“Change Begins With Me”: Deconstructing Mr. President’s Speech

On September 8, the Federal Government launched a national reorientation campaign tagged “Change Begins With Me”. As usual, our moral crusader and change agent, President Muhammadu Buhari, waxed lyrical and pastoral, imploring Nigerians to change their ways and eschew corruption by imbibing the virtues of honesty, integrity and fairness. After going through the speech, if not that I know Mr. President to be an Islamic apologist, I would have asked, as it was asked of Saul in the Bible, “Is Buhari also among the prophets? Mr. Buhari is not a prophet, neither does he have a prophetic inclination, but urging Nigerians to imbibe these ethical principles at this time the rich and poor are doing all sorts of things to survive the economic crunch needs some level of spirituality! But we are not talking about religion here.

However, let us peer into the mind of our president and deconstruct it through the “Change Begins With Me” speech. I align myself with the president on the need for us to change our ways. I agree with him without a shred of doubt on the need for us to imbibe the principles of honesty, integrity and fairness—the primary planks that propel the progress of humanity. The seeming lack of values has driven many of us into riotous living. We no longer have regard for honesty and respect for human life. We have little or no regard for things sacred. These reasons and many more compel me to stand with the President.

But the President took off on a wrong trajectory and lost whatever moral capital he may have to persuade us to go along with him on the path of change. To begin with, a whole paragraph of the speech he read to launch “Change Begins With Me” campaign was dishonestly stolen from Obama’s 2008 victory speech at Grant Park, Illinois. That portion of the speech is reproduced here.

Obama said: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other. Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers. In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long“.

But the president’s plagiarists came and twisted it thus: “We must resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our country for so long. Let us summon a new spirit of responsibility, spirit of service, of patriotism and sacrifice, Let us all resolve to pitch in and work hard and look after, not only ourselves but one another, What the current problem has taught us is that we cannot have a thriving army of rent seekers and vested interests, while the majority suffers”.

Whoever that authored this is a “fast guy”. But it is a “Satanic Verse”, to borrow Salman Rushdie’s book of that title. The person just rehashed Obama’s ideas and appropriated it as his. Plagiarism is an academic fraud. It is lifting, borrowing or using another person’s work or ideas and passing it off as original without acknowledgment. What copyright infringement is to an inventor is what plagiarism is to the artist, it is a reprehensible offence never tolerated in the academic world. The presidency is culpable and stands accused. Even though Buhari has reacted by setting up a committee to unravel this shameless deed, it does not in any way attenuate the dent.

However, what is intriguing in the speech is not only that a part of it was plagiarised—which I consider an unpardonable slip—it is equally that the President used the occasion to call on Nigerians to be honest. That’s good, not a bad idea! But is Mr. President honest to us? Is he sincere to the people he is leading? Honesty is a virtue which we all crave to covet; it is being free of deceit, being sincere and truthful to the people at all times and in all circumstances. It is standing by one’s principles and words. But has our president exhibited these traits within the 16 months he has been at the vortex of power?  How we can answer this is by going back to what he told us during his campaign leading to the 2015 general election. In the first place, Mr. President told us he would do away with the office of the First Lady when he becomes president.

He told us he would shun the ostentatious lifestyles of past administrations. He told us he would carry everybody along, even during his swearing in on May 29, he reaffirmed this. But today, the Office of the First Lady is well and alive, Aisha Buhari is jetting out and jetting in on the tax payers’ expense. Buhari still retains 11 aircrafts in the Presidential fleet, his body language doesn’t seem he is in a hurry to dispense with them even in this austere times, when even the Prime Minister of Britain has no single aircraft and travels first class on British Airways.

Talking of honesty, has the president been honest to uphold the constitution to the letter? The answer is no. In his “Change begins with me” address, Buhari talked of carrying “all Nigerians along on the journey to a better and greater society”. But his appointments doesn’t seem to reflect the truth. They are sectional, screwed against the East which is an infringement of the federal character principle as elucidated in our constitution. It is as serious as saying one thing and doing its opposite.

