Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Promissory Jokes

My undisputed winner for word of the year 2011 is "transformation." It was amusing this year, to watch politicians infuse that word into their every breath and sigh. Equally amusing was watching critics make a mince-meat of it at every chance they got.

But my most instructive encounter with the word was a rather private one. It was one early afternoon, in that space between sleep and consciousness, that I saw it --a crowd in a stadium, enraptured and cheering uncontrollably as an overweight man, dressed in flowing agbada and a fedora hat stood on an elevated stage, addressing them. His incongruous dressing aside, the man was reeling a long list of promises to the people and they seemed to be holding onto his every word as they would their messiah. His words were like bread to them and they fed on it. "I will send all your sons to the moon and back," he said and they cheered. "I will build a bridge that will connect Sokoto to Bonny," he said, amidst more cheers. The overweight man went on and on until the people's hopes and expectations seemed to take a physical shape, hanging like a belt on his waist. He too was beginning to feel the weight of their expectations. "I will transform your lives, trust me, I will transform your lives," he said finally, before turning to leave. Then he made a blunder. Forgetting that there was an open mic on stage, he asked an aide by his side: "Why are they so passionate about this transformation thing? How can they believe I'll do all those things? Can't someone joke with these people?" On hearing those words, the stadium fell into a hush for about a minute or so. Then, without notice, the crowd descended on him till he turned into that which makes no speeches.

As far as I can tell, no politician in Nigeria literally campaigns on jokes. Yet whenever I ponder on my dream, I always come to one conclusion: Politicians don't take us seriously. We might be a joke for all they care. They make promises and issue deadlines, then flout it and move on to another as if their life's purpose lies in the next promise and deadline. If goals, targets and visions were ceramic bowls, those of Nigeria would have shattered into a million shards.

Still, of all our past presidents, none tantalised Nigerians with as much promise of lucky manna as President Jonathan and his Transformation agenda. In state after state, Jonathan proclaimed promises like a water fountain unleashes water. Rehashing them here again is unnecessary. Seven months into the dispensation, there is a realisation in the land that not much progress is being made towards achieving the pillars on which he campaigned.

Let me use an example to illustrate how recklessly I believe the Jonathan 2011 election train hobbled. On the issue of power, Jonathan's rhetoric didn't disappoint. His promises pertaining to the entire power supply chain can fill the entire CBN vault. So one would have expected that when Prof. Nnaji, the power minister, was asked a simple question like "how much power will guarantee round-the-clock electricity around Nigeria?" he would have had a ready response. Prof. Nnaji's response, however, was a stunner: "We are presently conducting a load demand study," he said, "and after that we can know what we need." Meaning that up till now, government doesn't even know how much power Nigeria needs, yet they threw around figures during the campaign, making promises, not knowing what they were promising.

One should therefore not be surprised that since the end of the election season, the picture has often been that of a baby's faltering steps as far as fulfilling the promises have been concerned. The government has carried on as though the idea of governance is startling to them. That's why the president has chosen to adopt an issue he never campaigned on, as his major policy thrust in the coming year: fuel subsidy removal.

Perhaps this would serve as a warning to us that in the future, any aspirant scared to take on fellow aspirants in a credible debate cannot and should not be trusted with the burden of leadership. For it is during debates like the NN24 debate which President Jonathan infamously evaded in the build-up to the 2011 elections, that candidates are asked how exactly they intend to fund their promises.

Americans would go to the polls to elect a president in November 2012, yet, a full eleven months to the D-day, the opposition Republican Party candidates have already locked horns in ten debates so far. It's in those debates that many stars have shone and faded based on the public's reactions to candidates' performances. It's in those debates that jokes packaged as ideas have been exposed under the bright glare of media flash bulbs and intense public scrutiny.

Jonathan did not debate other candidates. Jonathan promised us heaven on earth in stump speeches before boisterous crowds. He did not tell us that the carrot which would persuade heaven to relocate to Nigeria was subsidy removal. Yet he's pressing on with it despite its overwhelming rejection by Nigerians. It seems Aso Rock's opulent kitchen has learned a new recipe for disaster and is determined to try it out no matter what. Government must understand that it would be foolish of Nigerians to accept this proposed imposition of hardship. The definition of governmental delusion is demanding and expecting a tabula rasa from Nigerians, a clean slate to hand them another trillion naira when nothing in the far or recent past lends any hope that things would be different this time. Just their word? That's all? No thanks.

A time comes, and maybe it's here already, when grandiose statements on elevated podiums before rented crowds would no longer be tolerated; when the people suddenly realise that they're about to be the butt of someone's jokes yet again and avow that hitherto has this come but no further. When common men and women with rolled sleeves, shorts and wrappers would defy the agbadas and fedoras and say simply: Enough is enough. And they will mean it. That would be the real transformation.