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Continuity and Change

06 Sep 2013

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Guest Columnist : Akin  Osuntokun

Vice-President Atiku Abubakar could possibly have made a good president. He is cosmopolitan, intelligent, broadminded, ambitious, courageous and a deft political player. These qualities must have informed his choice as running mate to President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. And the latter had big plans for him. His choice was deliberate.

Obasanjo’s projection was to make Atiku succeed him after two terms in office. His age was taken into account and it was a crucial factor in his rating against other good but older contenders. Pitted against another similarly younger contender, Abubakar Rimi, it was his ability to remain cool and collected under pressure that scored him higher. Beyond these general attributes, there were two significant instances that bore testimony to his capacity for leadership. He was the most forceful and clear sighted, in making the case for conceding the presidency to the South-west among his peers in 1999.
He equally and at considerable cost to his political prospects, stood up to be counted against ‘political sharia’. But I fear the oppportunity to become president may be long gone.

In his first term in office, President Obasanjo spent a lot of time travelling the world-to rebrand and reintegrate Nigeria back into polite and civilised company. And the efforts were remarkably gratified. Nigeria became a destination of choice for many important international events including the aborted Miss World pageant; Commonwealth Heads of States, Non-Alligned G-77 conference and the Commonwealth Games.
Nigeria won favour in the sight of the Lord and his creatures and became attractive to numerous world leaders. Above all, it signally fed into the highly consequential decision to write off a substantial proportion of Nigeria external debt.

There was also a component to this peripathetic itinerary  that was obscured and not known to the public. That default component was to groom the vice-president for succession to the office of the president by ceding and giving room for him to grapple with Nigerian governance duty and responsibility. The role was to be reversed in the second term by assigning him to numerous international engagements to prepare him for this complementary role when he takes over as president. But this was not to be. As it is now with President Goodluck Jonathan, claims were being repeatedly made that Obasanjo was only signed on for one term, that this was the agreement he had with his shadowy ‘northern backers’. There were orchestrated admonitions for Obasanjo to take the ‘Mandela option’; to follow the precedent of Nelson Mandela and step down after spending one term in office. There were covert and subversive manipulation of the media to render Obasanjo so unpopular as to make him unelectable. All this anti-Obasanjo propaganda were being linked to the Atiku political machine.

This trend eventually degenerated into a cold war between the two and guaranteed the subsequent hostility of Obasanjo to any talk of Atiku’s aspiration to succeed him. Whether by design or default, it became apparent that Atiku was not enthusiastic about a joint ticket with Obasanjo in the 2003 presidential election.
And again as it is presently, the case with President Jonathan, a number of state governors had mutinied against Obasanjo’s candidacy and pushed Atiku to go all the way against his principal and step forward to challenge for the presidency in his own right. The uncertainty on what Atiku will do subsisted right on to the eve of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primaries-when he gave an interview to the BBC Hausa Service. Asked on his intention and position concerning the primaries, he said he had three options. One was to run with Obasanjo, another was to run with former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme and the third was to put himself forward as a candidate. On the question of which option he would take, he said he had not made up his mind.

Before joining the campaign, Obasanjo had spoken to me at length on his plans for his deputy-as earlier indicated. He told me that important personalities from the ‘north’ had approached him and repeatedly urged on him to drop Atiku as his running mate; that this was the position of the ‘north’. On each occasion,  he told the interlocutors that he had made up his mind to stick with Atiku.
Ironically a big part of Atiku’s grouse was that at his declaration to run for second term, Obasanjo had been silent on who would be his running mate. In the end, both of them ran together and handily won the primaries and the election. The rest as they say is now history. Anybody who remembers this precedent will not be too surprised at the latest twist and turn in the PDP presidential election politics.

The implosion of the PDP had been long in coming and was easily predictable. In the first place, it started not as a political party but as a nationalist movement. And it is too big to make a competitive party system in Nigeria realisable. As a matter of fact, in all the seven states of the disaffected governors, it was in only two -- Rivers and Kwara that President Jonathan won in the 2011 presidential election. Understandably so. The reasons for this loss had only intensified in the interim; and those reasons are not even within the capacity of the five governors to resolve. If they ever return to the PDP - it would hardly make any difference on the outcome of the coming presidential election. For the governors from the core northern states, their political survival would to a large extent be determined by how strindent they are in bellowing anti-Jonathan rhetorics. Anger and antipathy against PDP presidential incumbents had been seething in the core north since 2003. The truncation of the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua presidency had only escalated the trend. Temper and emotion are running at an all time high on the vexed issue of where the presidential pendulum will swing in 2015.

