[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n May 29, 2015, Nigerians handed the ball of change to President Muhammadu Buhari (aka Captain Buhari), a self-acclaimed wizard of change. From the sidelines, they commenced the business of eating gbegiri, tuwo shinkafa and nkwobi, washing it all down with Orijin Bitters and squirts of pure water.
From time to time, in between mouthfuls, the spectators would look in the direction of the field, and be thoroughly astonished. What they saw at each glance was that the very wizard of change was stuck in the midfield. They watched him dribble incessantly in the midfield, juggling the ball around such formidable opponents as political graft, legislative greed, judicial corruption, bureaucratic ineptitude, infrastructural backwardness, power failure, soaring unemployment, health scare and educational collapse. He did amazing things with the ball, but seemed adamant against venturing toward the goal post.
Nigerians, exasperated, raised the amp of their voices, urging lanky Captain Buhar to move like Neymar, to slice past all defenders like Messi – and to aim at scoring goals for (a) change. For months and months, the captain was unheeding.
And then, last Thursday, September 8, as if tired of the noise from the sidelines, the captain lobbed the ball – no, not toward the goalpost – right into the stands. Then Captain Buhar donned his flowing white agbada and read us all a pretty speech to spell out his act. In sum, he told every single one of us to be our own Neymar and Messi, to score our own goal.
The subject of the speech was “Change Begins With Me”. Proclaimed the captain: “Nigeria today is passing through a challenging moment where hardly anything works in a normal manner. Many have attributed this phenomenon to the total breakdown of our core values over the years. It is safe to say today that honesty, hard work, Godliness have given way to all kinds of manifestations of lawlessness and degeneration in our national life. This is why we have among our cardinal objectives ‘change’, which implies the need for a change of attitude and mindset in our everyday life.”
Caught between false modesty and pride, he added: “I need not mention the serious effort we have engaged in since the inception of this administration on the fight against corruption in our public life. With the progress we have so far made in that regard, we feel the need to ensure that we put in place the necessary sustainable framework for action and measures that will help to entrench and consolidate the progress achieved so far.
“This, we believe, can best be maintained through attitudinal change, and the change of our mindset in private and public life. The campaign we are about to launch today is all about the need for us to see change not merely in terms of our economic, social progress but in terms of our personal behaviour on how we conduct ourselves, engage our neighbours, friends and generally how we relate with the larger society in a positive and definitive way and manner that promotes our common good and common destiny, change at home, change in the workplace, change at traffic junction, change at traffic lights, etc…The long-cherished and time honoured, time-tested virtues of honesty, integrity, hard work, punctuality, good neighbourliness, abhorrence of corruption and patriotism, have given way in the main to dishonesty, indolence, unbridled corruption and widespread impunity.”
Having struck all the familiar rhetorical notes, the Captain urged all Nigerians to “realise that the change they want to see begins with them, and that personal and social reforms are not theoretic exercise. If you have not seen the change in you, you cannot see it in others or even the larger society. In other words, before you ask ‘where is the change they promised us’, you must first ask how far have I changed my ways, ‘what have I done to be part of the change for the greater good of society.’” And he signed off by declaring, “Indeed, I say to the glory of Mighty Allah, ‘Change Begins With Me’”.
President Buhari’s testament on change is, in a profound sense, self-evidently sensible. No deity or angel, much less a mere mortal, has the capacity to solve Nigeria’s crises. In fact, you can’t change a people if they are determined to cleave to toxic values and pathological conduct. On numerous occasions, I’ve cautioned against the Nigerian attitude of wrecking our lives and country, all the while trusting that God (or some superhuman, deputising for divinity) would come down and clean up after us.
The question is, what took Mr. Buhari so long? Why did he and his party give the impression, during his run for the presidency, that he personified change and incarnated the answers to Nigeria’s longstanding malaise? Months ago, in a piece titled, “What we all owe Buhari,” I’d written as follows: “What Buhari owes Nigerians is to invest his time and energy everyday to turning Nigeria around. But – even at his best – he can only get us so far. Nigeria’s fortune is in the hands of all of us – all one hundred and seventy million of us. If we want a different country, a healthier, more robust Nigeria, we better realise that it’s up to us, not to one man.
“Let’s take one example: Corruption. Jailing a few corrupt politicians, or even a lot of them, won’t make corruption disappear from the Nigerian space. The police, customs officials or reporters cannot, with one hand, demand and receive illicit gratification, and, with the other, declare that they want a clime free of corruption.
“If Nigeria must be rid of this malaise, then Nigerians must face up to their culpability in fertilising this unwholesome practice. Every Okeke, Segun, Okon and Musa should resolve neither to offer a bribe nor demand one. We should abandon the habit of excusing or defending corruption when the accused perpetrators happen to belong to our ethnic or religious group…If Mr. Buhari is to succeed, he must define his agenda and stay the course. But – of even more critical import – he’d need Nigerians’ collective commitment and eternal vigilance.”
A more important question to President Buhari is why, as president, and having heralded himself as a change catalyst, he has hardly defined an agenda nor used his offices to alter the system of doing things in Nigeria. It’s not enough to urge Nigerians to cease giving or receiving bribes when you, as president, have not put in place a system to deter police officers, who shoot and kill drivers for refusing to cough up a fifty naira bribe. It’s worse when the president has done zilch to address allegations of corruption against some of his top appointees.
Last week, the anti-corruption group, BudgIT, questioned the sincerity of the administration’s “Change Begins With Me” mantra. It noted that Mr. Buhari and leaders at all levels of governance had failed the transparency test. BudgIT challenged: “Let change start with National Assembly, telling us how N115bn is spent. Let change start with a cogent explanation why Nigerian government needs 11 aircraft in a recession. Let change start with the government responding to our FOI (Freedom of Information) requests on how much money has been given to states as bailout. Let change start with the government explaining why it released N400bn for capital expenditure, with no project details…Let change start with the government telling the people how much funds have been recovered and who returned what…Let change start with the reversal of illegal recruitment into government agencies…”
Okey Ndibe is a novelist, political columnist, and essayist. He teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, USA. He is the author of the novels, Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc. He tweets from @okeyndibe.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.