VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
Walking through the lobby of Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton Hotel on my way to Arise TV studio, I initially thought that I had strayed into the Willard Hotel lobby in Washington DC. We are in a transition period in Nigeria, two weeks to the inauguration of a new President, a new National Assembly, 18 new state governors and ten more governors who are to commence their second terms in office. No wonder, the Transcorp hotel lobby is buzzing, with groups of young and not-so-young men and women whispering, laughing, their eyes keenly watching doors and elevators, or sometimes perusing leaked lists of proposed appointees, many of them make-believe.
Willard Hotel lobby in Washington DC is said to be the source of the political phrase “lobby”. Since the 1850s, as soon as American elections are over, “lobbyists” were said to fill its halls, puffing cigars and lobbying for positions in the incoming Administration. When the old Union Civil War commander General Ulysses Grant was elected US President in 1869, he was said to often sit in a comfortable leather chair in the Willard Hotel lobby, puffing a cigar and sipping brandy. Its reputation as the mecca of political lobbying was greatly enhanced as a result.
Lobbying for positions does not start in hotel lobbies. The late Senator Edward [Ted] Kennedy told a story during a Democratic Party fundraising dinner sometime in 2004. It was about an event that happened in 1968, during his late elder brother Senator Robert [Bobby] Kennedy’s ill-fated campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination for that year.
Ted Kennedy said the then Deputy Attorney General of the United States in the Johnson administration had quit his post and joined Bobby Kennedy’s campaign team in the Democratic Party primaries. One day, the candidate and his campaign team found themselves stranded for many hours at a small airport due to bad weather. Bobby Kennedy’s dog was very tired, so he asked the former Deputy Attorney General to take the dog for a walk around the airport. As they were walking around, they encountered an aggressive journalist, I think William Safire. Safire promptly accosted the man and said, “I don’t understand this at all! You were the Deputy Attorney General in the Johnson administration, and you resigned and came here, just to walk Kennedy’s dog? I don’t understand it at all!” The man stared at the dog and said, “Well Mr Safire, I know this may look like a dog to you, but it looks more like an Embassy to me!”
If a presidential aspirant’s pet dog looked like an Embassy to an American politician, imagine what a President-elect’s pussy cat, chicken, race horse, abandoned cane chair, thrown away shaving stick, unused running shoes, not to mention his trademark cap, will look to a Nigerian political lobbyist. The abandoned cane chair will look like a Cabinet seat; a pet pussy cat will look like a Board chairmanship; while the trademark cap on a lobbyist’s head will look very much like an oil lifting contract.
No wonder President-elect Tinubu travelled out again because in Nigeria here, if he does like General Grant and sits in a Transcorp hotel lobby to sip zobo, it will require a Guards Brigade battalion to control the crowd. Unlike in the US where a lobbyist will walk up to Grant and extend a handshake, here people will bow and tremble, prostrate, do dubale, even roll on the ground or jump, twist and turn in front of the President-elect.
Right now, the fiercest lobby on the Nigerian political scene is for leadership positions in the incoming 10th National Assembly, which is to be inaugurated a week after the President and Vice President are sworn in on May 29. The ruling APC has a majority in the incoming Senate but has slightly less than a majority in the incoming House of Representatives. If the party holds together, then it will produce the Senate President, his deputy and the Senate Leader. As for the House, seven minority parties, which together command a small majority, have set up a harmonisation committee by which they hope to close ranks and produce the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and possibly the House Leader as well.
Trouble however burst into the open when APC’s National Working Committee [NWC] announced that it had zoned the positions to various geopolitical zones. It went a step further and named the persons that it would want to hold the key positions. Powerful aspirants for the same positions immediately erupted against both the zoning and the anointing.
On at least three occasions in this Republic, there was a tug of war within the majority party in the election of Assembly leaders. In 1999, majority of PDP senators, said to have been mobilised by Vice President Atiku Abubakar, nominated Dr. Chuba Okadigbo for Senate President but President Obasanjo, who saw it as an affront, instead sponsored Senator Evan Enwerem and mobilised minority APP and AD members to help elect him.