Let us attempt to put these things in some perspective. The principle of presidential rotation between the north and the south anticipates that each incumbent - as proxy for his zone, will claim the prize for two terms. If we assume that Jonathan cedes the presidency in 2015 what will happen to the balance of four or three years for the south (Souths-south)? By the same token if the candidate from the north wins the election in 2015, will the three years of Yar’Adua presidency be deducted from the entitlement of eight years? These are not easy questions to answer precisely because the possibility of truncation was not taken into account when this important permutation was being determined. Similarly the possibility that an incumbent could be defeated was not factored into the equation. It is also important to note that political boundaries in Nigeria are not coterminous with the north and south gap but among the six zones.

The presumption of a two-way division implies for instance that all the three zones in the south sat together to agree that it was the turn of the South-west to become presidential nominee for the south in 1999 thereby adopting the South-west zone as its representative; or the assumption that the three zones in the north adopted the North-west to fill the northern slot. This assumption falls flat on its face in the division of the political map of Nigeria presently. We have a situation where substantial parts of the north seem not to buy into the notion of a northern candidate who does not originate from the Christian north demography.

The principle of rotation is a specific product of Nigeria’s political history and the many ambiguities it posed can be addressed by measures that have been proposed before. One it is not even a constitutional provision, it is a pan Nigerian initiative of a dominant political party; and so one option is to jettison it altogether. There is the Ekwueme personified proposition of having six vice-presidents corresponding to each of the six zones - which would have adequately addressed the kind of problematique posed by the death of Yar’Adua. The vice-president from the affected zone would simply step into any such accidental vacuum. Third is the proposal of a single term in office. They are all fine on paper but how do they stack up against the political reality on the ground?

In social science circles there is a malaise called the resource (oil) curse. It is a syndrome that predisposes a society to socio-economic dysfunction where there is no positive correlation between productivity and reward. It fosters massive corruption and indolence among the elite on account of its opaque and arbitrary transactions. It breeds a passive and unresponsive citizenry who are unable to make rigourous demands on governance because national revenue is derived largely from the oil resource endowment rather than taxation. In addition to all this, oil has come to constitute an unstated political veto in the balance of forces within the Nigerian federation. And as we go forward, the veto is looming larger and larger. Hitherto disparate and playing second fiddle in political calculations, the South-south has now been forged into a formidable political bloc by the growing indispensability of oil.

The fortuitous presidency of Jonathan has crystallised and massively reinforced this ascension on the ladder of power politics. They have for long suffered a persecution complex both in relation to their hegemonic Igbo neighbour and by the dismissive attitude of Nigeria towards them. Before Jonathan, nobody from that zone has had the privilege of becoming the president of Nigeria; and their populations have suffered, mostly in silence, at the deleterous consequences of oil exploration, mining and consequent pollution. A document was recently published revealing their poor representation among Nigeria’s oil wealth elite. Stories have been told of the catatonic shock experience of Niger Delta first time visitors to Abuja at the other worldly glitter of a city built with resources from their region.

Truth is the mood of that region does not conduce to the departure of Jonathan from that villa in Aso Rock neighbourhood anytime soon.
Beyond the do-or-die contention for that seat, there is a lot of work crying for our individual and corporate attention. We need a period of respite and introspection not muscle flexing and sabre rattling. We need to mend broken relations between Christians and Muslims in the north; we need to phase out the old brigade politicians who feed and thrive on cleavages and divisions; we need to recreate a new pan Nigerian political elite of the younger generation; we need to break the cycle of predictable periodic crisis and interim government of national unity. No matter the level of disappointment, let us stop projecting presidents of this country as enemies to be routed and decimated. There is an element of good in each and everyone of us and I believe that regardless of personal excesses, there is not a leader of this country who does not harbour goodwill for Nigeria. Some of them are as much a victim of circumstances as you and I.

Nigeria needs a period of uninterrupted political stability and peace if we are to achieve the routinisation of civil democratic rule. We should not rush in blind fury to 2015 and damn the consequences. Even (as a prominent pugilist in a couple of presidential elections) if I stand guilty of being wise after the event, let us look less at the next election and look more to the legacy we want to bequath to the next generation.

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