Nnamdi Awa-Kalu.

As inaugural speeches go, President Muhammadu Buhari’s defining moment in his address to the nation on May 29th earlier this year has passed into Nigerian political shibboleth, making waves for the simplicity of the message as well as for the complex web of loyalties it appeared to cut away with just a few words: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody”.

The street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, much beloved of the on-the-go generation of camera-totting freelancers who roam the globe in search of stories, spoke often about striving for un moment décisif, that split second when the crux of the matter can be captured and rendered in a single shot. For President Buhari, that one line, a heavily distilled serving of one part stinging rebuke and one part appeal to popular sentiment, was his Cartier-Bresson moment, his Kodak moment, and if it was a moment of truth, it was the bitter truth to those who backed him on his way in.

Much has been made of the role of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu in the ascendancy of Nigeria’s new president. The Lion of Bourdillon – as he has come to be addressed in social media circles – is a former governor of Lagos state who has, since leaving power in 2007, made bread and butter of political machination. First, he welded the South Westerly states of the federation into a voting bloc that skipped to his tune, and then he manoeuvred himself to the top of the pile of godfathers as Godfather-in-Chief, by forging the alliance on whose platform the president was finally able to come into his own. Tinubu’s is a version of the Nigerian dream, the story of a man who rose from the streets and played to his strengths to lure the great and the good to his side. It is not disputed hat he sees himself as a modern-day Awolowo. Yet there is a degree of caution in the media and in the masses about the perversity of Tinubu’s hold on the political classes now ruled by his All Progressives Alliance. So it was that Buhari’s first missile, as ThisDay newspapers would describe it, was a chiding reminder to Tinubu that as president, he intends to be his own man.

The paragraphs which preceded that now famous quote were laden with thanks demonstrating to whom the president feels beholden for his election into the seat of president of the biggest country in Africa by population and now, by GDP. God and voting Nigerians were the first recipients of his thanks. One can assume that, being a praying man and newly-converted democracy enthusiast, it is likely that President Buhari will remain grateful and, surely, committed to both values over the course of his tenure.

Despite some of his past statements which made their way to the forefront of the national conversation about his alleged Islamist mandate for the country, he did not pay tribute to his faith. There was only a self-dedication to his presidential oath and a promise of service to the people over whom he will preside. This should offer succour to those who voted against him.

It is easy to overlook the President’s inaugural speech, to chalk it up as just the final stop on the campaign trail, putting all those months of preparation to bed to finally take in the reality of the work ahead. Unlike in South Africa and Egypt, speech-making does not interest the majority of Nigerians, by and large, because too many politicians have indulged in verbiage over the years, allowing their words to crumble into nothingness, unsupported as they are by the concrete impact of deeds. History dictates that the inaugural speech is a different breed, however. With the whole world tuned in, instead of just the weary domestic audience, the newly sworn-in president is forced to pay much closer attention to his promises, knowing that they could come back to haunt him later on.

And the speeches of presidents past have often, looking back, been a bellwether of the direction the incoming regime intends to tow. President Obasanjo’s message in 1999 centred on corruption and crime and the government’s intention to tackle both with agencies adjacent to and in support of the Nigeria Police Force. The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) were born. He also emphasised the importance of a good cabinet and his eight-year stay provided the legacy of capable ministers. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first stint as Minister over the economy, in which she persuaded the Paris Club to underwrite a $30 billion debt, heaved Nigeria into the period of economic growth it is presently experiencing. Oby Ezekwesili as Minister of Education and Mallam Nasir El-Rufai in the Federal Capital Territory are other notable members of that class.

President Musa Yar’Adua spoke on the rule of law, the crisis in the Niger Delta and a 7-point agenda, all themes which continue to define his tenure since he passed on prematurely. President Jonathan spoke of empowering small and medium scale enterprises, of global partnerships with foreign investors, of a sovereign wealth fund and of power sector reform, anchors with which he berthed his transformation plan for the economy. Again, his speech proved indicative as, despite varying degrees of success, he ploughed his efforts into making these promises the foundation of his administration.

More insidiously, however, these inaugural speeches offer a patent account of the people to whom the President feels he owes a debt in addition to a forecast of the people for whom he will bend over backward. Yar’Adua’s toast to Obasanjo in glowing praise right at the start of his 2007 speech made plain that he knew his fate to have been actively steered by the retired General. Jonathan paid tribute to every dignitary present at his inauguration and even name checked a Facebook follower, revealing his susceptibility to the pressures of the sycophants and pressure groups who would tyrannise his attempts at fair dealing at Aso Rock, as well as his awe at social media which he perceived as a support system to propel him into history as a man of the people. It was his failure to see the fickleness of these tribes that eventually sank his ambitions.

