Buhari and the 2019 Debate

Thanks to Speaker Yakubu Dogara, I was on the floor of the House of Representatives last Friday as guest speaker at a special session to mark the mid-term of the 18th National Assembly. I was invited to speak on “Image Perception of the Legislature: Causes and Possible Solutions” (http://wp.me/p7LdSh-t03). While, as I explained, individual lawmakers may be viewed favourably by their constituents, as a collective, the National Assembly has a lot of work to do before it can earn the trust of most Nigerians.

However, in his “vote of thanks”, the Deputy Speaker, Hon Yusuf Lasun chose to counter a portion of my speech that ordinarily should delight the members. “With such array of accomplished young men and women, educated from the best institutions in the world, I will like to see presidents of Nigeria emerge from this chamber, beginning from 2019”, I had said. But Lasun responded that my wish was too farfetched because, as far as the presidency of Nigeria was concerned, “there is no vacancy in 2019”.

Since it is a given that there will be a presidential election by 2019, the implication of Lasun’s declaration, which incidentally was not lost on his colleagues, is that President Muhammadu Buhari will be re-elected, almost as if Nigerians do not have any say about that. Meanwhile, Lasun was only re-echoing what some presidential handlers have been saying: that Buhari will contest again in 2019 when his current term—punctuated, as it were, by ill-health—ends and he will win.

Unfortunately, that Nigerians are being told that Buhari is even an option in 2019—in fact the only option, if you listen to some APC titans—speaks to a larger issue. With Europe increasingly becoming an aging continent, the people are also learning to trust their societies to young people not only in the choice of those charged with heading critical agencies but also now in those who lead their countries. That much was demonstrated with the recent election of a 39-year old Emmanuel Macron as the President of France and Leo Varadkar, 38, the new Prime Minister of Ireland. That is the emerging pattern around the world except in Africa, a continent of predominantly young people, where old and tired leaders—most of who also have a penchant for packing their cabinets with old men like themselves—are being recycled.

While I do not subscribe to the argument that old age necessarily impacts negatively on leadership and management, it would also be wrong to ascribe maturity, or sense of responsibility, to people on account of old age or length of service. Indeed, if ever any proof was needed that the wisdom of Solomon had nothing to do with the age of Methuselah, the United States today provides a good example. At 70, Mr Donald Trump is the oldest man to be elected American President yet in terms of maturity for the office, he would probably rank very low. What that suggests therefore is that there is no reason why leadership should be made an exclusive club of old men as we keep doing in Africa with terrible consequences.

At 93, President Robert Mugabe has already indicated that he will be seeking another re-election next year when the current term expires and the people of Zimbabwe have also been served notice that in the event that Mugabe dies before then, even his corpse would be good enough to stand on the ballot. President Paul Biya of Cameroun is 84 and everything points to the fact that he also will not let go of power until death do them part. President Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia is 90 though he has only been in power for three years. Of course the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power for the last 18 years, is 80. And just last week, Thomas Thabane became Prime Minister of Lesotho at 78.

We can excuse Ellen Johnson-Shirleaf not only because of the circumstances that brought her to power after the civil war in Liberia but also because at 78, she is already on her way out of office with election due in October this year. But the situation in Guinea is quite different. At 79, Alpha Conde secured his second term of five years in October 2015 and there is nothing to suggest he may not go for more by 2020. In Malawi, Peter Mutharika has only been in power for three years but he is 77 while Hage Geingob of Namibia is 75.

On the continent, three leaders are in the “Club of 75”: Allassane Ouattara of Cote D’Ivoire, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Teodore Obiang Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Mbasogo by the way has been in power since 1979, the same year Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who is 74, became President of Angola. And finally, my charity must return home where our President, Muhammadu Buhari, is 74. He is only a year older than Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of Ghana who are 73. Nguesso and Al-Bashir of course are maximum rulers with elastic term limits. The long-term dictator of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni and Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali are 72 while Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Ismaila Omar Guellah of Djibouti are 71 and 70 respectively.

One can go on and on about the age of African leaders but I believe the point is already made. While experience counts in leadership, in the age of technology that we are now in, quick thinking, energy and ability to proffer quick solutions to difficult problems are what the times require. Those qualities are more available among young people. “There is something unmistakably common in Africa: the continent’s aging and long-serving presidents. Its five longest presidencies stretch between 29 and 36 years, adding to a cumulative 169 years. Their longevity in office is matched by their old age, ranging from 71 to 91 years, and a combined 390 years” wrote David E Kiwuwa, an Associate Professor of International Studies at Princeton University, in October 2015.

According to Kiwuwa, the continent has the youngest population in the world yet the people keep recycling old leaders. “Africa has a leadership age gap disconnect between the leaders and the led. To put it into context, 85 percent of Angolans were not born when Dos Santos came into power in 1979. 83 percent of Zimbabweans were born after Mugabe first came into power as prime minister in 1980, while 79 percent of Ugandans were born after Museveni took over power in 1986” said Kiwuwa.

