Last week, General Muhammadu Buhari (ret.) set off a typically Nigerian kind of storm when he reportedly asserted that Nigerians are bound to react violently to the rigging of the 2015 general elections. Mr. Buhari’s stipulation triggered verbal exchanges that pitted him (as well as several opposition parties) against the – many would argue – misruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Several officials of the PDP charged Mr. Buhari with that vague indictment of Nigerian politics: seeking to “overheat the polity.” They accused the lanky retired general of an unpatriotic scheme to foment a bloodbath in Nigeria. Not to be outdone, Mr. Buhari’s apologists accused President Goodluck Jonathan of running the most corrupt political shop in Nigeria’s history. As if not to be sidelined, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and its main man, former Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State, sought to put on record their opinion that last year’s elections – including the presidential polls that enthroned Mr. Jonathan – were marred by fraud.
In a sense, the brouhaha that Buhari set off is, in the final reckoning, empty. It was sheer political theater, an exercise in distraction. There was a lot of fury, but little illumination.
Buhari’s prediction of violence should the 2015 elections be subjected to mindless manipulation amounts, I suggest, to an over-optimistic, sanguine perception of Nigeria. First, there is no question that the country’s political players are determined to do the usual in 2015 – rig. Nigeria’s political parties, especially (but not limited to) the PDP, have fashioned no alternative to electoral fraud. The country’s electoral culture is fertilized to serve as a rigger’s paradise. From (harsh) experience, we must now own up that Nigeria’s electoral umpire, INEC, has witnessed little or no qualitative evolution since Maurice Iwu’s shameless era came to an end. Under current chairman, Attahiru Jega, INEC has displayed with stubborn consistency a pattern of ineptitude and incompetence. In fact, Mr. Jega’s elevation has hardly witnessed any wrinkle in the PDP’s (and, to a lesser extent, other parties’) rigging genius.
Add to the mix the fact that the Nigerian judiciary’s image is in tatters, that too many of the country’s magistrates, judges and justices are ethical paperweights, men and women susceptible to inducement, willing (for a mess of porridge) to authenticate daylight electoral robbery – once one adds that factor to the mix, then one is bound to conclude that the season of rigging isn’t about to disappear in 2015. And rigging certainly won’t go away simply on account of Buhari’s grim, bloody prognosis.
Nigeria is designed and run as a criminal enterprise, an entity where crime thrives. And those who run the machinery of the polity must prove themselves, first and foremost, as adept, intrepid riggers – or, at the very least, loyal believers in the culture of vote theft. That explains why rigging is hardly punished. On the rare occasion that cheated candidates establish in court that their opponents rigged, no sanction is ever stipulated against the beneficiaries of electoral crime. Or against the electoral officials as well as law enforcement and security agents (the police, the military and the SSS) whose conspiracy facilitates rigging.
The practice is for the courts to order a re-run. As a rule, the proven riggers are permitted to remain on the ballot. These riggers also often retain all their illicit advantages, including access to public funds with which to re-bribe INEC officials, the police, and judges. A culture of impunity does not reform itself without some compulsion. For now, that compulsive element is absent. Buhari’s warning of violence hardly rises to a deterrent.
And here’s why: Nigeria is already mired in a veritable state of war; it’s a space besieged by violence. Yet, the political class – from the Presidency to the municipality – remains far from concerned. In any settled country, the savage quality of armed robbery, kidnappings and terrorist acts that prevail in Nigeria would have occasioned direct, alert responses. In Nigeria, the deterioration of life and the rampancy of violence have triggered desperate levels of accumulation in government and corporate officials. The climate is one of cynicism. As Nigeria totters on its way to “somalia-nization,” those who hold political and corporate power appear bent, not on steadying the ship, but picking it clean of any nuts and bolts (and then bolting) before it sinks.
On their part, dispossessed Nigerians seem sunk to new depths of fear – and to a concomitant cleaving to the idea that God is going to emerge to save us all from the consequences of our human-made disasters.
