From the British to Buhari


I will have nothing to do with the British. They are full of prejudices and they have not learnt from history, and having nothing to teach anybody, I refused to talk to the British High Commissioner. The other day he sent a message he wanted to come and see me and I told him there was no chance as we have no common interests. As for the Americans, we know where they sink their dollars, their interests lie. They have no principles in their activities’-Chief Obafemi Awolowo

‘Africa has come of age. It’s no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar. For too long have we been kicked around: for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly’-General Murtala Muhammed

Leaving through snippets of Nigeria’s political history, I was struck afresh at the correlation of the critical disposition of some Nigerian political actors towards the colonial masters (and neocolonial ones) on one hand and the abortion and frustration of their political aspirations and careers on another. In a manner of speaking, this is a restatement of the neo colonial perspective of Nigerian and African politics. The more assertive and independent minded the African leader, the more assured the frustration of his political aspirations. Correspondingly, the more compliant, fawning and deferential the African leader, the better assured the political prospects. In a typically denigrating snigger, the British writer blurted ”Rule by a sycophantic friendly North was very satisfactory for the British, but it hardly matched the expectations of educated members of the population”. How much of the political vicissitudes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Ikemba Emeka Ojukwu owe to this historical hurdle? Was Murtala Muhammed ultimately a victim of Western imperialism? For that matter how much of the futile Presidential bid of Chief Moshood Abiola owe to his campaign for reparations?

One of the peculiarities of the last Nigerian general election was the haste with which the Western powers rushed to legitimise the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari. I made the inference that they just needed the tiniest of excuse to lend approval to the return of Buhari-regardless of the machinations of how such victory was procured-barring large scale and widespread violent repudiation. You could read this ulterior motive in the synchronised statement of the British and American governments and the European Union, EU. Before the election, my realistic expectation was that they would ultimately endorse the result presented to them by the heavily compromised INEC but will fulfill the righteousness of taking their time to grant a grudging assent. I assume this, because over and beyond the legitimacy and authenticity of election results, the foremost priority of these big international players in the election is the political stability of Nigeria not free and fair elections unless the latter is deemed to expressly serve the purpose of the former. The quick categorical pass mark judgment does not square with the realistic projections of the election as going down to the wire. Subsequent revelations at the presidential election tribunal have equally questioned the capacity of the world leaders for good judgment.

More significant is that the cause of political stability envisaged in the Buhari bargain is fast turning into a mirage-conspicuously facilitated by a chauvinistic parochial agenda and governance failure. With Buhari, it was not only the British Patriarch that got it wrong, almost all significant political players fell sucker for the Buhari myth-more so when there was a practical alternative within the same Hausa-Fulani political orbit-Atiku Abubakar .The fundamental error was to mistake the personification of an idea for the best manager of the Idea. The most critical element in the victory of Buhari in 2015 was the appeasement of the North-following the disappointment of the premature termination of the Umaru Yar’Adua Presidency. More than anyone, Buhari was the personification of this Northern irredentist outrage. From the political history of Nigeria and generally in the context of conflict resolution, this is the red flag factor that should have disqualified him.

The received Nigerian political wisdom is that passionate regional political leaders and hot heads are inherently unsuitable for the position that is otherwise defined by national compromise and conciliatory temperament. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the best President Nigeria never had- except in one regard. He was unable to find a common purpose middle course road with the Muslim North. This failure was laid out in bold relief by his recourse to fielding a South-west/South-east Presidential ticket in the general elections of 1979-albeit a radical recourse forced upon him by the snub he received from the North. Thus boxed into a more apparent than real definition of a regional chauvinist, it became an hurdle Awolowo could not scale.

Before Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello rightly judged himself as temperamentally unsuited for the position of the Prime Minister of Nigeria in the First Republic-given his unapologetic Northern irredentism and imperial arrogance. He disdained the tact and self-effacing forbearance that aided the success of his even tempered and dovish lieutenant, Tafawa Balewa. That Nigeria emerged as a united country after the civil war must be credited to the cross cultural geopolitical identity and more importantly the mental and psychological profile of General Yakubu Gowon. This was the politics that led to his emergence as the Supreme commander over the military version of Ahmadu Bello-the combustible Northern military rebellion leader General Murtala Muhammed in August 1966. By July 1975, Murtala had perceptibly mellowed from the crude and brutish leader of a bloody mutiny personality prototype to somewhat of a Nigerian nationalist-but the residual fire in his belly ensured he didn’t last long.

