Chimamanda's Controversial Democracy Deferred

In a piece titled "Democracy, Deferred", award winning
author, Chimamanda Adichie described the recent
postponement of the general elections as an act of
desperation from an incumbent terrified of losing. Below is
the article published on The Atlantic ...
Last week, Victor, a carpenter, came to my Lagos
home to fix a broken chair. I asked him whom he
preferred as Nigeria’s next president: the incumbent,
Goodluck Jonathan, or his challenger, Muhammadu
Buhari. "I don’t have a voter’s card, but if I did, I
would vote for somebody I don’t like,” he said. 'I don’t
like Buhari but Jonathan is not performing.”
Victor sounded like many people I know: utterly
unenthusiastic about the two major candidates in our
upcoming election.
Were Nigerians to vote on likeability alone, Jonathan would
win. He is mild-mannered and genially unsophisticated, with
a conventional sense of humor. Buhari has a severe,
ascetic air about him, a rigid uprightness; it is easy to
imagine him in 1984, leading a military government whose
soldiers routinely beat up civil servants. Neither candidate
is articulate. Jonathan is given to rambling; his unscripted
speeches leave listeners vaguely confused. Buhari is thick-
tongued, his words difficult to decipher. In public
appearances, he seems uncomfortable not only with the
melodrama of campaigning but also with the very idea of it.
To be a democratic candidate is to implore and persuade,
and his demeanor suggests a man who is not at ease with
amiable consensus. Still, he is no stranger to campaigns.
This is his third run as a presidential candidate; the last
time, in 2011, he lost to Jonathan.
This time, Buhari’s prospects are better. Jonathan is widely
perceived as ineffectual, and the clearest example, which
has eclipsed his entire presidency, is his response to Boko
Haram. Such a barbaric Islamist insurgency would
challenge any government. But while Boko Haram bombed
and butchered, Jonathan seemed frozen in a confused,
tone-deaf inaction. Conflicting stories emerged of an ill-
equipped army, of a corrupt military leadership, of northern
elites sponsoring Boko Haram, and even of the government
itself sponsoring Boko Haram.
Jonathan floated to power, unprepared, on a serendipitous
cloud. He was a deputy governor of Bayelsa state who
became governor when his corrupt boss was forced to quit.
Chosen as vice president because powerbrokers considered
him the most harmless option from southern Nigeria, he
became president when his northern boss died in office.
Nigerians gave him their goodwill—he seemed refreshingly
unassuming—but there were powerful forces who wanted
him out, largely because he was a southerner, and it was
supposed to be the north’s ‘turn’ to occupy the presidential
And so the provincial outsider suddenly thrust onto the
throne, blinking in the chaotic glare of competing interests,
surrounded by a small band of sycophants, startled by the
hostility of his traducers, became paranoid. He was slow to
act, distrustful and diffident. His mildness came across as
cluelessness. His response to criticism calcified to a single
theme: His enemies were out to get him. When the Chibok
girls were kidnapped, he and his team seemed at first to
believe that it was a fraud organized by his enemies to
embarrass him. His politics of defensiveness made it
difficult to sell his genuine successes, such as his focus on
the long-neglected agricultural sector and infrastructure
projects. His spokespeople alleged endless conspiracy
theories, compared him to Jesus Christ, and generally kept
him entombed in his own sense of victimhood.
The delusions of Buhari’s spokespeople are better
packaged, and obviously free of incumbency’s crippling
weight. They blame Jonathan for everything that is wrong
with Nigeria, even the most multifarious, ancient knots.
They dismiss references to Buhari’s past military
leadership, and couch their willful refusal in the language of
‘change,’ as though Buhari, by representing change from
Jonathan, has also taken on an ahistorical saintliness.
I remember the Buhari years as a blur of bleakness. I
remember my mother bringing home sad rations of tinned
milk, otherwise known as “essential commodities”—the
consequences of Buhari’s economic policy. I remember air
thick with fear, civil servants made to do frog jumps for
being late to work, journalists imprisoned, Nigerians flogged
for not standing in line, a political vision that cast citizens
as recalcitrant beasts to be whipped into shape.
Buhari’s greatest source of appeal is that he is widely
perceived as non-corrupt. Nigerians have been told how
little money he has, how spare his lifestyle is. But to sell the
idea of an incorruptible candidate who will fight corruption
is to rely on the disingenuous trope that Buhari is not his
party. Like Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, Buhari’s
All Progressives Congress is stained with corruption, and its
patrons have a checkered history of exploitative
participation in governance. Buhari’s team is counting on
the strength of his perceived personal integrity: his image
as a good guy forced by realpolitik to hold hands with the
bad guys, who will be shaken off after his victory.
In my ancestral home state of Anambra, where Jonathan is
generally liked, the stronger force at play is a distrust of
Buhari, partly borne of memories of his military rule, and
partly borne of his reputation, among some Christians, as a
Muslim fundamentalist. When I asked a relative whom she
would vote for, she said, “Jonathan of course. Am I crazy
to vote for Buhari so that Nigeria will become a sharia
Nigeria has predictable voting patterns, as all democratic
countries do. Buhari can expect support from large swaths
of the core north, and Jonathan from southern states.
Region and religion are potent forces here. Vice presidents
are carefully picked with these factors in mind: Buhari’s is
a southwestern Christian and Jonathan’s is a northern
Muslim. But it is not so simple. There are non-northerners
who would ordinarily balk at voting for a ‘northerner’ but
who support Buhari because he can presumably fight
corruption. There are northern supporters of Jonathan who
are not part of the region’s Christian minorities.
Delaying the elections is a staggeringly self-serving act of
contempt for Nigerians.
Last week, I was indifferent about the elections, tired of
television commercials and contrived controversies. There
were rumors that the election, which was scheduled for
February 14, would be postponed, but there always are; our
political space is a lair of conspiracies. I was uninterested
in the apocalyptic predictions. Nigeria was not imploding.
We had crossed this crossroads before, we were merely
electing a president in an election bereft of inspiration. And
the existence of a real opposition party that might very well
win was a sign of progress in our young democracy
Then, on Saturday, the elections were delayed for six
weeks. Nigeria’s security agencies, we were told, would not
be available to secure the elections because they would be
fighting Boko Haram and needed at least another month
and a half to do so. (Nigeria has been fighting Boko Haram
for five years, and military leaders recently claimed to be
ready for the elections.)
Even if the reason were not so absurd, Nigerians are
politically astute enough to know that the postponement
has nothing to do with security. It is a flailing act of
desperation from an incumbent terrified of losing. There are
fears of further postponements, of ploys to illegally extend
Jonathan’s term. In a country with the specter of a military
coup always hanging over it, the consequences could be
dangerous. My indifference has turned to anger. What a
staggeringly self-serving act of contempt for Nigerians. It
has cast, at least for the next six weeks, the darkest
possible shroud over our democracy: uncertainty.

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