Watching aspects of our political drama play out, you cannot but conclude that at its heart is character. Like most African cultures, in general, and Nigerian ones, in particular, premium is placed on the content of character. It was essentially character which transformed a slave boy into King Jaja of Opobo, taking advantage of the reforms of King Amachree amongst the Ijaw people in the 19th Century. The same Jaja was the catalyst of what is today Nigeria. Without his trade excellence there would never have been the Royal Niger Company, and our eventual colonial adventure would not have played out the way it did. Character as it plays out in this administration can be captured in the metaphoric story of a fortunate boy granted a scholarship to an elite school. This was not because, like many otherwise poor students, he had scored exceptionally in the entrance examinations or that he was very hardworking; in fact fortune smiled on him because he was not remarkable. He was just a bland possibility on which everyone projected their desires and hopes.
Into the academy he went because he represented an egalitarian ideal of equality of opportunity (so his champions claimed). A Joe Nobody who could become somebody. His family and community were totally full of the joy for winning life’s lottery; their son was the first to enjoy this incredible opportunity. In fact, on top of that fortune and in spite of a most unremarkable academic tenure and attitude, he got elected as Head Boy. As usual, everyone just saw good fortune but no one could see or say anything he had done to deserve this. No record of excellence. No evidence of service. No manifestation of sacrifice. Now Head Boy, he became the vehicle for bullying and exploitation of all the junior boys and girls. Especially because of his position, he received attention from a damaged beauty queen; her wants alway insatiable, he went from the banal to the very cruel. He was a cypher who stood for nothing and fell – initially through association and eventually through habit – for the crudest abuse of power and became the most damaging example to the entire school. All the school toughs were rewarded with access and they kept the school in an unstable and uneasy vice. Eventually time came do examinations and move on, but he would rather stay than graduate because his unremarkable life would beckon. He had no imagination nor commitment to recognise the possibility of changing roles to build effectiveness and a genuine track record. He was a prisoner to the poverty of ideas and inability to see the effect of his actions. His family and community chose not to see the damage he had done to himself, to them and to the school. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, “Is not the fear of thirst when you well in full the thirst that is unquenchable?” Well, the chip on his shoulder became the rock upon which he founded his character.
We should make no mistake about it in this election cycle, Character is the critical decider of who leads the next government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Yoruba say, ‘efin ni iwa’ – character manifests like smoke i.e. it cannot be hidden. Many will not admit that banality itself is evil. In the case of President Jonathan, it has delivered evil consequences. A President who oversaw the highest income from the sales of oil in the history of Nigeria, yet his main policies are just cut-and-paste from the administration of Chief Obasanjo, without the effectiveness in execution. The litany of numbers killed in the insurgency, sums squandered in opaque transactions, and mediocre impact of trumpeted results that most Nigerians can only experience in documentaries and posters.
I have heard it said that the campaign for the Presidency has lacked substance; I fundamentally disagree. There is no greater issue in Nigeria and about her future than the substance of her character. You have a choice of continuing with Nigeria as she presently behaves or changing the fundamentals. It is not a hardware issue. You can buy the latest hardware but if your operating system software is itself a malware or riddled with viruses it will be worse than a redundant relic. You should not build or purchase new infrastructure on a operating system that is not fit for purpose. How can transformation mean new coaches with air-conditioners on a single gauge track that is the product of the 19th Century? How come the road to the main and critical ports for entry into the country, at Muritala Mohammed Airport as well as Apapa Wharf, are unmanaged and in the case of the Seaport, in an awful state? How can this be anything other than catastrophe for an economy looking for alternatives to oil revenue?
We have also seen character in this election as the PDP and its candidate continued to deploy what is often negative campaigning. Billions spent on so-called documentaries that are making all kinds of allegations against the persons of its opponents. It forgets that by being the government in power, it has the responsibility of prosecuting many of these allegations, if they have merit. It is not only negligent not to prosecute, it is a failure to discharge duties and obligations under the constitution. The character of General Buhari and his campaign have been quite unusually permissive of these attacks this time. Gone are the coded campaign speeches from 2011 and the idea that all it takes to be President is to speak to his cheering section. In both tone and content, the Buhari campaign has been restrained except when it has taken legal action against serious libel and slander. I wonder is this a wholesale differentiation or just political positioning? I am sure it is both, but what is clear is that it seems more like the kind of campaign that an incumbent will run, which is less strident and more focussed on what governance means.
We must choose the character and characteristics that provide the basis for a better future. The Pew Research gives us some of the priorities of Nigerians as they go into this elections. According to the Pew article, “Six Facts About Public Opinion in Nigeria Before Election Day”:
• 82% of Nigerians have unfavourable views of Boko Haram, with an overwhelming majority, 79%, having very unfavourable views. This cuts across religions and regions, so this is a far cry from being a popular insurgency. Despite this, the current government has not mobilised the country expressly to support the war against these mass killers in any strategic manner. The plans for a Marshall Plan by General Buhari provides a cohesive focus which Nigerians can understand, engage and critic; it not just focuses on war but also on supporting the victims. Unfortunately this unpopular and murderous group have held Nigerians to ransom under President Jonathan whose best efforts are belated and do not seem to embody the revulsion majority of Nigerians have for the insurgents and their campaign;
• 72% of Nigerians are worried about Islamic extremism (a number which includes many muslims). More telling is that they identify their top threat to the country as being religious and ethnic hatred. Simply put: by his campaign strategy alone, the President has invigorated this threat. He has sought the support of ethnic warlords, his wife has whipped up sectional differences, and in fact he has courted all the divisions in the national fabric. In many ways, people have tried to artificially balance things, suggesting both sides are culpable so as to appear objective. Simple observation shows the President has tried to use the wedge of religion and ethnicity to build a groundswell of support against General Buhari, with little or no explicit consideration for the threat that many Nigerians recognise as extremely proximate to destroying the country;
• The top three everyday worries for Nigerians are in this order: crime, 88%; corruption, 86%; and electricity, 81%. Even though there are no surprises here and the challenger has covenanted to prioritise these, after 6 years of the GEJ administration, they appear worse not better. There is tacit acceptance of unexplained wealth and ambivalence of accountability, as well as transparency. The President seems to have chosen key people in his campaign because of their ruthlessness and ability to use any means, including illegal ones. The word ‘impunity’ has come to define Nigerian society during this administration;
• Not surprising that 74% of Nigerians believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Unemployment at record high; the economy in decline, with wealth distributed consciously among a small group of presidential supporters; and the lack of transparency and social capital at their lowest ebb;
• 66% of our people believe government officials do not care for Nigerians, and in fact I am surprised the figure is so low;
• In spite of that, 79% of those who responded were likely to vote.
Now my message for those who are going to vote is quite simple: please do not reward failure! Like the story of the school boy, the effect will not be only in this transaction but will send a message to everyone. In this case, agreeing to a second term for a President who has performed below the usual mediocrity means we are telling the future generation that it does not matter what you do, just reach for good fortune and ride it for the rest of your life. That is not just damaging but will destroy what is left of the fabric of this society. So on Saturday, Nigerians should use the principle that most effective employers use – recruit for attitude, as you can always improve skills. Define the future of the Nigerian character to be about integrity, discipline, sacrifice and love. Stop the ‘fortunate’ few having an owambe with our children’s legacy. Vote to reset our values and rescue our character towards an genuinely honourable attitude. Vote for Change.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.