Oriented professionally and otherwise to thinking permanently in terms of ordination and subordination, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria must be deeply worried about being booed by National Assembly members when he went to present his 2019 budget proposals yesterday. But his worry is certain not to be about the contradiction that might have brought about the booing but the fact that, even as the Commander-in-Chief, he could be booed, not minding that there were those cheering him simultaneously. He found a quick resort to appealing to the notion of the world watching Nigeria but most likely as the only option available to him at that moment to stop the unfolding challenge to his authority by players he cannot ‘discipline’ either in class, party or military terms. He might have civilianised but not to the point of coming to terms with what must, for him, be an act of rudeness. He is, therefore, not likely to call a presidential dinner and smoother relations with those who might have been most vocal in jeering at his claims. That is another way of saying the president certainly did not anticipate the reaction he got at the NASS and is most unlikely to read it in any other way than a challenge to his authority which he must crush. The ‘crushing’ ideology is why he doesn’t link the NASS episode to similar echoes of a war foretold, beginning from the cross-carpeting that greeted his presidential declaration and would multiply as the election draws near.
Unfortunately for the president, the ideology of crushing challengers is escalating the electoral contest against him steadily. Not when tongues are already wagging among those who regard a viable opposition as a guarantee against despotism that the opposition in Nigeria may crack and pack up under the barrage of state practices the Buhari administration is unfolding. Although President Buhari is representing himself as the large minded enough operator giving the opposition what he says he was denied when he was in opposition several years back, critical observers are not taking the claim as anything but a sarcastic detour that measures how much of a politician Buhari has become. That is, he too is not immunised against promising to build a bridge where no river exists. Without necessarily being supporters of any particular opposition candidates, those counting the barrage of measures are posting three main such tactics they equate to the incumbent’s much speculated last card.
Most commonly cited across the circles and thinking camps is the tactics of denying opposition the resources with which to campaign. Not only is the bank accounts of leading opposition players under watch, many of them are under travel ban and vulnerable to harassment, virtually reduced to a condition of going to war without ammunitions. And this at a time the voters are collecting their reward upfront because they will not see the politicians once the voting is over.
This tactic is considered an assault on democracy rather than on corruption because, according to those critiquing it, it does not affect the 22 governors of the party in power – the All Progressives Congress, (APC) who have unhindered access to resources because their party is in power. This trend is being contrasted with the situation in 2015 when Dr Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent then, was sufficiently restrained to the point of saying that his Second term ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, a statement which is now the most important discourse of national security standing to his credit, warts and all. Thus, although the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) which was the party in power then had more governors, it did not seek to cripple the APC which was the opposition then.
Those complaining say that while this tactic guarantees President Buhari’s re-election, it embodies an attack on the principle of free and fair election and, by implication, the credibility of the elections and the possible reactions to that. With memories of a ‘programmed to explode’ design believed to be hanging over Nigeria, some analysts are already asking if 2015 was not merely shifted to 2019 as when this would happen. Already, some such as Governor NyesomWike of Rivers State are argued to be referring to such scenario. Although Wike only made reference to the president’s disinclination to sign the amended Electoral Act, those who claim to read him in context think he meant more. The risk in the president’s tactics is thus that the peace making efforts of the General Abdulsalami-led National Peace Committee could come to nothing eventually.
This is more so that General Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, has been quoted as saying that security managers would replicate the elections in Osun and Ekiti states earlier this year. The argument now is that, unless General Buratai was misquoted, he was basically saying they were committed to the re-election of the Commander-in-Chief, come what may because Osun, in particular, was not hitch-free.
Closely connected to denial of access to resources and General Buratai’s statement is what is an unfolding politics of rotation of power. The incumbent is promising rotation of power to the Southeast in 2023 at a time Babatunde Fashola, his Minister for Works, is also being reported as saying the re-election of Buhari is the only guarantee for return of power to the Southwest in 2023. An October 25th News Agency of Nigeria, (NAN) report had quoted Fashola as telling attendees of a Town Hall Meeting in Lagos whether they knew “that power is rotating to the South-West after the completion of Buhari’s tenure if you vote for him in 2019?”, adding that “A vote for Buhari in 2019, means a return of power to the South West in 2023. I am sure you will vote wisely”.
