The first major assumption underpinning this question is that the presidential contest in 2019 is still the biggest story in town and bringing all its different angles out is journalistically worthwhile. That is to say that however restructuring politics goes, there will still be the Office of the President and people would still want to contest for it. The second assumption here is that President Muhammad Buhari is a candidate in the next presidential election in Nigeria in 2019. This is to the extent that even if, for any reasons, he himself is not contesting, he would, normally, wish to reproduce himself in power. This caveat takes care of those who might be asking whether he is healthy enough to fight for a second term.
Ordinarily, each of President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar is formidable in his own way, going by the dynamism of Nigerian politics. As an incumbent, President Buhari is as formidable as he is vulnerable. As a former Vice-President and long time player in Nigerian politics, Atiku Abubakar is equally as formidable as he is vulnerable. As a word such as formidable has no meaning in itself but only in relation to what is on the ground, the question should be about what the key issues on the ground would be by 2019 as far as the answer here is concerned?
Let’s take the president first. If, by 2019, he has restored the Lake Chad/Northeast, managed to bring Ajaokuta Steel Complex back somehow or make a statement about it, make a strategic push on Mambilla beyond the propaganda stuff and a particular project that escaped the memory immediately, he would be a formidable contender. These four major engagements can be collectively narrated in such a way that can cleanse the regime of its many disasters and give it even if a narrow landing because each of the projects tells a story: from attacking climate change to diversification through industrialisation to reconciliation (especially in the north). This is not to forget the power of appointment which could be a deadly card in the hands of a president compelled by the challenge of securing a second term to fall back on it.
Everything in the foregone paragraph is on the assumption that the APC would overcome its ineptitude in constructivism and the president will free himself from imprisonment in the unhelpful idea that fighting corruption the way he does makes him blameless. Recovering loot is absolutely great. There is no doubt about that. The truth, however, is that the president and his support base are running the risk of turning loot recovery into the essence itself. It all arises from the uncritical view that forgets the more serious poser as to why it is possible in Nigeria for anyone to even contemplate the theft of the amount of money that have been traced to some individuals in the last two years. That level of fraud is a sign of a broken republic. Buhari did not break it but he sought the mandate to get it out of the intensive care unit, out of a dysfunctional status which no patriotism should make anyone to hide. It is in need of systematic fixing through a holistic ‘New Deal’ rather than just what meets the eye. It is the challenge of a nurturing leadership.
If we take Atiku Abubakar, he is formidable to the extent that he doesn’t need anybody’s justification. At the moment, Atiku is comparable to the Sun in Nigerian politics: whether one loves the Sun or hates it, it rises and sets in the morning and evening respectively. For instance, he would contest again in 2019. Of course, contesting and winning are two different things but he has many other factors that could help him win in the context of the diffusion of interests at work. For one, he has commanders and combatants, reliable ones at that who can effect ruptures as Aisha Alhassan, the Minister for Women Affairs has impressively done. Even while in office serving the Buhari regime, she comes to the open to say that she is for Atiku even if the president were contesting in 2019, adding for good measure that the president had said he was out for a single term.
For many in the Buhari supporters club, she must be the perfect personification of perfidy or treachery or any other such term. For others, she does something unbelievable and qualitatively new in Nigerian politics where it is rare for serving ministers or political appointees to dare in that direction. What is common is how appointees go to great length in self-humiliating servility in the name of loyalty. One plausible consequence of what she has done is to add to the Atiku mystique as to what sort of politician attracts commanders with such dare. And that leads to the third feature in Atiku’s favour – the emerging idealism of some people saying it is time to give him the benefit of doubt. The fourth feature is, of course, Atiku’s resource capability, especially when added to his embrace of the restructuring populism. In this case, it is not the merits or demerits of restructuring argument but that, in restructuring, he has found a story, a narrative that appeals to some ears.
So, for both those who admire or hate any of the two, there is a big battle ahead and only a naivete personified can afford to dismiss any possibilities. That is not to deny that each of the president and the former VP have got challenges. In fact, both face challenges that some people would argue they cannot surmount as far as 2019 is concerned. Only two of such would be mentioned here. One is the degree of elite fragmentation in the country. That is so obvious to warrant elaboration, seeing the manner an amoebic issue as restructuring has suddenly come to be so central. The second is how the northern elite would relate to each of Buhari and Atiku this time. In the context of zoning which leaves the Presidency in the north for another four years, the northern elite would have a crucial role to play. However, not only is the northern elite equally fragmented, the north itself has never voted for one party in its history when compared to the Southwest, for instance. Beyond that, it is lost in a paradox: some of its members frown at Buhari’s ‘Head Prefect’ style of checking elite excesses but, at the same time, berate Atiku for cronyism and associated tendencies. So, except if what the Northern Elders Forum under Dr Paul Unongo is doing brings about considerable reconciliation ahead of 2019 or a project (such as the Mambila Plateau) registers a message, it is hard to see any easy ways out. These reasons make some people argue that there is simply a stalemate ahead and that it will lead to a synthesis in a dark horse. The gap in that analysis is how the horse might not be so dark after all in that circumstance because any such horse, dark or not, must be coming from either Buhari or Atiku’s stable.
How all the factors work themselves out in terms of leadership and stability of the democratic order in 2019 promises an interesting game, a game which Aisha Alhassan, the Women Affairs Minister, has declared open. And she has done this in a way that, either way, puts the president in a difficult position. The president says people should be truthful. She has spoken the truth as she sees it. Reprimanding or sacking her amounts to a repudiation of the injunction on people to be truthful. On the other hand, she is a marked player if she remains in the cabinet because this environment is more comfortable with deceptive behaviour, posing and silly display of shallow loyalty than what she has done. What a catch 22 from nowhere as it is!