When new leaders are elected, By Mike Awoyinfa
Almost 30 years ago, when the late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa of National Republican Convention (NRC) were just emerging as presidential candidates, as the editor of the Weekend Concord, Nigeria’s first Saturday newspaper, I asked Sam Omatseye, our in-house Lance Morrow, the TIME magazine essayist, to give us an essay on leadership. And he penned this piece titled: “WHEN LEADERS ARE ELECTED.” Reading the essay, thirty years after, I find it still relevant in this new era witnessing the emergence of Nigeria’s newly elected President Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu who comes in with an olive branch, saying: “Let peace reign and tensions fade…Many people are uncertain, angry and hurt; I reach out to every one of you. Let the better aspects of our humanity step forward at this fateful moment. Let us begin to heal and bring calm to our nation.” I like his clarion call to the youths of Nigeria: “I hear you loud and clear. I understand your pains, your yearnings for good governance, a functional economy and a safe nation that protect you and your future.”
I also love his pledge to restore educational loans for students in the universities, something we benefitted from, in our time. It will go a long way in helping our youths in rebuilding our nation.
Kudos to Peter Obi, who has redrawn the political map of Nigeria. And kudos to Alhaji Atiku who also fought a very good fight. You are all winners in my heart. Let us all come together to rebuild the great Nigeria of our dreams where security, economic prosperity and oneness reign.
Now, here is what the poet Sam Omatseye wrote as a younger journalist three decades ago:
By Sam Omatseye
(First published in WEEKEND CONCORD, Saturday, April 3, 1993)
In that soulful moment of victory, each flagbearer looked like a torch. Triumph in whatever guise always tend to belong to sun flashed path, beaming and pushing the bearer into loftier, clearer halo. The defeated sulk. They belong to the dark.
That is what seemed to have happened in the week when M.K.O. Abiola and Bashir Tofa ascended their parties, holding forth the banner and flashing the winner’s smile. But it is not the mood of the leaders that is the concern here. Leaders, once they get elected, often throw up certain moods in the nation. Though Abiola’s and Tofa’s triumphs are the victories before the victory, one can look at the mood of the nation when new faces emerge as leaders.
What one gets is a certain feeling of renewal, of a new face adorning an old office. The office looks like a new baby, the nation following that reverie, and thinking that all is new. It is symbolic, but, in the quirks and of politics, symbolism is real. But when leaders are elected anywhere, their victories usually become less of a personal lift, but a solid statement of the times and society. So today, with a nation crawling with inflation and mass poverty, the two party leaders will tend to be seen in the context of national redemption. In terms of arresting SAP, the jobless hobgoblin, the artificial polarity of the polity, the gradual guillotine of the naira, the smouldering national question. Nor is it peculiar to Nigeria.
When leaders are elected, they carry the albatross of the moment, they and the times become luggage of history. So, when Nicephore Soglo became Benin’s Prime Minister, in spite of collapsing health, he came to represent to the people the movement away from Kerekou’s authoritarian rim. His election was, on the surface, a signal of the dawn of popular rule, the people’s empowerment. It also in a sense, was symptomatic of the need to tackle a withering economy by means of mass participation, although what has happened has been a mere change of guard, poverty and IMF upstaging the people.
History abounds with instances of people elected in times of national disintegration and social ennui. Yugoslavia after Tito has been difficult to hang together. Rather with the election of such demons as Slobodan Milosevic, the quiescent nation has gone down the drains. Men, women, children, have gone down the drains. Bosnia Herzegovina, a name as difficult to pronounce as to live in, has become the anarchic symbol of Tito’s legacy.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin by turns took charge of Russia in times of disintegration. Gorbachev could not hold for long the nation being in ferment of breaking up. A coup swept him out and in turning Lenin’s hefty nation into a superpower ash. Yeltsin climbed on Gorbachev’s disgrace, and the nation stop itself from sliding.
Some get it in the heat of war. Winston Churchill, rising after sundry electoral falls, took charge of Britain to battle Hitler in the world’s bitterest war. Churchill, a former soldier, combined military starchiness with a politician’s cunning to push Hitler out of history. He called for blood, tears, sweat and toil.
When the economy is in the dumps, the election of leaders is usually tricky. George Bush underestimated American sensitivity about the economy, so Clinton threw him into the bush. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt also took charge of the United States in the Depression years when he announced on radio that Americans should not be afraid of fear. He came with his wise New Deal which journalists ridiculed as raw deal. But the man was equal to the wild temper of his time. Adenuer took charge of West Germany after the Second World War and succeeded in bringing the nation’s battered economy to a bounce. Leaders also emerged as symbol of a nation’s renewal. When Israel was reborn in 1948, Ben Gurion, a stout and charismatic leader, defined the future of the infant nation. Much of the vibrancy and health of today’s Israel is traceable to the morning vision of Gurion. The idea of renewal is also akin to nations at independence. India with men like Nehru and Gandhi emboldened their people from colonial thralldom.
In Africa, nationalist fighters have tended to undergo dark metamorphosis at independence. Nkrumah, the nationalist tiger, turned his rabble on his people. Sekou Toure who said no to France in the tempestuous 1950s also said no to the people’s progress for many years until fate said no to him. He was wiped out by the affirmative finalities of the bullet.
Leaders also come merely to continue tradition. Bush continued that of Reagan. Shagari followed after Obasanjo. But it went into ruin. The tragedy of continuity is that it encourages sterility, foreclosing new ideas. But some new governments come to reinvoke ostensibly halcyon times. Muhammadu Buhari’s regime sought legitimacy by showing kinship with the Murtala years. In America, campaigns are sometimes hedged on association with models of the past. Dukakis failed in invoking Kennedy. Clinton succeeded because he put much of the politician’s craftiness into it. Shagari did not invoke the Balewa regime, but it was easy for analysts to make the connection.
So, as the transition programme moves, whoever emerges should realize that the leadership of the nation involves tackling the many-sidedness of Nigeria. A huge burden to fall on any man. And they would do well to extract wisdom from those who rose and lessons from those who fell.