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Buhari’s “Mission Accomplished” Embarrassment: Some Hard, Bitter Lessons Ahead?

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Biodun Jeyifo

Nothing important happened today. Diary entry by King George 111 of England, July 4, 1776

The “mission accomplished” phrase in the title of this piece comes from perhaps the single most embarrassing statement not only of the presidency of George W. Bush, but of any modern United States presidency. On May 1, 2003, in an extraordinarily dramatic and triumphalist action, Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet flown by the president himself.Alighting with maximum swagger and bravado from the cockpit of the fighter jet, Bush proceeded to announce to scores of journalists gathered on the battleship that the United States had dealt a crushing defeat to Iraq and the war between that country and America was over. He then uttered the portentous phrase that would haunt him for the rest of his presidency and beyond: “mission accomplished”!

Of course, as Bush and the world would later find out, the Iraq war was far, far from over in May 2003. As a matter of fact, both the military and civilian casualties of the war increased exponentially after Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration. Indeed, this far from May 1, 2003 in January 2016, the Iraq war continues in the guise of the war against ISIS, the arch-jihadist terrorist group that operates not only in Iraq itself but throughout the Middle and Near Eastern regions. Thus, as a highly charged and resonant phrase, “mission accomplished” has come to represent one of the most embarrassing displays of a total lack of judgment and insight at a critical historical moment by a ruler in modern history. In the aftermath of Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration the world has seen hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Americans killed; hundreds of billions of dollars of American wealth diverted from vital social programs at home and genuine humanitarian causes abroad; and a seemingly endless quagmire of war, millions of displaced persons and permanent instability and insecurity in the Middle and Near East. Thus, underlying the phrase “mission accomplished” is a tragic irony that cautions us to be wary of the terrible price that the masses of ordinary humanity pay for the lack of foresight or insight or second sight of rulers.

Fortunately for our own Muhammadu Buhari, no similar phrase remains to haunt the embarrassment in the failure of the Nigerian president’s ringing prediction three months ago that by the end of December 2015, the Nigerian military would have completely wiped out the Boko Haram jihadists. This is not to deny the reality of embarrassment and loss of face to the presidency now that December 2015 has come and gone and Boko Haram is still very much around and wreaking havoc. Indeed, there is a further embarrassment to Buhari in the fact that at the end of December 2015 not only was Boko Haram still committing deadly mass homicides across the country’s Northeast region, Buhari was telling Nigerians and the world that his administration was willing to negotiate with leaders of the jihadists over the abducted Chibok girls if credible leaders of Boko Haram could be identified and authenticated. All these factors notwithstanding, Buhari can take some comfort in the fact that not too many people in Nigeria and the world at large took the president’s prediction seriously. In other words, while in May 2003 the world believed and took Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration seriously, in December 2015, nobody is surprised that Buhari’s prediction bummed completely. As a matter of fact, Buhari himself seems wondrously unembarrassed by the failure of his prediction. How else can we explain his declaration earlier this week at the tail end of December that his administration was willing to begin negotiations with the leaders of Boko Haram, the same Boko Haram that was supposed to have been completely wiped out by now?

I suggest that even if very few people expected that Boko Haram and its insurgency would have become a thing of the past by the end of 2015, there are many lessons to learn from Buhari’s apparent lack of embarrassment that his prediction has not only proved wrong but has indeed been rubbished by Boko Haram itself. Unfortunately, these lessons are hard, bitter, and potentially tragic for the masses of ordinary Nigerians.Since I wish to be very clear on this particular point, I crave the reader’s indulgence in taking some time and space to give a profile of the essential point I am making in this piece about political rulers and their capacity to exercise sound judgment and insight in their confrontation with historical crises and the challenges that they pose to the society, the polity and the economy.

