Obasanjo, Buhari And Nation Building

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DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN

Of all those who have had the privilege to govern this country, only two have met, to a large extent, the threshold of being deliberately elected by a plurality of Nigerians. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was only elected to represent his Bauchi federal constituency at the House of Representatives on the platform of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), the parliamentary majority party. His appointment as prime minister follows from the convention of the parliamentary system of government where the majority party forms the government and its leader becomes the head of government. The non-inclusive limitation of being elected by just one federal constituency was a rationale for discarding the parliamentary model and adopting the presidential system of government in 1979.

In contrast to the parliamentary-Westminster model, the overriding utility of the presidential counterpart is that the president is directly elected by all of Nigeria and thereby enjoys a pan-Nigerian mandate. On account of his tame personality and the primacy of the northern caucus of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), it was the collegial party caucus rather than the person of Alhaji Shehu Shagari that was elected to the office of the president in 1979.

Prior to his election in 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo had governed in a similar capacity as the head of a military dictatorship government 20 years earlier. One of the significant qualities of his election was its ‘working to the answer’ typology. From the beginning to the end of his candidacy, his choice was deliberate and was made more so by an underlying national consensus on his recommendation for the job, as defined by the 1993-98 political crisis. His antecedence was that of a Nigerian patriarch-haven fortuitously taken the Biafra surrender to end the civil war in 1970; became a military head of state in 1976 and successfully executed a transition to civil democratic rule in 1979. Same cannot be said of his next two successors. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was directly and specifically installed as president by Obasanjo and was presented as a fait accompli to Nigerians. As a matter of fact, it was the whole presidential ticket comprising Yar’Adua and Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan that was so imposed. The latter went on to become president on the accident of the premature exit of his principal and was so ratified in the 2011 presidential election.

The uniqueness of the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 was not limited to the element of the electoral victory of an opposition candidate over the incumbent. It was also peculiar in the respect of its mimic of the Obasanjo precedent. Like Obasanjo before him, Buhari had equally ruled Nigeria as military dictator many years ago and among other components, his pedigree as anti-corruption crusader nationally loomed large in his preferment. More than any of their elected predecessors, these two came to office somewhat highly recommended and their choice, commensurately, elicited considerable expectations.

To put the argument in context — given the same or comparable degree of failure — I would be more disappointed in Obasanjo and Buhari than Jonathan. In my sympathetic understanding, the shortcomings of the former president are somewhat mitigated by the accidental nature of his political ascendance-spanning the entire gamut of his political career. He did not aspire to become governor, vice-president and president when he became one and any apparent lack of preparedness could to that extent be extenuated.

In my opinion, the paramount means — test for adjudging a Nigerian president successful — is nation building and I reiterated as much before and after the 2015 presidential election. A few weeks before the election and in acknowledgement of its polarising effect I stressed the urgency of this imperative:

“In the immediate aftermath of the election, the foremost challenge that faces whoever is elected president is not fighting corruption or winning the war on Boko Haram – important as they are. It is going to be the challenge of draining the poison of divisiveness and incipient fratricidal bloodletting (on industrial scale) from the system…

“It is going to be the challenge of sustaining Nigeria as a corporate entity. It is going to be the challenge of reconciling the Niger Delta militants and the Northern warlords (of rendering Nigeria ungovernable) with one another and with the rest of Nigeria. You have got to have a nation first before you can hope to successfully fight corruption and Boko Haram…

“If we have not learnt any lesson from the seeming intractability of the Boko Haram insurgency, we should at least know that divisions and suspicions within the Nigerian military is a crucial factor in the elusiveness of victory over the terrorist army. A house divided against itself cannot stand. It is of little consolation getting wise after the event but it was true then as it is now that the Fourth Republic should have been predicated on a foundational national conference as proposed by the NADECO opposition consortium…
“If the idea of restructuring – generating national conference – was crucial before the elections, it is certain to become of urgent imperative after the 14th of February election. To avoid this response is to live in denial and opt for the strategy of postponing the evil day; see no evil, hear no evil.”

