Viewpoint: The dangers of negative narratives by Simon Kolawole
As a professional journalist and a regular columnist, one of the things I fear the most on the job is boxing myself into a corner. My philosophy of life is that no one is completely good or completely bad. I find it hard to look at something and say there is nothing good in it or that it is absolutely flawless. I find it impossible to take someone’s idea and describe it as totally perfect or totally useless. Even a broken clock, we are told, is correct at least twice a day. If those analogue hands stopped at 4:36, at least there would be 4:36am and 4:36pm every day. I would rather avoid boxing myself into a corner by saying the clock is wrong every minute of the day.
We are in the political season again. I am having fun staring at the gladiators as they throw stones at each other, and I am watching history on replay mode yet again. To unseat President Goodluck Jonathan and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015, the All Progressives Congress (APC) painted the picture of a government that achieved nothing in five years. Not a single credit was given to Jonathan for anything. While you can argue that it is politically logical to downplay your opponent’s achievements in order to position yourself as a better alternative, the keyword should be “downplay” and not “deny”. APC completely denied Jonathan did anything good at all.
But when you have boxed yourself into a corner, you leave yourself with no wriggle space. You have to continue to maintain your storyline that your opponent never did anything good. There is actually an option: to swallow your pride and say you got it wrong, or that your opponent achieved something but it was not significant enough compared to the resources at his disposal. Unfortunately, in the world of politics — maybe Nigerian politics — it is not allowed. You have to maintain your original argument. At some point, it was glaring that the red-herring of the Buhari administration was to blame everything wrong with Nigeria on Jonathan and PDP.
In my article, “My Grouse with President Jonathan” (September 14, 2014), I highlighted some of his achievements thus: massive reduction in fertilizer fraud; improved supply of the product to farmers; the resultant improvement in agricultural output, particularly rice, cassava and cotton; the construction of Almajiri and girl-child schools to tackle the out-of-school epidemic; road reconstruction; the sovereign wealth fund; the rehabilitation and modernisation of the rail system and airports; the completion of power projects initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo; and consistent economic growth. These, to me, were certainly not “nothing”.
However, I did say that Jonathan was not doing two things the right way. First was the war against corruption. Nigerians love to see high-profile arrests and prosecution, but the EFCC under him did not do much on that score. Second was the war against Boko Haram — which I thought was politicised by both the PDP and the APC at the expense of lives, property, peace and prosperity. I called them “my grouse” with Jonathan. I summed up: “Mr. President, without brutally tackling corruption and caging Boko Haram with everything at your disposal, the job is not yet done. We need to free our resources for development, and we need peace and security to attain that goal.”
As things have turned out, President Buhari has, in the last three years, built on some of the foundations laid by Jonathan, particularly in rail and airport infrastructure and agriculture. Buhari’s anti-graft war has benefitted tremendously from the use of BVN, the administration of criminal justice act (ACJA), the integrated payroll and personnel information (IPPIS) and the single treasure account (TSA) — all introduced by the Jonathan administration. These are not “nothing”, in my opinion. However, when we design a negative narrative purely for political purposes, it can only blind us to the little progress we are making as a nation, thus rendering us pessimistic.
It is not as if we are ever tired of feeding this negative mindset. As the 2019 elections knock ferociously on the door, we are back to the “nothing” narrative again. I am reading every day that President Buhari has done nothing since 2015 when he came to office. I will, as usual, concede that it is politically logical for you to downplay the achievements of your opponent. You cannot be advertising his accomplishments and at the same time asking Nigerians to vote him out. I am old enough to understand that trick. However — I have to say this again — there is a big difference between downplaying and denying achievements. The superlatives always blind us to the truth.
To say Buhari has achieved nothing is an exaggeration taken too far. We don’t have to re-elect him, but we are not under obligation to deny the facts either. For one, I have been very impressed with his commitment to the development of rail and road infrastructure across the federation. Those denying the importance today may swallow their words in the next two, three years when we begin to see the positive impact on the economy with the mass movement of passengers and cargo. I remember the criticism that greeted Asiwaju Bola Tinubu when he started the BRT project as governor of Lagos. Today, the buses move 150,000 passengers every day. It’s a lifesaver.
Truly, Buhari could have done many things better, much better. In whom much hope is invested, much is expected. The anti-graft war, for instance, could use some more decorum and consistency. Returning the passports of Senators Musiliu Obanikoro and Iyiola Omisore to them for political gains can only discredit the anti-graft war, which has been increasingly regarded as vendetta on the opposition. But we should avoid denying the fact that for the first time since 1999, politicians have been forced to vomit some of what they ate with impunity. Former service chiefs are returning looted funds. Judges have been put on trial over graft. How can we genuinely deny these facts?
