Buhari, Thatcher, and Kagame Walk into a Bar…

It has been nearly a month since President Buhari made his now famous “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” speech at his 29th of May inauguration. From the ordinary man on the street to the not so ordinary purveyors of media content everybody is asking the same question, “can Buhari deliver on his promises?”

It is a very important question. But, given the state of the country’s democratic consolidation, there is another question that few are asking. That is: “how should Buhari go about delivering on those promises that he can actually make come true.”

Whether or not Buhari will be successful in achieving his myriad promises should be an ever-present background question in our country’s politics. But from the months before Buhari’s election till now, any critical suggestion that the president and his party (the All Progessive’s Congress) might have difficulties achieving their goals and the demand to know exactly what political and budgetary mechanisms would be used to achieve said goals has been greeted with abuse from his most fervent supporters so severe that even the most balanced of observers has had to be careful where they trod.

Indeed, one of the inaugural pieces of this blog covered that very subject and was a response to those who would have you believe that if you thought Jonathan was a useless president and you supported change, you had to give Buhari the same kind of faith based indiscriminate approval usually reserved for religious deities.

I, and many other Nigerians, will continue to question the president’s ability to do what he says he wants to do because Nigeria continues to suffer from the problem of believing that critical questioning is directly opposed to patriotic support. It is not. It is an important element of our public discourse. It is further a critical position that we should use to keep our own expectations, as citizens, in check.

This is in no way to suggest that our standards should be lowered (they are far too low as it is). But rather to plant our attentions on those things that absolutely need to be achieved – like the demolition of terrorist groups; developing agriculture, and manufacturing; reducing childhood mortality; and promoting primary education, deeper taxation, and rail transportation.

If, and when, President Buhari fails to make gains in other areas that structurally require more than 4 to 8 years to achieve (for instance, ridding the entire country of corruption), that need not be a sign of his failure if the manner in which he has achieved other goals (or indeed the manner in which he has failed to achieve them) contributes to our progress in other ways.

The question: “in what manner will President Buhari attempt to achieve those things that he is in fact technically and structurally able to achieve” is, I admit, a longer question. But it is a crucial question that should never be far from our minds. There has already been at least one worrying incident involving Buhari when he was president-elect and Africa Independent Television that has highlighted the importance of this question.

In the run up to the elections, there were many assertions that because Nigeria was operating in a new political, supposedly more democratic, climate Buhari’s military history was no longer relevant. Those of this view argued that if it did matter at all it was only to the extent that it served as a positive template for the president’s ability to effect change; if not explicitly ‘by force’, then at least ‘adroitly’.

Buhari, it was proclaimed in more than one circle, could be Nigeria’s answer to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.

The comparative aspiration is understandable. Under Kagame, Rwanda’s economic development has been remarkable. So much so that in a recent conversation I was told that “Rwanda is like going to Europe, the streets are so clean.” And because Rwanda has the highest number of elected females in parliament, the country is also held up as an exemplar of women’s empowerment and civil liberties.

The problem is that those who favour the Kagame comparison fall prey to the fallacy that economic and political development in countries like Nigeria and Rwanda (despite their incredible differences) can only be achieved ‘top-down’ and by strong-arming.

Without wishing to abrogate the very basis of this blog by attempting to analyse a country with the voice of an outsider, I will say only that there are too many reasons why the Kagame aspiration in entirely the wrong one; most especially because it commits the mistake of equating possible tyranny with strong leadership.

That there are many female MPs in Rwanda’s parliament does not mean that women in Rwanda have achieved anything close to equality in the broader society. A top down imposition of female parliamentarians in a close to one party state may not be the transformation, for women or for democracy, that headline figures suggest. And the push to remove term limit blocks to President Kagame’s participation in 2017’s elections suggests that the acceptance of less freedom for more growth could have longer term implications for Rwanda’s democracy and institutions.

The great fallacy of the ‘Kagame’ school of thought is to believe that countries like Nigeria, and our citizens, are a different branch of human being for whom high and deep levels of civil liberties cannot be conjoined with competent governmental leadership on economic development.

Despite the number of left leaning Britons who would place Margaret Thatcher and the devil in the same basket, emotional ideology should not prevent us from viewing her tenure as an example that strong economic and political leadership do not have to come at the expense of the democratic foundations of the state.

At the height of Thatcher’s very public and combustible fights with the unions – using arguably vicious tactics – at no point did she ever attempt to railroad the democratic landscape; even when doing so would have greatly enabled her to push through the reforms that she felt necessary in a time of great economic and political difficulty in the United Kingdom.

In the end, so much did Maggie leave the constitutional democratic foundations of the UK intact during her tumultuous reign that ultimately the British people were left free and able to ostracize her party for close to a decade and a half after her departure.

Development and Freedom are not only inherently compatible, but should they ever be divorced from one another the long-term consequences will always come home to roost.

If Maggie ever did have the opportunity to sit down to a drink with either president, I have no doubt that she would proclaim herself to be more ‘man’ than both combined. She would be right because there is nothing ‘strong’ about achieving developmental success on the back of a structure in which civil and political liberties are weakened. It is merely a kind of facade that will crumble in the worst of ways when tested.

So if Buhari, Kagame, and Thatcher were ever to share that proverbial gin, it is my deep hope that Kagame would be left at the bar all by himself. Nigerians must be concerned with President Buhari’s ability to make us richer; but we must be just as interested in ensuring that he makes us more free.


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