Nigeria’s greatest living novelist is speaking out against President Muhammadu Buhari’s job performance. One and a half years into Buhari’s presidency, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie contends, Buhari’s promises of greater security and a real crackdown on corruption have yet to be fulfilled. This is all the more disappointing given the tremendous hope that buffeted Buhari to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s White House), optimism Adichie captures in the opening of her recent op-Ed in the NYT:
Nigeria is difficult to govern. It is Africa’s most populous country, with regional complexities, a scarred history and a patronage-based political culture. Still, Mr. Buhari ascended to the presidency with a rare advantage — not only did he have the good will of a majority of Nigerians, he elicited a peculiar mix of fear and respect. For the first weeks of his presidency, it was said that civil servants who were often absent from work suddenly appeared every day, on time, and that police officers and customs officials stopped demanding bribes.
Nigeria watchers will remember that with Buhari’s 2015 win came a first in Nigeria’s political history: a peaceful transfer of power among presidents of different parties. Goodluck Jonathan, a Southerner and a Christian, admitted defeated and stepped down so that Buhari, a Northerner and a Muslim, could assume the presidency. Observers hailed it as a watershed moment for Nigeria, but much like America’s first peaceful transfer of power between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the goodwill lasted only for a moment.
Buhari has squandered his mandate. On the economic front, as Nigeria’s oil revenues plunged, Buhari tried in vain to prop up the currency, resulting in crippling shortages and rampant inflation. Instead of bringing more discipline to the military, he was asleep at the wheel when federal troops massacred more than 300 Shi’a Muslims last December. Now, a state government is investigating the incident, but the Buhari-led federal government has refused to do much of anything to identify what went wrong and who should be held responsible. Buhari also declared “technical victory” prematurely in the fight against Boko Haram and seemed to be caught off guard by the rise of oil-infrastructure-sabotaging militants in the country’s deep South.
Instead of dwelling on the conflicts that are more familiar to Western audiences—such as the Boko Haram insurgency and the rise of the Niger Delta Avengers—Adichie uses her NYT soapbox to draw attention to an overlooked crisis in Nigeria’s heartland: the increasingly violent forays by nomadic Fulani herdsmen into sedentary communities in Nigeria’s South. She illustrates this conflict with a personal anecdote:
A few months ago, a young woman, Chidera, came to work as a nanny in my Lagos home. A week into her job, I found her in tears in her room. She needed to go back to her ancestral home in the southeast, she said, because Fulani herdsmen had just murdered her grandfather on his farm. She showed me a gruesome cellphone photo of his corpse, desecrated by bullets, an old man crumpled on the farm he owned.
Chidera’s grandfather is only one of the hundreds of people who have been murdered by Fulani herdsmen — cattle herders from northern Nigeria who, until recently, were benign figures in the southern imagination, walking across the country with their grazing cattle.
Since Mr. Buhari came to power, villages in the middle-belt and southern regions have been raided, the inhabitants killed, their farmlands sacked. Those attacked believe the Fulani herdsmen want to forcibly take over their lands for cattle grazing.
Back in May, Buhari’s annual message to the Nigerian people was curiously silent about the Fulani herdsmen. These uninvestigated, unpunished murders point to the damage done to ordinary Nigerians’ lives by a lack of state capacity and the rule of law.
On a different note, it is also worth praising Adichie for doing something few professional fiction writers dare to do: applying her mastery of language to explain social science with clarity and style. Look at how she explains that Nigeria’s currency controls led to a corruption-guzzling arbitrage opportunity:
The government decided who would have access to the central bank’s now-reduced foreign currency reserves, and drew up an arbitrary list of worthy and unworthy goods — importers of toothpicks cannot, for example, but importers of oil can. Predictably, this policy spawned corruption: The exclusive few who were able to buy dollars at official rates could sell them on the black market and earn large, riskless profits — transactions that contribute nothing to the economy.
Economic and political analysts (this one included) stand to gain by studying Adichie’s op-Ed as an example of how to write about complex situations playing out far away from one’s readers. It is worth reading the whole thing.
My only criticism of the piece has to do with a decision Adichie probably didn’t make: the title, “Nigeria’s Failed Promises.” It is clear that “Nigeria” didn’t promise anything—Buhari did. A more apt title would be, “Buhari’s Failed Promises,” but then again NYT readers apparently can’t be expected to know the name of the president of Africa’s largest nation.