Renewing The Covenant/

There are two jobs on which every Nigerian is an expert. The first: the Super Eagles, the nation’s full national soccer team.

The other: politics, specifically, presidential politics. This week—the first anniversary of the “change” government of the All Progressives Congress (APC)—Nigeria’s ruling party will learn this fact first-hand.

The person who will hear it the loudest, despite reports of an ear disorder, is President Muhammadu Buhari. If he knows what is good for him, he should get the doctors to fix his condition quickly. There is going to be no point pretending that a little bit of earwax came between the people and their leader.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There are some political systems in which a listening—or hearing—ear is not necessarily a priority. A military government, for instance.

As one who was raised during a succession of military regimes, I know that soldiers are easily misunderstood. People get carried away with the sights of khaki fatigues and the sounds of loud commands.

Perhaps because of that spectacle, people often fail to understand that soldiers have no ears. That is, they expect only to be heard, not necessarily to hear. The more senior the soldier, the more profound this rule appears to be.

Ordinarily, there may be no problems, except in those cases where certain society groups which appear to have little respect for military uniforms opt to talk back.

And then, of course, there are those cases when military men metamorphose into politicians, stripping down—and out—of those military fatigues to campaign for office. Traveling to the top through the sideways tunnel of the ballot box is not something that any soldier likes to do, but battle-hardened as they are, they sometimes demonstrate they can do it.

Which is why some of them are seen in jubilation at the end of the contest holding their copy of the constitution and the winner’s certificate. The former, of course, leads to the question: how do they manage to keep that constitution from being ripped apart in the course of the arduous journey through that tunnel?

Valid question, because they quote from it, insisting they understand they derive their legitimacy from the ballot box, and that they will live by every word.

But skeptics apart, this is the day, one year ago, that our own Buhari took office in similar circumstances.

The weight of that occasion was not lost on him, and he called on the nation to celebrate her freedom and cherish her democracy. “Nigerians have shown their commitment to democracy and are determined to entrench its culture,” he told the world.

Buhari noted the unprecedented fountain of international and domestic goodwill his administration had to drink from, but also the high expectations, as he outlined the multiplicity of challenges before his administration.

He described his ascension to office as “a window of opportunity to fulfill our long-standing potential of pulling ourselves together and realizing our mission as a great nation.”

It is in that regard that one particular angle of his speech was particularly poignant: the characterization of Boko Haram as “a typical example of small fires causing large fires.”

The small: An eccentric and unorthodox preacher with a tiny following given posthumous fame and following by his extra judicial murder at the hands of the police.

The large fires: Official bungling, negligence, complacency or collusion that transformed the militant group into “a terrifying force taking tens of thousands of lives and capturing several towns and villages covering swathes of Nigerian sovereign territory.”

Nigeria’s new leader concluded: “We have an opportunity. Let us take it.”

It was striking that while he and his party had President Goodluck Jonathan and his party out of power with a “change” propaganda, not once did Mr. Buhari’s inauguration address refer to it.

But that change was the essence of the “opportunity” battle cry he issued at the end of his speech, and of the “Covenant with Nigerians” he published just days before the election that brought him to power.

It is assessments of that covenant, and the change it offered voters, that President Buhari and his party have no option but to hear, during this anniversary, and I hope they listen carefully.

One of the things I hope he hears is that President Buhari (PB) appears to be somewhat different from Presidential Candidate Buhari (PCB), who was communicative, expansive, Nigerian and determined.

PB, on the evidence of the past year, appears to be somewhat unclear; to be personal rather than national; to be apologetic rather than fortright.

Where the Covenant outlined his change agenda, in the first year it is PB, rather than Nigeria, that may have changed. While it is unrealistic to expect Nigeria to have changed in one year, with PB, some of the non-negotiable expectations have shifted.

He gets the credit for a true offensive against Boko Haram, and—by making it clear that stealing is indeed corruption—gaining some control over impunity in the land.

But why do so many Nigerians feel shortchanged?

PCB spoke earnestly about the imperative of rebuilding the faith of Nigerians in the government. While it would be unfair to say he is not combating corruption, his battle seems to have shrunk to apprehending some past corruption (where his political opponents are the principal culprits), rather than preventing it (where his friends and faithful) are the main actors.

Take the declaration of assets, for example. As the lowest allowable indication of change, I didn’t imagine that—one year in—there would exist a single appointee of PB who would not have declared his assets publicly. Absent still are other institutional changes that will make corruption hazardous, if not impossible.

And yes, it is critical in a democracy to ensure due process. But in a country as filthy as Nigeria has been for nearly 60 years, it is unacceptable that in one year, so little has happened to looters, including those allegedly returning what they will when they will. Unlike PCB, PB gives the impression that all looters must first be identified, and every facet of every allegation against them documented before prosecution.

As a result, one year in, only a handful of corruption suspects are in any form of trouble. All others are walking free just as they did when stealing enjoyed presidential approval.

And then there is the economy, where change has been for the worse, and where the temptation seems to be for the government to misunderstand the tears of the people.

The verdict is that on the change radar, set against the background of the scene of the crime, little has registered. Nigeria’s is no ordinary crime scene, and part of the outrage is that it is being made to look as if we have 100 years.

Let it be clear that a small fire is not always an act of commission, by others; it may be one of omission, by us.

A key part of the challenge before the Buhari administration is that it is not communicating effectively. It is important to understand that Nigerians have arrived at one irreducible minimum agreement.

That is change: the quality, not the slogan. There is no reason why it should mean one thing to the government, and another to the people which voted it in.

And if the people must wait, surely, they can be persuaded to see why, and how? Beware of official bungling, negligence, complacency, and collusion—particularly where they masquerade as a favour.

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