At some point, future historians of the present will give Donald Trump some credit for aptly summarising the dynamics of political following of our time. During his presidential campaigns, he bragged that he was so loved by his followers that he could shoot someone in public and not lose any voter. He has been right so far. There is virtually nothing he does wrong that has cost him in the way other politicians have paid for lesser sins. His supporters bend over to ameliorate the impact of his misdemeanours. The things they criticised President Barack Obama for are now justifiable; the Obama achievements they once downplayed as inconsequential now matter because Trump achieved similar feats.
Trump supporters, with their fervent devotion to him, mirror President Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters. By now, we can bet that Buhari can dagger someone in Wuse market at noon and they will claim it was necessary to fight corruption. I have come to understand about Buhari’s supporters by watching Trump’s, and I see that Trump supporters’ actions can predict Buhari supporters’ too. No matter how vastly different the two countries and their democracies may be, there is a fundamental strain in the following of both men that has transcended space and time. They are hyper-partisan, and there is no misdemeanour by the president, no matter its projected impact on democratic institutions, that is abominable enough to alarm them.
Part of this uncritical devotion has to do with the manner the electoral victory was won. It was a hard-won contest, one for which people had to summon their most primal instinct and tribal identity as a mobilising factor. In the US, it was racism, subtended by sexism and social anxieties induced by history. In Nigeria, it was a tribal victory underlined by the All Progressives Congress propaganda about fighting corruption. Now, with their win in the bag, these voters find themselves tasked with protecting the electoral success at the expense of democracy itself. What is at stake for them is no longer the end goal of democracy – social flourishing – but holding up their President’s banner as a middle finger to the other side that was defeated. They have adjusted their social expectations to match whatever the leader manages to achieve, and actual dividends of democracy are now considered a by-product.
Since Buhari was inaugurated as President, everything that has gone wrong has been the fault of everyone and everything but himself. What do his followers say to this? Sai Baba!
When the economy under him tanked, it was not because Buhari failed to apprehend the complexity of building an economy but because corruption money was no longer flowing freely. From Boko Haram to herdsmen and civil conflicts, security under Buhari has degenerated badly, but his followers will rather live with the hazards to their own lives than admit he is not getting it right. Buhari promised to fight corruption, but his government itself has become a monument to corruption. From party members to the blatant and incoherent lies this government tells about the progress of their administration, the entire structure of the APC reeks of rotting flesh but what does it matter to his followers? They work hard to convince themselves that what they have is the best it could get.
Buharism has become a form of pietism, a ritual of religious devotion that demands a sacrifice of logic and reason in order to realise itself.
In the past one week, I have watched Buhari’s followers argue that it does not matter if Buhari’s niece, Amina Zakari, does not recuse herself from the election in which Buhari has a stake. To them, there is no conflict of interests even when the interests involved in the election include that of Buhari. These crusaders stridently argue that the woman is not central to the electoral process. Yet, they cannot connect the logic that if she is not indispensable to the election, it is the more reason she can easily recuse herself. If the woman herself has a sense of ethics, why is she so insistent on being a part of the election, letting her recalcitrance cast aspersions on the process?
Again, the invasion of the Daily Trust by the military alone should have led to a mass outrage, but we have been so busy fending off the illogic of Buharists there is not enough energy left to challenge the arrangement that allows soldiers to invade the media in broad daylight. They claimed they wanted to invite the pressmen over to talk about their publication, but why the Abacha-era invasion style? We should all be worried what these people will do if they win a second term. They will not only abandon governance; they will pillage the media and turn other arms of government into dust.
Nigeria approaches the polls, and the future after February is pretty gloomy. Any honest person who watched the Buhari interview with Arise TV would be concerned too. Given Buhari’s poorly thought-out responses on most issues, we should be bothered if such a mind can steer the ship of this nation for another four years without us hitting the rocks. Many people are concerned, most are not just saying it out. As the Chibuike Amaechi’s “secret” tapes have shown us, even in private, the APC members know that corruption is still rife in Nigeria, that social and economic conditions have declined, and that despite all the cheap propaganda, Lagos is not working. They know the truth, but it cannot set them free because they are their own jailers.
The only people who cannot admit the truth to themselves are Buhari’s followers. I have seen them argue that Buhari’s best efforts are hampered by due process and he should, therefore, suspend the constitution. They say it does not matter if the election was rigged in his favour, and they care less if he uses public funds to run his campaign. Their ethical thermostat is regulated by purely partisan sentiments and by now it should be evident that no rhyme or reason can ever sway them. They have reposed an identity complex in Buhari and relinquished every desire of theirs into their single agenda of a Buhari triumph.
This form of tribalism is not new. Since forever, humans have always tended to descend into tribal formations, but we now live in an age where the new media has amplified this penchant. Leaders, aware of this divisiveness in the polity, further muddle the pool. Their strategy for getting away with their sins is to continuously appeal to the lowest common denominator that binds their followers’ instincts. From America to Nigeria, tribalism reigns and it brings out the beast in people. The major difference is that the US is lucky to have a strong civil society to rein in the president’s recklessness. Nigeria’s civil society activists who made a lot of noise during the 16 years of the PDP are now mostly mute, severely compromised by their entanglements with the APC.
Five weeks to the election, I no longer think that only Buhari is the problem that needs to be overcome. We also need to defeat his voters and the negative energy they pour into the public sphere to shortchange everyone our due democratic dividends. Because this tribe of supporters is driven by a primal vigour, they are untiring, and they exhaust the rest of us who want a debate of issues that have to do with how democracy will guarantee a better life for all of us. They let the President get away with a ruinous attack on institutions, manipulate the representative nature of democracy to keep the worst of us in power and infect everywhere with their toxicity. The President, aware of the animosity in the polity, keeps sowing seeds of discord so that no one will have time to focus on his failings. Those of us who are interested in a Nigeria beyond Buhari will have to remain focused and find a way to argue above – not with – these rabid followers who drag down everyone with their extreme partisanship support.