In the famous interview with ARISE TV, President Muhammadu Buhari said it should be left for the people to assess his legacy. He expressed the hope that such an exercise would be performed judiciously.
The verdict of history, of course, inexorably awaits every political actor after he might have left the stage. This is more so for a historical personality of Buhari’s stature. While it may sound modest of Buhari to say that the discussions of his legacy should be the business of the public, he should be reminded that he has the responsibility to shape the legacy. As it is, he could still do so in the next 24 months. If you like, it is also the duty of the public to continue to draw the attention of the President to this responsibility. It is a task that Buhari must take more seriously in the face of a festering national crisis.
Even if in good faith the Buhari administration could access more loans, some important ongoing projects and the new ones to be added may not be completed before the end of the President’s tenure. Despite that reality, however, there will be some physical things – roads, railways, bridges, agricultural programmes, water schemes, housing, schools, health facilities etc. – to highlight as achievements of the Buhari administration.
However, the legacy of Buhari would not be determined by physical projects alone. If anything, Buhari should henceforth be more conscious of what his legacy would be in the realm of the intangibles especially security and national unity.
Today’s reflection is on national unity with a suggestion that Buhari should be demonstrably a unity president. After all, you need to have stable nation first and then you could talk of developing its economy and fixing its political system. As physical programmes and projects are executed, greater attention should be given to nation-building. Given the means, a government can re-build a collapsed road or bridge. It’s a different matter when a nation disintegrates. The President should pay more attention to what his legacy would be in the promotion of national unity. The immediate implication of this would be a critical look at the non-inclusive policy steps and a rethink of some of the statements of Buhari about national integration.
For instance, the response of the President to the Igbo Question in the polity was wholly unhelpful in the national circumstance. Even the mien of Buhari while answering the question could silently alienate even the most nationalistic Igbo man from the Nigerian socio-political space. This demeanour is typical of some the officers who fought the civil war on the federal side.
The President falsely equated the Igbo ethnic group with the separatist organisation, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). When the President spoke of those who have “properties” and “businesses” all over the country, he couldn’t be referring to IPOB members alone. In another context, such a socio-economic characterisation of the Igbo in general is often made to pay compliments to the integrative capacity of the great Nigerians from the southeast. If IPOB members or other persons of Igbo origin commit crimes, they should be dealt with according to the law. Those who killed policemen and soldiers and destroyed police stations and offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should be arrested and prosecuted. It doesn’t matter if the criminal suspects are Igbo or not. But the millions of Igbo people should not be demonised for the alleged criminal activities of a few. The basic principle involved in this suggestion is the same that this reporter has consistently invoked on this page against the reckless demonisation of the Fulani ethnic group because of the alleged crimes of some herdsmen who happen to be Fulani. If an Ak-47 wielding herdsman attacks a farmer and his cattle destroy other people’s farms, he should be punished according to the law. Crimes cannot be solved when the justice process is laden with prejudice and mindless ethnic profiling.
In fact, official responses should distinguish between criminals and non-violent agitators for a cause with which the government may not be agreement. It is legitimate that a President does not approve of a separatist agenda; but it is wrong for the government to criminalise peaceful agitations for separation.
You should persuade separatists on the importance of unity; you should not criminalise them for their divisive choices. But if anyone who claims to be a separatist agitator kills or destroys public properties, he or she would be treated as a criminal having crossed the borderline between political agitation and sheer criminality.
In this regard, Buhari should a borrow a leaf from President Umaru Yar’adua. The amnesty programme for the former militants as part of the resolution of the crisis in the Niger Delta has become part of the legacy of Yar’Adua, who distinguished between legitimate agitation against the gross injustice done to the region and clear criminality. The militants, unlike today’s bandits, stated their demands for resource control and the stoppage of environmental degradation. Like many struggles in history, distortions got into the legitimate movement with the criminal activities of kidnappers, cultists and oil thieves.
Yar’adua issued an ultimatum for disarmament. Those who surrendered their arms were embraced and integrated into the development process of the region. The approach might not have been perfect; but it has proved to be a helpful component of the crisis-resolution formula in the region. The problem has not been definitively solved. In retrospect, however, Yar’Adua could have missed the point if he had elected to merely talk tough and disparage the whole people of Niger-Delta.
