By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
March 30 was my birthday. Although I don’t celebrate birthdays, people close to me—especially my children and my wife—make it a special day for me. They take me to a dainty restaurant for a nice dinner. But this birthday was different. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep, either. Although I knew that the balance of forces favored a Buhari win, I was nonetheless gripped by crippling anxieties about the election. I’d feared that Goodluck Jonathan would rig himself back to power and plunge the country into a fratricidal upheaval.
Even though I live in America and will not be affected in a direct way by what happens in Nigeria, I love Nigeria too much to be unconcerned by what goes on there. I knew that Nigeria would never be able to survive another four years of Goodluck Jonathan’s ineptitude, and the prospect of Jonathan forcing himself back to power by any means terrified me to no end. That was why I stayed up all night monitoring the election on Facebook, Twitter, and Channels TV. My heart stood still several times during the night. Thankfully, my worst fears didn't come to pass.
I was also deeply touched when I discovered that my American students who are enrolled in my Global Journalism class this semester got equally emotionally invested in the election. At least two of them stayed up the night monitoring the results of the election on Channel TV’s livestream. You’re probably wondering why young white Americans would be so invested in an election taking place in a distant place to sacrifice their sleep.
Well, in several discussions in the class, I sparked their interest about Nigeria—and about the elections that just ended. But, most importantly, Goodluck Jonathan has become a known name in America in the last few months for the wrong reasons. The worldwide “Bring Back Our Girls” protest caused several Americans to find out who Nigeria’s president was. What they found out—and say about him—isn’t flattering. First, they think he’s too incompetent to be president of any country. Second, Americans find his name and ever-present fedora hilarious. (There is a popular comedic children’s TV show here called “Good Luck Charlie,” so when President Jonathan’s name is mentioned in the news, they think of the TV show, which causes them to laugh).
In any event, as I wrote on my Facebook timeline, Buhari’s epoch-making electoral triumph in the last presidential election is the best birthday gift I’ve ever received in all my adult life. I’ve been ecstatic since it became apparent that Buhari had won the election. This is undoubtedly a great moment for Nigeria and for Nigeria’s democracy. But after savoring the afterglow of the victory, President-elect Buhari needs to come to terms with several things.
First, as he himself has recognized in his acceptance speech, his honeymoon with Nigerians won’t last too long. In light of the blight and venality that has characterized the past few years—and the enormous, some would say unrealistic, hopes that Nigerians have invested in him to right the wrongs of the past—there is bound to be what sociologists call the crisis of rising expectations. So when Nigerians get impatient with him, he shouldn’t be irritated.
His relationship with the media would be crucial. The media will get under his skin. Columnists like me will excoriate him, not because we hate him, but because we care, and because we know that to perform well and be in touch with the masses of people who elected him, we need to help hold his feet to the fire. When Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” he was acknowledging the importance of the media to the sustenance of democracy.
President Buhari should expect to be scrutinized and criticized and even “attacked” by critical media outfits like the compulsively contrarian Sahara Reporters, which robustly supported him throughout his campaign for the presidency. Recall that the same Sahara Reporters vigorously supported Jonathan against the late Yar’adua’s “cabal.” Before then, it supported Abubakar Atiku against Obasanjo. It will turn against Buhari the moment he officially assumes duties. It’s not personal. Sahara Reporters understands its role as a comforter of the afflicted and an afflicter of the comfortable.
Many of us share this “adversarial” philosophy of the press and shouldn’t be made to suffer for it. I want to be able to visit Nigeria without being harassed by security forces because I wrote critical articles against the president and his government. That’s one area I give President Goodluck Jonathan some credit. I was the first person to call him “unfathomably clueless” in my recounting of his first American visit when he was acting president. “Clueless” has now become his second name. Yet I have never been harassed in all the times I have visited Nigeria during his presidency.
Where he erred, however, was in choosing vulgar, abusive, ill-bred philistines like Reuben Abati and Doyin Okupe as his mediators with the Nigerian public. Buhari should never make that mistake. He should make it clear to whoever he appoints as his intercessors with the public that their role is to explain the president’s policies to the people, not to insult and denigrate critics of government. Employing Abati- and Okupe-like media reps is the fastest way to deplete any president’s goodwill.
Lastly, Buhari should resist the temptation of falling into the trap of provincialism. He won an unprecedentedly national mandate. His “kitchen cabinet” should reflect this.