Dear President Muhammadu Buhari, I hope this meets you well. I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Simon. Simon Kolawole. Never mind. We will come to that later. Let us briefly journey into history for proper context into why I have chosen to openly write you this morning. I first heard of your name in the evening of December 31, 1983 when you were named the military head of state. Earlier in the day, Brigadier Sani Abacha had woken us up with the announcement of the overthrow of the civilian government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. The economy had been in bad shape. Prices of basic commodities had gone out of hand. Life was so hard. We were tired of Shagari. And we were happy to see his back.
You passionately preached patriotism, Your Excellency, and for once we were proud to display the Nigerian flag everywhere without being coaxed. We also started singing the second stanza of the national anthem. Commercial drivers plastered your image on their vehicles as if you were some Michael Jackson or Bob Marley. You passionately preached discipline, Your Excellency, and queuing became part of our culture — even if enforced with a bit of koboko. Open defecation and open urination became a rare sight, even in the remotest of villages. I remember politicians being sentenced to 500 years in prison for corruption. We loved you to bits.
But things soon took a terrifying turn as journalists and activists were being arrested and detained under gruesome conditions. By the time they came out of detention a year later, they were in poor health, most of them looking like 3D images of skeletons. The detention cells of the National Security Organisation (called the NSO, the forerunner of today’s SSS/DSS) were like concentration camps. Human rights abuses became normal. To be honest, Mr. President, I began to dislike you. When Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro announced your ouster on August 27, 1985, I’d be honest, I jumped for joy. Don’t be offended: I just couldn’t help it.
But I was soon in regrets, Your Excellency, after the initial euphoria that greeted the ascension of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to power. It took a couple of years for me to realise it is not all that shines that is star. Gradually, corruption became a way of life. We used to be discreetly corrupt but it soon became an across-the-counter culture. Our values were completely eroded as Babangida ran a laissez faire government and entrenched a “settlement” culture. In the words of Ike Okonta, the revered prose artist, “Babangida democratised corruption and corrupted democracy.” I started thinking of what might have been if you had stayed a bit longer and finished the moral foundation you were laying.
Something happened that made me walk my way back to you. TheNews magazine interviewed you in 1994 and you said something that melted my heart. You confessed that you made mistakes while you were head of state “but they were genuine mistakes… we were in a hurry to change Nigeria”. Your Excellency, that was the day you won me back. Four years later, with all the work you had done at the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF), I started dreaming of a Buhari presidency again. I wrote an article in THISDAY sometime in 1998, virtually asking you to become president again. My late friend, Chuks Ehirim, teased me afterwards, demanding: “Simon, tell me how much Buhari paid you for that last line.”
Then in February 2001, I finally met you. I had been appointed the editor of TheWeek to re-launch the now rested magazine owned by then Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. I was looking for a great interview. You came to mind. I got your number, called you and promptly got an appointment. I met you at your house in Jabi, Kaduna, and we had a very good interview. Remember me now? You said something that reinforced my belief in you. You said what Nigeria lacked was leadership. You promised to provide that leadership. I became a self-appointed volunteer and started fighting your cause in the media. You were not the darling of the so-called Lagos-Ibadan press, but I never make my decisions based on the crowd.
When you finally won the presidential election in 2015 after several tries, I had only one expectation from you: to offer leadership as you had promised me in Jabi in 2001. I never expected you to be Lee Kwan Yew as many of your latter-day supporters on Twitter were painting you. The only thing I expected was leadership. My expectation was that you would pick a team of competent people, allow them to come up with a blueprint and then be their political backbone for the implementation. That was all I desired. I did not expect you to be an inventor like Graham Bell or make a Martin Luther King Jnr kind of speech. I had been your close “friend” for 14 years. I knew what to expect and what not to expect.