Given the foregoing, I cannot understand why some Nigerians would believe that the way to the future is through the past. Beyond the age of Buhari, or perhaps because of it, he has little or no trust in young people as is evident in most of his appointments. That much was confirmed last week when the Senate, due to the president’s insistence, upturned its earlier resolution and confirmed retired Justice Slyvanus Nsofor as an ambassador-designate. When asked to recite the National Anthem at his first screening, Justice Nsofor shot back at the Senator, “Why should I do so? You should have sent me a syllabus.” Asked about his knowledge of IT, he responded: “What is IT? It’s for your age, not mine.” But the 82 year-old man, who was described as physically unfit for diplomatic job by the Directorate of State Security (DSS), is now going to represent our country abroad!

Incidentally, even when statistics are hard to come by, I am almost certain that about 90 percent of Nigerians were not born when most of the issues—including the “de-structuring” that now require “restructuring”—tearing Nigeria apart started with the first military coup of January 1965. But in a milieu where the political elite has perfected the art of dividing to conquer, millions of our young people who are already denied access to education, skills acquisition and jobs, now provide a ready army from which ethnic militias and all sorts of social miscreants are recruited. Yet, stripped of all pretensions, the greatest challenge in our country today is neither ethnic (regional) nor religious; it is a class problem between the haves and the have-nots with the former exploiting the latter to advance their personal interests.

For instance, it is easier for the son of Professor Ben Nwabueze—whose “greatest day in life” was his recent meeting with Nnamdi Kanu—to marry the daughter of Prof Ango Abdullahi—the self-confessed grand patron of the “northern youth coalition” threatening Igbos—because they can meet at Harvard, Cambridge, Yale etc. or at restaurants in Lagos, Abuja or Dubai. But Nwabueze’s daughter will never marry some okada-riding “Biafrans” in Onitsha nor will Abdullahi’s marry some Fulani herdsmen roaming the bush in Zaria. Unfortunately, what many of our old men, who incidentally enjoyed the best of Nigeria, are handing over to us are their bitterness and petty prejudices which also accounted for the presidential Freudian slip of “97 percent versus five percent” in federal appointments that ignited the fire we are now trying to douse.

I have been asked by readers whether I am backtracking from my earlier calls for restructuring and my response is simple. While I have for long held that Nigeria, in its current form, cannot fulfil its potentials, I don’t want my position to be confused with that of some hate vendors who unfortunately have hijacked the conversation. I have watched many of Nnamdi Kanu’s “Radio Biafra” video clips and listened attentively to the bile, threats and derogatory statements directed at Yoruba people. Meanwhile, some of his Yoruba “defenders” of today have also said and written very damaging things about Igbo people in the past. These are the leading proponents of “restructuring” which has become a licence to abuse, stereotype, insult and denigrate other people essentially because of ethnic, political and/or religious differences. I will not be part of such nonsense.

That our national discourse on development remains frozen at the level of revenue sharing shows that what we practice is an “allocative federalism” in which the essence of national unity is how to ‘share’ money earned not through productive activities but from the extractive sector. Until we can put an end to the ridiculous culture in which governors wait till the month-end to collect huge cheques from Abuja which many of them thereafter dissipate on trifles, majority of our people, whether in Lagos, Jos, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt, Kano or Enugu, will continue to wallow in abject poverty.

For sure, restructuring our country for the greater good of our people—North, East, West or South—is inevitable and majority of Nigerians will soon come to the inescapable conclusion that the current arrangement will lead us nowhere. But there are also certain aspects of our polity that has to change if we must progress like other societies. The idea that we can continue to exclude the generation of Nigerians born after the civil war—who are now in their forties and constitute perhaps more than 85 percent of our current population—from political leadership and critical appointments cannot for long endure.

To Hon. Lasun, therefore, while I pray for the quick recovery of President Buhari so he can return home to resume work, if he chooses to seek re-election in 2019, there will be a serious debate about whether we can continue to trust a 76-year old man, whose mind is trained to the past, with the future of Nigeria.

The Triumph of Kechi
It is a coincidence that Member Feese (the young lady who survived the United Nations building bombing in Abuja on 26th August, 2011) and Kechi Okwuchi (one of the two survivors of the 10th December 2005 Sosoliso plane crash in Port Harcourt) both attended Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja. But it is a testimony to their character that they have triumphed over their monumental adversities not only to complete their education with excellence, but also to become advocates of worthy causes. Last week, it was Kechi who was trending on social media following her sensational performance at “America Got Talent” show.

For those who may not know where Kechi is coming from, in February 2014, she had this to say about the day her life changed: “I left from Loyola Jesuit College with 60 other schoolmates to board a plane headed to Port Harcourt for the Christmas holiday. It was about 20 minutes to landing that everything went wrong, because what we thought was turbulence became something much more serious. Chaos erupted in the plane and I held my friend’s hand from across the aisle. The last thing I remember was hearing the painful sound, like metal scraping against metal, before I blacked out. I have no recollection of what happened between that moment and when I woke up a month later in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. I don’t think I should rehash every single moment of my recovery process, but I will say that it has been a physically painful and emotionally draining experience. One of the most difficult moments was facing the fact that none of my other schoolmates had made it. That day I understood the true meaning of grief…”

Notwithstanding that horrible experience and the visible (and other invisible) scars she still bears, it is remarkable that Kechi has refused to allow the tragedy to define her. What she teaches is that it is not the cards we are dealt by life that really matters but how we handle such experiences. Kechi is no doubt a role model who deserves the accolades she has been getting in recent days as I wish her the best in the singing competition and whatever other endeavor she chooses in future.

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