All of which makes this line, again, cause for cheer: I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody. Nigerians are fully aware that cronyism, nepotism and ethnicism, the three fatal isms which justify corruption in Nigeria as some nebulous expression of morality, must be put in check before any progress can be made on the path to transparency. The idea that one must help one’s family when one gets into power, that is, the family of people belonging to the same cultural, hereditary or social group as oneself, leaves many of Nigeria’s public servants with the notion that one is doing good in bending the law for these aims. By appearing to foreswear this paradigm of pseudo-moral sentiment, Buhari has taken the first steps to breaking free from the shackles of a centuries-old ideology which is at the centre of the Nigerian condition, that most crippling of socio-economic pathologies which brings the country to its knees time and again.

We know who the president will definitely be in cahoots with. Neighbours in the sub-region and in Africa can remain assured that this President will stand in the vanguard of any mission to promote their shared heritage and future development. The wider international community received a note that Nigeria would play its part in ending those scourges which the country has been accused of exporting, among them terrorism, sea piracy, refugees, financial crime, cyber crime and contagious diseases, all of which have imported notoriety to the Nigerian flag in recent years. We also know to whom he will be hostile. He charged the judiciary to reform itself and exhorted others like himself who have been granted the national trust not to abuse it. Boko Haram, on whom he expended a full clip of over 300 words, is his confessed enemy. In telling a poignant story of the sect’s indecent existence, in rhetoric about their ‘mindless’ purpose, and in detailing the plan to contain their threat, Buhari set out his stall as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a role he has played previously by decree and now inhabits as de jure head of state.

President Buhari acknowledged the power of the press which was demonstrated when some sections tried to dress him up as a tyrant-in-waiting, and enjoined them to be patriotic, ergo to stand in his corner. He also seemed to admit that he will be true to the principles of separation of powers which undergird Nigerian federalism and to the Party Manifesto on which the APC swept to power like a magic carpet. It is yet to be seen if this government can deliver on some of the fantastic pledges made in its manifesto.

In the final summary, it is Buhari’s attitude which most stands out from this speech. Not minding anything he might say to the contrary, the new President sees himself, perhaps dangerously, as above the fray. The psychology of his presidential style is settled in the parts of his speech which led up to the vital phrase “I thank all of you” where he uses the first person with abandon. He speaks about ‘my watch’ when he refers to the different arms of government and the actors who will shape it in the years ahead.

Paradoxically, it is these same Nigerians to whom he turns to buttress this aloofness. To locate himself in amongst the annals of Nigerian heroes past after an eloquent evocation of their historic achievements, he urges that “we as Nigerians must remind ourselves that we are heirs to a great civilisation”. Unlike “some of their successors” from whom Buhari is keen to distance himself, “the blood of those great ancestors flow in our veins”. When trying to gloss over the great tenets of civilisation which are lacking in Nigeria, his concern is that “we have to improve the standards of our education, we have to look at the whole field of Medicare. We have to upgrade our dilapidated physical infrastructure” so that if perchance these unelaborated milestone issues are not dealt with, we have only ourselves to blame.

Nevertheless, it is a fine thing, a truly remarkable thing that in pitching his tent with no one and welcoming everyone in, the president chose Shakespeare as accompaniment to his moment in the limelight. First, he proclaimed that “the past is prologue”. Aside from its misapplication – unpacked by the delightful professor of linguistics, Professor Farooq Kperogi, in his column for the Daily Trust – this quote from “The Tempest” is fitting since that play imagines a magician who hopes to single-handedly restore his beloved daughter Miranda (read, Nigeria) to her rightful place over his usurping brother (read, the corrupt). This may not be far from Buhari’s idea of his presidency and his place in Nigerian history – magical restoration. But it is his final quote, a passage from ‘Julius Caesar’ steeped in upliftment and tragedy, and layered with meaning, which above all shows Buhari’s mindset. As a story about empire, it serves to illuminate Buhari’s perceptions of the court of power over which he has been enthroned. In echoing Brutus, he maybe serving notice of his willingness to be decisive even if unpopular. But the passage itself, which is reproduced to close this article, explains the man Buhari, one who sees this as his time, an opportunity he has worked for, and one he is aware may or may not pay off.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”