Towards the end of last year, Professor Wole Soyinka paid a visit to Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s new president, in his Lagos home. Asked by journalists to assess the performance of the Tinubu government, Professor Soyinka said that he would not do so until after the administration’s first year in office. His reason? Most presidents “don’t start from ground zero. They often start lower than ground zero and they need time to make up.” Professor Soyinka said this had always been his principle. “So, I’m adopting the same principle this time.”
Of course, Professor Soyinka, Africa’s first winner of the Nobel prize in Literature, is perfectly entitled to adopt that principle, but it’s worth saying that it is not a universal one. Elsewhere, a new president is assessed regularly after his first 100 days in office. The reason polling agencies are popular in the Western world is because they regularly gauge public opinion on a president’s policies and overall performance. This is a highly valuable service in a democracy because if, in a four-year term, a president spends one year settling down and another politicking for re-election, as is often the case, he effectively has only two years to focus on governing. That’s why most countries seek leaders who are well prepared and can hit the ground running, and why the citizens of every nation must hold their leaders’ feet to the fire and constantly pronounce their verdict on their performance.
Now, Nigerians were told that Tinubu was thoroughly prepared for power, that no previous president was ever more prepared than him. Indeed, as Bishop Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, reminded Tinubu in his Christmas message, “for the better part of over 20 years, you have plotted to be our President.” Note the word “plotted” for it truly describes how Tinubu manoeuvred and schemed to advance his “lifelong” ambition.
For over 20 years, Tinubu amassed incredibly stupendous wealth from unexplained sources; built extensive and formidable patronage-clientage networks; engaged in self-serving political horse-trading and quid-pro-quo deals; and, when it mattered, muscled his way through his party’s presidential primaries and the subsequent presidential election to become president. But was he not, in all those years, also deep-diving into Nigeria’s problems, unearthing solutions and preparing what he would do with power? Why should Tinubu, whose party has just ruled Nigeria for eight years, start “even lower than ground zero” and need one year to make up? Leave aside the fact that he became “president-elect” in February, three months before he took office.
Yet, the past eight months of Tinubu’s administration has been nothing but blood, sweat and tears for most Nigerians. Then, he added insult to injury with his utterly vacuous New Year’s speech; it’s as if rhetorical blisters and pie-in-the-sky promises can transform people’s lives. I once advised fellow Nigerians in this column that when they read political speeches, they should remember George Orwell’s famous words that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The Orwellian insight is particularly pertinent to the Tinubu government, which is suffused with experts in sophistry, propaganda and dissemblance. They and those in their echo chamber belittle the rest of Nigerians.
Then, he added insult to injury with his utterly vacuous New Year’s speech
Recently, former Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State urged the APC national chairman, Abdullahi Ganduje, to give Tinubu truthful feedback from the people, “not what he is hearing in the villa where he is locked out.” But how can fawning acolytes, including Ganduje himself, ever tell Tinubu the truth? Have you noticed that virtually every prominent person in Tinubu’s government now wears the “Tinubu cap” as if it’s a test of their loyalty? How can a country that produced Africa’s first literature Nobel laureate, a country that produced Africa’s first head of the World Trade Organisation, not to mention countless other global achievers, have a government full of toe-curling sycophants who hero-worship or idolise the president? Yet, this “emperor” has no clothes; this president has a weak electoral mandate!
In 2022, when he was leaving President Buhari’s government to run for the APC presidential primaries, Godswill Akpabio, now Senate President, told Buhari: “As we step down from the Federal Executive Council, I want you to know that you have disciples in us. I want you to know that it’s time for us to propagate Buharism.” Tell me, who is talking about Buharism today? They knew Buhari was an unmitigated disaster but ingratiated themselves with him through obsequiousness and deceitful praise-singing. That’s how utterly dishonest most Nigerian politicians are, and why you must take the Tinubu government’s rhetoric, whatever it says, with a pinch of salt, not at face value, which brings us to how to assess the performance of Tinubu and his government.
Being that Nigeria is a numinous country, the second most religious and second most prayerful nation in the world, I like to appeal to religion in this column. In his Christmas message, Bishop Kukah told Tinubu: “Neither God nor history will forgive you if you fail.” Well, let’s start with God before we come to history. How does God judge leaders?
In Proverbs 29:2, the Bible says: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rules, the people groan.” For “righteous”, put good leaders; for “wicked”, put bad leaders. The key point is that God judges leaders by whether people are rejoicing or groaning under them. In Nehemiah 5:14-18, Nehemiah, who was governor of Judah for 12 years, said that, throughout his governorship, he did not avail himself of the emoluments and perks of the office. Why? “Because the bondage was heavy upon the people,” he said. That was a leader who had compassion and empathised with the people.
By contrast, Nigerians are groaning bitterly, while their leaders live in outrageous opulence, at the people’s expense: buying a presidential yacht, buying fleets of SUVs, renovating their houses with several billions of naira, increasing their salaries by 114 per cent, etc. That’s how to assess Tinubu’s performance: the people’s groaning and his government’s response to it. The government’s budget for 2024 is N28.78 trillion but how much of it will be used to improve people’s lives, to tackle the debilitating hardship in Nigeria? Or how much will be wasted, stolen or misappropriated – serving the interests of the few, not the many?
But what about the likely verdict of history? Well, let’s hear from the great philosophers and statesmen. Aristotle said that politics is “primarily concerned with the development and actualisation of human flourishing”. Thomas Jefferson, a former US president, said that “the care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government.” And for Harold Macmillan, a former UK prime minister, “the central aim of domestic policy must be to tackle unemployment and poverty.”
Tinubu will say he agrees with them, that he’s in politics precisely to actualise those ideals. But the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric. Thanks to unending insecurity, Nigerians are being killed in their thousands on his watch. Thanks to misguided economic policies, poverty has reached dizzying heights under him. Palliatives won’t solve the problem. The so-called “national living wage”, eroded by nearly 30 per cent inflation, won’t make a significant dent in grinding poverty.
Truth is, without strong macroeconomic fundamentals there can’t be tangible difference. What’s more, Nigeria won’t make progress unless it’s first united and stable. That’s why Nigeria needs restructuring. That’s why, ideally, Tinubu should lead a cross-party and multi-ethnic process to restructure Nigeria. Sadly, his divide-and-rule politics are obstacles. He will be judged by the unabated groanings of Nigerians and Nigeria!