Either as a deliberate strategy of suspense and whatever benefits could accrue from that or a manifestation of some internal problem, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, leading presidential contender in Nigeria, kept the world guessing for about 12 hours yesterday as to whether he had eventually traveled to the United States of America or not. His visit to the United States at this moment has significance in Nigerian politics because his opponents have said he could not enter the US without being arrested. It is open to question if visiting any country for that matter should be an electoral issue in relation to a possible president in a country such as Nigeria, that has, however, been the reality in Nigeria to the extent that the contender himself saw visiting the US a crucial issue.
But, between early evening and late night on Thursday, it was the subject of speculation across Nigeria. Although pictures of Atiku Abubakar and Senate-President, Bukola Saraki in the US were circulating by Thursday evening, his information managers contradicted this at a point by saying the former Vice-President was nowhere near the United States. Considering that rumours of an Atiku visit to the United States had circulated before only to turn out to be no more than rumours, this was confusion that matters at a time Atiku has the most chance to fulfill his life-long ambition to be president of Nigeria. Unlike 2015 when President Buhari was ascendant on the strength of great expectations of a magical touch in the league of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, aka Lula of Brazil between 2003 and 2007, Atiku might be delivered to power by expectations of delivering Nigeria from a Buhari who is not pushing in that direction at all. So far, neither Buhari nor Atiku is speaking Lula’s language. Yet, they are the leading candidates. The worst of all is that neither are the Nigerians asking them or any other candidates to think and speak such language. Yet, they expect to vote in a president who can perform. What a misbegotten country which, therefore, faces a tough challenge on February 16th, 2019, the D-Day. This is because there are no signs of a Lula performer. Atiku Abubakar who is a better promise of making capitalism work in Nigeria is, however, not thinking about a legacy of how to make Nigeria join the ‘rise of the rest’ phenomenon, Fareed Zakaria’s memorable phrase for that extraordinary moment whereby, for the first time in human history, non-Western countries or civilizations, were now global powers. Tragically, there is no African country there in that South Africa’s membership of that club is a product of its geopolitical dexterity rather than the criteria advanced by Jim O’Neil.
In a country where politics is 85% sentiments and 15% reason, issues of this nature rarely matter. Few would disagree that sentiments would act as a game changer on February 16th, 2019. After all, such could be argued to have brought President Donald Trump to power in 2015. Russian manipulation or no Russian manipulation, the electoral outcome in the US presidential polls in 2015 fits more into Professor Samuel Huntington’s scripting of American politics
In his 2004 book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Professor of Comparative Politics argued with verve that, although the US is an all-comer country, that did not mean it has no core. Implicitly and explicitly referring to the White, Anglo Saxon and Presbyterian, (WASP), referents in American politics, Huntington postulated that the core was at risk from Hispanisation and Catholicism. Four years after the book, Barrack Obama made the ‘threat’ more concrete and complex: an African-American became the president of the United States, a huge ruling class investment in sentiments to restore America in terms of global identity politics. Given the fury with which South-south governors entered the field of play on the planned Onnoghen trial for alleged false and incomplete declaration of assets, just to cite an example, it would not be farfetched to say Atiku could land in victory on the strength of perception.
President Buhari has, for instance, remained a puzzle to many regarding his composition of the security council to the exclusion of people outside his own identity circle in the history of Nigeria. So puzzling that nobody appears to have been be able to explain it. Some people think it might not be unconnected with the experience of being overthrown in a palace coup in the early 1980s as a military Head of State. Others disagree, saying it is a manifestation of a deep distrust of Others by him and his tendency. They go on to say it is bad omen because anyone with a good programme to implement does not need to fear anyone else solely on account of cultural identity. It remains an open and silent debate in Nigerian politics just as the puzzle of Buhari being countermanded by his own appointee and heads did not roll. It must be rare for a sitting President and Commander-in-Chief to send a name to the Senate for confirmation and for one of his appointees to profile the nominee as a security risk and an unfit material. Is that liberalism or the tendency to abdicate power whenever he is the leader that his critics have leveled against him.
