Why Nigerian presidents fail

Why Nigerian presidents fail

Simon Kolawole

Sometime last month, a young Bolt driver asked me: “Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi… who should we vote for?” I’ve been asked similar questions many times by those who respect my views. I usually give them an analytical answer — devoid of emotions — by highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and chances of each candidate. On this occasion, I came up with a cheeky proposal: “We need a president who has the vision and talent-spotting skills of Tinubu, the coolness and carriage of Atiku, and the agility and frugality of Obi.” He laughed at high volume. “Are you then suggesting that we merge the three of them?” he asked. Of course, he knew I was kidding.

But he got my point: no one candidate ticks all the boxes. In one of the essays in my forthcoming book, Fellow Nigerians, It’s All Politics, which is now available for pre-orders on the website of Roving Heights, I argue that although we desire a president “who speaks like Barack Obama, governs like Bill Clinton and inspires like Winston Churchill”, it is not going to happen anytime soon because our leadership selection process “is filled with loopholes and pitfalls and it cannot produce our ideal leader as things stand”. One pathology of underdevelopment is the warped leadership selection dynamics. Who the majority of voters end up choosing is not necessarily who they really need.

I went on to have a robust conversation with the Bolt driver. I sold him my little theory: that Nigeria’s problems cannot be solved by one president or a single administration. Our primary concern should be that we are making progress per president, per time. Every president will record landmarks and setbacks in different sectors. No president is totally good or utterly bad, although the emotions of the moment often obstruct balanced judgment. Ironically, we often raise our enthusiasm sky-high before presidential elections. Sooner than later, we begin to lose faith in those we elect to pilot the affairs of the country and swiftly brand them, rightly or wrongly, as failures.

Why do Nigerian presidents fail? Or, rather, why do the presidents fail to live up to expectations? Both questions are intertwined on many counts. There is a sense in which failure to meet expectations is effectively what we call failure. Off the top of my head, I can identify at least five (out of one million) reasons. One, the leadership selection process, particularly pre-election marketing. Two, our warped understanding of federalism which shapes our assessment of presidents. Three, mismanagement of socio-political dynamics. Four, poor understanding of development planning. Five, domination of political power by the predatory, rather than the developmental, elite.

In this article, I will dwell on pre-election expectations fuelled by overmarketing. It could be deliberate: just to win elections. It could be emotional: we always want messiahs and we create them in our imaginations. It could also be a result of a poor understanding of the depth of the challenges ahead. We set up our presidents for a verdict of failure right from electioneering period. Nigeria faces overwhelming social, economic and political challenges and we desperately desire a solution. We want to be like countries who have competent and patriotic leaders. So, we go into fantasy mode during elections, creating messiahs in our heads and dressing them in borrowed garbs.

I have been there before. In 1999, I was a staunch supporter of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Upon visiting Abeokuta, Ogun state, in November 1998 along with other THISDAY editors to interview him, I was wowed by the modesty of his residence. I said if a military head of state in an oil-boom era could be this modest, then he had my vote. I started promoting him as the leader that would extinguish corruption and lead us to greatness. At the time, I saw corruption as our only problem. I did not take kindly to any criticism of Obasanjo and I became anti-Afenifere in the process. But less than one year into his administration, I had turned to his critic. It was a case of disappointed love.

For one, I couldn’t stand some characters in his cabinet. I said if this man really wanted to fight corruption, as he staunchly promised in his inauguration speech, some persons should not have been ministers. When he started talking about removing fuel subsidy, I was incensed. All my life, I had argued that Nigerians, being citizens of an oil-rich country, should enjoy cheap petrol. I refused to evaluate or accept the economic arguments. I concluded that Obasanjo was anti-poor as I was more interested in the socio-political implications. Meanwhile, corruption exploded in our faces. I held Obasanjo liable for failing to lead by example as he had promised during his campaign.

That was how our dear messiah began to unravel. Ahead of the 2003 presidential election, I had found another messiah in Gen Muhammadu Buhari, flagbearer of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP, now part of the All Progressives Congress, APC). When he became head of state in 1983-85, prices of essential products had gone out of reach. I was happy with his price controls. I believed he was protecting the poor. Forgive me: I was just a secondary school student and knew nothing about why our economy was in a mess. Buhari later lost me when his government began to crack down on the media and activists. I was so happy when Gen Ibrahim Babangida overthrew him in 1985.

However, when Buhari granted an interview in 1994 or 1995 admitting that he made mistakes as head of state, adding however they were “genuine mistakes” because “we were in a hurry to change Nigeria”, my heart melted. I began to desire his return to power. I said this was the man Nigeria needed! I remember eulogising him in an article in THISDAY sometime in March 1998. My late friend, Chuks Ehirim, who was TheNews/TEMPO correspondent in Enugu, called to ask me, jokingly: “So how much did Buhari pay you for this?” With my Buhari dream going nowhere in 2003 and 2007, I gave up on my search for a messiah. Instead, I started thinking: “Let’s make do with what we have.”

That was why when Dr Goodluck Jonathan was being marketed as the “breath of fresh air” in the 2011 campaign, I was calm. I had become a realist. My worldview had evolved. I had looked deeply at the Nigerian society and its complications. I said Jonathan, relatively young at 52, would only try but not much would change. The insecurity that he inherited from President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua only worsened as Boko Haram started bombing everywhere with ease. Rather than face this common threat to us, all sides resorted to politicking and finger-pointing. Meanwhile, corruption and waste grabbed us by the neck at all levels of government, but only Jonathan carried the blame.