The contention is that no sentiments or sense of fairness would stop an Ahmed Bola Tinubu, for example, from bidding for power in 2023 partly because he had wanted to be Vice-President in 2015 and partly because to have money without power in Nigeria is meaningless. His emergence will certainly create problems for the Southeast which is already viewed to be having problems articulating its longing for power. Whereas power is usually negotiated, so goes the argument, the Southeasterners are demanding it as of right, thereby risking the mistake the North made in 2011. In 2010/2011, the North was demanding power as of a right on the ground that its quota had been short-shrifted with the death of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. But this was without critically considering the claim of right to the presidency behind Goodluck Jonathan who was the incumbent. In the end, the North had to slug it out with the incumbent who went on to thrash Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the North’s Consensus Candidate at the time.
According to those sensing a potential repeat performance from the Southeast elite, there is nothing stopping the APC itself from failing to abide by what President Buhari is promising the region. And even if a strongman within the party outside the East does not rupture the arrangement at a time Buhari would have become lame duck, something else could. This is not to talk of even the PDP, for instance, fielding a completely different candidate, particularly if the East is not starting with a vision of Nigeria or a plan for the whole country and with which to negotiate with its others. Coupled with what is called the region’s tendency for sending secessionist signals while also aspiring to lead the country, it is argued that a minor push from any of the above plausible quarters could rupture the Southeast’s chances.
In the meantime, the region is waiting for 2023 to fulfil a sentiment so powerful that even some of its most educated elements such as Prof Charles Soludo are unable to transcend: the perception that Easterners are suffering from the implementation of a deliberate, unprovoked programme of exclusion such that that no Nigerian president of Igbo origin has ruled the country since the First Republic. It is remarkable that no politician of Igbo extraction is in the front rank political parties for the 2019 presidential race right now. Not only are Dr Oby Ezekwesili and Kingsley Moghalu who are of that identity are in the race currently more of activists rather than core politicians, they are in parties that are, certainly, not the front runners now.
The implication is how the 2019 contest is pushing the president to promise what he cannot guarantee by the method he is adopting. This is unlike the PDP, for instance, whose approach is to groom someone over time.
While no critic is saying that a sitting president is not entitled to re-election in itself, the election would have been won and lost to unfair practices detrimental to consolidation of democracy. This is seen as problematic in the light of the imperative of adding value to what was achieved in 2015. All these permutations are well discussed among thinking members of the elite across the parties even as many of them cannot afford to be vocal about it.
It is in the context of the totality of these contradictions that the question is being posed as to whether President Buhari has not bitten more than he can chew. In the NASS booing and cheering, his claims of achievements were being contested. Since the booing rather than the cheering has got more prominence, does it not send any signals that he might be heading for an electoral coup against him by now or victory at great cost to whatever place he aspires in history?
The president does not accept being linked with any plans to rig but that goes against what he has said earlier on to the effect that rigging in 1983, for instance, was what every party did and it was only limited by their capacity to rig. It was an inductive statement which would not have changed because the president is now a contestant.
The APC is in tatters with party ideologues such as Adebayo Shittu saying it openly that he would work against it in his own state; the harshest critics of the president are all his seniors and peers in the military. If it is because they are afraid of the president’s anti-corruption war should Buhari win get the Second term, what about the president’s wife criticism of the government? Most painful is how no admirer now argues against describing the president as lackluster. In fact, in the words of one of them, he is doing nothing extraordinary.
The question is whether the president can still embark on a rethinking exercise solely in the interest of his own self vis-à-vis the matter of legacy in statesmanship. Again, as the argument goes, if a Goodluck Jonathan who was never at the heart of politics and power in Nigeria could utter pronouncements that have put him up as a statesman in spite of the trial and error leadership he provided, why has Buhari who has been trained as a nationalist from day one apparently finding it difficult to?As his critics are saying, he is, indeed, finding it difficult because that’s what the rancour, acrimony and insecurity across the country shows to be happening.Yet, Buhari is the president and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.