I’m also of the opinion that Buhari did not stamp his feet properly over the herders/farmers issue — even though I will never buy the dubious narrative that the president instructed the herders to be killing Christians. Compared to the way Obasanjo tackled the OPC menace in the south-west in the infancy of his administration in 1999, Buhari has not the struck the fear of God into the minds of those fomenting trouble by taking advantage of the age-old conflict between herders and pastoralists. Neither would Buhari smell of roses over the geo-political balancing of major government appointments. These are real issues we cannot sweep under the rug.
The economy is perhaps the biggest albatross on Buhari’s neck. He took over at a time there was a downward spiral in crude oil prices — but he could have acted faster and decisively. His failure to swiftly appoint ministers, at a time of serious economic crisis, will continue to count against him. Agreed, the crude oil crunch affected every oil-dependent country and this would challenge the best of economic managers. Venezuela, a country built on the assumption that oil prices would be sky-high till eternity, is still deeply in the pit of the recession that resulted from the crash. Buhari spent too much energy blaming Jonathan when what Nigerians needed was solution.
In real life, though, you don’t come out of recession and start growing the economy immediately at 6 per cent per annum. That would amount to a magical miracle. We all know that the fundamentals of the Nigerian economy are horribly wrong. They have been wrong since 1973. We will continue to be at the mercy of external shocks for as long as we are oil-dependent and import-dependent. You cannot be earning over 90 per cent of your forex from a single product and importing most of what you consume without being at the mercy of rocky externalities. Diversifying and developing the economy is what we have been saying we would do since the 1970s but here we are, still struggling.
I conclude. It is too negative, I insist, to say Buhari has achieved nothing. To suggest that the Boko Haram insurgents are still as strong and as devastating as they were three years ago would fly in the face of fact. To deny the importance of school-feeding programme and other social investment schemes would be most unreasonable. To even suggest that Buhari should have discarded projects started by previous governments is, how should I put it, ridiculous. If we really care about the progress of Nigeria, we would focus our attention on the things that matter the most to the majority of our people and allow the politicians do the politicking — because that is their profession.
We don’t have to re-elect for Buhari — that is a political decision — but we also don’t have to be uncharitable. I made the same argument about Jonathan and I stand by it. Even as bad as Gen. Sani Abacha was, he signed the NLNG into life and we’ve been reaping the dividends in billions of dollars. All I care about is the progress of Nigeria — no matter who delivers it. We desperately need steady economic growth, poverty reduction and job creation. We need a prosperous country. But I am very realistic about my own expectations — no president can transform Nigeria in four years. Whoever wins the 2019 election can, however, do with less superlatively negative narratives.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
According to a version of the story, trouble started in Kasuwan Magani, Kajuru LGA, Kaduna state, on October 18 when bees invaded a market. People ran helter-skelter in panic, and then rumour mongers seized the opportunity to launch fake news that Muslims and Christians were fighting. Then the real fight started. And by the time the dust settled a bit, 55 lives had been lost. If this is true, then that is what you get in any society built on hate and resentment. The reality, though, is that Muslims and Christians will just have to accept that they have to exist side-by-side in the state. It is left for the leaders and their followers to devise strategies for bloodless co-existence. Indisputable.
Whenever I read of the progressive reforms going on in Ethiopia, I am a little envious. The country has just elected its first female president, Ms Sahle-Work Zewde. Half of cabinet positions are held by women! In Nigeria, we can’t even have a female VP or senate president. We can’t have a female governor. Only a few states can boast of having female deputy governors. When Mrs Patricia Etteh was elected speaker in 2007 — the first in our history — she was quickly hounded out with trumped-up corruption charges by a chauvinistic cabal that felt it could not subject itself to female leadership. Nigeria should be leading the way in progressive reforms across Africa. Shame.
The savage murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal bin Ahmad Khashoggi, at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, was meant to be treated as a routine case of unexplained disappearance, but the Saudis did a shoddy job of cover-up. They have, indeed, murdered sleep. There is no use blaming the dead, but Khashoggi probably underrated what the Saudi authorities could do to him, especially with the acclaimed new wave of reform. A citizen should ordinarily run to their embassy for protection from danger! The murder brought back the sad memories of military dictatorship in Nigeria. Khashoggi’s fate is a reminder of the dangers journalists still face. Disturbing.
Sometimes it is very easy to identify fake news, but the social media has done so much damage to our IQ that some people would believe anything, no matter how implausible and ridiculous. How on earth could Alhaji Lai Mohammed, minister of information, have said Nigeria would “invade” Israel because Nnamdi Kanu, the supreme leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), was allowed into the country? But before you could say Jack, the fake news was trending, with memes to boot. What next? That President Muhammadu Buhari has decided to pick the IPOB leader as his running mate in the 2019 presidential poll? Sure, some people will believe that too. Ludicrous.