By Simon Kolawole
For years, he was rejected at the polls and given a tag that demarketed him among the electorate. His opponents said they knew how to get people to vote against him — just dress him up in the uncomplimentary toga and voters would avoid him like a raging plague. He tried as much as he could to explain that what people were saying about him was not true. That did not change the minds of his critics. Anytime he announced his intention to become president of Nigeria, many would scoff and ask: what exactly does this man want? Why is he so desperate to become president? Is it a must? Can’t he just accept that Nigerians would never vote for him?
But in 2015, everything changed. It was like a movie. The same Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, tagged as a religious bigot and dressed in the uncomplimentary toga of a jihadist for 12 years, suddenly became the darling of Nigerian voters outside his “core north” stronghold. The PDP stalwarts who said they knew how to win against him were shocked at the momentum he started gathering, even among those who disdained him for ages. Indeed, before the election was postponed, a survey suggested Buhari would beat President Jonathan by at least 11 million votes. The election was moved and Jonathan gained some ground but still lost — although by a more respectable margin.
And that is why I am bemused by the way APC stalwarts and top officials of the Buhari administration are toying with the threat posed by the obvious presidential ambition of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president, who has left the ruling party for the PDP. Much has been said about the rolling stone that gathers no moss; just imagine how many times Atiku has changed parties in 10 years. Much has also been said about his seeming desperation to be president. But by far the biggest toga that has been designed for Atiku, like babanriga, is the stigma of corruption. Mention Atiku and the first thing that comes to the mind is “corruption”.
I guess this will be the marketing strategy of the APC campaign machinery in the countdown to the 2019 presidential election. Of course, we are making certain assumptions already — that Buhari would run, barring any change of course, and that Atiku would get the presidential ticket of the PDP, which, for all you care, is the most feasible platform to confront the APC. We could well be getting our assumptions wrong that there is an imminent Buhari vs Atiku match-up. It is actually more likely for Buhari to be a candidate than for Atiku to get the PDP ticket, judging by the internal struggles in his party. But we are just assuming that PDP would see Atiku as its best bet.
Why shouldn’t Buhari take Atiku for granted?
One, because Jonathan also took Buhari for granted. Until it was too late. True, there was always a mortal fear of Buhari in Jonathan’s camp, but they always consoled themselves by concluding that only certain parts of the north would embrace him, and he would never become president of the whole of Nigeria without a significant slice of the votes from other parts of the country. There was a permanent assumption, based on facts and figures, that Buhari lacked national appeal, would not do well outside his northern cocoon and was definitely unelectable. I am also hearing today that Atiku is unelectable.
Two, the Jonathan strategists thought that by casting Buhari and APC as religious symbols, they would scare the hell out of non-Muslims and “moderate” Muslims. APC and Buhari were consistently linked to Boko Haram. The violence that followed Buhari’s loss in 2011 was given as a clear evidence of his taste for blood and his links to the Boko Haram fundamentalists. But when it was time for Buhari to become president, all these mattered not anymore. What this tells me is that the “corruption” tag on Atiku might not carry as much weight as it used to. The “jihadist” toga actually endeared Buhari to some voters. The corruption toga may endear Atiku to some voters.
I was shocked by what I heard at my barber’s shop recently. He said something to the effect that since Atiku is corrupt, he should know the “in and out” of corruption in Nigeria and is therefore the right person to fight it. On a previous visit, he had told me (I enjoy listening to his analyses, I must say) that Buhari is largely unaware of the stealing in his government because he is too detached, allowing things to be done behind his back. By saying Atiku will know the “in and out”, he was suggesting that Atiku is better placed to fight corruption. I could not believe my ears, but my ears hardly deceive me. By the way, my barber said he voted for Buhari in 2015.
What he said next set off an alarm. He quoted his friend as saying “Buhari is fighting corruption but we don’t have food and jobs”. I have been amazed at the way my barber has turned against Buhari in the last two years. He has moved from making excuses for Buhari to dismissing the same excuses. If this represents a trend among a class of voters, then it would be risky for Buhari to take anything for granted. Incidentally, I went to the barber’s shop with my doctor who said although he is disappointed with Buhari, he will never vote for Atiku — again because of the fear of corruption. This could be another trend in a different class of voters, who knows?
