here. We persuade our leaders to walk down the wrong path and when the path grows thorns under their feet, we laugh at their discomfiture. We like to see them fall because when the mighty falls, the minions celebrate.

If you look deeper into the well-oiled sycophancy that defines our politics, there is a big irony in our campaigns for our God-sent leaders not to be bound by their own laws or the constitution to leave office when the time comes. The irony is that we do not actually approve of stay-put leaders. After all, na only one man go chop? I suppose that is an important difference between us and other African countries. Take these two instances.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago of Equatorial Guinea, holds the record on the continent. He has been in office since 1979. Paul Biya of the Cameroons runs a close second, He has been in office since 1982. Just see how many leaders Nigeria has had since each of these characters became president in 1979 and 1982 respectively: President Shehu Shagari, General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, General Sani Abacha, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, President Umar Yar’Adua, President Goodluck Jonathan and President Buhari.Professor Chinua Achebe blamed our problems as a people squarely on leadership. Were he alive I would have asked him to give some serious to why the tail wags our dogs. Perhaps, therein lies the answer as to why we are like this.