Buhari partially missed the point when he blamed the malaise in the country on the absence of value system. The fact that people steal our commonwealth and go scot-free is because our institutions are weak, not necessarily as a result of derailment in our value system which he talked about in the speech. When we have weak institutions, scoundrels and people with itchy fingers capitalise on that to be lawless. But why in the first place do we have weak institutions? We have weak institutions primarily because of weak leadership. Our leadership structure is weak. Our leaders made it so because they are prime beneficiaries of the system, it is deliberate. If they make it strong, how can they waltz their way to power? How can they bribe INEC, the police, Judiciary and civil society to achieve their aim? How can our NASS members earn fatter salary than Obama, and one-third of the national budget? How can contractors vamoose with the money given them to execute a job, and when you ask why the job was not done, you get an answer that “the contactor is a friend of government”.

Buhari came to power on the wings of change, Nigerians voted for him hoping on that change—change to right the wrongs, change to strengthen the institutions; change—like in the Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ— to make all things new and all things beautiful. But at a time we are looking upon him to redeem the promise, he turns round to tell us that change begins with us. Haba!

In the same vein, it is difficult to agree with the President that our receding value system “is the reason that some elements will break pipelines and other oil facilities”. In as much as I see pipeline vandalisation as an economic sabotage against the nation, and it deserves to be punished, I hold the view that the growing militancy in the Niger Delta is a concatenation of two variables: the politics of prebendalism from the centre and the internal minority elite colonisation in the Delta.

Pipeline vandalisation has nothing to do with value system. Rather it is a reaction to the politics of oppression from the centre and within. Niger Deltans have a feeling of relative deprivation. They feel neglected and deprived from the resources of their region, not because they have a warped value system but because the system has not been fair to them. I have been to many parts of Niger Delta, and I can understand their anger.

Also, of particular interest to me in that Buhari’s speech is where he said: “Before you ask ‘where is the change they promised us’, you must first ask, ‘how far have I changed my ways’”. Is the president telling us by this that the change he promised us was esoteric, that it was in the main change in our orientation? Is he saying that the change was moral and not economic, political and social changes?

If the change was not anchored on economic or pecuniary benefits, how come that he promised to make naira at par with the dollar? And create five million jobs and dispense fuel at N40 per litre? But that apart, what we can glean from the speech is that the president has abandoned us to our fate. He has abandoned the promises he made to us and is rather demanding the same change we are demanding from him. Who, then, will bell the cat?

Perhaps, if there is any lesson I have learnt from Buhari’s belated national reorientation crusade, it is the fact that our leaders are seldom in synch with the people. They ensconce themselves in their palatial palaces and detach themselves from society. They don’t know what ails the populace because they are far removed from them. That is why Buhari could come up at this time the masses are crying over the economic wounds he inflicted on them to bellow “Change Begins With Me”.  If I may ask, what has “Change begins with me” got to do with the immediate needs of the people, which borders on “stomach infrastructure”? How can you tell a patient whose life is tethered on the humming sounds of bottled oxygen, gasping for breath, that change begins with him? That is disingenuous.

Mr. President, change should not begin with us. It should begin with the man who told us about change. It should begin with our political class. Nigerians are good followers, they are resilient, tolerating the foibles and inadequacies of our leaders. We have already had enough share of the change by adjusting to the economic situation without being violent.  Let the president begin the change by strengthening our institutions. Today, nothing works in Nigeria apart from corruption. The judiciary is in a mess. Civil service has collapsed. The Police, Civil Society groups are not spared in the rot. Industries are collapsing, many have relocated outside our shores. Nigerians have lost confidence in their president’s ability to salvage the economy. And INEC? All the elections conducted so far by this administration are inconclusive. I never knew the meaning of “inconclusive” until APC came!

For me, “Change Begins With Me” campaign is red herring and distracting. Change should begin at the economic, political and institutional levels. That is the type of change Nigerians voted for and are expecting from Buhari. To renege on that promise is antithetical to the change he is demanding from us.

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