Nigeria After Buhari: Healing a Divided and Traumatised Nation – THISDAY Newspapers
DISCOURSE By Noah Udoffia
This essay is first part of a three-part series. It critically examines the performance of the Buhari government to identify what went wrong, provide lessons for the nation, and recommend a strategic agenda for the next president to rebuild the nation.
Part 1: The Precipice of Ruin
It is now unmistakably evident that President Buhari’s current term, which began in 2015, is climaxing in insecurity, animosity, recrimination, and despair at a time when the country has fractured deeply along ethnic, economic, provincial, and religious lines and lost a sense of itself. Notions of national solidarity, patriotism and security have been destroyed under his watch. As a result, Nigeria lost confidence in itself and citizens are disillusioned with the president. Faith in his government has eroded. Nigeria is hanging precariously at the edge of ruin. Disgust, discontent, distrust, and despair are the one common ground across the nation.
Under President Buhari, ordinary Nigerians have become accustomed to living with pain and suffering. Even before President Buhari, Nigerians were no strangers to suffering. What we cannot abide is meaningless suffering instigated by the haplessness of a nonchalant president. Most Nigerians I’ve spoken to lead lives of intense suffering, looking forward to death as an escape—this is what economists and psychologists call deaths of despair—driven by chronic unemployment, poverty, hunger, insecurity, homelessness, and hopelessness.
Today, Nigerians are angrier, more fearful, less trusting of one another, and more divided than at any time in decades—perhaps since the first republic. The political, economic and social disparities between us have increased and the ethnic and religious fault lines have widened. Our communities are being ripped apart by the savagery of the administration’s governance malpractices as evidenced in the performance review section in Part 2. We only survive by detaching ourselves from reality and hoping the nightmare will end when President Buhari leaves office.
Those close to the president, who spoke on conditions of anonymity to discuss private conversations, say he has his eye on his legacy, now more than ever. Though he has months left in his presidency before the 2023 elections to replace him, I wonder whether President Buhari already understands that the contours of his legacy have hardened. For admirers, he will be remembered as a passionate benefactor of the Hausa-Fulani ascendency, evidently driven by nativist patriotic devotion to his fellow Northerners rather than for the country. To critics, his presidency will go down as a colossal failure of leadership, devoid of vision and purpose, clueless on direction, lacking in compassion, if not the worst presidency in post-war Nigerian history.
It is no surprise that the administration hastily issued a laundry list of white elephant projects (variously criticized for being ill-conceived, poorly structured and designed, over-priced, too ambitious, too monolithic, and for having too many technical flaws) as proof of his accomplishments and legacy in a propaganda document titled “President Buhari’s Administration @ 6”, in a last-ditch effort to manipulate public opinion. However, Mr. Buhari’s claims of achievement in the propaganda document strains credulity given that the socioeconomic benefits to ordinary Nigerians are conspicuously absent. President Buhari’s recent triumphalism seems to confuse throwing large sums of borrowed money at symptoms of national problems with delivering beneficial outcomes to improve the lives of ordinary Nigerians.
The current situation in Nigeria should set off alarm bells both domestically and internationally. Along with other experts (e.g., Robert Rotberg and John Campbell in Foreign Policy in 2021), I argue that Nigeria is a failing, if not already a failed state. The recent Fragile State Index, compiled by the respected Fund for Peace, ranked Nigeria as #12 out of 178 countries most likely to collapse. Nigeria is in the same cohort with Afghanistan, Sudan, Chad, Yemen and Ethiopia. The areas of greatest threat, which must be mitigated to avoid collapse, include failure of the government to address systemic corruption, persistent criminality and banditry, active insurgency and separatism, chronic ethnic grievances, widespread insecurity, economic mismanagement and pervasive inequality.
According to experts and citizens who were interviewed for this essay, Nigeria’s brief period of democracy will likely end in another military coup, potentially disintegrating the nation into mini-ethnic states and caliphates at war with each other, striking a blow against democratic aspirations across the continent. Given Nigeria’s rapidly growing population (which is expected by the UN Population Division to grow to 400 million by 2050 and become the third most populous country in the world after China and India), its potential economic influence in the region, and as an expanding base for Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the country, if it fails, has the potential to dramatically affect the West’s strategic interests and foreign policy objectives of combating terrorism and promoting democracy. The aftershocks will ripple across the region, damaging economies and livelihoods, and triggering unimaginable displacement of peoples. This is an outcome the international community cannot overlook. Against this backdrop, Nigeria is of great geopolitical importance and too big to fail.
