As the nation raised its voice against run-away banditry, kidnappings and rustling decimating lives and livelihood in rural north and caging the northern branch of the national elite, President Muhammadu Buhari boarded his plane last week for an economic summit in Jordan. From there he was to visit Dubai for a number of days. His deputy meanwhile boarded his own plane to Rwanda to participate in remembrance ceremonies for a horrific genocide. Senate President Saraki also jetted out to Qatar to attend some international parliamentary event. In this globalized world, their audiences must know that in Nigeria villages are being abandoned; highways are being deserted; dozens are kidnapped every day and the nation they lead is waking up to security threats that could dwarf Boko Haram. Yet, there they were, requesting foreigners to invest in a nation where foreign highway construction engineers have to be protected by armed soldiers and policemen, where human life has virtually no value, from a nation aping democracy when its elections provide the most fertile ground for crimes and fraud. Diplomatic etiquette will discourage pointed questions around relationships between violent crimes, the economy and Nigerian democracy, but there must have been a few who thought these three leaders either have the thickest skins or the highest levels of insensitivity.
President Buhari will travel out whether the nation is having its worst or best moments, but he does have the discretion to choose when it is the more sensible thing to do not to leave the nation for days on end. He chose the worst possible moment to attend an event that will not make a drop of a difference to the Nigerian economy or his false image as a tough, crime-fighting President. President Jonathan did not earn the popular tag ‘clueless’ for nothing. His legendary insistence that Boko Haram was a northern conspiracy against him, the manner he consistently devalued its danger, his initial denial that Chibok girls were abducted, his trademark mien that things are always better than they actually were, combined to create the image of a President that had no idea what was going on in the nation he led.
President Buhari took over from him, pushed Boko Haram into distant enclaves where it adjusted appropriately, removed road blocks from highways, sent tons of money to the insurgency in the Niger Delta to appease it and then…nothing. He sat in charge of a nation where doing very little about everything was the new normal. Decision-making was patchy, laboured and rare. Declines in the efficacy of public, security and law and order institutions began to register in lives of citizens. High-level corruption found new, cosier neighborhoods to flourish, and emerging crimes began to straddle huge parts of the nation. Tentatively at first, armed gangs created by an earlier wave of crime of rustling which uprooted entire communities and cultural systems began to probe at the heart of rural northern communities for weaknesses. It found many. Thousands of Fulani had lost their cattle and livelihood, and had discovered how easy it was to acquire firearms, become rustlers themselves, fight peasants who resisted them and establish control and presence in largely-unpoliced rural areas and extensive forests.
Poor governance and corruption created further distances between the citizen and the state, and this became more pronounced under Buhari, a president ironically elected to improve the security of the citizen. Dangerous official denial of weak will and incompetence and the crude cultivation of the perception among the poor that Buhari could not do wrong allowed gaping holes in the security infrastructure to widen, as armed crime pitched communities against each other and made many others hostage. Agriculture suffered as farmlands became abandoned. Rustling increased, creating new recruits for armed criminal activities. Kidnapping blossomed into the only growing economy in the north, making overnight millionaires and creating its own elaborate systems to survive and expand. Policing, already severely stressed by a weakening state and corruption, retreated. Millions of citizens were increasingly abandoned particularly in areas that provided Buhari’s political lifeline throughout his political career.
Jonathan lost an election because he failed to protect citizens and curb corruption. Buhari won a second term because peasants and the urban poor in the north thought he could still fix their rapidly deteriorating lives. Bandits and kidnappers saw an opportunity to dig in. They know what Buhari’s voters do not: his capacity or willingness to stand up for the poor who stood by him is severely limited. They may not have the sophistication to read security maps very well, but they know about abandoned populations, vulnerable highways, frightened relations of victims who prefer to pay millions in ransom than go to the police, and a government that does little more than lament and condemn. Today the bulk of Buhari’s voters are threatened by both Boko Haram and gangs that routinely take over entire villages for pillage or for the hell of it. Because they can. Those who did not vote for him to return as president taunt those who did for their current plight, but they do so from barricades. No one is safe in Buhari’s Nigeria today. You would think you are in Jonathan’s Nigeria. Only it is worse.
Nothing captures the routine, pathetic lamentation of Buhari’s leadership than the statement released by his aide while he wined and dined with world leaders in faraway Jordan last weekend. “How can I be happy and indifferent to the senseless killings of my fellow citizens by bandits?” he asks. ”I am human and I understand the pains of the victims and their families who have been traumatized and impoverished by constant ransom demands by bandits….I constantly listen to our security personnel in order to understand their problems and needs…It is therefore ridiculous to suggest that I am indifferent to these killings”, he pleads. What is ridiculous is that President Buhari expects that a nation that is bleeding from neglect is going to believe that he is doing enough. If, all considered, President Buhari is concerned about security and is not indifferent to the killings particularly in the regions that just gave him a new mandate, then the nation is in even worse trouble that it realizes. If he survives the legal challenge to his re-election, the next four years will be tough for the nation. A president who cannot understand that he is seriously under-performing in managing security is a major liability for any nation.
Jamila Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja