It is worth pondering how these APC stalwarts feel as they watch their principal valorise the murderous dictator that terrorised them and murdered some of their comrades. Perhaps, they have already accepted this contradiction as the necessary price of power, political relevance and patronage…The acquisition of power often requires the willingness to engage in Faustian transactions.
The State social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice. In furtherance of the social order…the sanctity of the human person shall be recognised, and human dignity shall be maintained and enhanced; governmental actions shall be humane. – Chapter II, The Nigerian Constitution
In 1999, as Nigeria emerged from sixteen dark years of military dictatorship, the buzz phrase was “dividends of democracy” – a term usually used to convey the idea that the arrival of voting rights would also be accompanied by “development” in the form of infrastructure, economic growth and prosperity for all. The basic idea was easy to rebut. Roads and other infrastructure had been provided by military regimes, so they could not possibly be held up as trophies of democratisation. Democracy is about universal human rights, rule of law, equality, justice, civil liberties, the protection of minorities and allied conditions that enable individuals to maximise their potential. In short, the properties that define democratic and social progress are fundamentally intangible.
Nineteen years into Nigeria’s longest spell of democracy, the question of what constitutes progress remains as salient as it has ever been. On May 22, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari stirred controversy when he asserted that despite the gruesome details of General Sani Abacha’s despotic reign, he deserves plaudits for the many road projects he initiated through the Petroleum Trust Fund, an agency which Buhari had headed. “No matter what opinion you have about Abacha,” he said. “I agreed to work with him and the roads we did from PTF exist from here to Port Harcourt, to Onitsha, to Benin and so on.” To be clear, the president was whitewashing the biography of one of Africa’s most venal tyrants because they had both worked together to build roads.
Abacha famously violated the rights of Nigerians, murdered political opponents, jailed scores more and hounded the rest into exile. By some estimates, the general and his cronies stole over $2 billion, amounting to more than a million dollars for every day he was in office, including weekends. To be fair, Buhari was saying nothing new. In June 2008, after remembrance prayers in Kano marking the tenth anniversary of Abacha’s demise, Buhari claimed that the allegations of theft against him are untrue – a claim that he has never recanted. The president’s renewed defence of the thieving ex-dictator comes even as his administration cites its bid to recover loot Abacha stashed abroad as proof of its commitment to fighting corruption. Only last month, the Ministry of Finance announced that $322.5 million had been returned to Nigeria by the Swiss government as part of funds looted by the late despot. It is a testament of the scale of Abacha’s larcenies that 22 years after his demise, it has taken five successive administrations to recover bits of his plunder.
If Buhari’s defence of Abacha, despite the dead dictator’s murderous tendencies, discloses his low valuation of human life and human rights, it also betrays a certain consistency. After all, in a chat with journalists on December 30, 2015, the president justified the army’s massacre of several hundred members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Zaria, including women and children. Nigeria has had a long sorry sequence of catastrophically inept charlatans, but none has quite had the temerity to rationalise mass murder on national television.
The Edifice Complex
Buhari’s remarks also project a worldview that prizes and prioritises physical infrastructure over the human beings that are meant to use them. It is why politicians demand adulation for the mundane feat of constructing roads. It fits a pattern in which an administration boasts of the size of the country’s foreign reserves, while millions of Nigerians reel from unemployment, poverty, disease, hunger and violence. Thus, while the president was attempting to rehabilitate Abacha, mass burials were being conducted in Benue for the latest victims of the spreading nationwide footprint of mayhem that is consuming Nigerians.
The dehumanisation of the vulnerable is scarcely an indicator of progress. Over 10 million out-of-school children, the lost girls of Chibok and Dapchi, the precarious fate of Leah Sharibu and other captives, and the legions of Nigerians who are victims of both state and non-state violence constitute a pungent rebuttal to the notion that a few edifices and white elephant projects represent progress.
This edifice complex is not a partisan phenomenon. On May 25, former President Goodluck Jonathan, who once claimed while in office that the number of private jets owned by Nigerian tycoons is a measure of the economy’s health was in Ado-Ekiti commissioning a flyover bridge. At the occasion, Jonathan waxed lyrical, proclaiming the bridge an infrastructural marvel unmatched elsewhere in Nigeria. Such is the vainglory of mediocre underachievement mainstreamed by many Nigerian elites.
Over two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire was building roads without expecting public applause and certainly not as an electioneering sound bite. Such banality cannot be a benchmark of development in the 21st century. Progress is best measured in terms of quality of life and the human development index. Elsewhere, the apparent inadequacy of popular metrics of social progress has led to suggestions that notions like General Well-being (GWB) should replace the more conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of how well societies are faring.
In the end, Buhari’s pronouncement has to do with what definitions of progress we accept as a people. A lusty materialism and a cargo cult mentality have blunted our grasp of civilised values and what makes for a good society. Many Nigerians will accept all kinds of violations of human dignity and the outright devaluation of human life from a government, as long as it offers some roads, flyover bridges, skyscrapers, shopping malls and faux simulations of “development” that we assume to be the measure of sophistication and modernity. They seem perfectly willing to accept even genocidal behaviour from a government that provides some physical infrastructure that is presented as “development”.