Sadly, the international community watches this unfolding disaster from the sidelines. Remarks from Western leaders have failed to directly condemn Nigeria’s rapid descent into darkness, only expressing concern and advising calm, rather than engaging diplomatically and leveraging their influence to persuade the Buhari administration to secure and stabilize Nigeria and restore the country’s unity before it’s too late and too costly to do so.
Ultimately however, successful change must come from within. But the world, especially the United States and Europe, has a crucial role to play to support peaceful domestic change efforts. World powers must support and encourage all those working not only for democracy in Nigeria but also for the broad transformation of the country’s political, economic and social systems.
It is unfortunate that during this perilous time when the country needs writers and thought leaders who will say hard things publicly, whose voices could illuminate the darkness of social life and give hope and confidence to citizens to hold politicians accountable through the power of the ballot box, the Buhari administration is increasingly censorious, silencing the media and the voices of those who dare criticize the government.
Given this background, it should come as no surprise that the country President Buhari will leave when he departs ingloriously (assuming he won’t invoke the provisions in the Constitution to proclaim a state of emergency to stay in office past 2023 as national insecurity worsens) will be at a crucial and historical inflection point. As such, the outcome of the 2023 presidential elections could lead to a repurposing and renewal of democracy, a redesign of institutions for effective governance, and restoration of the dignity of ordinary Nigerians from the mismanagement and tyranny of the outgoing government. Or this could be the beginning of a prolonged period of recriminations, violence, and ultimately, disintegration of Nigeria as we know it.
The next president will inherit a nation deeply traumatised, weaker, more divided, and more violent than it has been in our living memory. But if we’re fortunate and wise, we will elect a president who is a moral and effective leader to redirect, rebuild, and renew Nigeria with intent to restore the dignity of all Nigerians. He or she should help us overcome our distrust for one another and discover our shared destiny as one people despite our multiethnic origins. It is imperative that our next president learn from, not ignore, the traumatizing effects of the Buhari administration.
Therefore, before nominating the candidates for president, every Nigerian should do a simple thought experiment. Imagine a Buhari-like politician in power for another eight years. How do you feel about the thought of this recurrence? Nausea, horror and terror. No matter what you say about your life, no matter how happy you claim to have been, no matter how bright a face you put on it, the threat of President Buhari’s recurrence must bring out the basic horror of existence. No Nigerian I know wants to live it over again.
So, we must vote down Buhari-like politicians, no matter their political party, wealth, religion, region, or ethnicity. We need an inclusive president with honour and integrity, compassion and decency, a president for all Nigerians. Our president must be a visionary, competent and hardworking to rebuild the nation and restore the dignity of all Nigerians. The path to success begins with nominating and electing our next president, who in my view, should be anyone but HFYIN (Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo or Ngas). The so-called dominant groups have failed Nigeria. Their sense of entitlement, nativist mindset and relentless guile has bred distrust, divisiveness and mediocrity, which together, harmed the nation and set us back since independence. It’s time to look to the minority groups and tap their hidden or neglected strengths in moral, inclusive and effective leadership.
We the people—ordinary Nigerians of all ethnicities, religions, regions, social classes, and political parties—can work together to recover through solidarity and shared purpose. We can’t relinquish this mission to unaccountable politicians and their rich cronies. The time of deference to them is over, and it is time citizens, through the process of nomination and the power of the ballot box, take the country back. We can do so peacefully, as a united front. Nigerians are ready for the dawn of a new president.
In Part 2, I review President Buhari’s record of underperformance and conduct a post-mortem to identify why he failed and offer leadership lessons for the next president.
About the author*
Dr. Noah Udoffia has spent his career as a practitioner-scholar analysing the intersection of institutions, leadership behaviour and performance to understand how individual differences in personality, ambition and the worldview of leaders affect organizational outcomes and the well-being of nations. He has authored several scholarly publications, examining the nexus of leadership characteristics, institutions, corruption, economic performance, and social development. His award-winning research papers have been published in influential journals. He has consulted for many international firms, advised several governments and agencies around the world. Dr. Udoffia holds advanced degrees from several universities, including Harvard University.