OBSERVERS of Nigeria in the weeks leading to the gubernatorial elections would be excused if they imagined they had fallen into an entranced journey into the country’s life between 1983 -1999. First, President Buhari’s prisoner of war, Deji Adeyanju, was swiftly released from prison upon the conclusion of the presidential election. I call him a prisoner of war because I am in no mood to humour President Buhari’s merchants of delusion who watched as election-related deaths approached three hundred, sat on top of the mountain of corpses, and launched the mantra, #ElectionIsNotWar. Election is not war and we lost nearly three hundred lives in election-related violence between October 2018 – February 2019. If it was war, how many lives would we have sacrificed?
Shortly after the release of President Buhari’s prisoner of war, I heaved a sigh of relief and thought that we might return to our culture of pretext to a minimal form of democratic culture. Never mind that the capture, detention, and subsequent release of the prisoner of war marks the moment when President Buhari parted ways with any pretext to democracy. This guy, Deji Adeyanju, is starting to irritate me. I don’t want him around for the presidential election. I am just going to grab him, clamp him in detention, and release him after the election. No questions asked. No need to pretend anymore to legality, democracy, and all that jazz. Besides, I need to send a message to all Nigerians that you can be grabbed at any time without due process. Unknown to partisan simpletons among the citizenry, the grabbing and detention of a citizen without cause transcends the person of that citizen.
Despite these scenarios, I still dared to believe that we would return to a simulacrum of democracy in the transition from presidential to gubernatorial elections. This was not to be. Enter the Nigerian military to unleash a complete conquest of our public sphere. Not even in the period between 1983 – 1995 did one witness such a symbolic, psychic assault on one’s democratic sensibilities by the Nigerian military. Throughout the week, one heard a constant drone of military warnings, announcements, pronouncements, and directives all in the name of preparing for the election.
“Chief of Defence Staff warns…”, “Chief of Army Staff warns…”, “Chief of Air Staff Warns…”. The Chief of Air Staff did not stop at warning. For good measure, he added that he had deployed helicopters and fighter jets in readiness for the election. So bizarre was the conquest of the public sphere by the military that I wondered why the Chief of Naval Staff did not join the warning extravaganza. Shouldn’t he also warn Nigerians that he had deployed submarines and war ships for the elections?These warnings were of course literally followed by a wholesale military occupation of some states, notably Rivers. Twenty years after the country returned to democracy, elections are still midwifed by the military. We practice a democracy in which the citizen is more familiar with troops and tanks than the ballot paper.
I write about these scenarios because they have acquired conceptual normalcy in the mind of the Nigerian. A lot of things have acquired conceptual normalcy in the Buhari era. Citizens can be grabbed and detained in defiance of court orders – normal; corpses can pile up week after week in Zamfara – normal; the military can run riot over the public sphere – normal. What is happening is not just the collapse of democracy and every pretext to it. We are also witnessing, at a fundamental level, a severe diminishment of the quality of the citizenship of the Nigerian. Every time the citizen makes a concession to his traducers at the level of meaning, his dignity is diminished. Even before Buhari, the Nigerian citizen already conceded that salary for work done is no longer a right. It is a privilege to be dispensed by state Governors who expect gratitude when they pay a certain fraction of arrears.
Perhaps the most far-reaching concession Nigerians are now being asked to make by President Buhari and his social media herdis the live within your means campaign. As is with everything Nigerian, a perfectly logical, moral, ethical injunction has been enlisted into the service of official hypocrisy. Live within your means becomes a weapon with which unworthy messengers, members of Africa’s most wasteful, most flamboyant, and most corrupt conspicuous consumers are criminalizing our people’s aspiration to basic decency and good living. At the drop of a hat, President Buhari and his family members jet off to hospitals in Britain and Germany at public expense. Yet, through their social media herd, they are telling a Nigerian aspiring to eat rice that such an aspiration is unethical. Live within your means and make do with kulikuli and garri ijebu while we and our children wantonly plunder the nation’s resources.
Some have opined that the onward social media soldiers of live within your means are blind to the fact that it is the duty of the state to provide, guarantee, and expand the means of livelihood and a level playing field for the pursuit of happiness for every citizen. I don’t believe this to be the case. President Buhari and his enablers are not blind to anything. What they are doing is purposed and deliberate. To guarantee a democracy of means for the majority, the rulership will also have to guarantee a democracy of sacrifice. That translates to less conspicuous consumption for them. It means you expand access to 21st-century medicare and facilities for every citizen. To do that, you will have to concentrate resources on the public good and limit your own ability to send your son off to Germany every time he crashes a power bike through elite ostentation and indulgence.
The Nigerian political class has never been willing to partake in a democracy of sacrifice. It is easier to glamourize mass poverty and criminalize aspiration to decency in order to consolidate conspicouous consumption for one percenters and their children. This is what President Buhari and his social media herd are doing with live within your means. There is also a darker, more cynical side to the campaign. Once they succeed in criminalizing even the most minimal aspiration to decent existence, President Buhari has very little to do to shine. He no longer has the burden of providing electricity. Once you are able to afford kerosene for your atupa once in a while, you are living within your means. This campaign is cynical and wicked.
I have drawn this profile not because I have hope for change. Sadly, I think our people have been psychologically defeated and have come to accept and love these things about Nigeria. They turn on whoever tries to awaken them. Nigeria’s irresponsible rulers have us where they want us. I write basically these days for the purposes of archaeology. A thousand years from now, archaeologists would be interested in how some people called Nigerians lived in the 20th and 21st centuries. If they dig and excavate, I am hoping that fragments of my writing survive to point them to the fact that not all of them accepted to live as slaves of the most irresponsible rulers of their era.