Barring last-minute considerations, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), will arrive Owerri, the Imo State capital, today. If the officials of the Indigenous People of Biafra have their way with the sit-at-home order they asked the state residents to observe, it is possible that Buhari’s motorcade will drive through mostly emptied streets. Also, the events organised in his honour likely scaled back to prevent any embarrassing breakdown in law and order. According to IPOB, Buhari is not welcome to any part of “Biafraland”, and everyone must stay away from any event meant to honour him. Knowing how much brutality IPOB has now used to enforce their increasingly frequent sit-at-home orders, it will be hard for anyone to defy them. Compliance with the directive to dishonour Buhari will thus be near-total. But the question is, does Buhari even care?
Buhari has been a politician long enough to know that presidential visits are a clown show that you still have to pay an audience to watch. Otherwise, who has the time? Even in the best of situations, it is hard for anyone to put aside the pursuit of their daily bread to go welcome a president. The non-political elites who appear at the venues where they host presidents are only there because someone would press rolls of naira into their hands later. Already, presidential visits are even a logistical nuisance and a massive disruption to people’s schedules. Many people would rather do without it for their entire lives.
The folks who need presidential visits are the state governors and their fellow politicians, who have to be there just so they can appear to the public as ultimately relevant in the scheme of things. Each time the President proposes to visit a state in Nigeria, the governor prepares all kinds of projects for inauguration by the presidential visit. They could have done without the ceremony, but those projects are not considered valid until they become a photo op. In short, a presidential visit is for everybody in the state except for the people who actually live there. Denying the people of the state their right to free movement in order to show Buhari that he is not welcome in Owerri is therefore a waste of time. Neither the man nor his hosts fully reckon with the existence of anyone outside their coterie enough to miss their absence.
Of course, what is at stake here with the IPOB declaration is much more than the directive to people not to leave their homes. On a broader level, it is also a contest of political legitimacy between the governors and the political class who embody democratic authority and IPOB leaders who seek to delegitimise and usurp that authority. The politicians, on their part, find themselves in a quandary. They have to play the politics of loyalty to the President, the man who holds all the political power in Nigeria and can determine their destiny. That is why someone like Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State sucks up to political power. Umahi, grovelling before the almighty power of Aso Rock, went as far as claiming to have prayed for another president with a “kind heart” like Buhari come 2023. At the same time, these governors are also compelled to acknowledge the disaffection of their people who, like most Nigerians, are disenchanted with the current regime.
On the other hand, IPOB has been pushing to assert itself as a shadow government and has not been shy in using violence to achieve that aim. Although they once represented the face of political resistance to a repressive national order, they have gradually morphed. They have moved from agitating against the excessive power abuse held by the Nigerian state they no longer consider legitimate to attacking the very people they should be protecting. For instance, who do they suppose would be hurt by their latest stay-at-home order? It cannot be Buhari; the man is impervious to the very existence of Nigerians. The victims of this muscle-flexing by IPOB are the ordinary people, from the heads of families who have to fend for a living to the schoolchildren who, unfortunately, will miss another day of learning. Why take people through such massive inconvenience to their lives just to disgrace Buhari? It makes no difference to the man, and the same people who should be shielded from him are only being victimised. IPOB needs to develop strategies that will register their dissent and which do not include depriving the people of their basic rights.
Meanwhile, as far as presidential visits are concerned, Buhari himself has come a long way. There was a time his visits to some parts of Nigeria would have been greeted by a mammoth crowd. In fact, I believe that phrase, “mammoth crowd,” was introduced into the Nigerian lexicon to describe the kind of crowd that used to show up for Buhari. He was one of those very few politicians who were so genuinely beloved that he could summon a massive crowd to the campaign ground without mobilising them with money. People showed up at his rallies because they genuinely believed in him. Close associates who worked on his campaigns in 2011 and 2015 testified how much of a self-advertising product he used to be.
However, in the past six years, both his hypocrisy and administrative ineptitude spectacularly unravelled. His stock has so badly fallen that his motorcade was pelted with stones when he visited Borno State last year. His crowd of adoring fans, fundamental zealots who used to shout down everyone on his behalf, has thinned out. Buhari has so fallen into disrepute that even someone from his home state who once named his baby after him announced he was changing the poor kid’s name. Is that the man for whom thousands of people have to lock themselves at home just so they could show him he was unwelcome? There should have been better tactics of making him understand he was unwanted without depriving people of their means of livelihood.
The man got into office in 2015 promising to rid Nigeria of corruption, ease insecurity, and propel the country to economic greatness. Today, nobody can honestly say he has achieved any of those of his three cardinal promises. Instead of kicking out corruption, he got entangled in it. His regime has been severely drained of legitimacy by the so-called bandits who have exposed the all-around impotence of Nigeria’s security apparatuses. Abductions for ransom have become routine in Nigeria, and security agencies do little to help the families who sometimes have to go through public fundraising to gather enough money to pay abductors who haggle ransom with them. As for economic growth, the indices show that Nigerians are far worse off. People have become systematically impoverished through all kinds of ill-thought-out policies Buhari introduced all these years in power. His regime’s contribution to diminishing Nigerian lives will be resounded as a warning for many years to come. Is that the same person that thousands of people are made to sit at home to unwelcome?
For 40 years running, his trajectory as both a military and civilian leader has been severely underwhelming, an extended story of failed promises and clueless administration. You cannot shame a person like that. IPOB needs better strategies for its public engagement. They need ideas and tactics that reflect them as a redoubt for already beleaguered people, not adding to the many monsters that wilfully drain Nigerian life. The worst part is that Buhari himself probably does not care what anyone thinks of him or does to him. He has reached the limits of his political career and has no further use for the people who made him. Whether anyone shows up or not to welcome him to Imo State means zero to a man who has mentally signed out Nigerians and just wants to enjoy the trappings of power for as long as it lasts. To ask people to sit at home as a strategic act of disrespect to Buhari is to, ironically, accord him undeserving attention. He is not worth the stress, frankly.
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