Now, Boko Haram happens to be only oneamong a slew of daunting crises that the Nigerian nation and peoples face at the present time, though of course it is one of the most urgent and horrific of these crises. If we take Buhari’s failed prediction about the end of Boko Haram as sort of symbolic or symptomatic, the possibility arises that the President and his administration might also be wrong or mistaken in their predictions or projections on when Nigerians “will smile”, will experience relief from the economic and social ravages that they face at the present time. For instance, in his war against corruption, Buhari has also famously ‘predicted’ victory long before any concrete and substantial results have been achieved and even as corruption is striking back with all its tentacles in the Nigerian judicial, legislative and administrative orders. Another example can be found in the war to curb the monumental waste and squandermania in governance and administration in Nigeria at all levels, federal, state and local. Again, Buhari has vowed to successfully carry out the badly needed reform and reorganization in this sector of our public finances. But once again, we find here that the projection of victory or success is, to say the least, very premature. One illustration of this is the fact that though the Ahmed Joda Transition Committee that the President himself set up recommended a drastic reduction in the size of the Federal Cabinet, Buhari ignored this recommendation and has put in place a cabinet that is actually larger than Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet. Please note, dear reader, that in all of these cases a lot of hardship and suffering of the Nigerian peoples is bound to happen if the projections and predictions of the President and his administration fail.

At this point in the discussion, it is necessary to state emphatically that these observations and reflections are cautionary, not predictive; they are speculative, not alarmist. In my considered opinion, President Buhari’s ‘predictions’ and projections – from Boko Haram to the war on corruption and from the reduction of the cost of governance to the reduction of the downstream cost of petroleum products to the Nigerian masses in their tens of millions – suffer from a vastly exaggerated view of what presidential will and pronouncements can achieve. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the present stalemate between the Presidency and the law courts over the granting of bail to Sambo Dasuki and his co-accused in the Dasukigate arms procurement scandal. Understandably, the President is very upset that the courts are granting bail to the former National Security Adviser and his co-accused, in an act that appears to Buhari to be in defiance of his will and pronouncements on the matter. While this columnist is strongly on the side of the President in the matter, it does strike me as very odd, very disappointing that the President did not anticipate and prepare himself and his administration for this unquestionable favoritism of our law courts toward looters.

Ours is a constitutional, democratic and elective presidential system and for this reason, there are considerable constitutional and institutional constraints on the sovereign power and authority of the presidency. But throughout the sixteen years of the rule of the PDP, presidential power in our country was practiced and dispensed as if its sovereignty was as all-pervasive, all-encompassing as that of a feudal monarch. Buhari especially but also his party, the APC, seem intent to continue the perpetuation of this pseudo-imperial presidency. Of course Buhari, at least so far, has given every indication that he intends to use this vast concentration of presidential authority to carry out much needed reforms that will redound to the benefit of the Nigerian peoples. But as we have seen in this piece, the realities that Buhari faces are much too complex for and resistant to the reductive simplicities of Nigerian presidential power and authority.

The sentence that stands as the epigraph for this piece comes from European history at the precise moment when feudal monarchical rule was metamorphosing into the form of the modern bourgeois republican state. Apparently, George 111 could not or did not see this transformation taking place gradually but inevitably. Hence, on July 4, 1776, the very day that the American Declaration of Independence was made, the English king made the famous entry in his personal diary: “Nothing important happened today”.I locate Buhari at a midpoint between this diary entry of the English king and George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration. This is because Buhari is not as totally detached from historical realities as the 18th century English king, at the same time that he is not as aggrandizingly embroiled in the maelstrom of history as Bush. In other words, King George stood at the center of a power structure whose slow but inevitable decline posed little or no immediate danger to his person and his status; Bush occupied a location of global power in which America was yet to learn and absorb the limits of its global influence; Buhari occupies a conception and a practice of power in which decline at home and abroad considerably undercuts if not nullifies pretensions to sovereign presidentialism. Unfortunately for us, Boko Haram proved that it will take far more than a presidential pronouncement for the group to go out of existence, just as the law courts are proving that they are impervious to Buhari’s presidential will and pronouncements.

I doubt that Buhari will easily and quickly learn to see the limits of presidential power as not the end but the beginning of wisdom. I hope that I am wrong in making this assumption for if I am right, the President will find it hard to gather and deploy the popular energies needed to defeat forces like Boko Haram, the judicial redoubts of looters and the fortresses of waste and squandermania in our country. Are there hard and bitter lessons to learn ahead of us? Yes, but hopefully we will learn well from them.

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