Last week, President Jonathan proclaimed to Nigerians that Nigeria’s manifold crises did not begin with him. Only a fool with no sense of history would contest the president’s claim. Nigeria did not take the wrong path last year – or the year before – when Mr. Jonathan found himself in the position of undertaker-in-chief. It’s fair to argue, in fact, that the edifice called Nigeria was always defective from the moment of British conception, and that its maladies have progressively worsened since birth. No, Mr. Jonathan did not create the mess that’s Nigeria. It’s also true that he’s done nothing to ameliorate the mess. It’s not farfetched to propose that he can do nothing about the mess – in part, because he is part and parcel of (to use the title of Chinua Achebe’s booklet) the trouble with Nigeria.
Nigeria’s leaders (who should really never be called leaders) do little more than occupy space, aggrandize, and loot. Their approach to governance has brought us all to the present pass where many – perhaps most – Nigerians now openly suggest that Nigeria’s dismemberment is the only way to go, with the amorphous organism called Boko Haram doing its bloody best to achieve that end. Boko Haram is not the first group to use militant means to challenge the idea of Nigeria. It’s simply the group that’s doing the job with awful confidence and sophistication.
There’s little evidence that Nigeria’s security apparatus understands the nature of the group, much less that the machinery of law enforcement and state security is equipped to curtail Boko Haram’s spree of destruction and death. Jonathan’s administration has fought the BK scourge with two ineffectual tools: on the one hand, issuing an ill-conceived, questionable summons to negotiation, on the other hand, deploying facile, fire-breathing speeches.
Nigeria is in a bad, bad place – and getting worse by the day. And the trouble with Nigeria is not only the Boko Haram fanatic whose body or car is rigged with explosives. The bigger enemy, I suggest, are the presidents, past and present, who acquired hilltop mansions, private jets, billions of naira in looted assets even as most Nigerians couldn’t find a good meal to eat in a day. The bigger enemies are state governors who steal their way into office, and then commence to steal security votes and to guzzle contract sums as if money were going out of style. The more unconscionable enemies are members of the National and state assemblies who amass millions of dollars in salaries and allowances without passing a single law in more than twelve years of a nascent, nasty “democracy” to improve the lot of Nigerians.
Seen in this context, then, the debate over Buhari’s prognosis must be seen for what it is: a distraction. The 2015 elections will be rigged, with or without Buhari’s jeremiads. In the hysteria created by Buhari’s statement, Nigerians paid scant attention to two scandalous news items. One was a revelation – by Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – that Nigeria loses an estimated 180,000 barrels of oil daily (or the equivalent of $7 billion yearly) in stolen crude oil. The other is that Nigeria, which may be flirting with a serious cash flow crisis, is on the cusp of borrowing $7.9 billion.
It all goes to prove the point that Nigeria is a carefully designed scam, a space run by criminals for the benefit of criminals. Look at it this way: those who run Nigeria permit themselves and their cronies – in other words, “steakholders” – to steal $7 billion worth of crude oil per year. Nobody is ever arrested, much less prosecuted, for this grand crime. Instead, the same set of men and women who misgovern Nigeria arrange to borrow from international banks – at usurious rates – approximately the sum that their fellows steal in broad daylight! Few are asking the hard questions that ought to be raised. Only a few years ago, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala (then President Obasanjo’s economic guru) declared “eureka!” after she and the former president negotiated to hand over some $20 billion to Nigeria’s creditors. Some of us argued then that a country that had no roads, no hospitals, no universities worthy of the name, little electric power and stratospheric rates of poverty and unemployment – that such a country could not justify doling out such princely sums to questionable creditors.
Today, the same woman who trumpeted the great wisdom of paying off the country’s debt is cheerleader for embarking on a borrowing bonanza. They’re happy we’re talking about Buhari and 2015, instead of focusing on how we are being screwed today.
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