By Steve Onyeiwu
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buahri and I are in a race of death. I hope and pray I win that race. As transient humans, we all embark on the race to death right after sliding from our mother’s womb. How long it takes to run that dreaded race depends largely on exogenous factors beyond our control. Religious people believe that the more pious and God-fearing you are, the higher the probability that your race to death would be protracted. In other words, you’ll be competing head-to-head with the likes of the famed and biblical Methuselah. But secular folks argue that the duration of the race to death depends on a combination of factors that include genetics, life-style and serendipity. The latter may be influenced by God, spirituality and “providence.” For these reasons, I may well die before Buhari, though he is far older than me. As an inherently unpredictable phenomenon, some of those who have been overly obsessed with Buhari’s death may die before him. Death can also be a biased umpire that fulfills some people’s wishes, but dashes other people’s hopes. While some politicians who are prematurely positioning themselves for 2019 have been cheering Buhari to run faster on the death track, many other compassionate Nigerians pray for his quick recovery.
Right from when he began receiving treatment in London early this year, endless news about Buhari’s death have been circulating around the world. Some say he has a terminal disease. Quack doctors have looked at his photos and conclude that he is chronically ill. Some medical doctors who should refrain from diagnosing a disease by perusing a patient’s visual outlook, without conducting blood, X-Ray, MRI, colonoscopy, physical and other vital tests, have jumped into the fray, declaring that Buhari is a lost cause! But they forget that even the best doctors in the world cannot look at photos and diagnose a patient’s ailment, let alone provide a prognosis for the patient’s survival.
Some may wonder why I’m feverishly praying that Buhari should not die before me. They might think that, by singing Buhari’s praises, I would be appointed to a juicy position in his administration. Perhaps I would be appointed to the board of a very lucrative parastatal, like the Nigerian Ports Authority, NNPC, NDDC, or even become some errand boy in Aso Rock. I’ve heard that being a “messenger” or ‘cleaner” in Aso Rock is more lucrative than being a university professor. Perhaps I may be awarded a N300 million contract to mow lawns around Aso Rock, or undertake “surveillance of illegal activities” along the country’s coastline. It’s also possible that I might hit a jackpot, and be asked to furnish the newly established Fort Muhammadu Buhari Forward barracks in Daura for N5 billion. Oh, there is also the possibility of a N200 million contract for pasting “Sai Buhari 2019” posters along major roads and boulevards in Abuja. I’m not that crazy about a N200 million grass-cutting contract at the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in the north, as I’m very petrified by a possible Boko Haram attack at one of the camps.
Some may wonder why I’m feverishly praying that Buhari should not die before me. They might think that, by singing Buhari’s praises, I would be appointed to a juicy position in his administration. Perhaps I would be appointed to the board of a very lucrative parastatal, like the Nigerian Ports Authority, NNPC, NDDC, or even become some errand boy in Aso Rock.
Though I’m absolutely contented with my life-long profession of teaching and research, I pray every day that Buhari should not die before me. If Buhari dies before me, I’m very concerned that I would have to live through years of monumental corruption, as I excruciatingly endured in the past decades under various corrupt governments in Nigeria. I absconded from Nigeria in the early 1990s when the level of corruption and rot in the country became extremely unbearable. I could not stand the stark realisation that $12.4 billion in Gulf War oil windfall laws unaccounted for by the Babangida regime, while at the same time the university where I was teaching could not provide chalk and stationery for use by lecturers. I remember the perpetual blackouts, acute water shortages and frequent late payment of salaries we endured on university campuses in the 1990s.Those of us whose offices were proximate to the toilets stayed away from our offices, as a result of the unbearable stench from those toilets, due to lack of water. I have recently visited a couple of Nigerian universities, and I’m very encouraged that things have slightly improved from the gory days of the 1990s. I fear, however, that Buhari’s demise might mean a return to those dark days.
I’m very perturbed that Buhari’s death would mean a return to the days when, according to Chief Edwin Clark, some drivers in government ministries owned expensive mansions in Abuja and other parts of the country. It would mean a return to the era of slush funds, when money meant to fight insurgent and militant groups would be shared amongst those who are supposed to prosecute the war against terrorism and insurgency.
Another reason I’m petrified by any talk of Buhari’s death relates to the judiciary. I used to revere lawyers and judges a lot, and I almost studied law as an undergraduate, instead of the ‘‘dismal science” known as Economics. I admired how erudite and oratorical judges tended to be. I periodically spend time reading judgements on corruption and election petition cases. I often marvel at the syllogistic, jurisprudent and epistemological basis of those judgements, and applaud Nigerian judges for their intellectual prowess. I was very proud of the Nigerian judiciary when one particular judge courageously sent a very powerful politician in the southwest to jail for corruption. Many considered that courageous act as unprecedented in the annals of Nigeria’s judicial history. That is the kind of judge we want in Nigeria. Unfortunately, I cannot recall any other courageous judge who has sent a high-profile politician or elite to jail like this pace-setting judge, despite the plethora of court cases instituted by the EFCC. Some well-meaning observers worry that the EFCC and ICPC cases are becoming more of a charade and circus show, and a waste of our resources. It now appears to these critics that EFCC’s overarching strategy is to “name and shame,” rather than “prosecute, convict and jail.” Well, some may argue that the mere act of naming and shaming corrupt politicians and elites is better than sweeping corrupt practices under the rug, as previous administrations had done.