So, one lesson that Buhari could learn from the Yar’Adua formula is a sophisticated combination of security measures and political solution. If the government could have a programme of “decradicalisation” of Boko Haram fighters, it should be more suggestible to think of a programme of engagement and reorientation of non-violent IPOB members. It should not be unthinkable that the Buhari administration (which has some Igbo politicians as senior members) could engage the Ohaneze Ndigbo and in the process create a bridge to engage the willing elements of IPOB. The first step should be the de-proscription of IPOB. There could be other forms of political solution which the experts advising this government could provide in the process. The soft and constructive approach may be useful for the Buhari administration in making a difference in the next 24 months to tackle the national crisis it inherited. You cannot resolve the crisis in the southeast by talking to the people as if they were conquered. The Igbo were never conquered by anybody. They only lost a war which shouldn’t have happened if political solution had worked. Some political forces in Nigeria need to be cured of their conqueror mentality.
The polity has become so poisoned by hate speech and ethnic profiling. It is partly a manifestation of the ugly division along the fault lines. This is the more reason why presidential pronouncements should be clinically devoid of prejudice. The process of national integration would be enhanced if Buhari could convince all parts of Nigeria in words and action that he is indeed a unity president.
Worse still, the President of the federal republic even said if you checked the register of civil servants, you would find Igbo names in it! Pray, what point was the President making by such a statement?
Is it a special favour that Igbo names could be found in the register of civil servants? Why is that news now from the presidential villa? And that was the answer to the question on the seemingly incurable nepotism in the pattern of his appointments in clear violation of the constitutional provisions that such appointments should reflect the federal character of the country. So, by extrapolation, the matter becomes problematic when the President employed the martial metaphor of “a dot in the circle” to describe the geo-political zone of southeast. Is that a threat?
In an earlier occasion, the President had been criticised for saying that the government would respond to some people “in the language they understand” while referring to the civil war in an otherwise justified rebuke of the violence in the southeast. The President rightly said that some of those agitating for a republic of Biafra were born after the tragic civil war which claimed the lives of millions of people. But the separatists should be isolated and be told not to employ violence in the pursuit of their cause. There is no statistical evidence that the majority of the Igbo is committed to the Biafran cause just as no one has provided a proof that most of the Yoruba prefer to be in an Oduduwa Republic. A few weeks ago, the attorney-general of the federation, Mallam Abubakar Malami, also provocatively equated herdsmen moving round the forests in parts of the country with their cattle for open grazing with the Igbo traders legitimately selling spare parts in different cities of the country.
The unsettling background to the foregoing, of course, is the often quoted “five percent” declaration made in the aftermath of the 2015 presidential election. Asked what his attitude would be to those who didn’t vote for him, Buhari said it should not be expected that those who gave him 95% of their votes would be treated as those who gave him only five percent. That is not in the spirit and letters of the 1999 Constitution based on which Buhari took oath of office. Such statements would impair the cause of national integration. Having been elected, Buhari ought to have demonstrated that he is the president of all – those who supported him with their massive votes and those who voted against him. It is an open secret that Buhari as a candidate was hardly popular in Igboland in the four presidential elections he has contested in his political career. This was despite the fact that he chose Igbo politicians as running mates in two of the elections. Members of the Igbo political elite who support Buhari do so as exceptions to the rule. The antipathy between Buhari and the dominant faction of the Igbo elite is sometimes manifest. Such was the case in the build-up to the 2019 presidential election. On a day that Buhari was in the southeast to commission the mausoleum built in memory of the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a crop of Igbo elite gathered at a different venue to adopt the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, as the favoured candidate by the Igbo. Meanwhile, for 16 years successive PDP governments ignored the national monument begun by the military regime of General Sani Abacha. A great nationalist, Azikiwe was Igbo. All that, however, is legitimate politics. Nothing in that politics could justify prejudice or discrimination against the Igbo, like any other ethnic group, on any ground.
Besides, the Buhari government has executed some projects in the southeast as part of government’s policies and programmes. The most conspicuous is the Onitsha bridge which has received the greatest attention during the tenure of Buhari. Previous administrations played political football with the bridge.
However, it is the statements and other optics of Buhari and not the bricks -and -mortar policies that people talk about when discussing the topic of Buhari and the Igbo.
The intangibles count as much as the tangibles, if not more, in the way a leader is perceived in a complex society such as Nigeria.
It may be Buhari’s style to talk tough amidst the multi-dimensional national crisis. This approach should be tempered with adequate display of emotional intelligence. There are many brilliant people in the Buhari administration; but they should be duly sensitive to the sore points of Nigeria’s history when making statements. They should learn to apply the appropriate balm to soothe people’s pains rather rubbing salts into their wounds. Those currently wielding power in Abuja today should be wary of the perils of arrogance of power. Here, we are talking power that’s inevitably transient. That’s precisely why they should pause now and repair the damage already done to the polity at the subjective level.
Buhari can still take steps to leave a positive legacy in matters of national unity. But the President does not have eternity to do so. For it’s obvious that the President should be in the legacy mode by now, remembering that power is ultimately transient.