A New Kind of Nigerian President

Mar 28, 2017|Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

In school, you knew crunch time was approaching when the exam timetable came out. In a way, for the political elite, their timetable is out. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has announced the dates for the next elections. Nigeria's 6th elections since the end of military rule will begin on February 16th, 2019, with the Presidential and National Assembly elections. If precedence is anything to go by, it means that on February 18th we will know who will handle the affairs of the nation for the subsequent four years. It is worth discussing the kind of leader that Nigerians deserve this time around.


'Every country has the government it deserves' 

Nigerians have elected Obasanjo, Yar'Adua, Jonathan, and Buhari in the Fourth Republic (1999 - present). Only Obasanjo has been successfully re-elected. Each of these men has assumed the presidency under different circumstances and on the heels of various political movements.

As Nigerians love a good narrative, leaders have been elected based on what the people believe they need. Obasanjo was elected as the strong former Military officer turned civilian to steady the ship. Yar'Adua was the gentlemanly Governor who reminded the Northern establishment of his more powerful, but late elder brother. Jonathan was the transformational candidate who owed his elevation to a higher power and divine calling. Buhari was the incorruptible man whose change mantra would rewrite Nigerian history forever. Yet, here we are.

Despite our choices, the passage of time will permit second chances. That is why, beyond the rhetoric, campaigning, and accusations of electoral malpractice, we should critically ask what Nigerians should look for when candidates take the stage for the highest office in the land.

In 2015, Nigerians did not see a robust discussion between the two candidates. We were neither wooed nor convinced by policy and logic. Like Jonathan in 2011, Buhari avoided debates in 2015. This means the winners of the last two elections avoided a proper discussion of their plans for Nigerians. Surely these are circumstances we should resist with every ounce of civic duty. Without candidates laying out their plans in robust debate, how can we set the standards by which to judge them?


'Voters win elections'

One of the key debates in democracy surrounds the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers. Broadly speaking, we have two options. Do we vote for someone we trust to make the right decisions based on their own judgment or do we vote for someone who merely acts on our demands? While the argument might seem easy on paper, in practice, it is much more challenging.

The first type of leader is one trusted for their ability to make difficult decisions, coupled with the charisma or political capital to execute them. Who fits the bill? President Jonathan retracted on his initial decision to remove fuel subsidies despite the economic arguments in favour of it. Instead, he backtracked. One may not exactly attribute strong economic management to a Ph.D holder in Zoology, but he was by no means a Margaret Thatcher type-leader, capable of plotting ahead with a strong political ideology. 

The second type of leader would be one who simply enforces the will of the people. Remember the British Prime Minister who kickstarted Brexit? This sort of leader may be democracy's darling. If we suddenly want to import groundnuts, whether or not the Kano Pyramids once stood tall, he or she would simply carry it out. Cue President Jonathan again, who signed into the law the anti-gay bill with the popular support of Nigerians. This type of leader may be more democratically inclined, but may not fit into the idea of 'strong' leaders that Nigerians so desperately think they need. Perhaps, this is because in Nigeria, everything is some sort of 'war'. 


'A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user'

So what did we look for in our last elections? Looking back, we ignored theory while facing a binary choice. One who 'steals', or one who 'does not steal'. Economic management counted for very little. Charisma, nil. Democratic values, not relevant. We just wanted a man who would not loot our coffers. Perhaps, we got that. Buhari is acknowledged to be incorruptible, a man of supposed integrity. But is that enough to run a country like Nigeria? In hindsight, we remember there is more to governance than stealing. Stealing, after all, is not even corruption

A comparison of our electoral mindset can be made to the United States. Close inspection shows how standards are not just set, but surpassed. Of the last four American Presidents, all have attended Ivy League universities, with three of the four of them holding degrees from Harvard Law, Harvard Business School and Yale Law. Yet in Nigeria, some of our leaders battle over Third Class degrees and imaginary Harvard qualifications. Even the laws have low standards. The Nigerian constitution describes an eligible candidate for president as someone who has 'been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent'. For those who think there is a correlation between the critical reasoning and formal education, these standards are too low.


'If you do what you did before, you will get what you got before'

Generational change in Nigeria could change our democracy forever. It will give us potential candidates who can take us on a new path. Nigeria's electorate is wisening up and demanding answers and transparency. We saw this in 2015 when Nigerians kept tabs on their votes and on the general count through social media. We will see this again in 2019. The political elite should not go about the next election thinking 'business as usual'. They may be wrong in more ways than imagined. On February 16th, 2019, Nigerians will be invigilating their exams. Candidates better be ready. 


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