With Chief Orji Uzor Kalu—whose corruption charges have been given one of those famous All Progressives Congress (APC) deodorant treatments—gallivanting all over the country on a presidential campaign of which he is not a candidate and the Kano State Governor, Umaru Ganduje threatening legal action should the incumbent decide not to run at about the same time that some so-called Arewa Pastors were genuflecting before President Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Rock, it was no surprise that he reportedly announced at the APC meeting on Monday that he would seek re-election next year.
I say reportedly because I was not at the meeting and the only evidence we have that Buhari indeed declared his bid were the statements by his spokesmen; first by Mallam Garba Shehu that “the president said he was responding to the clamour by Nigerians to re-contest in 2019” and the second, by Mr Femi Adesina, that other contenders should simply ‘run away’ because his principal would be seeking re-election. Taken together, what we can infer is that President Buhari wants to continue in office, not necessarily because of any sense of mission but rather in response to the ‘clamour’ by some Nigerians. That should tell the Olusegun Obasanjos and the Ibrahim Babangidas of this world that where Aso Rock is concerned, they are not Nigerian enough for their own ‘clamour’ to count!
Borrowing from the script written by the late General Sani Abacha, those aspiring to lead Nigeria no longer do so as a result of any conviction; it always has to be in deference to some dubious ‘clamour’. But what makes Buhari’s case somewhat pathetic is that he has admitted several times in recent years that he would spend only one term in office because of his advanced age. In an interview published in Daily Trust on 6th February 2011, shortly before the presidential election of that year which he contested on the platform of the defunct Congress for all Progressives Change (CPC), Buhari not only promised that it would be his last attempt, he was emphatic that if elected, he would spend only one term because “I am not getting younger. If I succeed and do one term, I will be 73 years old (by 2015).”
Of course, we know he changed his mind in 2012 to declare that he would run again, with the commencement of the negotiation towards the merger of opposition parties to form the APC but a similar pledge of one term was made on his behalf. In October 2014, the National Publicity Secretary of his defunct CPC, Mr Rotimi Fashakin, disclosed that Buhari would serve only one term of four years if elected President in 2015. This was what Fashakin said at the time: “General Muhammadu Buhari would do a term of four years (and) then hand power over to somebody younger. You can take that to the bank. He is going to be the stabilizing factor in Nigeria. Nigeria needs a strong leader like Buhari, who is in the mould of Mandela, who stabilized South Africa. That is what Buhari is going to do and four years are enough for him to do that. After stabilizing the nation, he will hand over to somebody younger, whom he would have groomed. This is why we are asking Nigerians to give Buhari a chance. He has the capacity, temperament and courage to rescue and stabilize this country. Just four years of Buhari, Nigeria will not remain the same.”
In what was interpreted to be an affirmation of that pledge, three weeks after assuming office, on 16th June 2015 to be specific, President Buhari told a cross-section of Nigerians living in South Africa on the sideline of the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg: “How I wish I became the head of state when I was a governor, just a few years as a young man. Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do”.
While President Buhari may have changed his mind, to which he is entitled, his handlers must begin to look for reasons other than “the clamour” from Nigerians for his aspiration. Clamour will not sell, especially for an incumbent who, quite naturally, should run on his record. While some people are merely using the president to achieve their own political goals, there are others who want to retain their privileges, like the smart alecs now deploying professional colleagues to re-loot Abacha loot to the tune of billions of Naira!
Interestingly, there is a division in the polity between regime adherents who insist President Buhari has done very well and therefore deserves a second term and a broad section of Nigerians who argue that his best is not good enough. We can classify this latter group into two. The first comprises the supporters of former President Goodluck Jonathan who have refused to move on from the defeat of their principal at the 2015 election. The second comprises those who supported Buhari’s aspiration in 2015 but are now disappointed by his tardiness in decision making, brazen clannishness, proclivity for placing personal loyalty above merit and competence in critical appointments and his selective approach to the war against corruption.
