I will never forget the first movies I ever saw, about 50 years ago in my Esan village of Igueben.
Advertising, at the time, comprised of the Town Crier. Any time there was an event of public interest, he traveled around the village, yelling the information at the top of his voice. Hearsay took care of the rest.
I remember the Town Crier that first magical day announcing there would be a movie in front of the royal palace. I had read about those things in books, and could not wait to see one.
The traveling movies of those days were invariably of the Western genre, in black and white. They had strong characters: the ‘Bad Man,’ and the ‘Actor,’ your protagonist.
The stories were simple plots of vengeance: the ‘bad guys’ arrived: killing, looting and burning. They left the homestead in a shambles or stayed and established a reign of terror.
They were also silent movies in those days. That meant they travelled with a narrator who narrated the story on a bull horn in colourful Pidgin English.
Once the bad guys had had their way, vengeance was sure to follow, and soon enough, the taciturn ‘Actor’ swaggered in.
“Kpekuru kpekuru, kpekuru kpekuru,” the Narrator would announce as in rode the avenger on his horse.
I never met other narrators of the era, but ours was a spectacular man. So special that, 50 years later, I can still see John Wayne arriving with tremendous authority on his horse, accompanied by our Narrator’s arresting commentary.
When John Wayne rode at a fast pace, the Narrator’s voice went into a fast “kpekuru kpekuru” interpretation of the horse’s galloping.
When he slowed to a stop, the Narrator would go into his signature slowing canter of “kpekuru kpekuru, kpekuru kpekuru, kpekuru wende, kpekuru wende…” Even with your eyes closed, you could see the rider dismount and tie up his horse.
Thousands of miles away from Nigeria’s Eagle Square last Friday, I could hear as he dismounted the horse and mounted the stage.
“Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us,” he said of his election as he prepared for battle. “We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism. We can fix our problems.”
He took a remorseful look at his predecessors, saying they appeared to have misread the mission of Nigerians as a people and of the founding fathers who, despite other things, were united in establishing a viable and progressive country.
“Some of their successors behaved like spoilt children breaking everything and bringing disorder to the house,” he said.
Anyone with an eye on history would recall that on January 1, 1984, as he took power for the first time following the coup which deposed the National Party of Nigeria, then-General Muhammadu Buhari fielded almost the same evaluation:
“The last twenty months have not witnessed any significant changes in the national economy. Contrary to expectations, we have so far been subjected to a steady deterioration in the general standard of living; and intolerable suffering by the ordinary Nigerians have risen higher, scarcity of commodities has increased, hospitals still remain mere consulting clinics, while educational institutions are on the brink of decay. Unemployment has stretched to critical dimensions…”
That was 31 years ago, but it is an identical situation he confronts today, having labored for the opportunity through four elections.
On the night before his inauguration, I read from a woman in Lagos who couldn’t sleep. Among others, she had had to cook two pots of soup on a coal pot outside her home.
“Not because I cannot afford to buy [cooking] gas but there is none anywhere near me to buy [yet] two generators are still stealing the peace in my usually peaceful neighbourhood,” she said. “All the same, I have charged one of the Chinese bright ideas, the rechargeable fan. Hopefully it can still do its work for up to 4hrs.”
She told me of her suffocating excitement. “Excitement that we are delivered from a clueless and dense president…I have bottled up so much. Is there a word like implode? I have always been at that point for the better part of the last 6 yrs. But trust me, this electioneering period [was] the most frustrating period of my life. You know about all the lies, wastes, deceit and recklessness. Now it’s over at last. Saul who Nigerians chose is going to be history in a few hours…I am looking forward now to total restoration.”
This is the quality of the pain left behind on the national psyche by a deeply-reviled Goodluck Jonathan presidency; it is also the high plains of the expectations being inherited by John Wayne.
This work of total restoration could not have arrived in starker colours: an empty treasury, a listless security sector, an empty job market, a collapsed power sector, and a dearth of credibility. But these must be seen not as colours of discouragement, but of motivation; as the soil of the planting season, not the waste of the harvest.
We go into this era with considerable clarity. Nigerians handpicked Buhari because they found faith in his character demonstrated over 30 years in public life. If, during that period, Buhari was able to identify just 10 men and women of proven integrity and capability, each of them can find him at least five or 10 persons of equal or greater quality.
If Buhari is who he says he is, with those 100 men and women, he can clean and burnish the Augean stables. He can drive change and plant its trees and shrubs everywhere on the banks of the Atlantic and the Rivers Niger and Benue, in every national and state border, and embassy and company and school and institution.
The reason for this optimism is that the energies and imaginations of Nigerians have no limitations; what has limited us for 50 years is the institution of dubious leadership. The primary purpose of the Buhari democratic ascendancy must be to break this chain irretrievably and thereby permit capable and committed Nigerians access to the hallways of responsibility.
President Buhari has said that in his era, there will be no witch-hunt. That is good news; by definition, democracy ought to permit no such thing.
But let Buhari not be deceived: At his inauguration, he specifically acknowledged the suffering Nigerians who waited long hours in the rain and the sun to vote and to ensure their votes were counted.
He may wish to be reminded, this first weekend in office, that those Nigerians undertook those heroic acts of pain and commitment and sacrifice to empower somebody to exact some restoration and reparation for them: vengeance, in another word.
This means that Buhari the President must understand, this first weekend in power, that ending corruption remains Job 1. And that he cannot end corruption without a horsewhip, perhaps several of them. Of course he must be legally correct-fiercely, relentlessly so-but he does not need to be politically correct.
This means, among others, that if some of his key friends are still smiling and praising him, 12 months from last Friday, President Buhari has been riding the wrong horse.
“…Kpekuru wende kpekuru wende…”