“Nigerians expect a lot from their presidents; they expect a president to be powerful without being overbearing.”
“[Courage, wisdom, loyalty are] all virtues which a well-regulated country with a good king or a good general wouldn’t need. In a good country virtues wouldn’t be necessary. Everybody could be quite ordinary, and, for all I care, cowards.”
–Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children
It has been said by many commentators that President Goodluck Jonathan, like his two predecessors in the Fourth Republic, is the product of a corrupt political process. This is an obvious point, a way of saying that he is the kind of president Nigeria could only produce at present time. Given the structural violence pervasive at all level of the political society, a person of outstanding moral power could not rise to be president now. The jury is still out on the president’s personal ethics (if only he would respect the Code of Conduct bureau and declare his assets), but his political behavior thus far indicates an ordinary level of responsibility, falling short of what his office demands. For one thing, with his tone and demeanor in responding to questions last June about his undeclared assets he cut the picture of a leader who either has not thought things through, or has been let down by his advisers. For another thing, when he takes decisions that border on the controversial (such as the fuel subsidy crisis, and the renaming of the University of Lagos), he only exposes the limits of his political capital as a public man.
Nigerians expect a lot from their presidents; they expect a president to be powerful without being overbearing. This is partly because the country is not Bertolt Brecht’s prototypical “good country.” You didn’t need a poet’s appeal to superior virtues if the republic was beautiful. The problem is that the president is an ordinary figure ruling a country of extraordinary expectations. What is expected is that he rises above the values of his milieu—negative for the most part—and become the one to cut the expectations to size. There is a problem here. Even with the best intentions, the president cannot fight above his weight. Add to this the peculiar experiments of the past twenty-three years (since the military formation of two political parties), which has led to the emergence of parties without distinguishing ideologies and of which the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, is symptomatic. The result is a mismatch between the protocols of presidential power, civic expectations, and unpredictable events for which the president may not be held accountable but which he would accept as part of the turf if he had the right amount of political imagination.
This is why the president cannot do extraordinary things that demonstrate political will. The two controversial decisions I mentioned earlier have also turned out to be scandalous and could have had serious consequences for his presidency, were Nigeria to be governed by transparent rules. The fuel subsidy scandal has revealed a level of corruption too high for legal probity; the failed renaming of UNILAG leaves the executors of the act without the kind of escape route soldiers used to create by simply shooting in the air and taking off in a cloud of dusts. This leaves the president with a few passable actions in this vein: the appointment of the first female Chief Justice of the federation, and the ritual handing-out of national honors. Everyone in the presidency is happy; the critical mass is indifferent. In current political parlance this type of gesture is called “kicking the bucket down the street,” or “transacting,” that is, taking decisions in a manner which shows minimum commitment to transforming the system. It is thus typical Nigerian talent for hyperbole that Jonathan’s is called the “transformational presidency.”
On the face of it, there is little to connect this picture of the president to the system of corruption that promotes “false formality.” But let’s look beneath the surface. In the president’s preference for doing the needful, hugging the outskirts of the parapet, we see only a more tolerable appeal to appearance than I noted in the parliamentary probe of the fuel subsidy scam. The president’s style betrays the commonplace option: do the needful, stretch nothing, be seen to have done what is necessary.
Can one blame him for this? Yes, to the extent that he is an executive president and his office comes with a lot of discretionary powers. But he is also an ordinary person, the kind of person in whose head, as the Barbadian writer George Lamming once put it, nothing would ever go pop! He’s not the risk-taker needing courage, loyalty or wisdom to act. If he were, he could, finding himself with those powers, be a truly transformative leader. But he is not. Nigeria runs through him.
This is the third of a three-part article on the theme of “false formality.”