The difference between the two sub-groups is that while the first never wanted Buhari to succeed so they could justify their opposition or hatred (whichever it is) and would never vote for him anyway, members of the second group may be forced to resign themselves to a second term of Buhari, albeit by default, even if they choose not to vote. That is because ‘Go and get your PVC’ may not be enough to satisfy this group; they would most likely want to see what is being sold to them before buying otherwise they would just not vote. And in such a situation, only the incumbent will profit. That is the challenge of the moment. Ten months to the election, realistic political pundits can still not see where Buhari’s challenger is coming from.
I am aware there are many aspirants in the field, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as well as Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, Alhaji Sule Lamido and Governor Ibrahim Dankwambo of Gombe State. Also in the race is my friend, Omoyele Sowore and others like Dr Kingsley Moghalu, Mr Fela Dutotoye and Mrs Monica Ambrose, all of them eminently qualified to run the country. But I have covered politics long enough to understand the nuances that dictate presidential elections in Nigeria. In the present circumstance, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) remains the most formidable alternative platform. That the party has not put its act together nor are there clear indications as to how its flag-bearer would emerge and who such a person would be, is what the Buhari handlers are banking on as their joker.
Let us be clear here: It would take a serious opposition coalition built around a strong political party structure to defeat an incumbent president. As I explained last year, following the publication of my book, ‘Against The Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria’, my research (at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University where I spent the 2010/2011 session) revealed that competitive presidential elections held in sub-Saharan Africa in the preceding two decades resulted only in 4 percent defeat and 96 percent victory for the incumbents. When I applied the same principle to the rest of the world, I discovered that incumbents were defeated at the polls only 7 percent of the time, winning 93 percent of the time. Having eliminated several variables, I eventually located divided opposition as the main factor why the odds usually favour the incumbent in most elections. Those interested can still read my paper (https://programs.wcfia.harvard.edu/fellows/publications/divided-opposition-boon-african-incumbents) but if the opposition is really serious about dislodging Buhari next year, the time to start is yesterday.
For sure, there is a tragic flaw in character for a man who promised a term yet now wants two. But there is nothing illegal about the aspiration, even though there is a serious moral dilemma here. While the president can change his mind, like we all do, the manner in which Buhari’s promises are easily excused takes so much away from the much-touted integrity that brought him to office. He promised to publicly declare his assets. He never did and when the public demanded an answer, his aides went legalistic. All the promises contained in the documents released on his behalf by the APC before the 2015 election were also dismissed the moment he came to office. And now the pledge, made at different times, to spend only one term has been reduced to a ‘misquote’ by presidential handlers.
To the extent that democratic choices are often made on ambiguities and that incumbents do not have to be popular to secure electoral victory, I can understand why Buhari’s supporters seem so confident that their man would win next year. Besides, a second term is usually an opportunity for the incumbent to make amends for the mistakes of first term while consolidating on the gains made, though what the Nigerian presidential handlers choose to ignore is that age is no longer on Buhari’s side just as his health status remains suspect. So, if I were really very close to the president, I would be more concerned about his legacy and place in history than encouraging him to simply mark time in office.
Sadly, history is replete with leaders who allow themselves to be deceived by the flattery of time servers. For instance, on 21st September 1995, the late Philippines President, Mrs. Corazon Aquino, spoke some candid words to her then successor, Mr Fidel Ramos, who had begun moves to amend the constitution with the clear agenda being to remove the clause on term limit. Aquino, who went from being a widow to president on the strength of a peoples’ revolution, could see the danger and she warned President Ramos, who had at the time done so much for his country, not to squander his legacy on the altar of inordinate ambition.
Although the circumstances are not quite similar since President Buhari reserves the right to seek a second term for which he will not be breaking any law, we can draw an interesting parallel between those who egged on Ramos in Philippines at the time and the power prostitutes in Nigeria who are always available for the use of any and every incumbent. And that is where the admonition by Mrs Aquino to President Ramos becomes instructive: “Power intoxicates; too much power is addictive. There will always be power drug dealers who will feed your habit as president. They will say ‘nobody can take your place’, when what they mean is that they do not want to give up their own places.”
Enough said, at least for now!
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