The images from 2015 are still vivid in my head, clear as high-quality visuals on an HD display screen. All of us seated in the living room, eyes fixed on the TV screen, silence suffused the air save for the whirring of the standing fan and the occasional speech from the TV speakers. It had been this way in the house for a few hours now, since the day before. This was the climax of the past three months. All the campaign ads and theme songs, the debates and heated arguments, the what ifs and the maybes, the taunts and the boasts and the shrugs, all of them led to this moment. In a few minutes, we would know who Nigeria’s president for the next four years would be.
We were tired. Tired of the state of our nation, we wanted things to be better. I’d never been as interested in politics as I’d been in those four months before the elections. It was the first presidential election I would witness as a university graduate. This time, I was more aware of the costs of a certain political party’s win. I was a youth corper, feeling the brunt of Nigeria’s dire economy more than I’d ever done. I ignored calls for youth corpers to volunteer as electoral officers, I was scared that I’d fall a victim of electoral violence. I was a Goodluck Jonathan supporter for a few years. I genuinely (and naïvely) thought it was his God-ordained destiny to be president and lead Nigeria out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. But after five years of chronic corruption and ineptitude, five years during which billions of dollars magically disappeared out of Nigeria’s hat, five years that saw Nigeria experience an oil boom and increased GDP but no improved standard of living, five years that saw the president at some point say that stealing is not corruption, after those five years, I was tired. The nation was tired. And the people craved change. No, we demanded change. And change came, parading itself in the form of a reformed dictator and former military man, charming us with smooth PR, high-quality photo shoots, glistening white kaftans, lanky and smooth swaying swag, but with nothing different underneath.
This Change promised us heaven on earth. His campaign team put out outrageous promises on television, in newspapers, on billboards and social media. The change promised us an annual GDP growth of 10-12 percent, at least 5 million new jobs by 2019, a 300 billion naira Regional Growth Fund, and a social welfare program of at least 5,000 naira monthly for vulnerable people, among many others. We didn’t ask Change and his merry band of promise givers how they intended to execute all these. Or even if we did, we didn’t ask well and long enough. We welcomed him with a confetti of desperation, naïve hope and negligence. We just wanted to get rid of the old wine, the skin didn’t really matter to us at the time. Change and his team knew this and they capitalized on it.
To be fair, it wasn’t that we did not see Change for what he was, it’s just that we were constrained by choice. We had to choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea. We chose the latter and are now drowning.
That fateful day in March 2015, Change was announced as the winner of the presidential elections, defeating his main opponent and incumbent president by more than two million votes, the first time in the history of Nigeria’s nascent democracy that a sitting president would lose an election.
For a few months, things were fine. Change rode into office on the back of an anti-corruption stallion. And for those few months, his stallion galloped majestically around the country, sending his targets scrambling. Suddenly, hidden monies and embezzled funds began to turn up out of nowhere, places that erstwhile experienced poor power supply started having it more regularly, people posted pictures of frozen water bottles and soda cans on social media. Things were getting better, it seemed. The change was worth his salt, it seemed. But time and history, ever the artful comedians and satirists, had the last laugh. They both combined forces to show us that our decision to ignore the wineskin and focus on the wine would be ever so costly. They showed us that no matter how noble a man’s intentions are, he can never be better than the system in which he finds himself. And so Change, for all his perceived nobility and goodwill, fell victim to the very system he set out to combat. For all his perceived incorruptibility, the corrupt system crippled him.
Under Change, Nigeria’s economy fell into its worst recession in 25 years, and by November 2016, the country’s GDP had contracted by a further -2.24 percent. The prices of goods in the market rose exponentially and haven’t subsided yet. His anti-corruption war begun looking more and more like a farce, and his presidency like a badly written season of House of Cards. He has also been plagued with health problems, a situation that is as puzzling to many Nigerians as it is disheartening. The nature of his health problems still remains unknown to the public. Since the start of 2017, he has spent over 150 days outside the country on medical leave (52 from January 19 and 103 from May 8) and the general idea is that he will not be healthy enough to contest in the 2019 general elections, so the tussle for power has begun.
Lately, Atiku Abubakar, a former Vice President of Nigeria and multiple times loser of presidential primaries, has been in the news. Atiku, like Buhari before his election, has a positive media image and is already being touted as the likely APC candidate for 2019. But the current governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, a former FCT minister is another name being mentioned. For now, however, nothing is certain.
None of the possible runners for the next election looks like a departure from the norm. Not Atiku, not El-Rufai, not even Buhari (should he run). They are all elements in a political system infested by corruption and selfish interests and none of them will offer anything different.
The next few months will be crucial to Nigeria’s economic and political future as were the months prior to the 2015 general elections. We were sold bad change once and we bought it. Our country is not better than it was two years ago. But perhaps we have a chance to not repeat the same mistakes as we head into 2018 and 2019. Time and history can be good teachers if we learn from them, but they can also be wicked comedians. The onus is on us. Real change is much more complex than making campaign promises and winning elections. Real change is bigger than one man in horn-rimmed glasses and a white kaftan. Real change is systemic, takes years of deliberate effort, and collective action. The sooner we get that and stop looking for political saviours, the better.