At the height of the hysteria about who would succeed the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, the elaborate but controlled transition programme encouraged members of the political elite to openly express their aspiration for the presidency. But the politicians were somewhat wary. After all, successive military administrations had promised and failed to hand over power to anyone but themselves. Moreover, this particular administration had decimated the political class through a deliberate series of bans and exclusions.
You were either a new breed or old breed politician. You were either part of the problem or ready to queue up behind those who said they were solving the problem. Having survived a series of purges, bans, re-categorisations and white- washing, the politicians who survived Nigeria’s years of political long knives felt confident enough to step forward to desire the plum job. Trust Nigerian political animals, those eternal and incurable optimists. Each one of them felt it would be most expedient to be seen as an anointed choice of the military.
Babangida, ever the friendly foe with a decorated sword, was the friend of nearly every political actor in the field. Each presidential aspirant felt a hidden obligation to bounce their ambition off the military president. Each felt that declaring their interest to the emperor was a prerequisite to their otherwise legitimate democratic right. So, they took turns to visit Aso Villa to whisper their intentions to the boss. In separate private audiences with the President, I suspect that each ambitious political aspirant received an assurance that he would be the chosen one. Before long, the entire political landscape was swarming with an assortment of self -confident presidential aspirants. Check out the long list of present day presidential aspirants trooping to Minna for ‘consultations’ and each emerging with words of encouragement!
Each one of the IBB era politicians kept the source of their confidence to their chest. Thus, we had the likes of Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Patrick Dele Cole, Babagana Kingibe, Tom Ikimi and Olu Falae stepping forward to declare presidential intentions. Some even mounted elaborate early campaigns. But only two of these – Babagana Kingibe and Tom Ikimi-were lucky to be rewarded with the chairmanship of the two government approved political parties. The rest is history.
It is another presidential season in a different clime. A different set of politicians, mostly of the All Progressives Congress (APC) clan, are trooping to the Presidential Villa to seek the tacit endorsement of the incumbent on their presidential aspiration. Former Lagos Governor, Bola Tinubu led the pack. He was closely followed by Ebonyi Governor Dave Umahi. Former Abia State Governor, Orji Kalu who has not declared anything has also visited Buhari mostly for a timely photo opportunity. No one knows what the usually taciturn and quiescent Buhari told them.
From every indication, we are right in the midst of an emerging national circus. As my friend Segun Adeniyi insightfully pointed out in his column in this newspaper earlier in the week, the national circus is gathering traction. The public is fast losing track of the number of those who have declared to be our president in 2023. The declarations are however merely the prep stage of the circus. We will soon enter the travelling stage which is the roadshow itself.
My late grand father used to tell me that madness is not such a calamity for as long as one can cope with the malingering part of the ailment!
On a more serious note, however, the recent spate of presidential declarations represent so many things that are good and bad with our polity. It is a good thing for so many citizens to aspire to lead the nation. A democracy should never set a limit to how many citizens aspire to lead or say so with neither fear nor reservations. Freedom is the first condition of democracy; citizens should be free to follow, free to want to lead and free to dissent when those who rule run counter to their best wishes and interests.
The sheer number of those stepping forward to declare their presidential bids also indicates the magnitude of problems facing the country. There is a sense in which the mushrooming of presidential aspirants is also symptomatic of the variety of perspectives and solutions to the problems assailing the nation. It is only natural for a nation beset with such a cocktail of existential problems to excite such a barrage of alternative leadership options. On a normal day, Nigeria is a land of a million presidents, a laboratory of conflicting perspectives on leadership and solutions to national problems at any point in time.
Above everything else, the spate of presidential aspirants is an open verdict from a long standing referendum on Mr. Buhari’s bumbling presidency. Over a year to his official exit, the public has since lowered the gavel on Buhari’s divisive and crassly incompetent presidency. Among political pundits, the jury is out as to the political gravity of a Buhari endorsement or lack of it. From the experience of the last seven years, even Mr. Buhari’s most ardent political disciples know that the only candidate Buhari supports to the hilt is Buhari himself. The only seat worth fighting for, defending and possibly dying for is the throne on which he sits in Aso Rock. It is indeed however a strange ‘Village Head’ democracy in which full fledged citizens and leading party members have to inform an incumbent president that they want to take over his job come the next election. What is wrong with following party procedures and guidelines to seek endorsement through the mechanism of internal democracy?
Predictably, Buhari has been receiving in audience all the leading APC members with presidential intent who have been dropping by his office for photo opportunities to enhance their visibility. My former state governor and friend Orji Kalu has visited Buhari in the office in the wave of these PR stunts. It is indeed a strange variety of village head democracy in which legitimate aspirants to the presidency of the country feel that they have to obtain the televised permission of the incumbent president to vie for what is ordinarily their right as citizens.
Yet we cannot discount the import of Mr. Buhari’s presence in creating the enabling environment for the full emergence of presidential ambitions and aspirations especially in his party. Specifically, Mr. Buhari still needs to unshackle those in his administration who have political ambition to resign and face their political programmes. In this regard, there are quite a number of consequential presidential material still quarantined in Buhari’s administration.
Beyond the APC collection of aspirants, however, there are others in the other parties whose presidential ambitions have since become household words. They do not need the permission or seal of presidential approval to forge ahead with their campaigns. The likes of Atiku Abubakar and Kingsley Moghalu have been presidential aspirants and candidates for long enough. They hardly need any new formal declarations. We know them and where they stand on critical national issues. All they need is to secure the ticket of their respective parties and hit the road to market their agenda to Nigerians.
