My great joy is that darkness did not fall on the country on May 29. A new democracy illumined the entrails of Eagle Square.
Jonathan, with repressed, if dignified, reluctance passed the torch to the dangling septuagenarian general who should now rise to the role of avatar.
The day began with the glory of the soldier. From my seat, I thrilled to the elegant discipline of the parade, the colours, the starchy beauty of the uniforms, the stentorian authority of the commanding officers, the blend of the martial with the cultural. The bright and sultry morning rippled with familiar church and folk songs drummed out by the military bands to the accompaniment of saxophones and cymbals.
With gusto the audience watched the formations. The lines were now straight, now fluid, a jigsaw puzzle broken and restored. The soldier’s feet rose, zipped forward, stamped down, up again in rhythm. The shoulders turned and eyes glowed in tandem with erect necks. It was the military at the service of the civil order.
The irony was not lost that in this transition, a man was morphing from a general to president. In this ritual, the army was playing the role of this glorious surrender. Perhaps it was the last rite of Buhari officially ceding the army in him to a democrat. He swiveled from GMB to PMB – President Muhammadu Buhari.
There was a torch of vanity to some guests. Nigerians who came wanted to be seen and heard. They appeared and spoke with their sartorial displays, especially the ex-this and ex-that. They wanted cameras to click. Others saw it as opportunity to rise out of the shadows, to commingle with perceived potential powers brokers of the new dispensation. They twirled their business cards, fawned before the new big men.
Some told the big men stories about their past meetings or something they did together. Some others just worked the memories of the big men to remember them. “I was that guy or that woman, do you recall?” they would ask, simpering. The big man would feign a kindled memory. Yes, he remembered and asked after the family, and both moved on.
Some just wanted to be seen so they could be drafted into a project or job. Cell phones were at the ready to take pictures with the big men, just to force some sort of intimacy even if the big men only obliged out of courtesy. I observed this more at the two banquets, the inaugural one with Jonathan attending, and the gala, which was an APC gig.
Once Jonathan and Buhari arrived, the formal ceremony began. The ushering in of GEJ was more dramatic than Buhari’s, and that’s understandable. It was the last grand act of the departing President. Guards accompanied his SUV on both sides as it glided slowly to the front of the state box. The man alighted and walked in with his usual casual gait and smile into the box and his seat, his last front roll in Nigerian history.
When Vice President-elect, Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) strode to the platform for swearing-in, the audience realised that something epochal was happening. Once he, and his elegant wife, had read out their oaths of office, a sigh of history filled the commodious square.
Then we saw the rites that followed after PMB was sworn in, and it dawned we now had a new president. An era had passed. Jonathan stood with respect to the majesty of a system that ushered him in just four years earlier after he had eased into the position when Yar’Adua died.
He seemed lonely from where I stood near the platform. He was almost unaccompanied in his last day in office. Not his wife, not many of his presumed great friends were present.
More telling was when he walked out of the platform through the steps to his vehicle. He never returned to the state box to say a final goodbye. As he descended the steps, he met the tall ex-governor Timipre Sylva, shot out his hand and shook hands with the man he ousted with impunity from the Bayelsa throne and hounded with the EFCC.
“Sylva,” he said with a smile. Sylva smiled back and greeted. It was curt and telling. I wondered what coursed through the ex-president’s mind. Was it disguised defiance or apology?
What was more curious was when his SUV left. The crowd around the car waved with deep feeling, but it seemed a genuine pity glazed their eyes as they saw him go. He waved back through the tinted window.
The stage turned to Buhari, who mounted a vehicle and rode around the square to inspect guards and wave to the audience. The army again regaled us with their poetry of the parades, a thing that made me wonder if it was this same army that chafed at the predations of Boko Haram. I also thought the army was so beautiful it is a pity they have to shed blood. I loved the 21 gun salutes and the chaotic flutter that greeted the release of birds at the inauguration.
The highlight, however, was Buhari’s maiden speech. It was elegantly couched speech with the right tone. The crowd cheered to the everybody and nobody phrase. But I still wonder if it meant he did not belong to APC or those on whose back he rode to power. It will be clear in coming months. For his and our sake, I hope he did not mean he would not have primary constituency of consulting. No great leader in history shunned the platform on which he rose. His speech reflected a Unitarian impulse when he espoused the independence of local government. A throwback to military era? He did not seem to be in sync with the idea of fiscal federalism by promising to interfere in erring states. Did he mean it in an authoritarian way or as moral leadership? I expect that he could use his bully pulpit to initiate a constitutional federalism that is at odds with today’s malformed structure.
Some expected a hammer and anvil temper, but I disagree. His pitch dropped halfway through, indicating tiredness. His handlers must learn to manage the exertions of a man of his age. His speech might have been shorter given the ritual rigours of the day in relentless sun. For me the speech was less moving than the one he gave at the gala later that night where he spoke from the heart.
On the gala, what was Tunde Ayeni of the N5 billion campaign donation for GEJ doing there? Has APC decided to associate with such characters? Not good. The beautiful Joke Silva, who was compere, either naively or out of sublime mischief, acknowledged his presence. It was a dark spot in a fine day. I expect that he – with the Vice president – will publish the declared assets as promised during the campaign. He owes that to Nigerians as a matter of honour. With Boko Haram pounding Borno and Yobe, it is surprising he has not even announced his chief security adviser, as well as key staff. As he has noted, the job at hand is urgent. It is still early days though, but Buhari must dispel fears of the dillydally.
Well, “the revels now are ended,” noted Shakespeare in The Tempest, and Jonathan is no longer in “cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces…solemn temples…” His time, like an “insubstantial pageant,” has faded into thin air. The substance now belongs to Buhari. It will work not with good luck but goodwill with hard work.
Ambo and the rainbow
For all its grandeur, Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s inaugural speech struck a tone of harmony. After all the truculent cacophonies of the campaign season that saw religion pit itself against religion, and tribe overshadowed tribe in bitter acrimony, it was heartening to hear the new governor note that Lagos is for all. In his voluminous white agbada and sunny face, he promised to erect a big tent. I call it Ambo’s rainbow.
His opponent had tried to cast him as the candidate of a part against all, and the image of lagoon drenched a sense of coexistence Lagos always knew. In the coming months, we expect to see fruits of this so that the past of doubt will give in to a future of peace and plenty in Lagos, the oasis of Nigeria.