Season of Presidential Circus
By Olushegun Adeniyi
In the buildup to the last general election, before President Muhammadu Buhari publicly announced that he would seek a second term, a number of politicians were busy selling the idea of a ‘clamour’ for him to return. It is a familiar prank patented under the late General Sani Abacha in the nineties and perfected under President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2002. In my 12th April 2018, ‘Buhari, 2019 and the Persuaders’, I condemned this idea of a proxy campaign for someone who had not told Nigerians he wanted their mandate. In passing, I mentioned the role then being played by “Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, whose corruption charges have been given one of those famous All Progressives Congress (APC) deodorant treatment, gallivanting all over the country on a presidential campaign of which he is not a candidate.”
That happened to be my only reference to the former Abia State Governor and current Senate Chief Whip in the column. But it was enough for media hirelings to go after me in several syndicated articles. Not satisfied, Kalu himself took the back page of the Sun newspaper to author a piece titled ‘Adeniyi’s Misguided Attack’ where he alleged, among other claims, that I targeted him because I was aware “Buhari’s re-election in 2019 will pave the way for president of Igbo extraction in 2023.”
I refused to join issues with Kalu because I surmised that time would bear both of us out. Since Buhari eventually won his re-election and Kalu was rewarded with a plum office in the Senate, we can conclude that the end justified the means. But we are now in the next phase which has to do with the fulfilment of the ‘prophecy’ concerning Buhari’s preference for a president of Igbo extraction in 2023. I sincerely hope that Kalu is right on that score as well.
Meanwhile, I have always found it interesting that the politics of Nigeria has been reduced to a tripodal construct that assumes we have only three ethnic groups: Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo. That ‘WaZoBia’ construct not only ignores the minorities within the spheres in which we classify these hegemons, it also discounts the minorities in other spaces across the country. But that is not the point I want to make today. In any case, I align myself with the argument of equity in the distribution of opportunities in a plural society such as ours. All factors considered, Igbos do have a serious claim to the presidency of Nigeria in 2023. Beyond giving emotional satisfaction and sense of belonging, as I have consistently argued on this page, equity is good for social capital, national cohesion and the overall development of the country.
However, of particular interest to me is the return of those who have made a career of ‘begging’ ambitious politicians to declare their run for president. Ironically, the principal persuader of yesterday is now a ‘persuadee’. In a viral video on social media, one man dressed in babanriga stood before Kalu, who was clad in a sportswear. In a made-for-Nollywood clip, they man said: “Please, my name is Alhaji Muhammed Murtala. I am a grassroots politician. I am here to beg you to come out and contest for the president of Nigeria in 2023, because it is the turn of Southeast to produce the next president. The Southwest have take (sic) their slot, the northerners have take (sic) their slot, the South-south have taken theirs also.
So, it is the turn of an Igbo man to take it. And we need somebody like you; because you are very energetic. You can travel from here to anywhere. If there is trouble in Maiduguri now, you will be in Maiduguri in less than an hour. You are an action man, we know, we have your record. Thank you, your excellency. Please we are appealing to you, Sir. Help us and come out. Nagode Sir.”
We will see more of these political comics in the coming weeks. In most countries, the months preceding a crucial election are designated for debate on critical issues of governance. In Nigeria, we have reduced electioneering to a circus. One man on Twitter promised to sue a prominent politician if he does not declare a bid for presidency. I am waiting for the ‘suicide team’—those who will pledge to kill themselves if certain aspirants do not join the race. That is an integral part of the manual for this season, despite the enormous challenges at hand. And since we live in a nation where people start their career from the top, it is understandable that everybody wants to be president. As Dr Chidi Amuta reminded me yesterday, almost every Nigerian Pastor wants to be the General Overseer (or an omniscient Mummy G.O.) of a church!
However, the real concern is the cynical disrespect of the Nigerian voters. Do those desperate for power need to be ‘begged’ before they publicly declare their intention? That perhaps explains why with just one year to the presidential election, we still don’t know the real contenders in the two political parties. While Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Ebonyi Governor David Umahi may have visited Aso Rock and informed President Buhari about their aspiration to seek the APC ticket, they have not formally told Nigerians that they want to be our president. Maybe they have concluded that since their ‘persuaders’ are already all over the place, that is enough for us.
