Students of state-economy interface in Nigerian politics expect more of this fit as 2019 approaches. It would be shocking to learn that former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar was shocked when the Federal Government owned Nigeria Ports Authority moved on INTELS, his company which the government has sent packing from a multi-billion naira boats pilotage monitoring and supervision contract. Atiku is old enough in Nigerian politics to know the hassles of presidential quest on a financial empire.
The late Waziri Ibrahim, the permanent campaigner for ‘politics without bitterness’ in Nigeria, was once the richest man in Africa. The relative aloofness of the military regime that conducted the 1978/79 transition made it possible for him to soar. Thereafter, the National Party of Nigeria, (NPN) which won the elections eventually and formed the government from 1979 to 1983 went after his businesses. The late Umaru Dikko, President Shagari’s Minister for Transport, told the story in several interviews he granted how he argued or persuaded the president against restraining him from undermining Waziri Ibrahim’s businesses. The long and short of it is that Waziri Ibrahim did not die as rich as he was. He neither became the president nor did he retain good standing in business. Rather, he lost both pursuits.
In the early 1990s, Alhaji Lema Jubril, one of the few who did not make his money from speculation but from elementary agro-industrial business lines, sought presidential power. His political economy in the aftermath of the adventure was nothing to write home about again.
His was before the grand entry of the late Chief MKO Abiola. Abiola’s travails remain lost to the ethno-regional narrative of it more than the travails of rich business men and women seeking political power. In the end, he lost his businesses, presidential bid and life.
Gen Shehu Yar’Adua was a replica of almost everything that happened to Chief Abiola. In fact, he always said he was the first whose virtual election was annulled. He too lost his business, presidential bid and life in the hands of state power. Again, his tragedy was not analysed or deeply understood beyond Abacha’s disinclination to those perceived to nurture presidential ambition.
All these point to the difficulties imposed on presidential ambition built on war chest, not just in Nigeria but in other countries too. Nelson Rockefeller provides the most beautiful example to date in the case of the United States. In his mammoth, elegantly written White House Years, Henry Kissinger whom Rockefeller brought to power, wrote that Rockefeller actually failed to win presidential power because he was a Rockefeller, not despite being a Rockefeller as was popularly believed. Kissinger argues that very wealthy men in an egalitarian society, (by which he meant the US when compared to the UK, for example) suffer from a hereditary disability. He might be right with Donald Trump making it but into a global turmoil.
The current skirmish, therefore, makes Atiku the man to watch. It is either he breaks the record or he goes down fighting. He successfully beat former President Obasanjo from ringing him out in their tussle between 2003 and 2007. It is either he is so smart or Obasanjo was restrained by a certain liberalism. Whichever is the case, he has something to build on from that victory. Although all retired Generals and men of war, Obasanjo and Buhari are also products of differing temperaments and what they bring to the table in this historical battle-point in state-economy interface in Nigerian politics could be vastly different.
One interesting sign to watch in this skirmish is what the government gave as reason for asking INTELS to pack up. Some observers think that breaking private sector monopolistic practice is the type of argument that would have helped the government image rather than the rather technical or even technocratic argument about INTELS not abiding by the TSA regime. Government might not have taken that argument because someone could ask them why the policy is not taken against other monopolies. Secondly, it is clear they needed a technical rather than an ideological critique of INTELS to get their way. So, those who assume this government is a dead duck might have to rethink. It is obviously keen to retain power and it is thinking through it.
For critical observers, the issue in all these remains the question of what is in it for the people. What is the business model that the Buhari government subscribes to within which context actions such as this can be clearly appreciated? Without that, all his exertions would amount to voluntarism and a waste of time at the end of the day. Right now, the government is neither statist nor neoliberal. It is just around the person of the president but a president is neither automatically an ideology nor a business model. Added to the current level of poverty and the tension that comes with that, the risk of legacy ruined is more than real.