After the first six months in office, the Bola Tinubu presidency has spent enough time to acquire a definable footprint and an evolving identity. It now has a character, style and flavor. There is no point rehashing what names people of the street have started calling the new administration. After all, they called Buhari “Baba Go Slow”, “Mr. Stop and Slow” etc. It is now up to the judgment of history to decide Buhari’s most apt characterization. I will return to Tinubu’s growing nicknames at some point in the future. For now, however, I can say the administration has qualified for my favourite state of the nation casual street assessment. It is what I call the “How Country?” test. It is an informal test that updates itself annually.
It is not an opinion poll. It is not even a statistical measurement by any known definition. It hardly segments our national experience into compartments to pass judgment. It is a sort of primitive snap poll among the most ordinary of citizens on the streets.
It is an ancient off- the- cuff method of measuring the mood and state of the nation where it matters most: on the streets and among the most unprepared. It is mostly a casual greeting in normal Nigerian street parlance. Simply put, it is just a simple greeting cast in the mould of a universal non- committal question: “How Country?” You throw it around at familiar people at the roadside, in barbers’ shops, on the driveway or as you walk into a gas station, shopping mall or suya spot. You just throw it at the next person who cares to return your greeting.
You do not expect any in- depth answers. All you normally get is at best a reflexive response that quite often gives you a quick snapshot of the way things are in the country at any given time. The responses are snapshots from a sort of everyman’s instant ‘state of the union’ address. No partisanship. No contemplative choreographed answers. Just straight from the hip responses.
Taken together, the answers you get reflect everything. It is a summation of the misery or prosperity index. Price of gasoline, price of garri, rice or cooking gas etc. It can also hint at more serious issues like the state of security, the ease of finding work, prices of essential drugs, bus fares or just getting by on a daily basis. Most importantly, the answers are a function of how ordinary people are faring and how they generally view the prospects of our commonwealth under the government of the day.
Linguistically, ‘how country?’ hovers as a hybrid between bad English and pidgin, dangling between serious enquiry and a casual conversational greeting. The answers you get are also mostly in variants of hybrid popular lingo as well. In normal times, you get responses like: “We dey o!”. In times of political turmoil, you are likely to get: “Country bend small!”. In times of economic desperation and extreme hardship, you are likely to get: ”We dey manage!” When economic hardship joins political confusion to create uncertainty and looming anarchy, you get: “We dey look God face”. When the prevailing mood is one of helplessness and near hopelessness, you get the philosophical resignation: “This, too, shall pass!”
Somehow, it has always worked for me in journalism as a public mood gauging technique. It also works as a way of expressing cordiality and fellow feeling, a reaffirmation of shared feelings as members of a national community of feelings. At the moment of “How country?”, class divisions temporarily take a back seat. We all board the same lifeboat on a ship in precarious turbulence. What irks me probably pains you. What pains me gnaws at your innermost feelings. Thrown at a troubled soul, ‘how country?’ suggests that perhaps there is someone out there who shares your pains or feels your hurt even without your telling them. But in the end, it is a way of saying that we are partakers in a national community of feelings, caring about each other in a common patrimony whose state of health resonates in our private lives. As compatriots, we share something intangible, a common concern for the state of the nation and the state of the state that presides over us all. We look out for each other ultimately.
On a given day, I would throw the friendly greeting or question at a cross section of ordinary strangers irrespective of class, ethnicity, circumstance or countenance. By the end of the day, I am likely to have greeted a cross section of fellow countrymen and women ranging from my gate man, cook, steward, secretary, driver, managers, the policeman at the checkpoint, labourers at my building site or my ‘customer’, the woman who roasts corn or unripe plantains (year in, year out!) at the same spot on the roadside on my way from work.
When I come home in the evening and in the quiet of my privacy, I would recall and rewind from the rough barometer of memory the findings of the day. I get a rough idea of the way things are at least from the eyes and gut responses of ordinary people, uncoloured by partisanship, self interest or the arrogance of status.
At other times in past years, I would alter my field of ‘how country?’ sampling. I used to go out to unusual places where ordinary folk gather for the same sampling. Ikeja Bus Stop newspaper stand used to be my favourite spot. It used to be the venue for a daily meeting of “The Free Readers Association”. We used to gather every morning to read newspapers that the news vendors had spread out on the bare floor without paying the local government for space. The vendors did not pay for retail space so we ,too, did not need to feel guilty for reading the front pages of their newspapers free of charge.
There was an understanding that no one dared state. Our reading skills are first rate because you needed to get a quick glance of the day’s trending headlines before the news vendors asked you to pay or leave. That was our way of catching up with the news, our unique window to the day’s trends. That was before the internet of all things began to deliver the news and more to the smart phones in our jobless hands! This was before I lost my anonymity to the middle class prosperity of cars and the prominence of media exposure. A ‘big man’ does not belong to ‘free readers association’ was the assumption that alienated me from this lively assembly.
At Ikeja Bus Stop on an average morning, you will encounter some of the most knowledgeable Nigerians on matters of politics, public affairs, civics, national history and crude mangled versions of world affairs. There, above all, you encounter the unvarnished soul of our nation in its unfiltered essence. These were just simple people. I once encountered a cross section of them.
