Nigeria's choice: Brutal man of the barracks or the original Mr Clueless (Africa Review)

I just couldn’t resist this one I heard at the Radisson Blue in Addis a couple of days ago. A group of African academics and intellectuals are talking about the upcoming elections in Nigeria, and all is worry.

What with Boko Haram, the Nigerian penchant for corruption and disorganisation, and the apparently clear-cut divide along the old fault-lines (North-South, Muslim-Christian) the situation seems rigged for a perfect disaster.

A Nigerian academic from Ife seeks to allay the fears of the group, saying that it’s when things look like they are completely hopeless that the Nigerians surprise everybody by doing what nobody thought they could pull off.

There are grunts of disbelief all around the table but people are not going to contradict a man talking about his country, and an academic at that.

ut better is still to come. An old Ethiopian friend supports the Ife-based academic with a gem. He says he heard it some time ago that when you observe a ram hurtling down a steep hill, its huge testicles dangling perilously and knocking against each other, you may think that the testicles will crush themselves into powder or at least that they will fall to the ground.

ut the ram gets to the bottom of the hill and slows to a leisurely grazing stroll, its danglers intact, ready to continue with the business of making more baby rams. The suggestion is that Nigeria is the ram, and that in the end it will be okay, with its balls intact.

Reassuring banter, but I’m not buying. Already reports are suggesting that many Christians in the north of the country are voting with their feet, leaving in droves. There is knee-jerk suspicion that they will automatically support Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent who is being challenged by Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and a Muslim.

Similar exoduses have been known in Nigeria in the past, every time political tensions rose and “immigrants” from other parts of the country were flushed out. There is no reason for anyone to think that it won’t happen this time around.

‘We go see’

Then you take a good look at the two leading candidates, and you worry some more. General Buhari is a product of that infamous ring of Nigerian military coup leaders who have dominated the political scene since just after Independence, and he has been implicated in every major upheaval in the country.

He also served briefly as military head of state in the 1980s, during which time he promulgated decrees that made the word “draconian” sound like chocolate: He got people executed for crimes governed by laws enacted after the commission of the crime.

He got soldiers on the streets with whips that they applied to your backside if you looked “undisciplined.” He got schoolchildren jailed up to 20 years for cheating during examinations….

Not that he was above suspicion himself when it came to corruption. On his watch an associate came back from abroad with suitcases in which were stashed three hundred frigging million dollars, and these were cleared by Customs.

The incumbent is hardly better. Except for a first name that seems to have stood him in good stead as a talisman, the current Nigerian president looks like he is lost. The impression you get is that he was going somewhere else, and that he stumbled into this place by mistake and now is looking for a way to excuse himself and continue on his way.

All in all, it looks like when they were designing clueless, Jonathan chaired the committee.

With the hellish Boko Haram sowing terror, devastation and misery in the region, the all-mighty Nigerian military did not seem to know what to do until Chad, Niger and Cameroon came in to rescue the giant with clay feet. It’s simple: A thoroughly corrupted military will be defeated by a bunch of boy scouts.

So now, here we are, with the heavily muscled Nigerian ram having to decide to entrust its danglers either to a ruthless military despot of yore or to a man who looks blank.

As they say in Lagos, we go see.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]

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