In 2011, President Jonathan and PDP leadership wanted Mrs. Mulikat Adeola-Akande as House Speaker but Aminu Waziri Tambuwal launched an insurgent bid, went into hiding, put together a majority of MPs, camouflaged in Niger Delta attire, was smuggled into the chamber through the back door, was sandwiched in his seat by loyal MPs to prevent a rumoured abduction, and went on to defeat the Presidency’s candidate by a wide margin. And then in 2015, President Buhari made the dreadful mistake of convening an APC caucus meeting at the same hour that he earlier proclaimed for inaugurating the Senate. As a result, majority of APC senators were away when minority PDP senators helped to elect Senator Bukola Saraki as Senate President and were rewarded with the deputy’s seat.
APC National Chairman Abdullahi Adamu has said the NWC will look again at its zoning formula. Trying to change it will however bring more problems because both Senator Godswill Akpabio and Alhaji Tajudeen Abbas, who were anointed for Senate President and House Speaker, have put together large band of supporters of their own. Most probably they have already promised to give out juicy committee chairmanships to some key allies. Abbas’ position is more precarious because even a united APC caucus cannot elect him as Speaker. It must pinch a few MPs from the minority parties, using legislative and even Executive appointments as inducements. NPN did the same in 1979 when, recognising its leading but minority position, it struck an accord with NPP just before Inauguration Day. It paid for it with Assembly posts as well as ministerial positions.
Jostling for Executive positions is less open because, unlike the National Assembly, there will be no further voting. Some excitable APC men launched a campaign last month for their favoured candidates for the incoming President’s Chief of Staff. Such a position is not amenable to a public campaign, or even to zoning. A stroke of the President’s pen is all that is needed to grant hundreds if not thousands of ministerial, ambassadorial, board, security and agency headships. It is a tricky business with two, extremely different precedents. On the one hand, APC branches in the states will be clamouring to nominate prospective ministers and other high officials based on promises and horse trading that took place in the states as part of the election campaign. From 1999 to 2011, PDP Presidents granted this wish and asked each state branch to nominate three persons out of whom the President will select as minister. In 1999 however, the wily Obasanjo added another six cabinet nominees, one per geopolitical zone, which he chose himself, and which turned out to be the most senior ministers. In 2015 President Buhari went to the other extreme, told APC governors that they should go and appoint their own commissioners while he appointed his own ministers, and took almost no nominations from party branches. It made for a lot of bitterness in party ranks.
One of the trickiest choice aspects for President-elect Tinubu is what to do with outgoing APC governors, ten of them in four geo political zones, including the Director General of his campaign, and five of them from the Northwest zone alone. The late Sarkin Sudan Alhaji Shehu Malami told me that he was present in 1979 when President-elect Shehu Shagari offered his campaign’s Director General, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, a ministerial post. Dikko promptly said that a campaign DG should be able to choose his preferred post, and that he wanted to be Secretary to the Federal Government [SFG, now called SGF].
Outgoing APC governors such as Masari, Ganduje, Lalong, Bagudu, El-Rufa’i, Badaru, Umahi and Ayade have high expectations because they were the bedrock of Asiwaju Tinubu’s primary and general election campaign. It was the Northern APC governors that stood firmly, apparently against President Buhari’s wish, for a power shift to the South and for a Tinubu victory. They also strenuously fought against cashless policy, the biggest impediment that APC candidates faced in the election. Whether the new President can appoint all or many of the former governors into his cabinet is a tricky proposition, however. In 2007 when President Umaru Yar’adua was drawing up his cabinet list, PDP leaders rose in arms and said those who served two terms as governors should not become ministers. He however managed to appoint a few of them. Unlike in 2007 when Yar’adua was essentially rail-roaded to primary and general election victory by an overwhelming Obasanjo, the bedrock of APC’s victorious 2023 campaign was probably the APC governors.
If therefore, these days, you see a man in the Hilton Hotel lobby or alighting from a black Jeep, staring intently at his Tinubu-style cap, don’t blame him. It probably looks to him like a Cabinet chair or a juicy Embassy.