Nigeria’s 2019 Presidential Election Scenarios and Issues: Likely Implications for Foreign Policy

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Muhammadu Buhari

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Preparation for Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election is heating up day after day, but with pointers to a difficult election. With the three previous gubernatorial elections, largely characterised by vote-buying, rigging, etc, and with the acquiescence of the general public, it is clear that the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC)-ruling government wants to stay in power by all means, regardless of what the rule of law might say. It is transparently becoming a do-or-die political fiasco and the international community is quietly watching.

One basic rationale for this hypothetical observation is the position of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), who has not only posited that national interest should, in the order of precedence, take priority over the rule of law. Most Nigerians are agreed that political governance, and especially for the purposes of good governance, the rule of law should be the pivot of public governance. This is why many observers have raised several questions over the nature and constituents of national interest.

For instance, is respect for the rule of law not in the national interest? Is rule of law not also a priori the epicentre of whatever national interest we may want to talk about? Put differently, it is on the basis of this strong belief of PMB that the national interest, and particularly, national security, takes priority over rule of law that it should be expected that the PMB-led administration of Nigeria is not likely to respect any rule of law that has the potential to impede the re-election of the APC government, come 2019. PMB is most likely to act on the basis of defending the national interest to the detriment of the rule of law. In fact, most of the acts are likely to be engaged under the rubric of national security.

In other words, national security cannot but be one of the main presidential questions to be addressed: what will be the position of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the MASSOB (Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra? Would the issue of disappearance of Nnamdi Kanu have been sorted out by then? What about the unending boko haramism which is also challenging the sovereign existence of Nigeria? These questions are raised here in order to draw attention to the fact that they are not currently taken seriously as they deserve, and yet they are tilting towards security imbalance. This presents a special scenario that deserves greater attention.

In fact, the APC government is not likely to win the 2019 presidential election under normal circumstance, especially in light of public grievances. The people’s take is that the Ekiti gubernatorial election was rigged, particularly in light of transparent vote-buying during voting and in the presence of law enforcement agents. On the election in Osun State, the question frequently asked is that, if it was the APC that had a marginal majority and the INEC truly had an inconclusive election, would the election results not have been declared if it was in favour of the APC? Whatever is the answer, the truth remains that public perception of the PMB administration has changed from belief in his good person to disbelief. The people’s change has also changed PMB’s own agenda of change. This is why the APC may have to change strategy to ensure re-election, even if it has to be by manu militari.

Foreign Policy Implications

The first, and perhaps the most critical implication is the fact that the international community is most likely to frown at unfair and non-credible election in Nigeria. The international community is much interested in the protection of democratic governance in Nigeria, and, therefore, is not likely to condone both electoral violence and rigged elections. Election rigging has the potential to attract much violence, in the event of which Nigeria may be heavily sanctioned. In the event of such a violence, foreign investors will be frightened. In fact, the election observers will not only be many but will also have damaging reports to contend with and most of which can only be detrimental to Nigeria’s national interest.

Secondly, international politics is gradually moving away from globalism, and particularly, multilateralism, to nationalism and bilateralism-oriented international politics, but this is not an issue in Nigeria’s political engineering and electioneering calculations. For instance, when the US President, Donald Trump first addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017, he told the Assembly that he would destroy North Korea, describing the leader of the country, Kim Jong-Un, as ‘rocket man on a suicide mission for himself.’

At the current UNGA, Donald Trump described Kim Jong-Un as a ‘very good’ man. Is the change in perception of the North Korean leader because of the classical saying that there is no permanent enemy or friend but permanent interest? It may be so, but partly. The permanency of any interest is also partly but largely a resultant of several factors: attitudinal disposition of the leaders, change of interest, extent of acceptability of such interests by neighbouring countries, capacity and capability to defend the interest, the extent of sustainability of the interest, etc.

It is contended in this column that the main rationale for the change in perception of Donald Trump on the North Korean leader is the new bilateral collaboration with Kim Jong-Un, who is considered to be disposed to the idea of possible denuclearisastion, a major US foreign policy objective. It should be recalled that the US and North Korean leaders had a bilateral summit on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. And perhaps more significant, the North Korean leader has again asked for a second summit to address the unfinished aspects of the bilateral talks, to which Donald Trump has again shown a favourable disposition. The issue is, therefore, the new importance being given to bilateralism to the detriment of globalism in international relations.

