For whatever reason, the fear has never been quite overcome by the Nigerian people even after President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader of that country, referred to himself as a “converted democrat”.
After he was kicked out of power in 1985 in the same way he had militantly grabbed it, Buhari tried under the new democratic dispensation to become Nigeria’s president. He was fourth time lucky in 2015, thanks to the support from the hugely revered Olusegun Obasanjo and top-dollar advice from a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, David Axelrod.
On assuming power, Buhari was mindful of what he had to prove and the background against which he would be measured – the steps were careful and the tone, ear-friendly. There were the Boko Haram menace and an economy that required impetus but the president understood that his democratic credentials were under perpetual forensic audit by the over 190 million in Nigeria and observers from afar.
But the complexity of the multitudes in a democratic society revealed his shallow temperance in good time. This year, the vibrant #EndSARS movement of young protesters who sought to disband the notorious unit of the Nigerian police service came knocking for positive change and the door held by no hinges, caved in.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad had terrorized Nigerians for decades, and the widely-held feeling was that the unit was not fit for purpose. As the days rolled on, the concerns of the protesters did not necessarily evolve but expanded. And that was the most annoying thing for Nigeria’s ruling elite – to be called out to do their jobs in that very global manner by young people.
But what happened with the movement was simultaneously the best opportunity Buhari was presented to cement his name in the pantheon of converted democrats. But Nigeria’s president allowed himself to be undone by the temptations of not aspiring to respectable immortality.
The source of Buhari’s first temptation goes back to 2019 after he sealed the deal for a second term. There are now no more elections for him to win and that means there is very little reason to go further and seek better. The nature of Nigeria’s politics means that Buhari is not necessarily hurting the chances of whoever in the All Progressives Congress (APC) is considered heir apparent to the president.
Alfred Akawe Torkula in The Culture of Partisan Politics in Nigeria: An Historical Perspective illustrates how Nigerian politics is not particularly ideological as it is populist, and not strongly partisan as it is about ethnic identities. Buhari himself was the presidential candidate of three different parties in four different elections.
The second temptation was the president treating the cries of concerned citizens like noises of petulant children. Falling to this temptation was as African as they come, with the nearly 78-year-old adult dismissing the dismissable children who should be seen and not heard. Throughout the time the protesters were on the street of Nigeria’s major cities, Buhari only spoke twice to their problems, and he did not hide his condescension on either occasion.
In the first speech that came days after the protests had begun, he reiterated the disbandment of SARS and virtually said there was no more reason for protesters to be on the street. SARS had previously undergone reformations and disbandment that left the unit neither reformed nor disbanded.
The second time Buhari spoke to Nigerians, he threatened that the federal government will not be dared by troublemakers “who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well-intended protest”. When people with power frame language in this way, it leaves very little doubt that the state security apparatus takes it upon itself to choose whosoever fits a predetermined description of a troublemaker.
Effectively, this threat was not lost on the youngsters who had already seen some of their colleagues killed. The speech also came two days after protesters were killed by soldiers in Lekki, Lagos, an event Buhari failed to acknowledge as if that day had not even happened.
Buhari even reserved some of the sensational disrespect of his second speech for Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo who the Nigerian president diplomatically told to mind his business after the leader of Nigeria’s West African neighbors had, in his capacity as the head of the regional body ECOWAS and in neighborly spirit, spoken about the unrest in Nigeria.
The final temptation Buhari surrendered to was the rotting Nigerian democratic culture. The attitudes that preserve the sanctity of democracy seems lacking among Nigeria’s political class and the young people know this all too well. The young in Africa’s most populous nation know the systemic dream-shattering efficacy of the Nigerian experience.
This is the culture where political office holders who felt insulted by an electorate asking them to do better unleash numerous faceless henchmen to clash with protesters.
For a while, protesters were not even against the national security forces in the streets but against a collection of machete and club-wielding young men whom no one has been able to identify. And who can forget the mysterious jailbreaks in two states that were blamed on #EndSARS protesters?
In the beginning, it was even hard for politicians to sympathize with protesters and those who even did hoped they were allowed to turn this one into an anti-Buhari campaign. There were those who definitely saw the #EndSARS movement as an anti-Hausa and anti-northern Nigeria masses who had coalesced around an exaggerated police problem.
Now, the leadership that could not be reached but through the force applied by international pressure is thinking of regulating social media, the tool by which they were exposed.
What reared its head in the two weeks that the #EndSARS campaign was alive was the leader with authoritarian tendencies. The poor protesters could not get through to him and he would not even tell them to eat cake or Agege bread.
Certainly, the unwritten leader’s transcendental calling as one who should rise above the usual and lead the people into some semblance of sense is the ground upon which Buhari’s refusal to lead shocked many. He did not want to bring light to the darkness but took to the nightshade like the black panther.
In the last two weeks more than any time during his presidency, Buhari epitomized the fears that never went away. Every bit of his moral abstinence said clearly to the young who come tomorrow: Hope? That’s for losers!