[By Ayisha Osori]
Long before I stumbled on Isiah Berlin’s “to understand is to perceive patterns”, I was fascinated by life patterns. The ones we design with our choices, doing things consciously, unconsciously and mapping out the same lines and circles that intersect repeatedly in the same places. Over and over again like moths to a flame.
By the 2015 elections, I was convinced I had hit upon a pattern for Aso Rock occupancy: the uninterested anointed or as a friend puts it, ‘the draftee’. Straight out the post-colonial gate, Ahmadu Bello, the head of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) should have been prime minister but the regions had more powers and he preferred to focus his energies there and his deputy, Tafawa Balewa was seconded to the position. A seed was sown.
In the run-up to the 1979 elections, Shagari, who served the Balewa administration in various positions, had his eye on the Senate. The godfathers of NPN, successor to NPC, thought he would be a better president than the public front runners Maitama Sule and Adamu Ciroma. And president he was.
In 1998, fresh out of prison and full of gratitude for life considering the trail of death that Abacha superintended, being president was probably the last thing on Obasanjo’s mind. However, the men behind closed doors knew better and anointed Obasanjo through the conservative, NPN successor party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) never minding Ekwueme, who was one of the founders of the party with presidential ambitions.
Enter 2007 post the failed attempt at a third term, and Obasanjo, still smarting, disregarded enthusiastic members of his inner circle and PDP. He settled on Yar’adua, one of the few governors missing from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s list and with no overt ambition to be President.
Yar’adua became president and his vice president, also a surprise draftee selected in place of those who lobbied for the position would eventually become president in 2010. If ever there was a poster man for Nigeria’s anointment predilections, it would be difficult to beat Jonathan.
That’s the problem, I thought.
We need someone who wants to be, not reluctant handymen of the status quo drafted in against their will as if Nigeria is not a prize. And who in 2015 wanted to be president more badly than Buhari? The misplaced expectation was that someone who had run 4 times had a plan. It turns out that wanting to be president was and is, not enough.
I neglected to factor in three things. The first is another parallel pattern in our history of rulers – men with guns who took power but dressed it up as service and who have earned as much glory and shame for the trajectory and state of Nigeria as anyone can. These men, like many across the world, have reinforced power for power’s sake by any means necessary and there is little obligation to merit the role or use it accountably.
The second factor is a subset of the draftee pattern – the puppeteers’ creed: don’t let them see the strings. It is easier to have a face on which to hang millions of feelings of fear, favour, fanaticism, or feudality and manage that one person.
Even better if this person has bloc votes to sweep unknown and uncaring characters into office, selling themselves alongside him via posters and jingles. When the path to the privilege of so many are anchored on a candidate, he/she must run, regardless of the impact on the public good.
Finally, I failed to give enough weight to character, words, and deeds. A persons’ life exposes their patterns, bares the tracks of choices and beliefs, and reveals what they are capable of. There are many clues, small and billboard-sized, that indicate what people will do with power.
Why we chose to ignore what we see and know is not immediately apparent from the patterns we are invested in. Power makes people more of what they are; every vice, regardless of how benign in appearance, is magnified.
The state of Nigeria 10 months from the next general elections is brutal and hard. At least 10,311 people were killed by terrorists, kidnappers, and state security in 2021, and in the first 3 weeks of 2022, almost 500 people have been murdered; the stories are heartbreaking and difficult to retell.
The sachetization of our economy continues while hundreds of thousands of people living in ungoverned spaces are extorted and made to choose between death and starvation. Amidst the clouds, there are pockets of light created by resistance, brilliance, evidence of shared humanity but the transmogrifying insecurity threatens the fundamentals of our survival and so does our politics.
We need to break from our patterns in 2023 but this will only happen if we question our default settings about what leadership looks and feels like. The same model of man or woman, whether a draftee or someone expressing agency, will maintain the course. To change track, we must reflect on the patterns being created by our acceptance of what authority is: aloof and abusive; reassess what governance and public service should be, and redefine what it means to make votes count.
This is not a call to tie ourselves up in knots, nitpicking at a candidate’s past; everyone has skeletons but we must ask ourselves how high the bodies are stacked and what put them there. The scales for a candidate should be heavier on the side of public goods – we have an opportunity in 2023 to begin to discard our beliefs about governance and reimagine what a successful politician can be like.
Nigerians are leading with impact across sectors around the world, modelling the type of leadership required to move Nigeria in the right direction but we will not move ahead until we begin to want different, support different, and vote different.
Ayisha Osori is an author, lawyer and activist.