It all started when Nigerians woke up one recent fictional morning to find the newspapers full of adverts by a group that called itself the Sensible Nigeria Coalition (SNC). The adverts called for a citizen-led National Conference at which Nigerians would debate and determine the most important qualities needed in the “Ideal Candidate” for the Presidency of their country.
According to the advert, “As election season approaches we are convinced that there are few things more critical at this time than subjecting the bumpy road to the Nigerian presidency to a painstaking stress test. Surely there must be a better way of travelling that road than what we have been subjected to by the government-endorsed antics of the powerful group of shameless jokers known as ‘Transformation Ambassadors’ – who should more accurately be labeled ‘Sycophants Earnestly Ask for Goodluck (SEAG).” (It of course wasn’t lost on many that SEAG, pronounced as a word, becomes “siege.” )
It continued: “It also hasn’t helped that the so-called ‘Opposition’ is itself being neither sensible nor strategic in the way it carries on with its business of presenting an alternative road to the presidential villa. An opposition party that knee-jerks a response to every national conundrum hardly inspires much confidence.”
The advert ended by highlighting the fact that the Sensible Nigeria Coalition is a resolutely non-partisan group, and banned mentions of names of political parties in its proposed conference.
When the conference finally kicked off, the first idea for deliberation revolved around presidential ambition. How important is it for Nigeria to have a President who really wants to be President, and understands, before getting into office, what it might mean to be President; as opposed to an ‘accidental’ president?
One delegate took the time to repeat the popular narrative about how no elected President of Nigeria started out really wanting to be President – apart from MKO Abiola. Shehu Shagari had his eyes on the Senate; Olusegun Obasanjo just wanted to enjoy his status as an ex-Prisoner; Umaru Musa Yar’Adua looked forward to enjoying political retirement and attending to his health, and all Goodluck Jonathan really wanted to be when he was drafted to be Vice President, was Governor.
Even with the military leaders, apart from a few exceptions, most had no ambitions to be Head of State, and benefited from coup d’états conceived and carried out by other persons. (But of course when all these persons got into office, quitting honourably always became a problem.)
Hardly had that delegate finished his thesis than dissenting voices commenced a shouting down. “Ambition is overrated!” they argued. “Babangida and Abacha spent much of their careers wanting to rule Nigeria. See what they did to us!”
The conference deliberated on that point for a while, and failed to reach an agreement on the how the section relating to presidential ambition should be worded. What they all wasted no time agreeing upon was the proposal that anybody who claims to be waiting on God for a decision as to whether to run for public office should automatically be disqualified and shown the way to a seminary or madrasah with alacrity. “God certainly needs such a person more than Nigeria does,” someone quipped.
After that it was time to move on to the specific personality and character traits, beyond ambition, that would be needed in the Ideal Nigerian President (INP).
The conversation went as follows:
Someone with Buhari’s much-touted incorruptibility. It was agreed that while there are no saints in Nigeria, Buhari stood out for the way he had managed to earn a reputation for honesty and integrity in a country where elite banditry is a way of life. “Buhari does seem like a man who would have no qualms taking unpopular decisions in the fight against corruption,” someone said. “And under him Big Man Bandits (BMBs) will not get the kind of overt presidential protection they’re currently getting, and which they also got under Obasanjo and Yar’Adua.”
Someone with Obasanjo’s energy and decisiveness. As the proponent of this idea explained, during the Obasanjo Presidency there was hardly ever any doubt that Mr. Obasanjo was in power; the man on whose table the buck stopped. Of course Mr. Obasanjo often took that decisiveness to far, so that he often believed it was his duty to have the final say in matters that were none of his business – like the choices of Senate President and Speaker. “But in the years since Baba left office Nigerians have come to realise just how important that quality is. They need a President who is seated on the boat, bellowing directions, not one flailing incompetently in the water, waiting for the storm to subside by itself.”
To balance the potential excesses of that Obasanjo “gra-gra”, delegates agreed that Nigeria also needs someone with the gentleness of Goodluck. As one woman put it: “To the man who is a General everything is war, including elections. Under President Jonathan the quality of elections in the country has improved remarkably, because he has refrained from the iron grip of Obasanjo. That quality of a lamb has its place in a country where power is almost always wielded as a tool of oppression.”
Another person countered the gentleness argument: “That gentleness is not good o. Nigeria doesn’t need a lamb President. You and I know we are animals in this country, and deserve to be treated like that. In this jungle we need the King of the Jungle,” someone said, to protests from around the hall. Before the speaker was shouted down he managed to mention that it was the so-called “easygoing-ness” of the current President that “saddled us with a Petroleum Minister who delights in pumping controversy and disdain the way Nigeria’s oil wells pump crude.”
Someone with Gowon’s sense of nation-hood and national reconciliation. Gowon was the man upon whom it fell to prosecute a bloody civil war that bitterly divided Nigeria. Following the war he launched an ambitious reconciliation drive summed up in ‘No Victor No Vanquished’ and ‘Go On With One Nigeria’ campaigns.
The proponent of this Gowon requirement said: “Nigeria requires a man or woman who is President of the entire country, and does not involve himself in acts that divide the country along religious or ethnic lines. President Jonathan has done nothing to demonstrate that he is anything other than an Ijaw President who likes taking pictures in churches. This is a big and diverse country, and anyone aspiring to rule it must understand that.”
Someone with Tafawa Balewa’s eloquence. This was a rather controversial element, judging by the reactions that followed. Conference participants were asked by the proponent of this idea to listen to clips of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa speaking during a 1961 official trip to the United States.
“No, we don’t want that,” someone quickly protested. “Why should a Nigerian be speaking as if he was born by the Queen of England. We should be proud of our tongue.” “No, that’s not the point,” another person said. “It’s not how he talks, but what he says. Can you hear the confidence and assuredness with which he addressed a joint session of the United States Senate and Congress. That’s what we’re talking about!”
Before long the Conference came to agree that the leading politicians of the First Republic were mostly talented public speakers, who often said (and wrote) memorable things. “Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ladoke Akintola – for all their flaws these were knowledgeable, worldly men, who understood the world and their place in it,” someone said.
“We have come a long way downhill,” rued another person. “Imagine Tafawa Balewa, who wowed America with his eloquence more than fifty years ago, coming on national TV to chant ‘America will know! America will know!”
The conference concluded that while Nigeria doesn’t need in its President the ‘golden voice’ of Balewa, and is not likely to get an Obama, the country certainly needs someone whose knowledgeable and wise and confident and empathetic words can rally the country to aspire to greater things.
Just before the conference ended – this was no three-month jamboree at state expense, by the way – someone tried to chip in something about the kind of First Lady Nigeria needs.
But the poor fellow was quickly silenced by a livid group of women who said: “Sit down Mr. Man! Why are you assuming, in 2014, that the ‘man’ Nigeria needs cannot be a woman?”