One of the most frustrating things about Nigeria’s political history is how it keeps repeating itself and nothing ever seems to change. The present administration has not yet spent up to two years in office and already the language of politics is dominated by the phrase: “the battle for 2019.” Nobody is talking about the next general election of 2019, but “the battle!” As is crystally evident, the 2019 general elections are likely to end up as one big nationwide war, and this won’t be a war of ideas, but a war of egos, of ambitions, and utter desperation for power.
Perhaps what makes this prospect even more believable is the narrative already being peddled that the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari may decide to be a one-term President, and therefore step down from office in 2019. He would be 77 then, and should he decide to retire from politics, that would leave the field open to a fresh selection of a Presidential candidate.
The only matter that seems settled in this regard, however, is that the successor must come from the Fulani North. You get the sense that this seems given and should President Buhari decide not to run, that may well give the North, the advantage of holding Presidential power for another eight years making a total of 12 years depending of course on the performance of whoever succeeds the incumbent. We are still a long way, therefore, from that future when political contests can be determined solely on the basis of the candidate’s merit; the complexity of our ethnic politics has ensured an unwritten rule where power is rotated at all levels among ethnic groups and geographical zones, creating a turn-by-turn sharing of power and office, both in terms of moment and duration. The Ijaws would most certainly someday in the future insist that they deserve another shot at power at the centre.
We may however be dealing with political naivete on the part of those who are basing their 2019 permutations on the likelihood of a one-term Buhari Presidency. There is certainly nothing in the Nigerian Constitution that disqualifies a septuagenarian from being President or seeking a second term. This is why the jostling for Presidency in 2019 by self-appointed crown princes in the All Progressives Congress (APC), and non-APC Northern politicians may ultimately be a case of giving away the game too early in the day.
In 2002, that was how some ambitious elements began a campaign that then President Olusegun Obasanjo should embrace the Mandela option, that is, spend only one term in office. It was their idea, not the incumbent’s. They wanted Baba to retire so they could take over. But the same President Obasanjo not only completed a second term, he was so strong by the end of his second term, some lobbyists even began to campaign for a third term – that failed of course – but since leaving office in 2007, President Obasanjo has remained extraordinarily busy and energetic.
The way it works, a powerful lobby would soon emerge to persuade President Buhari to seek a second term, not just because he is entitled, but because, that is how they usually phrase it: he needs to complete the rescue job that he has started. Already, half of the first term has been overtaken by economic recession, rising uncertainty and an overwhelmed and alienated citizenry. The President would be told that he needs more time to change the tide and leave a stronger legacy. I have seen these open and hidden persuaders at work at very close quarters. They are legacy constructionists who can persuade any political office holder to remain in office forever.
Where age is the issue, they would insist that it is not. Where there are health matters involved, they would invoke the name of God. Where neither age nor health is an issue, they will invent reasons to justify why nobody in power should give it up when he still has a second chance. For example, if at any time in 2014/15, President Goodluck Jonathan had wanted to change his mind about running for a second term, the strong forces driving the second term project would not have allowed him. They were so overpowering even the ethnic card was thrown up when he was reminded that he was not representing himself in Aso Rock but the entire South South and the Ijaw nation and that the zone is entitled like any other geopolitical zone to a second term. Delegations after delegations stormed the Villa and the media to make their case. President Buhari would most certainly face the same challenge.
A second theory is that the APC may not survive till 2019 due to the division of the party into many factions, each faction led by an ambitious political figure, looking forward to 2019. There are indications that once the party implodes, that may leave the incumbent President without critical support centres, particularly the South West, whose main political leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu seems not to be getting the best deal out of the APC coalition that drove the Jonathan administration out of power. It is again extremely naïve to make political calculations on the basis of an imaginary accident in the opponent’s camp. This is one of the mistakes the PDP made in 2015. Certain influential figures within the party failed to act early and plan effectively because they kept hoping that the APC will fail. But rather than fail, the party built on a strong foundation of conspiracy and a single-minded determination to get the PDP government out of power merely got stronger. The PDP, now in disarray is working on the same assumption. Rather than get its house in order, the party is hoping that the APC will collapse and that will automatically make the PDP the people’s choice in 2019. That is too simplistic an expectation.
Those who also want to displace President Buhari are further assuming that once he is deserted by key figures that made his victory in 2015 possible, it would be difficult for him to seek a second term or win an election with his own political base, the North, which is now also radically divided over the performance of his government. It is wrong and too early to make such calls. Those who want President Buhari to embrace the Mandela option and are carelessly making their ambitions known should remember what President Obasanjo did to such people in 2003. He outsmarted them and subsequently made them irrelevant.
Those in the PDP and other places who assume that they can emerge in 2019, by sheer accident of circumstances such as economic recession and the growing criticisms of the administration should go back and learn how to build an effective opposition. The opposition in Nigeria today is too docile. It is too silent. The people may have issues with the government of the day, but nobody is offering any challenge or alternative vision in the same kind of robust even if hypertensive manner the APC did throughout the Jonathan administration. Last minute moves in politics are often counter-productive. The swiftest challenger often wins the race.
What is not very clear to many in leadership positions is that there is a difference between politics and governance. They mix both, and mix them up badly, and when they do, they get disappointed in the long run. Besides, politics in Nigeria is still about the sharing of spoils of victory. When the sharing formula fails, or causes disaffection, the political space is muddled up. Nigerian politicians are also selfish: they do not know how to serve a leader. They want to use the leader to serve their own ends, if the leader is weak, they undermine him, if he is strong, they sabotage him. This is why in the end, all the battle cries about 2019 amount to nothing other than cries of selfish desperation. Where are the ideas? Civilized political discourse is driven by ideas, not the exchange of vitriol or abuse over positions and privileges.
Those who are crying like babies over 2019 would serve us better if they engage the general public with ideas. They should tell us why they think change will again be necessary in 2019. They should explain what change or difference they are proposing. I assume that Nigerians are much wiser now: and they are not likely to hand over power to someone who wants it just on the basis of expectations induced by saccharine campaign promises. The “battle of 2019” crowd should also show interest in the present. How do they think economic recession can be dealt with? What ideas do they have about Nigeria’s future and political circumstances? What do they think the government of the day should be doing that it is not doing? What is the value of their own citizenship? What is the value of their stake in the Nigerian project? Who are they? Oftentimes, we don’t really know the people we vote for. We vote for fine posters, what the propagandists tell us, and titillating campaign materials. By the time we get to know the people we voted for, their politics would already be in the way of the governance we wanted, messing it all up.
To move Nigeria forward, we must move beyond the melodrama of politicians, to which there seems to be practically no end, other than own interests. We need a new tribe of leaders: men and women with hot fire in their bellies that can burn all the tents of shameful covenants that have held Nigeria down since independence. As the political warriors begin to talk about “the battle of 2019,” we the people, must insist not on battle or war, but such leadership recruitment that serves the nation, and leads to progress and development, and such politics that produces the best result, new or incumbent. But before 2019, the people must survive and remain assured that indeed the duty of government is to look out for their welfare and make them happy. That is the greater task at hand.
Dr. Reuben Abati was spokesman and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.