The paranoid style of governance

History sometimes provides a striking opportunity for understanding the interplay between leaders and circumstances. It also provides a valuable look at both changeless dynamics of power, the changing structure of political system and utterances of those that society accords recognition and respect. Whether they deserve such honour, times and circumstances almost always become the best judge. That’s why history often vindicates the just. Nonetheless, the historical environment of every democracy may differ, but the circumstances do provide a panoramic view of what drives a leader and those who surround him. Let’s go back in time, just briefly.                                                         

At a press conference at the Freedom Park  in Lagos, December 2, 2014, Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, in response to what he called an “emergency of dire public concern” in Nigeria, came hard on the then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. He described Jonathan as “worst than Nebuchadnezzar”. If you may recall, Nebuchadnezzar was one of the ancient biblical Babylonian autocrats that ever lived. Soyinka said that Nigeria under the leadership of Jonathan had been cast into a furnace in the manner of the three Jewish young men, Sheddrack, Mesheck and Abednego. And I ask: Where is the Nobel laureate now after he assured Nigerians last year that he would comment on President Tinubu’s performance after one year in office?           

Wherever he is, he may not be too far away. Why has Soyinka been so  quiet these days, even after the federal government named the recently inaugurated Abuja arterial highway in after him? Or is he busy renewing his American passport, which he vowed he would throw away if Donald Trump won the 2016 American presidential election. Trump won, anyway. The same way Chief Bode George swore that he would go into exile if Tinubu won the 2023 presidential election. George hasn’t gone anywhere. He is now a “new  convert” of Tinubu. Who says Nigerian politics is not a fun to follow? Again, I ask, why is the voice of our esteemed Nobel laureate always heard when matters concerning Mr. Peter Obi and the ‘Obidient Movement’ are involved? Anyway, who takes the Nobel laureate seriously anymore? That’s what happens when ‘elders’ sit on the fence at a critical time that their attention is needed. 

Looking back, and now, Soyinka misfired. He played the ostrich when he attacked Jonathan, the same way he’s obsessed with Obi, throwing volleys and tantrums with no evidence why  Obi should be barred from contesting the 2027 presidential election. Is Soyinka afraid of Obi and why? Who is now worse than Nebuchadnezzar? Definitely not Jonathan. An attempt to find answers to these questions leads to yet two gritty questions: why does the performance of every incumbent President in Nigeria appear to be worse than that of his predecessor? Why is Nigeria’s present generation of politicians not measuring up on the scale of leadership test? Are Nigerians better off today than they were this time last year? For our Muslim brothers who are rounding off the Sallah holidays today, is the cost of a ram today cheaper than it was last year? 

 Nigeria is at a critical juncture today and everyone must take a stand. If you think the present administration cares for you, you probably have not heard what Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, Governor of Anambra State, said last week when he featured at The Platform, an event organised by The Covenant Nation Church, in Lagos. Soludo had lamented with an ironic  graphic evidence that while the government will give us excuses that the “country is broke, elected officials continue to live in denial and show off flamboyant lifestyles to the detriment of the masses.” That’s why the federal government will continue to stonewall on a new minimum wage, and state governments saying they will not be able to pay N60,000 minimum wage, yet they are living in obscene opulence, and federal and state lawmakers are driving expensive cars bought with public resources.                                                         

That’s why government had to spent a hefty $13.9 million (about N21bn) to renovate the official residence of VP Kashim Shettima, yet the country cannot afford to pay workers a living wage. Again, the country is ‘broke’, but the House of Representatives has given approval for the purchase of two additional aircraft to the presidential fleet. As Soludo succinctly captured the foolish lifestyle of political officeholders in the country, many Nigerians are hungry, while the ruling class continues to live extravagantly at the expense of the poor masses. “Let’s come clean and straight with Nigerians,” he said. Truth sometimes hurts. That’s the message that Soludo has delivered, even though he’s part of the ruling class. But he’s against the wasteful spending that has become commonplace among the present crop of public officials. It calls for drastic cut in the cost of governance. But is the President listening?                                                           

Last week (June 11), one of America’s most influential newspapers, The New York Times, exposed the filthy rich in Nigeria amid extreme poverty among its vast population. The paper wrote, “Nigeria is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with skyrocketing inflation, a national currency in free-fall,  and millions of people struggling to buy food. Only two years ago, Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria is projected to drop to 4th place this year”. The “pain”, the paper added, “is widespread… people die in stampedes, desperate for free sacks of rice. Hospitals are overrun with women wracked by spasms from calcium deficiencies”. It says the current crisis in Nigeria is rooted largely in two major implementation changes by Tinubu, 14 months ago: subsidy removal on petrol and the floating of the naira, which together have caused major increase in prices of essential commodities and medicines. That’s the gritty truth of where Nigeria and its citizens are today, yet the government and its officials continue to live in denial.                                 

Instead of dealing with the challenges that confront the country, the government is pursuing perceived political opponents and perfecting plans on how to destroy businesses in which these individuals have interests. Muhammadu Buhari did the same thing, and nothing happened. This is pure paranoid style of politics. It reminds one of the classic essay written in November 1964, titled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hotstradter,  an acclaimed historian and public intellectual. The essay, which x-rayed American electoral politics, also offers an invaluable perspective on contemporary domestic affairs. It’s relevant to the present style of Nigerian politics. According to Hotstradter, paranoid style of politics expresses itself in three habits: first, “heated exaggeration”, second, “suspiciousness” and, third, “conspiratorial fantasy.” In a paranoid style of politics, ideas matter very little. Truth is always the first casualty. He argues that a President who suffers from such delusional conditions often embarks on “unchecked power that is only “reserved for kings and potentates.”   

Hotstradter also noted that, in such a political atmosphere, no matter the growing chorus of outrage over abuses of power, the President is unlikely to pay heed. Tools deployed by the state to rein in political opponents include tapping into phone conversations of such political adversaries. The President, he explains in the essay, may not be a ‘dictator’ but he “does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form.” Can you now pick the reasoning in Hotstradter’s essay and situate it to Nigerian politics of today? Any difference? Not much. This classic essay was written in Barry Goldwater’s insurgency in American politics. You may recall that Goldwater was most associated in American politics of the 1960s with anti-union work. He also articulated an alternative, radical interpretation of conservatism. He got humiliated in the outcome of the 1964 presidential election by Lyndon Johnson.                                                           

Now, back to Nigeria. During his ‘Democracy Day’(June 12) speech last Wednesday, President Tinubu raised the alarm over perceived threat he claimed was posed by “some individuals within the country to undermine democracy in the country.” He also alleged that some persons were trying to exploit the current challenges facing the nation. His exact words, “we must be aware that there are those among us who will try to exploit current challenges to undermine, if not destroy this democracy for which so much has already been given. These people do not make things better but to subject all other people and things to their control…” Who are”these people” he was referring to? Your guess is as good as mine. In my view, this much is clear: when the President hears the complaints of  poor Nigerians, who are at the receiving end of his policies, they are simply reminding him, to borrow the words of Donald Regan(President Ronald Reagan’s first Chief of Staff), that being a “president is a matter of luck and courtesy rather than any rights”. The President is first among equals. Therefore, Nigerians demand, as of right, performance from the APC administration, not promises, specifics, not scapegoating for its own poor decisions. And nothing less will do.

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