President Muhammadu Buhari’s ill-health and the way forward is still a subject of subsisting and emergent controversies in spite of what appears a steady preparation of the minds of the people for any of the possible scenarios of that absence. While the footprints of power can be seen in a series of efforts on a consensual resolution of the rupture, new claims with their own implications for the nation keep emerging. Although Nigeria passed this road not long ago, there seems to be no easy way out. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has assumed control in acting capacity which is in keeping with the constitution. This has received approval across the board. Some would say it has been strengthened with moves interpreted as meaningful action such as his dash to a few monarchs, especially in the north.
Beyond that, other players for consensus have stepped up efforts. Britain and the United States of America, for instance, have openly declared preparedness to work with Osinbajo as acting president which is considered significant. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu had earlier on stepped out to dismiss the notion of seizure of power by a cabal, describing such belief as hoopla and arguing that it is the handiwork of people who wanted to instrumentalise old, divisive sentiments. He claimed a historic mission for President Buhari. Before his statement, the trio of former President Obasanjo, IBB and Abdulsalami Abubakar had met , the subject matter of which is the country’s predicament in the context of President Buhari’s ill-health. None of them has said anything substantive about the meeting but speculations have been rife about it being a response to a Buhari request to them to wade in. Whether these masters of the power game are those Buhari in his perceived present situation would put such a task is open to question but the military tradition of hierarchy and command might not rule such out. The Northern Elders, on their own part, have welcomed Osinbajo’s ascendancy as acting president, drawing attention to the imperative for sensitivity to the constitution but indicating its awareness of what it calls attempts to exploit the absence of the president to achieve dubious political goals.
But it is also in the Northern Elders’ communiqué that hints of no easy way out abound. Although how much the Northern Elders speak for the north can be a debate, its claims carry the same weight as those of other players in the system who have voiced out their own standpoints. They can, therefore, not be waived offhandedly. Categorically distancing the north from hostility to call for enquiries on the subsisting structure of the nation, the elders said it had taken note of what it frames as “renewed interest in the clamour for political restructuring of the nation and sentiments which tend to create tensions around our existence as a nation that is diverse and united”. However, it indicated its preparedness to resist what it is calling sectional, parochial goals outside the constitution. By distinguishing discussions on the national question into those that are sectional and parochial and those that are, in their view, not sectional and parochial, the body is rejecting the restructuring that some other sections are canvassing. Not only is it rejecting restructuring, it is also pushing that “The North is conscious of its obligations and rights, and will discharge and defend them without reservations”. Yet, to restructure or not to restructure has been promoted to the front burner in Nigerian politics. Notable players such as Obasanjo and it could be said most of the former military heads of state do not support and do not canvass for restructuring but it keeps coming up. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, for instance, supports restructuring. In that, he appears the only politician of stature and who knows what could happen to the idea of one Nigeria if, for instance, the Nigeria Police Force were to be decentralised in terms of ownership and control. Most people would absolutely reject any claim that the police, as presently constituted, is the best but most would not go for state police because they consider the consequences imponderable. By supporting restructuring, Atiku impresses not quite a few just as he intrigues many and this would continue until he makes his position clearer. In this statement, the Northern Elders, for instance, declares its acceptance of discussions on the national question but not in the sense of restructuring.
The intervention of the Northern Elders might have less weight if it has not been quickly followed by that of Dr Junaid Mohammed who is extending the disquiet to a northern demand for compensation for the years the late Umaru Yar’Adua missed and which President Buhari might miss. In a newspaper interview, he calculates this to be eight years beginning from 2019. That is the unspent two years from Yar’Adua, another unspent two years from Buhari should he resign to go and take care of his health and the remaining four years from Buhari. Obviously, the basis of his arithmetic is that President Obasanjo spent two terms of eight years from the south. Dr Junaid added his own dimension by restating the typical stand of the rump of the PRP’s position that zoning is an NPN idea and the anti-thesis of progressive politics. This, he said, is what they have been fighting since the 1970s.
Put together the position of the Northern Elders and that of Dr Junaid and map it unto Chief Bisi Akande or General Alani Akinrinade’s (Akande said Nigeria is facing two dangers now, one of which is a cabal’s self-assertion) and you have a perfect brew of discord without collaboration when linked to the problem on the ground: the incumbent president is sick, he is out of the country. Only doctors who are not even Nigerians have an idea of when he returns to the country. The Nigerian Constitution has clearly stated how to go about this but there is a power pact between the two dominant sections of the country. So, the transition, if it comes to that, has to be managed, with particular reference to the northern sentiment which is now as thick and solid as can be imagined because, in less than a decade ago, a president of northern extraction was also in this condition. So, how slowly or how fast to move have all become sensitive matters. Every side to the process is watching against what could easily be (mis)interpreted as insensitivity and recklessness.
Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, for instance, had warned against the candidature of both General Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 Presidential polls but his warning was not on the ground of Buhari’s health. Rather, he calculated and correctly too, that both candidates would divide the country. Buhari won the election but only to divide the country into diehard supporters of his anti-corruption war and diehard antagonists of the same corruption war. Of course, division along religious lines has also intensified under Buhari, principally as a result of handling of the rampage of herdsmen. Violence has escalated under the regime too, from Boko Haram in the north east to the Avengers in the south-south, the Biafran secessionist movement in the south-east to criminality involving unchallenged gunmen across the country. The call for restructuring is the south west’s own response to Buhari, although it has been there in one form or the other.
Dwindling oil prices in the global market as well as violent attacks on oil facilities by Avengers have taken a toll on revenue available to the regime. Lost between the market and hesitant statism, the regime has been blamed for taking the economy into a recession. Alienation has aggravated hatred for the regime by the victims of extreme poverty and educated but unemployed youths. A hopelessly miserable wage regime is made even more so by the inability of many state governments to pay, with several states owning its public service workers as much as ten months. Meanwhile former Central Bank of Nigeria governors and deputy governors are saying the country is committing as high as 66% of earned revenue to servicing local and foreign debts, (See Sunday Telegraph, May 14th, 2017). This means leaving less than 40% for a huge population of nearly 200 million. Some people are wondering if Osinbajo’s first act in power may not be to ask for a moratorium on debt servicing in the present circumstance rather than the favoured strategy of selling bonds. The Debt Management Office, (DMO) has been quoted as saying though that Nigeria’s Debt – GDP ratio is within the range, critics are wondering if that is a justification for going aborrowing. The Obasanjo regime made a controversial exit from indebtedness. Now, Nigeria is back in the debt trap to which some insiders hint that there may be no better response than a debt moratorium of 20 – 25 years. Whether Osinbajo has bought the idea remains unclear, not to talk of the clout to rally Nigeria’s friends to push through such a radical option. But it is an idea said to be strong in the minds of certain players in the system.
Tragically, the ordinary Nigerians are either not keen or not informed enough to even be debating these life and death issues. And no interests, be it the political parties, civil society or the media, are mobilising them along that line. Instead of that, they are either fighting and killing each other on religious differences or talking heatedly about soccer. To the woes is the threat of another possible outbreak of Ebola virus. Although the government has alerted all, there is no sign of the outbreak yet outside the Democratic Republic of Congo. But in a global Village, DRC is just a few meters away rather than another country. While some of the elite are scheming for the position of Vice-President in the event that President Buhari remains much longer in hospital or even resigns and Osinbajo moves up to become the president, others are anticipating relief from the anti-corruption war and yet others are positioning themselves for 2019. Nigeria is a huge country and whatever diversity of reactions greets a situation such as this may not be surprising. What is surprising is the absence of elite consensus on most of the key divisive issues.