Then came President Olusegun Obasanjo- the nearest discovery to a made-to-measure Nigerian leader. And if I may say so, this characterisation is not necessarily a compliment. Right from his enlistment in the Nigerian army through the red hot military politics of pre and post-civil war Nigeria, he was thoroughly schooled in the art of Nigerian political brinkmanship by providence and personal predilection. It was such mastery and keen nose that made him to anticipate the victorious North/South West alliance by shunning the overtures of the incipient Yoruba initiative spearheaded by Victor Banjo and Wole Soyinka that was stillborn at Ore in July 1967. The Military Governor of the Northern region, Hassan Katsina was prescient in the observation he made while arranging the safe passage of Obasanjo to the Kaduna airport in August 1966. He charged the security escort that nothing must happen to him because Nigeria will need him in the future. The likelihood was that whoever providence chose to receive the Biafran surrender would develop some empathy for the South East- if he were to be magnanimous in victory and take to heart the Gowon creed of no victor no vanquished. If there was any further preparation he required before mounting the Nigerian throne, it was the lessons he took from Murtala’s short and dramatic tenure culminating in the abortive coup that took his life-making haste slowly.

With Awolowo more or less ruling himself out of contention, Obasanjo concretised his political bond with the North by facilitating the election of Shehu Shagari as President. Beyond being Fulani from the Sokoto redoubt of the caliphate, it was his political reticence, conciliatory mien and lack of lust for power that won Shagari the nomination of the Northern sponsored National Party of Nigeria (NPN). In political profile and temperament he was almost a replica of Tafawa Balewa. For the purpose of compensating the South-west with the Presidency in 1999, Obasanjo was positioned by providence and reputation as the natural choice of the quasi Northern military power brokers. His alienation from Yoruba nationalist politics was palpable and taken together with instinctive feel and commitment to safeguarding the interest of the North, he was a shoo in as President in 1999.

The tradition of limiting the presidential search to candidates of moderate and recessive parochial temper resulted in the emergence of Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007. Similar considerations favored the choice of Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President and subsequently President from 2010-2015. From 2003 to 2015, the providential intervention that ensured the frustration of the Presidential bid of General Muhammadu Buhari was acting out the logic of this tradition. No Nigerian political leader has done more to disqualify himself from election into that high office-on the nation stabilising criteria of consensus politics, conciliation and national accommodating temperament. Without any real evidence of a record of progress on these crucial attributes and in the fit of obsessive distraction with Jonathan’s shortcomings, critical opinion leaders stumbled into seeing in Buhari a potential Nigerian Kemal Mustapha, the Ataturk.

The greatest damage the Buhari Presidency has wrought is to hold the North and Nigeria to ransom. Inbred in all Nigerians is the potential for nationalist disposition and ethnic chauvinism. And it is far easier to potentiate the latter as instrument of political mobilisation in a polity riven with primordial divisions and cleavages. No matter the consequences to national cohesion and unity, it is difficult for the beneficiary of parochial nepotism, real and vicarious, not to mentally preclude themselves from objective censure and criticism of the leader who lavishes them with discriminatory favour and generosity. From here, it is a short distance from misappropriating criticism of the parochial leader as attack on their collective identity and interest. There is also the mob democracy stricture- a situation in which voices of reason and restraint are muffled at the pain of severe repercussions for lack of blind loyalty willfully misinterpreted as camp betrayal.

This is the extant situation in the far North which gives meaning to the Obasanjo remark at his recent parley with a Fulani delegation that no prominent Fulani leader has gone on record to specifically condemn the atrocities being perpetrated by Fulani bandits in the South-west. If this observation is valid, the implication for the medium to the long term resolution of the Nigerian crisis is grave. If what constitutes right or wrong in injuries of conspicuous clarity is not commonly shared and conflict is defined by the notion of blind loyalty to a leader, the margin for peaceful resolution of conflicts tightens dangerously.