Many of us acquiesce to this transaction, apparently not realising that in so doing we are enabling the culture of dysfunction, mediocre underachievement and violence that plagues the land. After all, the infrastructure in Nazi Germany was matchless, even as Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich waged a costly war on the world and operated genocidal death camps for millions that it had designated subhuman species. It is quite possible for a government to deliver physical infrastructure while simultaneously creating conditions that dehumanise citizens, but this would neither be development nor progress. The real question is what is the value of a Nigerian life in terms of investments in the social, psychological and material factors that enable human security and self-actualisation? Even though Nigeria fought a costly civil war fifty years ago, there is an inescapable sense these days that Nigerian life has never been cheaper.
Consider Lagos, where a succession of so-called “progressive” administrations have ruthlessly destroyed coastal and slum settlements and have left hundreds of thousands homeless. Last year, the Ambode administration destroyed the coastal settlement of Otodo Gbame, rendering thirty thousand people homeless. Thus, the Lagosian megacity, the crown jewel of Nigeria’s supposed odyssey of progress, is evidently to be built on the foundation of a gentrification process that is essentially a brutal landgrab – and a worldview that seeks to eradicate poverty by eradicating the poor and sanitising the scenery of their existence.
As Gandhi said, “The true measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.” By this standard, Lagos and Nigeria are regressing towards a dystopian destiny. The dehumanisation of the vulnerable is scarcely an indicator of progress. Over 10 million out-of-school children, the lost girls of Chibok and Dapchi, the precarious fate of Leah Sharibu and other captives, and the legions of Nigerians who are victims of both state and non-state violence constitute a pungent rebuttal to the notion that a few edifices and white elephant projects represent progress.
…Buhari’s disquisition on Abacha and his perception of what constitutes development also illustrates why leaders have failed to foster the growth of the intangibles of nationhood, among which are solidarity, mutuality, empathy. There is far more to nation-building than concrete and cement. It requires soulcraft as well as statecraft.
What Does It Mean To Be A Progressive?
The term “progressive” is laden with weighty ideological and moral implications and connotes a fierce commitment to human security and social justice. The Nigerian progressive tradition has always been characterised by humanism, liberalism, empathy and creative compassion, whether we are discussing Aminu Kano’s democratic humanism or Nnamdi Azikiwe’s conviction that Nigeria’s historic mission is “to revive the stature of man so that man’s inhumanity to man shall cease” or Obafemi Awolowo’s trifecta – freedom from want, freedom from ignorance and freedom from disease. Awolowo rightly argued that “the characteristics of underdevelopment, and hence of the economic backwardness of Nigeria, are entirely and inseparably human.” No measurement of social progress that fails to account for the wellbeing of the people is valid.
When he visited Nigeria in 1982, Pope John Paul II addressed President Shehu Shagari and other government leaders on the need “to make the human person the true criterion of all development efforts” and to work towards instituting “a progress that is truly and fully human.” This largely encapsulates the progressive imperative – a humane model of governance that affirms human rights and human dignity and is vested in the optimisation of human potential. More recently, the term “progressive” in popular Nigerian usage has served as a descriptor of one’s distance from or proximity to an incumbent government. It often refers to a politician that is yet to access the elite feeding trough or find a niche in the pyramid of patronage. The result is that those that were self-proclaimed progressives before 2015 have since revealed themselves to be regressive reactionaries and enemies of progress.
These clarifications are necessary at a time when the ruling party purports to be a congress of progressives. But the clear contradictions between what it professes and what it practices reflect the fraudulent opportunism that cobbled the All Progressives Congress together in the first place. Some of Buhari’s current political associates in the APC, among them Kayode Fayemi, John Oyegun, Bola Tinubu, Bayo Onanuga among other functionaries, spent the Abacha years in hiding or in exile, knowing that their opposition to the regime of which Buhari was a member was at great risk to their lives. Senator Shehu Sani spent much of that period in jail. When he was attorney general of Lagos State in the early 2000s, the current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo spearheaded the prosecution of Abacha-era death squad operatives and security establishment figures that had murdered the dictator’s political opponents.
It is worth pondering how these APC stalwarts feel as they watch their principal valorise the murderous dictator that terrorised them and murdered some of their comrades. Perhaps, they have already accepted this contradiction as the necessary price of power, political relevance and patronage. It is true that in politics, pragmatism has its demands. The acquisition of power often requires the willingness to engage in Faustian transactions. It is also true that in Nigerian politics, courage is at a premium. Political elites are evidently more afraid of losing access to power than of losing their souls. Beyond this, among today’s reigning “progressives”, there is no agreement on where they are progressing from or where they are supposedly progressing to.
Ultimately, Buhari’s disquisition on Abacha and his perception of what constitutes development also illustrates why leaders have failed to foster the growth of the intangibles of nationhood, among which are solidarity, mutuality, empathy. There is far more to nation-building than concrete and cement. It requires soulcraft as well as statecraft. The president and his ilk have demonstrated why they are unable to speak to this nation’s febrile soul, heal and bind her wounds and inspire the higher aspects of our humanity. The task is beyond them.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.