As Donald Trump put it himself at the UNGA, the people of America ‘reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.’ This statement is important and loaded with many implications. The placement of emphasis on patriotism simply means that the national interest should always come first. Donald Trump has repeated it several times that ‘America First.’ Even within the context of multilateral politics, there cannot be any allowance for American interest to be subjected to that of another country or organisation plurilaterally and multilaterally. Thus the United States wants to negotiate its own national interests bilaterally and no more within the framework of multilateral set-ups.

The problem, however, and perhaps most unfortunately too, is that the United States under Donald Trump wants to dictate and define the direction of international politics while also underscoring bilateralism and withdrawing its commitment to many international organisations. In this regard, to what extent is the current administration of PMB and the would-be administration of Nigeria reckoning with the scenarios of globalism and bilateralism come next year? For now, we submit that foreign policy is hardly an issue in Nigeria’s development and strategic calculations.

Thirdly, patriotism and nationalism à la Donald Trump is not in any way different from what they are in Africa, particularly at the level of intra-ECOWAS politics. For instance, Nigeria-Ghana ties are fraught with the problems created by Ghanaian policy on retail trading. Hundreds of Nigerians are into retail businesses in Ghana. The Ghanaian authorities made them pay heavily in the spirit of the need to protect local businesses and not in the spirit of competitiveness. This problem has been there for almost a decade now without enduring solution.

When this issue was again raised on the margins of the ongoing UNGA, the Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo, said he had met with the different groups and had assurances that ‘there was no agenda to send anybody away. It is just that they (Nigerians) needed to regularise their positions according to the trading laws of the country.’

President Akufo-Addo’s explanation is that the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr. Alan Kyerematen, had issued a press statement according to which ‘the National Committee on Retail Trade will continue to ensure that all businesses operating in the retail trade sector of Ghana are given the opportunity and support to regularise operations and comply with the laws and regulations in the country.’

Put differently, Ghana’s main concern is the need for compliance with the country’s laws and regulations on retail trading. The right of establishment of any Community citizen is not the issue but when a government regulation is in conflict with Community interest, there is problem. This is where Community issue (ECOWAS multilateralism) may be competing with Nigeria (national patriotism). Ghana says that ‘there is no orchestrated action by Government or any State institution targeted at Nigerian nationals or any particular foreign nationals.’ As much as there may be truth in this statement, the fact also remains that Nigerian nationals are basically the victims of the retail trading policy.

In this regard, should we be talking about multilateralism or nationalism in the context of Nigeria’s foreign policy towards the ECOWAS? Should it be Nigeria as centre piece or Africa as centrepiece or ECOWAS region as centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy in light of emerging emphases on national interest first? Without doubt, national interest has a more meaningful interpretation in international politics, but such constructive meaning is difficult or is, at best, controversial at the national level. The debate between proponents of regime interest and public interest clearly illustrate the problem.

Fourthly, population and national development is another possible area of controversy. In the eyes of PMB, we should be talking about demographic dividends. At the High-Level Meeting on ‘Investing in Youth Jobs in Africa,’ hosted on the margins of the 2018 UNGA by Prime Ministers Theresa May of Britain and Justin Trudeau of Canada. In a Press Release no. MFA/PR/53/2018/34 of 27 September, 2018, signed by Dr. Tope Adeleye Elias-Fatile, a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and Spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, PMB is much concerned about the beauty of Africa’s teeming youth. The population in some other countries are ageing while the challenge for Africa is that of a ‘youth bulge.’

Consequently, there is the need to address the challenges of changing global demographic patterns. PMB believes that there is the need to ‘capitalise on the opportunities which demographic dividend offers to promote poverty eradication and global sustainability, as well as to create jobs that would be economically productive and absorptive of the skilled youth.’

More importantly, PMB not only called on African leaders and the private sector to ‘promote gender-neutral hiring practices to benefit the growing number of female applicants seeking participation in the work force,’ but has also ‘directed that a Multi-stakeholders Committee be commissioned to develop a national roadmap’ predicated on ’employment and entrepreneurship, education and skills development, health and well-being for harnessing the potentials of Nigeria’s teeming youthful population, and governance and youth empowerment.’

