“All well-governed states and wise princes have taken care not to reduce the nobility to despair, nor the people to discontent”. N. Machiavelli,1469-1526.
How does one provide a fair assessment of five years of the Buhari presidency?
A fair answer to this question is likely to be: one does not.
The idea that you could undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of an administration and put it out there as a verdict that should be applauded by a large section of the public as a great balancing act is popular, but simplistic.
Yet it is undertaken with such enthusiasm that you have to wonder what its objectives are. It certainly does not impress the administration if your assessment punches large holes on its record.
Its opponents will not tolerate attempts to give credit even where it is patently deserved.
There is an audience out there that may be the target of all the effort to evaluate the quality of life in a country for a period of five years, but this audience would have made up its mind long before it is lambasted with figures, facts and fiction from all sides.
Listening to the President’s side make his case, you get the impression that he believes that almost all criticisms are unfair and predictable partisan propaganda, and more significantly, the nation should actually be grateful for the favour of a Buhari leadership.
This is not a contribution for or against the administration, and no apologies are offered if it appears otherwise.
It is an attempt to make the case for the nation to move beyond lamentations and opportunistic quarrels and for the leadership to assume its role with greater sense of responsibility and sincerity, or the country will sink deeper into uncertainty and insecurity by 2023.
Part of the problem here is that President Buhari is not given to shifting ground.
The impression is created that he genuinely believes he has largely vindicated the faith of Nigerian voters with the two elections he won, and if there are shortfalls, they should be accounted for by a democratic system that holds him back from repeating his performance when he overthrew a democratically-elected government and acquired his reputation for fighting corruption without gloves.
He may have won his first election (and defeated an incumbent) with just that image, but not until three attempts during which the nation was driven nearer to where the appeal for leadership without a stain of corruption was what was needed to win an election.
His second term was more a verdict on his opposition than an endorsement of his record during his first term.
So, in spite of registered failures to translate an image into substance, it was still good enough to win him his second term.
This is not to suggest that he does not recognise problems and challenges, but the challenges that got him to stress and strain were mainly related to being elected president.
His governance style is entirely shaped by the personality of an extreme conservative, the type that believes changing styles or pace is unnecessary and a sign of weakness.
This fundamental contradiction around a basically conservative person who acquires power on the back of deep, popular yearning for real change is one of those peculiarities of our politics.
Clues for understanding it may lie in the deep recesses of the historic injustice, which the poor have borne from past leaders and elites; the yearning for genuinely honest leadership by most Nigerians; as well the outlines of the influence of region and religion in the manner we approach political issues.
Is there enough fight left in President Buhari to reduce the gap between what the nation requires to be done, and where he appears to be content to draw lines?
The nation had better hope there is, because the popular narrative that Buhari has three years to leave the Villa is misleading.
In real political time, he has less than two years to resist the alarming slide into pervasive and endemic insecurity, respond to the challenges of a receding economy made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, improve the bonds that hold the nation together and restore hope that the democratic process can actually address needs that go beyond those of leaders.
The democratic process will lose many roots if the Buhari’s presidency comes to an end leaving majority of Nigerians thinking that it does not yield leaders who can improve lives.
Those who think recording achievements and looking for clues for legacies are important should note that at this stage, President Buhari’s legacy is being written in blood and tears of innocent villagers by bandits and insurgents.
Most of the people who die or are severely distressed by organised criminals are the same people who showed the highest degree of affection and faith in the person and leadership of President Buhari.
Villagers from Niger, Zamfara, Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna, Yobe, Borno, Adamawa, Taraba, Benue, Plateau and Nassarawa States do not understand the intricacies and challenges of providing them with security against organised criminals and each other, but they do understand that they have a president whose responsibility it is to do so.
They did not wake up one tragic morning to find their lives and livelihood entirely at the mercy of criminals.
Some had lived with it before 2015, but had believed that President Buhari would put an end to it immediately and permanently.
Many others knew real tragedy only under a president with the reputation for being tough on all matters that affect the weak and the poor.
He did sweep insurgents that bombed mosques and churches and triggered long military checkpoints from towns and cities, but the insurgency drew lines around total and permanent defeat, and continues to feed-off its resistance against a state under the leadership of a former military general.
Others had watched a creeping threat from bandits, kidnappers, rustlers and ethnic militias from the distance until it reached them.
Today, thousands of villagers are living as internally displaced people in areas that had known no violence for close to a century. They are farmers with no farms to cultivate.
Now they are just a burden that cannot be borne by any level of authority, and no one is in a position to say if or when they can resume normal lives of feeding themselves and a nation that relies heavily on what they produce.
There is something the Buhari administration can do that will improve the quality of its legacy.
This is to operate with one overarching philosophy behind everything it does henceforth: damage control.
There is the inherent damage on the nation by a hugely expensive and wasteful political system that is incredibly easy to abuse.
To leave the basic framework the way he found it will be a great disservice to a nation that gave him mandates twice to change systems and processes.
He should attempt to reduce the damage that the administration inherited, particularly endemic corruption and weakening institutions of the state.
Not to do so will be registered by history as his biggest failure.
He has to address damage caused by his administration’s avoidable inertia, complacency around decision-making and failure to explore the more responsive elements of a democratic process that will not be easily reduced to the personal conveniences of a president.
Then he has to address damage from opportunistic elements and tendencies that now threaten national security and political cohesion.
A weakened and insecure nation will provide ample grounds for those who believe their fortunes lie outside it.
The 2023 elections will test the resilience of the polity, but threats to it can be reduced by deliberately taking on those irritants that could make winning or losing the next elections less attractive motives for threatening national co-existence.
It is important that President Buhari understands his place in history very clearly.
Right now, the mystique around him has faded thin, and simple folk who thought there was nothing he could not do are bitter that they either over-rated him, or he has badly let them down deliberately.
His enemies may rejoice at the demystification of a man and the nation’s loss of eight years, but majority of Nigerians will hope that he will not be overwhelmed by the state of our existence today to resign to waiting out his time.
Countries do not stand still. They improve, regress or decay.
If President Buhari cannot turn the tide, he should work towards slowing it.