MISTAKING 1999 FOR 2015: TOOTH-GAPS IN ABATI’S THOUGHT

First, tooth-gaps are obviously a great thing. And more, some things sound so well together—like tooth gaps and thought—you simply decide what the hell. The important thing is that in this context, a gap, any kind of gap, suggests some kind of illogic.

I find it difficult to subject myself to the sort of amnesia necessary to forget that Reuben Abati was the Water-Carrier-General of perhaps the most spectacularly corrupt and wasteful governmental phenomena ever to afflict Nigeria. Yes, he was doing his job. But forgive me if I think that was not a job for him to take in the first place given his much-celebrated bona fides. Glenn Greenwald would have to accept a position in Hillary Clinton’s administration for the world to right itself again.

That said, I’d rather a Trump presidency, Trump being the very embodiment and negation of the American self-image. But what I mean to do is to address matters arising from Abati’s “Buhari’s Legacy Project”, published in the Guardian, Abati whose comeback I simply have to accept. I will present my thoughts on the American election elsewhere.

When one discounts the sneaky attempt—characterised variously by direct and indirect allusions to obsessing with the past—to white-wash his former benefactor, the man makes some good points. But first, one must ask: how past is the past? How past is a past that is so inextricably conjoined with the present? Perhaps Abati would argue that the Obama administration did not reckon—which is obviously the word Abati is looking for—with the past (the Great Crash of 2008), and simply looked forward.

However, if the Podesta mail dump signifies anything, it is that progressive forces in America missed the best opportunity to draw a line in the sand, with the consequence that the hopes invested in the Obama administration were doomed to be dashed. In this election cycle, those chickens are back home, roosting. Obama’s first cabinet was practically written by a Citigroup exec, and Citigroup, one of the Horsemen of that Apocalypse, received the highest bailout of any bank in 2009. The Dodd-Frank Act was an instance of reckoning with that past, but the refusal to reckon sufficiently with that corrupt past is one of the major reasons why Obama’s Democratic Party is currently in the docks. The frustration of progressives is that Hillary Clinton represents kicking the can down the road, except the machinery of government can be wrested from the corporate elite she fronts for. Whatever concessions Bernie Sanders may have wrung from Rodham, and Elizabeth Warren’s backstage machinations, signal a refusal to make the same mistake twice.

Of all the banes of analysis, failing to sufficiently identify, and account for, context is the gravest, given the formative influence context exerts upon events. Marx’s famous contention that the social being is at the root of subjectivity, Althuser’s positive modification of it, and the dubiousness with which poststructuralist thought views commonplaces are cogent pointers to the need to identify and understand context. But I do not even think it is necessary to array theory against the porosities in Abati’s latest piece in the Guardian to identify what is wrongheaded in it. This wrongheadedness revolves around mistaking 1999 for 2015, and Buhari’s historicity for Obasanjo’s.

Buhari’s path to the presidency will have been littered with favours curried here and there as Abati rightly points out. I am completely in favour of a politics in which the only favour curried is that of the people, but we are where we are. I can be idealistic—for that’s how many choose to characterise common sense—but even I understand that you can’t simply shunt aside promises made, certainly not to the degree Abati wants Buhari to, and certainly not yet. In any case, this is Nigeria, where special interests have amassed so much economic power that it would be suicide to fight enemies at home and abroad at the same time.

A legacy might be something big and memorable, but often, it is the summation of small gestures. Buhari was elected because of a timely confluence of factors underscored by the desire of an overwhelming majority of Nigerians to see a line drawn in the sand in governance. This is the sum of the bigness. Buhari’s remit now is to funnel the smallnesses required to fulfil the bigness.

On this shaky understanding of “legacy”, Abati ranges the Obasanjo democratic years—8 years—against Buhari’s ongoing less-than-two years, which, immediately, presents a curious turn of analysis. Yes, there are some interesting parallels in the onset of both men’s administrations. Principally, both men took the reins of a pariah state blighted in recent memory by different types of monsters. But 1999 is not 2015. Goodluck Jonathan’s sin was to oversee undiluted public and private brigandage in an era where neoliberalism has become so powerful and unforgiving. In 1999, the world appeared jubilatory enough. From Buhari’s overthrow of Shagari’s government, Nigeria went through almost two almost unbroken decades of military rule, including the traumatic Abacha years, including the preparatory period marked by Abdusalam Abubakar’s regime. Obasanjo benefited from this preparatory phase and the West’s alloyed—and alloyed is key—willingness to help treat our post-traumatic stress disorder, for its own ultimate benefit—witness the liberalisation that followed. Contrast this with Europe’s recent debt crisis, and the staunch refusal to broach debt forgiveness as a panacea. In short, the world is not today what it was in 1999.

Buhari was no mere military ruler in that largely benign—given what was to come after—form of pre-1983 Nigeria. 1976 Obasanjo may be remembered simply as a military head of state (the figurehead of a tripartite?), but Buhari is remembered as a dictator with a mean, mean streak. The historicity of Buhari’s dictatorship hung like an albatross around his neck at election time, and dogs his footsteps even now—witness in the press the steady drip of those familiar markers—Gestapo, dictator, tyrant. The repentant dictator must pursue a median between being perceived as pursuing a dictatorship and yet living up to Nigerians’ yearning for a more upright Obasanjo, an antithesis to Jonathan’s ruinous vacillation. Obasanjo, we recall, was not hobbled by Buhari’s perception problem. This, combined with the immediate memory of dictatorship, meant OBJ had enough latitude to behave like an imperium, without as much blowback as he would face today.

As per Abati’s suggestion that Buhari’s legacy lies in the report of the Confab of 2014, I have nothing to say, although I will admit it does bother me that Jonathan forwent the opportunity to write his name in L.E.G.A.C.Y. I am increasingly of the opinion that Nigeria’s problems are glocal.

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