This same idea underpins the aspiration of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Several groups are springing up almost every day, with lavish and expensive campaigns to ‘persuade’ him to run. But as the Yoruba people would say, there is no magic in putting a lump of meat in the mouth and making it disappear. Osinbajo wants to run for president, and it is within his prerogative to do so. In fact, it is the natural progression for any vice president. Osinbajo is also eminently qualified for the job. But he cannot continue to hide behind one finger!
We are a nation badly wounded on many fronts. The economy is a mess. Debts are mounting. Many of our middle-class professionals are losing both hope and faith in the country and relocating abroad with their families. The polity is so fractured that Nigerians look back to a not-so-glorious past as an anchor for the future. The gravity of the security situation was underscored on Tuesday by Niger State Governor Abubakar Sani Bello who visited the president. Between 1st January and Tuesday (17th), according to Bello, 165 civilians, 25 security personnel and 30 local vigilantes were killed by bandits in the state. That is 220 people killed in one state within 17 days! So, we need a president not only with the requisite capacity to address these challenges but also one who can lead with courage and conviction. We do not need those who believe they are at the mercy of extraneous circumstances or too timid to declare their intention.
Let me be clear. I am not making a case for any candidate. What I am saying is that nobody is begging anybody to run in the 2023 presidential election. And we are tired of glossy posters, billboards and materials packaged by consultants. The times in which we find ourselves demand that we examine those who seek to preside over our affairs. We can only do that when they come out to tell us why we should vote for them. Right now, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim is the only presidential contender who makes no pretence that he is being ‘begged’ to run for the office as he offers himself boldly. At the appropriate time, we will examine his credentials for the job alongside that of others, both in his party and in the ruling APC. Since it is from either of these two parties that the next president of Nigeria will most likely emerge, I intend to focus my attention there.
I am quite aware that the circus of electioneering in Nigeria involves many actors, so I understand what is going on. We are in a season when Christian/Islamic clerics and marabouts must first do their job in what is also a very lucrative enterprise. There is an interesting aside here. As president of the Nigeria Red Cross Society in 2008, former Imo State Governor, Senator Rochas Okorocha, hosted an event where the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was a guest. In his introductory remarks, Okorocha said that when he was contesting the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primaries against Yar’Adua in 2006, he had been assured by some prophets that he was destined to be president. In his characteristic humour, Okorocha said, “Mr President, when those prophets spoke that I would be president, I believed them. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was only going to be president of Red Cross!”
There are many political clowns in the field who have likely been assured by spiritual merchants that they would be president in 2023. I hope some of them will go back to ask, ‘president of what?’ before they end up like Okorocha. But for now, the circus of ‘begging’ must end. Let whoever wants to be president of Nigeria next year declare their intention so that we can begin to examine their suitability for the job at hand. We have had enough of this circus!
In the past one year, I have been working on research for a book tentatively titled, ‘Till Debt Do Us Part’. I hope it will be ready by next year. The book focuses on the rising indebtedness of several African countries (including Nigeria) to China. I am looking at the quantum of loans, projects being financed, repayment plans (where they exist), local sentiment and the implications of the humongous debts for the future of the continent. While I intend to visit a number of African countries when this Covid-19 pandemic makes travelling more convenient, I have learnt a lot in recent days from Gregory Smith’s most revealing book, ‘Where Credit is Due: How Africa’s Debt Can Be a Benefit, Not a Burden’. I thank Adedotun Eyinade, the young man promoting book culture in Nigeria with his bookshop, Roving Heights, for the gift delivered to my office last week.
Smith, a former senior economist at the World Bank who has worked in Zambia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Ghana, Gabon, China, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone, brings experience to bear in the book. Borrowing, according to Smith who advocates urgent action by both lenders and borrowers, is a crucial source of financing for governments all over the world. “If they get it wrong, then debt crises can bring progress to a halt. But if it’s done right, investment happens, and conditions improve.”
President Olusegun Obasanjo contributed one of the blurbs and wrote, “Just as debt used wisely is an essential tool for African development, this book is invaluable to understanding its pitfalls and Africa’s policy choices.” It is an apt summation of a book that I will gladly recommend to our economic managers and those who seek to better understand the threats and opportunities of our current circumstance in Nigeria.
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