It is another election season in Nigeria, and rather than elicit feelings of hope and optimism, of looking forward to a new dispensation that will improve on what the present administration has achieved, it brings back to me the unpleasant memory of the gold rush. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall found gold at a mill in Coloma, California. In a short period of seven years, about 300,000 people rushed there. Money was made, and California became a state. The gold-seekers, called the “Forty-Niners,” were ruthless. They killed the indigenous population in acts of genocide and seized their lands. In 1851, The Victorian Gold Rush began in Australia, doubling the country’s population and its suffering. In 1886, history was repeated in South Africa, the Witwatersrand gold rush, which created what we now call the Mineral Revolution. Johannesburg was established. The wealth was massive. The land seizure followed, and Blacks were converted to labour. The rush for the seat of the Nigerian president is reminiscent of these three gold rushes. Nigeria is now in the season of the power rush: money is about to be made, fake promises, dispossessions, and death.
As has been the tradition in the country’s nascent democracy, many old and new political aspirants are jostling to join a race whose history of rarely ever producing a credible winner should ordinarily deter prospective interests. Yet, as you might already know, the umpire’s promise of a “free, fair, and credible” process is merely a claim to such cardinal ideals that have eluded all former occupants of Nigeria’s golden seat of power. Hence, it is reasonable to rule out ideals as the sentiment guiding this process of selecting a new leader, unless you believe a bunch of enthusiastic aspirants queuing to cough up tens of millions of naira are truly motivated by a desire to serve the motherland. If like me, you are not so easily swayed, then your focus will be on what drives this widespread desire to run for president and why, all of a sudden, everyone thinks they have what it takes to lead Nigeria. They are rushing for gold!
Nigeria has an estimated population of about two hundred million people, divided into 36 states and 774 local government areas. Its national assets include more than 350 ethnic groups with potentially differing hopes and aspirations, a grossly inadequate healthcare system, dilapidated infrastructure, a hemorrhaging economy, a formidable debt profile, a raging insurgency, and an overwhelmed security architecture, and a disillusioned, disgruntled society. With a profile like this, you will agree that Nigeria is fortunate to have such a long list of illustrious sons declaring their intention to lead our beloved nation to prosperity. This must be the type of patriotism upon which the foundations of great nations like America and China are rested. It is the fascination of gold: the problems cannot deter you; only the aroma of the profits fuels the quest.
Perhaps even more fortunate for Nigeria, as someone told me, is that this crop of aspirants vying for Nigeria’s number one office is cut from a different cloth and separated from the type of orientation that has impeded our development as a nation. They are not only one-time vice presidents, two-time governors, former or serving senators and ministers of our federal republic, who jointly supervised Nigeria’s steady slide into oblivion, nor are they just politicians trailed by the putrefying stench of malfeasance perpetrated while in office. For this reason, we must sing Hallelujah and thank Allah that we do not have to contend with only the cross-carpeting types whose allegiance will be to their political career and not the people whose interest they swore to protect.
This time, new explorers and traders are rushing to Johannesburg to be part of the Mineral Revolution. Our options include reputable pastors and imams who are incapable of lies and deceit. They only seek the kingdom of heaven where their treasures have been stored and are not interested in sharing part of the national cake, even when they have to pay millions of naira upfront to earn about half of it in their four years of trying to lead Nigeria out of its current quagmire. We also have doctors, senior advocates, professors, and “seasoned democrats,” some of whose career achievements and eloquence can charm the nipple out of a suckling babe’s mouth. These are people of great standing, capable and willing to bring their expertise and wealth of experience to bear in this quest for Nigeria’s transformation; if you choose to believe their manifesto – for those who care enough to have one. So how could anyone doubt their intentions or capacity? It is because we understand the behaviour of gold diggers. They offer you a cut, but when the gold reaches their left pocket, there is a gun inside the right one to dispossess you of it and terminate your life.
Eight years ago—which may seem like an eternity given the amount of carnage and suffering that has gripped the Nigerian space at that time—a former despot who had suffered three crushing defeats before retiring to his farm was rebranded and sold to Nigerians as an incorruptible and formidable General whose antecedent—the infamous war against indiscipline—proved him the best man to redeem Nigeria. Cecil Rhodes made the same claim! Before this General’s victory in 2015, when electoral campaigns were beginning in earnest and insecurity was generating a storm of anxiety among Nigerians, the story was circulated that the General and a Senior Advocate, who is also a pastor, were the perfect fit. They believed that while the General would be firm and thorough in handling corruption and insecurity, his Vice, who is versed in the law and a pious Christian, would guide him on the right legal and moral choices. Yes! The white missionary and the white slave trader landed on our shores and came in the same ship; one offered the Bible and asked you to close your eyes, while the other took the land as you did so.
Today, while our guardian General is away on one of his usual presidential vacations and our devout vice-president is busy rallying church members to aid his ascension to the golden seat of power, the citizens are left debating amongst themselves if, after the Zaria, Benue and southern Kaduna massacres, the EndSARS killings, countless murders, kidnapping, hundreds in captivity, biting inflation, and a mountain of debt, these same people deserve another go. Like the Indians in California and the Zulu in South Africa who were not allowed to answer that question, we must be quiet.
Have we forgotten so soon the wonderous rice pyramids of Abuja, the first of its kind in Nigeria!? You may argue that seven years is enough time for any electorate to determine whether or not it has fared well under any particular dispensation and, as a result, developed some consensus on its next line of action: continuity or change. To do so concerning the Nigerian electorate would be to display a certain degree of ignorance about the calculations that go into supporting any candidate. We can always sell our votes. For example, due to an unwritten power-sharing formula, it is a known fact, particularly amongst political parties fielding candidates for elections, that an intra-faith or intra-regional party ticket is the first ingredient for failure in any recipe for clinching the most important seat in the land.
With a sitting president of northern extraction, much political sentiment favours the next president being of southern origin. Capitalizing on this knowledge, real and aspiring politicians of southern extraction who cannot afford to miss out on what might be their best opportunity to secure Nigeria’s number one chair are throwing their hats in the ring. Does the Northerner steal more than the Southerner? Additionally, the bastardization of the federal character structure under this administration—with a lopsided northern representation in key offices—has awakened feelings of ethnic domination. This has spurred more interest in the top position, but it has also made the choice of a northern candidate a little more delicate. However, there is more going on behind the scenes before the electorate is presented with the options from which to pick the lesser evil.
As you bend down to pick your Permanent Voting Card (PVC), be careful so that the gold diggers do not use caterpillars to maul you to death. They will sweet talk you into saying that you will join them in searching for gold. Remember Solomon Northup? He was tricked and kidnapped into slavery for twelve years. Yours will be for four; maybe eight. To the Christians among you, you have been prewarned by Saint Peter in 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.” Come 2023; your new boss will be President Perverse. He must enjoy the success of his gold rush. He got gold while you got naira: ten Awolowos make one Ahmadu Bello; five Bellos make one Azikiwe, two Azikiwes make two heads of Mai Bornu and Clement Isong. Combine all the heads, and you will get one sardine and one Agege bread at the most. Your perverse man is the best to happen to you!
•Toyin Omoyeni Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.