By Owei Lakemfa
I AM walking back from the position of many Nigerians that these are the worse of times for the country. It would have been difficult to dispute what appears to be a truism. We are buffeted by rampant cases of terrorism, banditry and sectarian violence. Inflation is over 20 per cent, we became the poverty capital of the world, one of the most corrupt with one of the most inept leadership in the world.
In a sense, we are to blame for the debilitating currency crises we find ourselves today which has further impoverished us.
When we have a government which is not only incapable of refining the petroleum product needs of an oil-rich country, but is so inept that it cannot even distribute imported fuel, how can we assume it would deliver on a currency change? How on earth did we expect a donkey to carry the load a camel cannot carry just because it brags around about its prowess. Even if it makes claims of a glorious past, does common sense not teach that we should interrogate that past? As a local saying goes: why can’t we borrow ourselves some sense?
Let me openly admit that despite the disastrous implementation of the currency change which is pushing the populace into anarchism and revolt, this exercise is far more humane than a similar one undertaken from April 1, 1984 by General Muhammadu Buhari, as he then was. While Nigerians were given 90 days with effect from December 15, 2022 to swap their old currency for new ones, back in 1984, they were given only 12 days! That currency change operation had all the trappings of a coup. Many who spent two thirds of the currency change window queuing and sleeping at the banks, could not change their currency.
I recall somebody I knew in that 1984 currency change who had a huge sum of money – I think N12,000 or N14,000 – and despite strenuous efforts, could not change his money. As the deadline got close, rather than watch his money become worthless, he dashed to the Volkswagen of Nigeria on Badagry Road, Lagos to offload the cash on it as payment for a new Passat car he did not need.
He was ‘smart’ as many, especially traders, watched their money become worthless. Who knows how many went into depression, and how many went to early graves.
I repeat that this time, Nigerians are luckier as they not only had a far longer period to change their money, but also have mobile banking, transfers and ATMs. Another major luck Nigerians have this time was that many could at least deposit their money in the banks even if they have no immediate access to it.
There was the normal Nigerian saga that went with that 1984 currency change. The Buhari junta had decreed that during the exercise every suitcase arriving in the country should be inspected no matter the status of the owner. This ostensibly was to ensure that Naira stashed abroad was not smuggled into the country to be changed. But during the period, 53 suitcases which arrived at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport were escorted out by armed soldiers without Customs check. The soldiers were allegedly sent on the operation by Major Mustapha Jokolo, the then Aide-de-Camp, ADC, to General Buhari.
Current Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was the then Area Controller of Customs in charge of the airport. He recalled that the “soldiers who came to pick the suitcases were rude, crude and threatened Customs officers who had insisted on inspecting the suitcases”.
That was a regime of impunity, and if you ask me, that culture and style, remains part of the Buhari administration.
This is President Buhari’s second time as Head of State; the first was as a military dictator. He has also been Petroleum Minister twice. He seems determined to repeat the programmes of his first ‘term’ for which he was booted out.
Another of his cyclic programmes was border closure. He shut all the country’s borders indefinitely from April 1,1984 in the name of protecting the country’s economy. It was done in vain. I recall having some friends teaching in Kankon, a town at the Seme Border. On a visit during this infamous closure, one of my hosts sent a young man to buy alcoholic drinks across the border in Benin Republic. I thought the border was closed and asked how he expected the young man to cross it. My friend laughed and said I was repeating an official line, as normal commercial activities were going on, except that with the ‘closure’ it had become costlier. He added that if I could put a three-storey building on rollers, he would roll it across the border.
In August 2019, Buhari repeated his border closure programme ostensibly over the illegal importation of drugs, arms and agricultural products, especially rice from neighbouring West African countries. Four months later, he ordered the reopening of four land borders.
So, in a sense, we are luckier this time because the borders were closed for only four months. In contrast, the borders closed in 1984 were not reopened until 20 months later; that is four months after his overthrow.
In analysing Buhari’s bouts with border closures, Africa’s leading border expert, Emeritus Professor Anthony Asiwaju submitted that Buhari’s failed border policies are due to “his own administration’s self-inflicted conservative police-state approach to border management based on obsolete use of state coercion apparatuses that permit police brutality; inspired by a negative ultra-nationalism and indulging in inherently impracticable tradition of unilateral border closure”. The border closures, he added, also violate basic human rights, especially of border communities and Nigeria’s obligations to neighbouring sovereignties.
So, if Buhari has such a past, including retroactively executing drug offenders, a proclivity for clannish policies, intolerance of contrary views, sense of impunity and repeating the same policies, using the same methods but expecting different results, why did Nigerians return him to power as an elected President?
Spanish philosopher, George Santayana may have an answer: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill has a not too dissimilar view: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Revolutionary philosopher and political economist, Karl Marx might have had Nigeria and Buhari in mind when he argued: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” By this he meant that humans who do not learn from their mistakes, are bound to repeat them with tragic consequences. Prophet Nahum said: “affliction shall not rise up the second time…” (1:9). But in Nigeria, it did. What we must do is ensure it does not arise a third time.
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