Aggravated by President Buhari’s confession that that he knew nothing of the planned trial of Justice Onnoghen until it broke, this criticism is that the president has a history of abdicating power whenever he is the leader. And these critics would go on to say that this is what happened when he was Head of State in 1983-1985 and Chairman of the PTF in the mid 1990s. In each case, someone under him dictated the pace, so goes the argument. So, while the confession is a powerful sentiment and tends to exonerate him from complicity in what is read as a cabalistic design to replace Justice Onnoghen, it implicates him in the theory that he operates best only when he is under someone rather than when he is on top.
Central to the politics of sentiments at this point is the framing of the Onnoghen palaver by the South-south. So furious that the governors suggested to the CJN to ignore appearing before the tribunal last Monday, calling the summon from the tribunal a so-called summon and describing it as provocative. That pales into insignificance when compared to Nyeson Wike’s, the governor of Rivers State for whom it is a case of the Nigerian Government waging war against the Niger Delta. For him, the charges against the CJN were concocted and the Niger Delta is the target. Comparing this to what he considers the muzzling out of former president, Goodluck Jonathan, Wike went full blast: Now, because they believe that the Niger Delta is not part of this country, they have come again with all kinds of stories. They think they are talking to small children. Fabricated stories and said he did not declare his assets in 2011…Step aside for who take over?”
The question is to whether these sorts of sentiments would translate into anything in terms of a game changing realignment and voting pattern on February 16th. Yes and No. Yes, because what is being pointed out is how Igbos or the Southeast would be sensitive to the feelings of the South-south in their political calculations. Not only would the contiguity of the two regions come in, many South-south leaders are culturally Igbos. The implication is that even die hard Buhari supporters in the Southeast would find dominant Southsouth sentiments difficult to handle. Conclusion: Onnoghen palaver can injure President Buhari fatally in the Southsouth and Southeast as historical sentiments are being mobilized into the interpretation of the attempted trial. No because it is unlikely that the president won’t try to plug the loopholes but because the sentiments are not territorially bounded. There is nothing stopping it from seeping into the Southwest which though clearer in terms of what the region wants but is still divided. They want power in 2023 too but who gets it is a question still unanswered. The current belief is that no sense of fairness would stop some juggernauts of Southwestern origin advancing to be recognized in 2023 power struggle. One side of the divide in the Southwest can easily buy into the Southsouth perception of the Onnoghen palaver. After all, close to 70% of the lawyers in Nigeria must be of Southwest extraction to whom Onnoghen palaver might not sound funny.
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, President Buhari’s main challenger so far, has his own problems to contend with but the image of an illiberal operator is not one of them. So, mauling Buhari on grounds of discriminatory and intolerant or stiff attributes could translate to electoral gains for Atiku in a zero-sum politics. In fact, his field commanders are already at work. They have let it be known that the essentialist representation of Atiku in terms of corruption has nothing to do with any such reality but an attempt to prevent his political emergence because if he does, his liberal inclinations could bind him to the minorities in both the North and the South and the Igbos. So, they are saying, for instance, that Atiku told whoever did not accept Bonnie Haruna as PDP governorship candidate for Adamawa State in 2003 to leave the party. Three unnamed persons, including a Senator, were said to have left because they stuck to the proposition that a Muslim should replace Haruna then. According to the story, Atiku’s statement was made in the open at a rally, a challenge to Intervention to doubt it.
Those pushing this analysis say that the problem of the North is a small core of those thinking of themselves as champions of Northern interests and to whom any opposition is opposition to the North and must be the handiwork of someone who lacks Hankali, Hausa word for consensual or cautious handling of reality. So, any such opposition person is represented as a hasty, irresponsible and unruly brat and then marked for exclusion and marginalisation. Today, such a person is additionally represented as corrupt. This, it is being argued, is what is happening to Atiku Abubakar. Alhaji Buba Galadima gave voice to this analysis recently when he said on Channels Television that even if Atiku had been as corrupt as invading the Central Bank of Nigeria, (CBN), he would still be elected as president, come February 2019. For those in this camp of reasoning, all the corruption allegations against the former Vice-President remain nothing but allegations, including whatever former President, Obasanjo wrote. As long as there exists no court ruling confirming any case of corruption, all such allegations hang in the air, they would say. In a way, they are echoing Atiku himself who has said it several times that Buhari would have arrested him if he were corrupt.