A few months into the assumption of office of the Buhari government and spotting the sub optimal trend of elevating the necessary anti-corruption campaign to the status of the overriding objective and directive principle of state policy-to the neglect of the more consequential task of nation building I counselled:

“Within the context of a presidential system of government and the quite problematic nature of the task of Nigerian nation building, the ideal role of the Nigerian president is that of a patriarch and visionary. This is why America tended to remember and celebrate George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than other American presidents. I agree with the priority mission of ‘killing corruption before corruption kills Nigeria’ but the ultimately successful supreme commander is he who knows how to reconcile tactics with strategy and does not muddle the two…

“I think the point that was been made by Bishop Hassan Kukah the other day is that we have not strategically consolidated on the positive momentum that the transition at the presidential and party level gifted this nation; that the new era can be better managed in a less conflictual and reflexive manner and in a more patriarchal and visionary bent…”

One year down the line, how has Buhari fared? The Punch newspaper recently provided an authoritative assessment “Carried to power on a groundswell of goodwill and disgust at the thoroughly corrupt Goodluck Jonathan administration, Muhammadu Buhari appears bent on political self-immolation. While he received massive support from across the country to become president, he is by his appointments, presenting himself as a parochial, sectional leader. For the sake of the country’s corporate survival, he should rise above primordial instincts and become a father to all Nigerians… The country is in a bad shape, compelling that all efforts be made to rally all segments of the polity behind measures to reverse economic recession, defeat terrorism in the North-east, renewed militancy and sabotage in the South-south zone, Fulani herdsmen’s terrorism in the North-central and general insecurity across the country…

“More importantly, the South-east and South-south zones voted massively against Buhari, who is deepening their alienation from his government by his lopsided appointments. But in truly democratic societies, elected leaders go all out to unite their people after elections. Apart from meeting the constitutional requirement that a minister be appointed from each of the 36 states, the two zones are sparsely represented in the federal government. If some past presidents indulged in primitive sectionalism, Buhari should not. Olusegun Obasanjo, alone among our last four presidents, significantly sought to rise above such primordial instincts.”

Whatever other criticism there may be of Obasanjo, it is difficult to find fault with him in his overt commitment to the task of nation building. He is at all times alert to the danger of being taken captive of parochial agenda often at the expense of taking the sacrificial act of tough love to the extreme of reverse discrimination against his Yoruba origins. You would sooner find in his court and entourage the likes of Waziri Mohammed, Charles Soludo, Donald Duke, Aliko Dangote than any Akin, Segun or Yemi. His Chief of staff, National Security Adviser, Minister of Defence, Chief of Army Staff were Abdul Mohammed, Aliyu Gusau, Theophilus Danjuma, Rabiu Kwankwaso, Victor Malu, Martins Agwai…He takes into cognition the fact that Nigerian citizenship, in the fullness of its meaning, has to be cultivated and nurtured; and regards this endeavour as of essence and prior imperative to the routine task of governance.

The reality of Nigeria today is a runaway and pervasive economic adversity but I differ somewhat in the extent to which this is attributable to the competence or lack of it of the incumbent Buhari government. It seems to me that regardless of who is in office, the intervening variable of plunging international market oil prices and the double jeopardy of the militancy inflicted woe of shrinking production would have given little room for economic manoeuvre. The countervailing reality, however, is that, hobbled by its disdainful non-inclusiveness, the Nigerian government is not exactly in pole position to request or expect a necessary responsive sacrificial mentality from Nigerians to overcome the adversity.

Hardship and distress is a test of citizenship commitment and loyalty encapsulated in the Kennedy exhortation to ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’. The prior assumption here is that the citizenship in question has been so ennobled as to be in a constant state of patriotism oriented mobilisation-deeming their citizenship of greater value than any sacrifice they are required or called upon to make. In this regard, nothing, absolutely nothing, should have prevented Buhari from contriving two or three solidarity visits to the Niger Delta and the South-east since his assumption of office. Is there a better way to deflate the nuisance value of the Fulani herdsmen crisis and shore up Buhari’s nationalist credentials than, for instance, paying a symbolic visit to Olu Falae in Akure upon his brutalisation by the Fulani bandits?