The point being made with the foregoing quotations is that population, and especially that of the youth, is likely going to be an issue regardless of how it is perceived. While PMB sees it positively, the viewpoint of US President Donald Trump is quite different. Nigeria’s population in 2050 is projected to become the third biggest in the world after that of India with 1.73 billion and China’s 1.46 billion. Nigeria’s population is expected to be 411 million while that of the United States will be in the fourth position with 398 million. Indonesia and Pakistan follow in that order with 327 million and 309 million respectively.

The point here is that a country like China is seriously controlling its population growth rate in such a way that, by 2050, India might overtake China as the most populous country in the world. The same is also true with the case of the United States to the extent that it will be overtaken by Nigeria. Donald Trump is drawing attention to the implications for national development. To what extent is this an issue for presidential electoral campaigns in 2019, especially that the Brookings Institution has also described Nigeria as the world’s capital for poverty.

In other words, if Nigeria is internationally considered as the world’s terra cognita for poverty, with a current estimated population of about 200 million, what really are the enduring poverty-alleviation mechanisms being put in place to address the likely 411 million Nigerians by 2050? As put by the US government, the impending population explosion has the potential ‘to create more problems than opportunities for the country in the future.’ The US Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria, David Young, has advised Nigeria to begin to focus greater attention on the development of human capital, good healthcare system, and nipping corruption completely in the bud as one effective way of addressing the demographic challenges.

Without scintilla of doubt, the most important dynamic for sustainable development is the development of human capital, especially when emphasis is placed on research, science and technology. In Nigeria, research does not appeal much to professional politicians. What is uppermost is re-election. Where re-election requires research, it can be happily funded but beyond that, development policies are, at best, dependent on foreign countries’ models. There is nothing original about Nigeria’s development models, and because they are not indigenously initiated but dependent on others, the underpinning ideology is hardly understood, and by further implication, they are badly and poorly implemented.

However, Governor Nasir El-Rufai has said that the Federal Government is quite aware demographic challenges and that ‘there is nothing bad about having a huge population provided they are educated, healthy and productive.’ More important, El-Rufai also said that ‘China is doing very well despite its huge population. So we don’t see it as a problem provided we do the right thing. And in Kaduna State, we are doing the right thing.’ Governor El-Rufai’s observation may be valid. However, why is China controlling its population growth? China is currently the most populous in the world. How do we explain its expected second position after India in 2050?

Fifthly, if we address our minds to the controversial relationship between PMB and Donald Trump as sovereign heads of their two countries, the age of PMB also has the potential to be a major question to be addressed in terms of defence by Nigeria’s foreign policy makers. When PMB visited the US in April 2018, the US leader was reported to have described the Nigerian leader as ‘lifeless.’ As submitted by the Vanguard (Nigeria) newspaper, ‘the first meeting, with Nigeria’s ailing 75-year-old Muhammadu Buhari in April, ended with the US president telling aides he never wanted to meet someone so lifeless again, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Besides, while PMB expected from the visit US assistance in the area of security, economy and anti-corruption, Donald Trump simply expressed his country’s concerns on ‘the religious violence in Nigeria, including the burning of churches and killing of Christians.’ He asked ‘Nigeria and the federal, local, and the state governments to do everything to immediately secure the communities and protect innocent civilians, including Muslims and Christians.’ This underlying factor in the bilateral ties between the two countries cannot be set aside in understanding the future attitude towards PMB as presidential candidate in early 2019. This cannot but be an interesting scenario.

Finally, the electoral scenarios of the 2019 presidential cannot but be quite interesting: it will majorly be a contest between the ruling APC government and the main opposition party, PDP. Most Nigerians are likely to vote in anger against the PMB administration, mainly because of government’s don’t care attitude towards public complaints and outcries. The public is most aggrieved by PMB’s subjection of rule of law to national security and ill-defined national interest. Nepotism means nothing to PMB. Many of PMB’s officials have been indicted, and yet, PMB is not much concerned about public observations. In fact, the issue of certificate saga is another area of concern that is not in favour of the PMB administration. The environmental conditionings are therefore currently in favour of the PDP. If elections were to be conducted today, they cannot but be to the detriment of the APC. If the APC is to win under normal circumstance, there must be a new change beyond the current rhetoric of change.