Interestingly, the notion that problem of the North is a small core of self-interested elements is seeping out. Speaker Yakubu Dogara, one of the sound brains in the PDP, recently raised the question of Northern leaders being the undoing of the region. This might be a totally wrong interpretation of what he said at the PDP rally in Lafia but it speaks to the thinking that a core which represents itself as champions of the Northern interests but keeps the booties exclusively to themselves in a way that challenges ‘One North, One People’ is the problem. Posed against the more inclusionary approach of the late Sardauna and Prime Minister of the North in the First Republic, it will not be surprising if the rally grounds in the final weeks of the campaign is directed at taking them on in a manner that could hurt the president’s chances.
If that were to happen, rally speeches would focus on how the North is still the highest theatre of the incidence of poverty in Nigeria as opposed to the East which is well established even in the North; the Southsouth which has advantage (as well as the disadvantages) of oil production and the Southwest which has the best economic opportunities in the country. The president’s critics would stress why Kantin Kwari Market in Kano is now an empty space in how Kano which is about trading; why Kaduna is basically a no-go area, why Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto are exploding and why central Nigeria is such a violent space.
What all these point to is the abundance of sentiments to mobilize and people who are already angry enough to do the mobilization against the incumbent more than they are against the contender. As much as the president has certain advantages intact in his favour, these sentiments could be deadly if intelligently articulated. The context in which they are deadly comes from the fact they are interacting with other variables too. It is such that there is a claim on the ground now that nothing would stop the Atiku from gaining 40% of the votes in Kano where the PDP, the PRP and the APC are currently neck to neck. In Katsina State, the speculation is that it would not be surprising if the PDP gives the governor a run for incumbency and even return to power. Sokoto State remains a contested ground between the PDP governor and the APC president. In Plateau State where the PDP remains the party of the rural areas, its victory won’t surprise anyone, depending on the genuineness of its reconciliation process. Benue State is where such a statement is still not possible because too many factors are still crossing each other out, most of them local contradictions.
There has thus been a major shift from the dominant sentiments that determined the 2015 election. The idea of Buhari as a retired General with a history of giving terrorists and fundamentalists a bloody nose has given way to a General who could not defeat Boko Haram. Instead of just Boko Haram in the Northeast in 2015, there is now insurgency almost everywhere, over 70 % of it in the North, creating, reinforcing and exacerbating insecurity and regional disparities. Could someone or some group have plotted against the president or did he plot against himself?
Whether anybody set him up or he shot himself in the foot, a choice has to be made on February 16th, 2019, the D-Day irrespective of the dryness of the campaigns on issues. Again, Atiku Abubakar whose moment this ought to be is seen as mixing it up and risks missing it. At a time the international order is tightening against the historical losers such as the Africans, Atiku is joining the crowd calling for weakening of the centre instead of agitating for a strong, brilliant and fair minded centre. A strong state is the only instrument a country such as Nigeria has to be a winner in the world order that is shaping up now. The examples of the past two decades of international political economy does not make the case for restructuring sensible because the local inter-group problems that account for the struggle for restructuring can easily be eliminated by an enlightened leadership. It is a leadership and governance problem. The fear is that Atiku is subordinating the chances of Nigeria ever rapidly replicating Brazil, Russia, India and China to the pragmatic politics of winning the votes of those who have been pushed to the politics of restructuring, thereby putting his rating as a statesman first and politician later at risk. He worsens this by what many regard as his horrible tendency to see a national oil company in a rather restricted prism of profit and loss, illustrating his belief in privatisation of the NNPC on a completely wrong headed comparison of Nigeria and the US. Why would the US with many multinational companies that can enact or replicate the American State on a global scale need a national oil company? Why wouldn’t Nigeria which has only what Obasanjo calls ‘baby capitalists’ not need a conglomerate such as the NNPC to enact the Nigerian State on a global scale? Conclusion: either Atiku’s team has not thought deeply on some of the issues they bandy about or they are just irredeemably addicted to cronyism. Whichever one is the case, there is danger there.