Those familiar with Nigeria’s viral enterprise culture will have noticed the hand of our entrepreneurial spirit in an emerging presidential declaration industry. The other day, a good friend and former influential senator came visiting after a long spell. His phone kept ringing repeatedly until he courteously put it in silent mode. He told me the calls were mostly from groups from different parts of the country who were pressuring him to declare for president! Each group told him he was among the very best of candidates. To beat each other to the bargain, some of the pressure groups gave him an idea of how much it would cost to make his declaration the most impactful! Some of the support groups even had the costs of the trending declarations in case he wanted to place himself comfortably in the forefront. In the end, my guest gave me an elaborate lecture on the new industry of presidential declarations and the impending market prospects of presidential campaigns.
The declarations and statements of intent that we have seen so far are instructive. They are indicative of various categories of aspirants and levels of seriousness. There are those who are tried and tested politicians, known state governors, federal appointees, legislative leaders and a few former corporate leaders.
There are genuine regionally and geo politically representative candidates whose intent and aspiration is informed mostly by the “turn by turn” mentality of Nigerian political leadership: ‘it is the turn of my geo political zone and so why not me?’ These are typically the zoning champions like Ebonyi Governor Dave Umahi and, perhaps, Orji Kalu who has not quite directly declared an aspiration.
There are also youthful idealists and utopian leadership theorists, barbing salon and beer parlor presidents. These are people who just want to break the national noise barrier by making enough noise to sprout from the anonymity of the Nigerian crowd.
There are still others for whom the presidential aspiration is a further rung on the ladder of political leadership. These are people who have a track record of service and vast experience in the management of public expectations in relevant roles. These include the likes of Pius Anyim, Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu for whom the presidential desk would be a natural political progression to something higher in the ladder of political ascent.
There are other very outstanding aspirants like my friend Prof. Kingsley Moghalu in a class of genuine patriots and experienced technocrats. He is in the unique category of people who combine sound leadership ideas with relevant technocratic and practical experience and whose aspiration is fired by a genuine desire to make a difference in a nation that desperately needs to break the tradition of clueless leadership. Professor Moghalu has authored two full length books on his vision of a new Nigeria and how to deal with different national issues and problems. Such commitment and dedication is indeed rare in the history of Nigerian political leadership quests. An aspirant like this rises above visionary idealism and a narrow bookish conception of the work of president.
There are also youthful idealists and leadership theorists. Most of these people have no experience in public or organised private affairs. Their entire vision and life experience is in their laptop. Just ask them and they snap open their power point presentations with graphs, holograms, prediction tables etc. Some of them have never even run a corner shop in all their life or opened a kiosk to sell peanuts. In other climes, these are people who should start their political careers from being community volunteers, vying for local government councillorship, state house of assembly seats, federal legislature or some other more modest tutelage pedestal.
But the Nigerian in us will not buy such a gradualist progression approach in climbing up the political ladder. By our nature, every Nigerian who goes to a church wants to meet the Bishop or General Overseer on first visit. If he is rebuffed, he goes home, starts his own church and anoints himself pastor first and bishop shortly afterwards. When the Nigerian is accosted at a police checkpoint, he does not want to be interrogated by the sergeant or Inspector on duty. He asks menacingly and authoritatively: “who is the most senior officer here?”
In the parade of presidential declarations and ambitions that have so far been on display, there are a few worrisome trends. In some of the prominent cases, people who the public only recognize as known miscreants and criminal suspects for public asset stealing are among the aspirants. There is of course the technical requirement that no man is a criminal before he is convicted of a crime by a competent court of law. But there is a misalignment between personal moral stature and the rigorous requirements of public morality. A patented criminal with copious court appearances and even outright convictions who either serves their term or manages to engineer an expensive legal reprieve can live freely in society with his family and friends. But for such a person to openly aspire to lead the nation in a credible political process would amount to insensitivity to the dictates of pubic morality. It is even a derogation and devaluation of the moral credential of the entire country. We become more of ‘’any how” and “anything goes” nation in the process. This is why our Senate has degenerated into an oligarchy of the tainted.
On the contrary, Nigeria is a serious enterprise. Its leadership ought to be an even more demanding role and compelling test of competence and knowledge. Therefore, those who aspire to its presidency must be persons who by experience, stature and seriousness are ‘fit and proper persons’. It is of course the prerogative of the political parties as clearing houses for leadership selection to make determinations about the appropriateness of individual aspirants for elective public office. But the parties can spare the nation the comic burden of reducing the presidential race to a roving circus and parade of clowns. When unserious persons step forward to contest for our highest office, it says so much about our set of values. Political parties cannot be indifferent to the value question even if they choose to be indifferent to ideological commitment. But the parade of triviality in the ongoing presidential declarations indicates an underlying lack of respect for the nation and its highest office. The democratic right to freely aspire to the highest office in the land should not entitle political miscreants and upstarts to reduce the nation to a playground of the cavalier and the pedestrian. Despite the large turnout of aspirants that have so far declared their intentions to be our president, the field remains open for more serious aspirants. The Nigerian public is still expecting some of our most illustrious citizens especially those who have distinguished themselves in the service of the nation at home and abroad to step forward and signal their intention to rule us. The challenge of the moment for Nigeria is to use 2023 to come up with a leadership that befits our global estimation and the legitimate expectations of our proud people.