Three, who would the political class be more comfortable with between Buhari and Atiku? By political class, I mean the politicians. Many of those who toiled for Buhari in 2015 have been complaining to whoever cares to listen that they have not been rewarded. Globally, you play politics because you want political power. You don’t sit down at home and expect to be appointed. In a country like the UK, “technocrats” (as we call them in Nigeria) join parties to get elected into government or get appointments or both. In Nigeria, “technocrats” are sitting at home watching TV and saying “we are not politicians — go and win the election, then come and appoint us”.
Many of the politicians who worked for Buhari in 2015 are complaining bitterly and saying he is not worth fighting for again. There are hundreds of federal government vacancies that remain unfilled. We have been hearing of an “impending” cabinet reshuffle for over a year now. Except Buhari repairs his relationship with his political foot soldiers, he stands the risk of finding it difficult to convince them to put their necks on the line for him again. Atiku, on the other hand, is a professional politician. He knows how to play the game. The typical Nigerian politician would be more at home with Atiku than they would be with Buhari. This is a fact Buhari would ignore to his own hurt.
Four, and finally, the nightmare scenario would be a disposition of “Anyone But Buhari” among the voters. There are many people who still argue that Buhari did not win the 2015 election; rather, they think Jonathan lost it. They believe it was more of a vote against Jonathan than a vote for Buhari. So it was a case of “Anyone But Jonathan”. Buhari was positioned as a better alternative. If this analysis is correct, even partially, then Buhari would have to up his game if he wants to do a second term. Atiku is already positioning himself as the better alternative, and it appears his message is targeted mainly at the youth.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t love to be commenting on the 2019 elections in December 2017. I am so appalled that our understanding of democracy in Nigeria seems limited to elections. We seem to get excited only by elections. In fact, we are already discussing 2023 elections and what zone will produce the president and what zone will provide the vice-president. That is the way we are. We were created for elections. We exist for elections. Still, I chose to discuss 2019 today because it offers me an opportunity to, as it were, highlight Buhari’s vulnerabilities.
The threat of Atiku — and Atiku is a metaphor for opposition in this instance — should make this government know that it cannot take the love and trust of Nigerians for granted. Complacency set in long ago. Those who voted for Buhari in 2015 did so with certain expectations. I am not too sure they can sincerely say they are better off today or that they still harbour the same level of enthusiasm. The enormous goodwill has shrunk in quantity and in quality or, if you will, in volume and in value. Introspection, genuine self-assessment, is very critical for Buhari at this point. He must assess where things went wrong. Atiku is knocking on the door…
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
Anytime I see the picture of Ahmadu Ali, the little victim of Boko Haram, something melts in me. The boy from Chibok became paralysed after he was run over by a Boko Haram motorcycle. He would have gone the way of thousands of luckless victims but for fortune that smiled on him. With the help of the Dickens Sanomi Foundation, the boy has undergone surgery in Dubai and is back on his feet. Mr. Igho Sanomi, the CEO of Taleveras and chairman of the foundation, applied the icing on the cake by announcing a scholarship for Ali up till university level. Given the unending mindless exploitation of IDPs in this country, there is at least something to cheer me up. Touching.
Ms Maryam Sanda, the woman who allegedly stabbed her husband to death in Abuja after reportedly seeing some text messages on his phone, is currently being detained at the Suleja prison in preparation for her trial. There is nothing to argue about that. What I find disturbing and incomprehensive is that her six-month-old baby is being brought to court, perhaps to witness the trial. She cried all through court proceedings on Thursday. Some things are pretty simple, aren’t they? What was the baby doing in court? And why is a woman accused of such a grievous crime being allowed within a touching distance of the vulnerable, little girl? Befuddling.
Anybody who has encountered the special anti-robbery squad (SARS) of the police will understand that the ongoing campaign to #EndSARS is not irrational. But ending SARS does not solve the problems. The entire police force is fundamentally flawed: from recruitment and training to equipment and operations. There is a patent disregard for human dignity. It would appear the police officers themselves are produced in a dehumanised environment and then unleashed on the society to vent their frustrations on hapless citizens. Scrap SARS and something worse will replace it. Reform the entire police force and see a difference. Symptoms.
I was at the Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja on Friday and watched prominent people pay tribute to Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. The former No. 2 man died in questionable circumstances 20 years ago while serving a jail term over an alleged coup plot against Gen. Sani Abacha. Ambassador Patrick Dele Cole’s testimony struck me the most: anytime people spoke Hausa around Yar’Adua in the presence of non-Hausa speakers, he would ask them to speak English since not everybody could understand what they were saying. Yar’Adua had a pan-Nigerian spirit, built bridges all over the country and promoted democracy till his death. Hero.