Thanks to Buhari, we now know there are cash-and-carry judges who sacrifice their judicial integrity at the altar of US dollars, the Euro, British Pounds, Rolex watches, stripe suits and exotic cars. To put it bluntly, I’m scared that Buhari’s death would mean an institutionalization of a judicial culture whereby the granting of bail by judges would become aquid pro quo affair, in favor of only those able to grease the palm of judges. Don’t get me wrong; every profession has its own bad apples. My own profession has had its fair share of very disgraceful lecturers and professors, who request sexual or pecuniary gratifications in exchange for inflated grades. Some of them unabashedly force indigent students to purchase second-rate, and mostly plagiarized handouts as a precondition for passing a course. But the point is that Buhari has succeeded in putting corrupt judges on notice. This is very important because, as Professor Itse Sagay often reminds us, a compromised judiciary spells ominous doom for our entire society. The poor, innocent, downtrodden and the oppressed will not have any succor under a corrupt judicial system. As one of the few most important institutions in society, we cannot allow bad apples to spread their rot to the entire judicial system.
The poor, innocent, downtrodden and the oppressed will not have any succor under a corrupt judicial system. As one of the few most important institutions in society, we cannot allow bad apples to spread their rot to the entire judicial system.
I’m very concerned that Buhari’s demise would mean that we will become oblivious of the unorthodox ways by which corrupt Nigerians hide their illicit wealth. Before Buhari, we only knew of secret Swiss bank accounts. Under Abacha, we started hearing about new havens for illicit wealth, including countries that are difficult to locate on the Atlas map, such as Liechtenstein and the Island of Jersey. But no one ever knew millions of U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies could be hidden in descript houses, slums, bathrooms, water tanks, wells, false walls, posh apartments, etc. All of a sudden, we began hearing about abandoned money at airports; and unclaimed money lodged in mysterious bank accounts. On a recent visit to Abuja, my host drove me around the city and showed me several unoccupied expensive and exquisite mansions whose owners are unknown. Of course, official real-estate documents would show some sort of ownerships, but these are mainly fronts for the real owners. I said to my host: “why can’t the EFCC announce in major newspapers and media outlets that the owners of these mansions should show up at the building sites on a particular date and time, failure of which the houses will be forfeited permanently to the Federal Government? It’s as simple as that!” The same rule can also be applied to mysterious mansions in other parts of the country. It is possible we’ll begin to see teenagers with no jobs showing up at the sites to claim ownership, or even housemaids and messengers laying claim on those assets. It is also possible that no owner would ever show up.
As a Nigerian in the Diaspora, I worry about what would become of Nigeria’s international image, should Buhari die before me. In the past, Nigerians were disparaged and often humiliated abroad. No sooner had one introduced himself or herself as a Nigerian than the following remarks would ensue: “Oh, I just received an email from a Nigerian asking me to wire so and so amount to his bank account.” “A Nigerian whom I’ve never met before is proposing to me a business deal worth millions of dollars.” Yes, there are several variants of these ridiculous 419 scams, for which Nigeria became a poster child globally. In those days, you were judged a criminal and the onus was on you to prove otherwise. In anger, some of us would counter: “Do you know that the first African Nobel laureate in literature is a Nigerian? “Do you know that the doctor who found a link between American football and brain damage is a Nigerian, a path-breaking finding that spurred the award-winning movie Concussion? “Do you know that the majority of skilled Africans (engineers, lawyers, doctors, artistes, professors, IT specialists, financial experts, etc.) in the Diaspora are Nigerians?” “Do you know (at least at that time) that the Managing Director, as well as the Vice President of the World Bank, are Nigerians?
When Buhari was elected in 2015, the international community began to set the refresh button for Nigeria. They began to view Nigeria more positively. In fact, less than one month after his election, he was invited to the White House to meet with President Obama. I cannot recall any African Head of State who was invited to the White House shortly after their election. Newly elected foreign leaders who get invited to the White House are usually from strategically important countries like Israel, China, Turkey, India, Egypt, Mexico and Ukraine. When Buhari came to Washington DC in July 2015, the atmosphere was electric. Nigerians in Diaspora began to feel proud again, as we had always been prior to the era of prolonged military dictatorship and corruption. I’m worried that the international and diplomatic refresh button may disappear if Buhari dies.
In conclusion, while Nigeria has leaders who could step into Buhari’s big shoes, it is doubtful that any of those leaders would fight corruption with Buhari’s level of credibility, sagacity, sincerity and integrity. The fight against corruption under Buhari has certainly not been perfect, and will never be under any leader. But for the first time since the regime of General Murtala Muhammed, the fight against corruption has become real under Buhari. This is why I continue to pray that Buhari should not die before me, thus saving me and many others the agony of reliving Nigeria’s inglorious past.
Onyeiwu is a Professor and chair of Economics Department, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, USA wrote this piece for The Guardian newspaper,Nigeria, from where it was culled.