OPINION: The Best President Nigeria Never Had by Emma Bello


I may never become president (except of my town union) but I imagine that all presidents start out thinking they would somehow make history as the best their nations ever had. They probably believe they were destined to be avatars and bring about peace and prosperity to their people. And, apart from infamous tyrants like Nero, who fiddled away to a burning Rome, I believe every leader wants the best for his people. In the end, in many cases, both the leader and the led are disappointed! The leaders either fall short of expectations or their people treat them unfairly by calling them failures. It is a no-win situation like riding the proverbial tiger. I should know. I was briefly in government and I watched my boss, the state’s helmsman, closely for the period I worked there. I know how distraught he always was when salaries have not been paid. I know how he would practically weep at meetings when there is a bloody clash among the tribes of the state. I know how he passionately discussed the issues of developments.

buhariHe even went on fast once when it was obvious he couldn’t meet one of his targets. He became gaunt with the burden he daily carried with his hair turning white. But when the plane he piloted crashed, he was betrayed by some of the same people he loved so dearly. I should know. My boss probably thought he would end up in the Guinness Books as the best the state ever had. The jury is still out on that one. So those who think leaders don’t care about legacies; or about their performance or how they are viewed by those they lead should think twice. Leaders do care about the verdict of history. That was why I was amused last week when all sorts of people and groups led demonstrations in support of the fuel price hike. In some states, it was even an official state policy to support the subsidy removal or whatever it was that hit us two weeks ago. Such people believed they were yet again demonstrating their love for the current nation’s leader. Thank God they didn’t take up newspaper space to congratulate the president on his “bold move” to deregulate the downstream sector.

Thank God for this kind of president whom, I’m reliably told, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, some adventurers would have like in the past, pay for adverts to extol his “courage” and “purposeful, focused” leadership. One former Nigerian President was congratulated in paid adverts when the Ebola menace was dealt with. He was hailed as the “defeater of ebola”. And when, after a certain voodoo arithmetic, Nigeria was pronounced the leading economy in Africa, he was again congratulated as the best president ever in various newspaper adverts. I think it is therefore a throwback to those times that saw many funny people, last week, demonstrating and supporting the fuel price hike. Jokers!

First, there is nothing to praise the president for in the whole thing. Alright, he was courageous in at last biting the bullet and dealing with the subsidy fraud but you have to feel the present anguish of President Muhammadu Buhari, the man of the people. He didn’t even allow them make the infamous announcement until he was faraway in London. I don’t believe he would be on the streets dancing that he has just inflicted the worst pain possible on his people. Don’t forget this was the president who rode on the back of popular will to become president. I still don’t understand the frenzy that the Buhari mystique brought in our political history. People just loved the name. In February last year, he got the love of the masses with “Febuhari”. When the ruling party played hooky and moved the election to March, the slogan became “March for Buhari”.  Even the National Association of Nigerian Prostitutes (NANP) supported the candidate, just as the Nigerian Association of Witches and Wizard threw their weight behind Buhari’s main rival in the contest. But by far, the cult-like endorsement went to the gap-toothed general.

Not even the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, whom many believed would have been the best Nigerian president, evoked such support and emotions. Buhari’s appeal then was a mix of that of a rock-star and a medieval prophet. He was the messiah, riding on a broom to sweep out all the miseries in the land. And I’m sure the good general actually thought he could meet all that expectations. I’m sure he thought it was like the days of the khaki and boots when all he needed to do was wave a magic wand, bark an order and enforce discipline. I’m sure he thought the proverbial fear people had for the Buhari/Idiagbon tag team was still intact. How was he to know that the courts would demand proofs to declare one a thief? How was he to know that the social media (which supported him to high heavens) would also be monitoring every one of his steps or missteps? Look, people, let’s face it: Buhari is a good man.

Over the years, he has tried hard to be the shining example of all that he speaks of. Hate or love him, you can’t fault him in that department. And, like him or not, here is a man who represents the best in leadership: firm, honest, modest and, above all, patriotic. That he loves Nigerians is not to be contested. You can therefore imagine the torment he probably is in right now as he helplessly watches oil merchants playing “ludo” with the masses. When he recently said he feels the pains of the hard times, I’m sure some people thought it was just politics. But he probably meant it. Leaders are really concerned about how history remembers them. Left to Buhari, he wants to go down history as the man who cleared out the Aegean stable; the one who restored sanity; the defender of the poor; the one who restored NEPA light; the one who made the taps ran again; the one who restored drugs in the hospitals; that rebuilt our broken roads; the defeater of Boko Haram; and the conqueror of the Niger Delta militants.

It is already one now and this is the week many Nigerians would debate his performance so far and give him his report card. The government side would bring out the various success stories: from finding two of the Chibok girls to the many foreign trips. Buhari’s traducers would dig in and say he has failed. They would say light hasn’t been restored. They would point to his trips and say they are not useful. They would point to the economy and say he hasn’t done well. They would rebuke his disdain for court orders and they would say he hasn’t done well in tolerating opposition. At the time when a basket of tomatoes goes for thirty or forty thousand naira, the president growing critics would accuse him of enhancing hardship, insensitivity and being generally clueless.

Of course, the president would retort that he met a terrible mess in place. He would point to all the monumental thefts by the past regimes; he would insist that the global recession affected the pace of growth here. He would speak of his sincerity of purpose, the clarity of his mission, and the determination of his team. But trust some Nigerians, critical as ever; they would hear him out with a smirk, set to declare him as yet again another failed president.

But we sef, when are we ever going to accept the foibles of our leaders and work with imperfect human beings? When are we going to learn to ride and die with them? After all, leaders are also flesh and blood like us. Starting from the very first set of leaders, a pattern emerged:  we love to shout hosanna at the coming of new presidents and, afterwards, start demonising them. I think, as a people, we don’t encourage the growth of institutions. We put our hopes in individuals. How long are we going to wait for a messiah? Many years ago, the great late Odumegwu Ojukwu, in his tribute to one of the founding fathers, said the dear sage was the “best president Nigeria never had”. But if that iconic sage had gone on to become president in his life time, he probably would have incurred the wrath of many. Well, we may never know. But then, probably, the best way to remain the best is never to sit on that hot seat. But again, to be fair to Mr. Buhari, he has three more years to prove he can actually still be the best we ever had.

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