One had spent decades working as a factory hand at textile factories in Kaduna that have now shut down. Another man, a train ticket assistant had followed trains on the old railroads on endless journeys from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, from Lagos to Kaura Namoda and from Enugu to Zungeru. These men were mobile encyclopaedia of current affairs. They came to Lagos and other towns when our people shared life in ‘face-me-I face -you’ yards irrespective of nationality.
Here at the Bus Stop, the hunger for news used to unite us in an endless and perhaps aimless quest for something in the midst of nothing. We engaged each other often in fruitless arguments peppered with half-truths and glorified hearsay. Someone would occasionally deliver an impromptu lecture or sermon on nearly every regime and administration that has ruled over our country. These were unaccredited reporters, uncertified experts on nearly every subject under the sun with travel histories that spanned Accra, Libreville, Luanda and Freetown!
One man had spent his productive years in the Gold Coast, later Ghana, playing and travelling as a session man with the band Ramblers Dance Band of Ghana. He had many stories including descriptions of Kwame Nkrumah’s famour mansion with the ‘golden bed’.
These men were grand arbiters and judges of history. They would apportion blames and pass verdicts with neither fear nor favour. They would casually recall past scandals, past heroes and villains and generally deliver judgments not coloured by partisanship or ethnicity. On most days, they had this uncanny ability to read through nearly every newspaper title on the stand with amazing rapidity in no time. They could make cross references across time and point out who killed who, who stole more money from the common till or who betrayed who in the macabre dance we call politics and national history.
I must confess that the Ikeja Bus Stop crowd is often predictably biased against successive governments in our country. For them, it is a ‘they’ versus ‘us’ equation, which I find excusable but disturbing. They justify their anti government stance by insisting that our present rulers have not been different from the whites who were on the ‘other’ side before independence. “The whites have gone. Independence has been here for decades. Look at us!” No one dared answer.
On the recurrent guiding question of “how country?”, the answer you get at any given time has kept changing with successive regimes. Most times, however, it is a function of what policies touch the people where it matters most, the back pocket. Let us take the contrast between a past administration and the present one for illustration.
Under an elected Obasanjo presidency, the introduction of the GSM cellphone revolution gripped the popular imagination. The new technology suddenly put a lot of power in the hands of the masses. Ordinary people in the villages, in the farms, in the markets, simple artisans and the army of youth on campuses and street corners suddenly found themselves armed with this powerful tool of communication and infinite possibility. Nothing like it had happened previously. Added to it was a policy of financial inclusion through the banking consolidation and the popularization of the stock market. Market women and simple traders in the markets were encouraged to measure their net worth not just in the quantum of cash under their mattresses or underpants and bras.
People were encouraged to take ride in their bank accounts and balances as well as in their stock holdings. More common people began to operate bank accounts and to invest in shares and the bond market. Telecommunications and banking expansion provided the two growth sectors under Mr. Obasanjo with infinite multiplier effects that sucked up a sizeable percentage of the unemployed. Apart from sporadic and isolated disturbances such as Odi, Shagamu and Zaki Biam which were decisively put down with a level of ferocity that offended the human rights community, threats to national security were few and far between.
These incidents did not however graduate into nationwide insecurity. Nor did they douse the momentum of economic upliftment that swept the nation and put smiles on the faces of ordinary people. If you asked most of the people in the Bus Stop crowd then: ‘How Country?’, the resounding answer was most likely : ”We dey kampe!” or they simply showed you their new cell phone with pride and a smile. This was a reaffirmation of confidence in national stability and the abilities of the national leadership of the time and the possibility of hope in the horizon.
Fast forward to the period between 2015 and 2023, the now famous Buhari 2 era.. The prospect of a Buhari return to power elicited the resurrection of all sorts of populist myths in the popular imagination. The essential outlines of that leadership, I daresay, derived from a nightmarish past that most Nigerians would rather forget but chose to forgive.
Undoubtedly, President Buhari had a retrospective fixation, constantly relishing his brief tenure as military despot as his brightest legacy in our history. We all bought the scam and are now wiser for it after the nightmare of the past eight years. He ruined the national economy, divided the nation, supervised an unbridled carnage of killings and disappearances. While Buhari prevailed over us, the ready response to ‘how country?’ became: “This, too, shall pass!”
After the first six months of the Tinubu presidency, it has become hard to even pose the casual question: “How country?” It was President Jonathan who insisted that he did not want to make any promises at the inception of his administration. His reason then was that all those before him had made promises which they could not fulfill. He did not want to be held responsible for anything beyond trying his luck . But somehow, he found his mission at the exit door when he called to concede defeat to Buhari. That became his legacy.
Now, we have President Bola Tinubu. Hardly anyone remembers what exactly he campaigned on. But he has stepped forward to make bold policy moves. He has removed subsidy on petrol and hiked gasoline pump prices and unleashed every hardship associated with that. He has unified the exchange rate of the Naira to all major currencies and inaugurated the most expensive price hike for the US dollar in Nigerian history. He has also initiated the highest spike of inflation especially of food in Nigerian history. Cynics insist that Nigerians have never had it so bad. Optimists including the IMF and World Bank nod in approval that paradise is in the horizon.
Now, if you dare ask the question: “How country?, you may either get stone silence, a wicked look or, on a bad day, a dirty slap.