Ruling Nigeria from abroad did not start yesterday. Not with Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and certainly not with Muhammadu Buhari. The nation heaved a sigh of relief on Saturday as the president touched the soil of his nation of birth. Staying and governing from London was the manure with which the farmer who sowed the seed of Nigeria nurtured it. Lord Lugard resigned as governor of Northern Nigeria in December 1905 because he failed to arm-twist his employers to allow him administer his colony from London. And his reason was a mixture of romantic craziness and the need to stay alive. The health of Mrs Lugard could no longer stand the Nigerian weather, so, the ingenious soup of “Continuous Administration” was cooked. Lugard would stay half year in London, taking up a desk right inside the colonial office, the other half of the year in the insufferable environment of northern Nigeria. But the colonial government said no, you cannot be absent and be present at the same time. That would be a slap on the face of governmental sanity. You are either there or you are not. A frustrated, disappointed Lugard got angry. He resigned.
But some people are so good at their desk that the system cannot contemplate a future without them. Even when they are old, tired, ill and weak, their subjects would insist that they rule from their bed of infirmity. Buhari and Olusegun Obasanjo were not the first to be begged to come back and rule Nigeria like Abiku, “calling for the first and the repeated time.” Lugard got appointed as governor of Hong Kong almost immediately after resigning his Nigerian job. He accepted the offer without demanding to be ruling Hong Kong from London. But the indispensable Lugard soon came back to Nigeria in 1912 as Governor General of soon to be amalgamated Nigeria. He was begged to come because only one person could do the job and he was that person. That was what the British government told him. Again, he held out the condition to govern from London for six out of twelve months in a year. Back and forth, the Big Man could not be persuaded to drop the demand. “As the driving and controlling force of the administration,” he was toasted that he shouldn’t be outside Nigeria, “a country where the unexpected is constantly happening.” But Lugard won’t stay and be lost in the heat of Nigeria. Staying in Nigeria could make the strongest General old and ill. Sometimes, governments are like ladies, they cave in to that persistent dude who won’t take no for answer. Col. Lugard got what he wanted in January 1914 after the amalgamation – he would stay six months in Nigeria, four and a half in London, one and a half months in transit. He enjoyed it. His wife liked it and she wrote about it. It is novel, noble and good. Wherever they went, like the snail, they moved with the fortress of power. The absentee governing system remained operative until a new Secretary of State, Walter Long, ended it in April 1917.
The apple does not fall too far from the tree. Those asking President Buhari to return home from London before his doctors released him were simply being lazy. They claimed he had stayed in London cumulatively for over five out of the about eight months we have so far spent this year. They were too idle to know that staying in London did not necessarily mean being out of Nigeria. They were very ignorant of history. They ignored the absentee foundation upon which Nigeria was built. A creation cannot be greater than his chi, we were told. There is a sense in which nations take on the character of humans. The wisdom of the elders tells us that the beginning of any man pre-tells his life. The Ancient Greek and the Romans, in particular, would argue that a person’s life was determined by “the three Fates” which at birth “spun out” a child’s destiny. They believed that whatever happened at birth “spins, measures and ultimately cuts” the person’s thread of life. The idea of absentee governance in Nigeria was planted with the Nigerian tree. It started from the north with Lugard in 1905. Does that not explain why today’s northern governors enjoy ruling their states from Abuja? Does that also not tell why President Buhari laughed at the idle few who were burning valuable energy protesting in Abuja against his London stay?
But the president is back. His enemies would start keeping vigil at the river bank for his crab to blink again. They would want him to keep the Lugard tradition, travel again and stay again so they could mass and protest again. But he won’t travel again, that is what his friends said. His friends have assured us Buhari is fit and well. They say his arrival on Saturday was the coming of the cat with multiple lives.
Buhari is back but his over one hundred days abroad increased the call for a redefinition of the Nigerian nation. His absence, indeed, sharply divided the country and sharpened the axe of those crying for the restructuring of Nigeria. Some felt not seeing the president for 103 days and not knowing what ailed him made mumu of the whole nation. Others felt harassing a sick grandpa in the name of politics was a sin deserving thorough lashing. The protest boundary had colours. The protest vests had sectional and political and even, ethnic lines. But should every conversation be lost under deadly ethnic and political mudslides?
The president watched all the protests and the associated drama and laughed. Laughter heals faster than the magical touch of doctors. But while Buhari was away, Nigerians also laughed at his people. His party and government and governors set up committees on restructuring. His Senate and the House of Representatives rejected a bill for devolution of powers to the federating states. Did the president watch all these too as he watched the idle Abuja protesters? Has he been briefed that his party set up a committee to search for the definition of restructuring? Lugard’s continuous rule over Nigeria isn’t just in the area of absentee governance. His diseased seed was planted to endure for all seasons. He created an abami country that is neither male nor female. A president falling ill would not ordinarily create unnecessary tension in a normal country. But Nigeria is a paranormal entity. It is a country that is not a country. We remind Buhari that before he fell ill, travelled and stayed abroad, critical minds kept asking whether Nigeria was a federal or unitary state.
They still ask that question which was asked over a hundred years ago by critics of Lugard’s policies. A.J. Harding was director of Nigerian affairs at the Colonial Office. He, in those early days, reviewed Lugard’s political arrangements for Nigeria and lamented: “Sir F. Lugard’s proposal contemplates a state which is impossible to classify. It is not a unitary state with local government areas but with one central executive and one legislature. It is not a Federal state with Federal executive, legislature and finances…it is not a confederation of states.” What kind of country then is this? That is the question our fathers asked. It is the question we and our children are asking. Let us pray our grandchildren will get the answer.
Meanwhile, President Buhari, welcome back to your ill-defined country.