As we later saw, all the politicking — and counter-politicking — was geared towards the 2015 elections. Buhari, who was making a fourth bid, became a symbol of change, the messiah Nigerians had been searching for. That was how overmarketing began again. People who previously abused and rejected him became pilots of the campaign, creating fables and fantasies. I was so worried for him that I wrote an article, ‘Buhari and the Burden of Expectations’ (THISDAY, January 25, 2015), in which I said: “Imagine the nicknames young people would start calling Buhari on Twitter by this time next year if he has not performed some magic — assuming he wins the presidential election.”

The online marketers said that as a modest retired general who had to take a loan to pay for his nomination form, Buhari would end both corruption and Boko Haram with one punch. I recalled my Obasanjo vibes in 1999 and wrote: “God help Buhari if, assuming he wins, he is unable to stop Boko Haram’s suicide bombers. God help him if the terrorists continue to grab more villages. God help him if his government has not created 2.5 million jobs by May 2016 — as promised by his party. God help him if we are still unable to enjoy steady power supply. God help him if crude oil prices skyrocket and he has to increase fuel price or pay N1 trillion annually on subsidies. He won’t find it funny!”

We all know what happened next. It took less than one year for “Sai Baba!” to give way to “Chai Baba!” Some people were soon saying “even Jonathan was not this bad”. As we prepare to vote in another “messiah” in 2023 and the overmarketing is in full swing again on social media, I crave your indulgence to repeat myself: God help Tinubu/Atiku/Obi if by 2024, ASUU still embarks on its yearly strike; the national currency is exchanging at N1000/$; fuel subsidy budget blows up to N10 trillion; kidnappers are still on the prowl; bandits and terrorists are yet to be eradicated; IPOB, ESN and the so-called unknown gunmen are still holding the south-east by the jugular; crude oil theft is still a pastime in the Niger Delta; and the Yoruba Nation activists stage a sensational comeback.

Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with having expectations. In fact, to expect nothing will be a tragedy. However, Nigeria will not change overnight — no matter what any presidential candidate promises, or how their supporters sell them. Things tend to get worse before they get better. We won’t cut expenditure or grow revenue without enduring adjustment pains. Something has to give. There will be winners and losers. We can’t reduce unemployment and poverty within the twinkle of an eye. The naira will not stabilise, much less strengthen, miraculously. Many good things take time to yield results. We don’t need to be deceived, or to deceive ourselves, at election times.

What then? We need to temper our pre-election expectations so that we do not end up disappointed and disillusioned if things do not seem to change dramatically. We need to look out for overall signs of direction and progress to avoid concluding within a year that a president has failed. Obasanjo failed in many areas but still achieved much. He kickstarted the telecoms revolution, launched the pension reforms, revamped the oil and gas sector and used his experience to shield our democracy from military incursion, among others. Selling him as the messiah was an issue, but even if he was the messiah, could he still fail to deliver the goods? That is a topic for another day.


On Thursday, the national executive committee (NEC) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) passed a vote of confidence on Dr Iyorchia Ayu, its national chairman. I think this finally answers the question as to whether or not there will be reconciliation between Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate, and the allies of Chief Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers state. Since Ayu openly celebrated the defeat of Wike by Atiku at the presidential convention in May, his continued stay as the party chairman has come under opposition from Wike and his allies. His ouster is apparently the major condition for the party to heal. I now don’t see a way out of this. Deadlock.


There has been a string of victories by the Nigerian security forces over terrorists and bandits in the last few weeks. This is heart-warming and I say kudos to them. It appears the daring raid on Kuje prisons by the terrorists really hit the authorities and woke them up to the menace more than ever. There is always the danger of “collateral damage” when the military embarks on operations of this nature and this is exactly what the terrorists use to shield themselves. I just hope that the successes recorded during this latest military campaign will be sustained. We had Boko Haram by the jugular in 2016 but ended up dropping the ball. Their resurgence was absolutely devastating. Vigilance.


Anytime I get breaking news that crude oil prices are falling, I am delighted. Our Bonny Light is now below $90/barrel. I hope it will fall to at least $60 and stabilise there for years. Please don’t blame me: we are not benefiting much from high oil prices. Our crude production has fallen and, worse still, our share of the output has also gone down to miserable levels. That means we cannot earn much forex from oil exports. In addition, low oil prices also mean our petrol subsidy bill — projected to hit N4tr in 2022 alone — will come down. Energy bills and flight tickets should also become cheaper. Admittedly, petroleum income taxes will fall too, but we’ve seen worse things. Simple.


When Queen Elizabeth II of England died on Thursday, it did not feel real. She had been on the throne for the whole of 70 years — the longest of any monarch in the United Kingdom — and we were all so used to her that someone joked about King Charles III, her son and successor: “How can a man be appointed queen?” True, it will take getting used to that a man is now the monarch. We have to say “King’s English” in place of “Queen’s English” and “God Save the King” will replace “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem. Queen Elizabeth witnessed the highs and the lows of life and politics — and everything in between — and managed to stay out of controversies. Unforgettable.

Credit: TheCable

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