One trait of leadership is swift and decisive action. The herdsmen/farmers had claimed hundreds of lives before you showed up. Leadership entails emotional presence and motivation. Where are you, Mr. President? I need to be blunt with you, Your Excellency. You know very well that I am not looking for a job. I will be a journalist for life, never to be found anywhere in government either by election or appointment. I know how many “juicy” offers I have turned down in my life. That puts me in a very good position to talk to you without fear or favour. All I want is for you to offer Nigeria the leadership you promised me in Jabi. I am neither PDP nor APC. I’m not among those who hate you because you are Muslim or Fulani. You know me well; I don’t need to justify myself.
I will now list three of your failings.
One, you are too soft with corrupt government officials, especially those seen to be close to you. Many of them carry on as if they have your backing. The foundation of your moral authority, Mr. President, is being eroded before your very eyes. I understand that you can’t convict anyone, but you can at least fire them! It took you decades to fire Babachir Lawal. The Maina affair remains a baggage. Premium Times has just exposed a N10 billion scandal involving your officials. TheCable recently exposed the sleaze around Abacha Loot recovery. Sadly, nobody is expecting you to act — which shows how expectations have been lowered. Not good, Mr. President, not good.
Remember, Your Excellency, that this is your government. Long after you have gone, nobody will remember who your ministers were. I know that a leader cannot do everything but he must take responsibility for the people he chooses. He must prune when necessary. Most of your ministers are not pulling their weight. But it seems you find it difficult to ask people to go. You appear to be rewarding people with beats based on loyalty — not that they are fit for purpose. Mr. President, your cabinet is long overdue for a shake-up. This is injury time and if you don’t throw the deadwoods in your cabinet overboard, they will sink your ship. It is your name and your legacy that are at stake.
Two, you are not in control of the security agencies. The security chiefs are fighting their own civil war. Last year, two of your service chiefs were not on speaking terms because they were competing to become chief of defence staff.* In the process, they refused to co-operate and this helped Boko Haram re-possess Sambisa forest. Where is the leadership you promised, Mr. President? Your EFCC acting chairman, DSS DG, NIA DG, army chief, minister of interior and national security adviser are at one another’s throat. Can’t you call them to order, Mr. President? Where is the leadership you promised me in Jabi? How can Nigeria be at peace when the security chiefs are at war?
Three, Your Excellency, can you please stop running down Nigerians before foreigners? By your position, you are the chief marketer of Nigeria. Why did you say what you said about “a lot of” Nigerian youth at the Commonwealth meeting? That they don’t go to school and only want freebies because of oil money? Who says that about their own people? In the UK where you were talking, young people receive weekly benefits from the government — in addition to free education and free healthcare. And you know what? This is taxpayers’ money, not even free oil money. I know you said “a lot of the youth” not “all” but anybody who tells you that you said the right thing is a boot licker. Quote me, Your Excellency.
There are a dozen other issues, such as human rights abuses by the police and DSS, Mr. President, but I lack space. If you noticed, I did not even talk about your second term bid. I have seen enough to know that those angling to take over from you may not be any better. I have seen it all. In every election, politicians play on our intelligence and ride on our emotions. When they get power, they become something else. So I don’t have any appetite for politicking. My resolve is to always constructively engage with whoever is in power and proffer ideas for national development. If you get a second term, I won’t relent. If you don’t, I will engage with whoever succeeds you. All I desire is a better Nigeria.
By the way, Mr. President, I almost forgot to tell you that there are some things I still admire in you. I still trust your personal integrity – I am yet to hear that you are collecting money from businessmen and ministers; and nobody has yet hinted me that you have a private jet held in trust by some banker. This still gladdens my heart. I will also say the economy is steadily picking up after some initial missteps. On infrastructure, things are looking up. I am also heartened that you are blocking many loopholes in government, even if your anti-corruption war can be better executed and more encompassing. Of course, I know Nigeria is not going to change overnight – I’ve been saying that for ages – but, Your Excellency, all the failings I have listed today do not require divine intervention. It is all about leadership.
Thank you for your attention and please accept, Mr. President, the assurances of my highest esteem.
Kolawole is the publisher of TheCable online newspaper.