“This vacuum must not last.” Those are the words with which I ended my first reflection on this subject just seven months ago. I was describing a vacuum in the leadership of Nigeria.
Listening to President Muhammadu Buhari’s address to the country on Thursday, I realised he was confirming the assessment that he is not running the country.
What are the facts? For two weeks, the world had witnessed an unprecedented wave of youth-led protests under the hashtag, #EndSARS, a byword for the termination of bad and corrupt governance. SARS was the acronym for the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad police.
The protests spread in many cities and around the world. The savagery of SARS became international knowledge, with celebrities and organisations expressing support of affected Nigerian families and the protests.
The success of the protests took the Nigeria government by surprise, and it quickly decided that it would do something. But that was not to EndSARS: it was to replace it.
And so, it established the darkly-named SWAT (Special Weapons & Tactics), a cynical “solution” to the protests which merely underlined the nature of governance in Nigeria. It was swiftly rejected by the protesters.
In response last Tuesday, the government seemed to have decided that it would end the protests by ending the lives of protesters.
Those are the facts. In his address on Thursday, two clear days after the attack, President Buhari was not remorseful about the loss of lives. A father of social media-savvy children, at least one of whom had expressed support for #EndSARS, he expressed no outrage, only that he was “deeply pained.”
His choice of words seemed to confirm that he at least approved of Nigeria’s military—under cover of darkness and aided by the chicanery of someone turning off the lights and removing public cameras—shooting to kill and maim citizens.
If you are looking for remorse, the only one expressed by the Nigeria ruler appeared to be that he ever approved of the termination of SARS, as he grumbled that the promptness with which it was done “seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness.”
And so, the same “excessive use of force” of SARS which he said was behind the decision to terminate the group is what his troops brought to the Lekki toll gate protest.
And yet in the same speech the Nigeria leader affirmed peaceful demonstrations to be “a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in Section 40 of our Constitution and other enactments…”
It is these contradictions that make Buhari’s claim to leadership such a mess. Personally, I have advocated street protests for many years, including in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as an effective means for compelling change. Never did I expect that a man who came to power affirming the same premise of change and being elected on it would turn the bullets on his own voters.
In reference to the tragedies, Buhari said there was “no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country.”
Of course not: The violence did not come from the protesters, but from government-sponsored thugs, and he should ask his children. I am sure they have abundant social media video-evidence which show that the violence was the work of anti-protesters inserted by government officials.
The worst part of Buhari’s speech was the resort to conspiracy theories and suggestions of malice. According to him, “The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the [sic] social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour.”
This point is amplified in an article by spokesman Femi Adesina hours after the speech in which he blamed churches, mosques [and] sections of the media for “promoting messages of hate.”
According to Buhari, “Both our deeds and words have shown how committed this administration has been to the wellbeing and welfare of citizens, even with the steadily dwindling revenues, and the added responsibilities and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
In his article, ‘If Nigeria Dies, Hatred Killed Her,’ Adesina expatiated: “The EndSARS campaign began as an agitation against police brutality, in which there was unanimity of purpose. And suddenly, it became a vehicle of hate. Against leadership, against national cohesion, an opportunity to settle political scores, and equally prepare for power grab in 2023. Hatred came into the mix.”
But hatred of bad leadership is not a crime; it is a right. The truth is that if people hate the Buhari government, the government ought to accept that it was perhaps unworthy of its love in the first place and has simply been found out. Hating a bad government is not a sin; being asked to love it, is.
In 2015, Buhari received the keys to the kingdom on a silver gold. He seems to have thought he became an unquestionable king.
#EndSARS is the code word for “Reject Buhari,” and there is nothing wrong with that. In a democratic system, people reject and are free to reject those who want to be kings without responsibility or service.
Buhari wasted a section of his speech listing the stock cliches for which he has become infamous. He called them “measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in our society.”
Perhaps he thought he could persuade the international community that having given the matter a second thought, he should not have had to #EndSARS. Or perhaps that he could impress upon them that despite the obvious, he really is a leader.
But it has become clear to the rest of the world, and certainly to Nigeria youth, that most of his claims are fiction. Some of it is known to have been deployed to win elections.
For instance, I have repeatedly pointed out that Buhari’s claim of liberating 100 million Nigerians from poverty, which he first made in June 2019, is a hoax. I cited in evidence his inability to produce a strategy for it. In fact, since Nigeria officially became the world capital of extreme poverty, the World Poverty Clock has established that over 105 million Nigerians now live in extreme poverty, a menace growing at the rate of six persons per minute.
That is an additional 16 million people since Buhari came to power, so where is his master plan?
Worse still, in August 2019 his government falsely claimed to have lifted at least five million Nigerians out of extreme poverty in its first three years.
If Buhari wants history to remember him with kindness, his government must show humility and learn to respect the truth. For nearly 40 years he has dealt with Nigerians who were too weak to say, No. Now he will have to contend with people, some of them under his own roof, who are strong enough to, “Heck No!”
History tells us that propaganda and bullets will not change that.