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On saints and men

By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“There is no more independence in politics than there is in jail.” —Will Rogers

DR Ahmad Gummi, son of the late Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gummi and a leading cleric recently wrote open letters in the manner Chief Olusegun Obasanjo made public letter-writing a political art. He wrote to General Muhammadu Buhari and President Goodluck Jonathan, advising them to jettison ambitions to contest for the presidency in 2015 in the interest of peace, security and survival of the nation.

This is not the first time the former military officer is putting himself squarely in the eye of the storm. He apparently draws comfort from the sentiment that he had done his duty as a religious leader by giving advice and urging caution where it is necessary. His critics, however, will hardly spare him on grounds of his religious credentials.

He had never been far from the political terrain anyway; and like his father, he had remained consistent in highlighting the linkages between religion, politics and the Nigerian state.

What is relatively new in Gummi’s latest foray is that he is taking on two formidable targets at the same time. This time, he is not just putting forward positions that are consistent with what he sees as the core interests of Nigerian Muslims. He predicates his letters on his conviction that Jonathan’s and Buhari’s candidature in 2015 will be a major disaster for all Nigerians. He tells both of them that they have massive ethno-religious liabilities that will compound the nation’s delicate and threatened unity, and even survival. He says Buhari’s candidature will play into the deep religious faultlines which Jonathan had designed and built as President.

The way Gummi sees it, if both Buhari and Jonathan can be persuaded to stand down for others, the nation will be spared the nightmare and real possibility that an election involving them will push it beyond the retrievable stage. He thinks both represent dangerously divisive tendencies in Nigerian politics. Buhari, because his phenomenal and fanatical followers will rise up and burn down the nation if he is declared loser again.

His credentials as a corruption fighter will go up in smoke and leave the nation without him as a leader, but with frightening security challenges. President Jonathan, because from the word go, his presidency was built on deepening the Christian-Muslim divide and unashamedly foisting and exploiting the promotion of the Church and pursuing anti-Muslim polices.

He is an oath-breaker, more Ijaw than Nigerian and quite possible deeply involved in the sustenance of the Boko Haram insurgency. Gummi thinks he should stand down for Akpabio, Obi or Orji, although he does not say why these three.

If Gummi had said to Buhari alone that he represents a major liability for the political system, he will be canonized as hero in many of Jonathan’s strongholds. They will hold up that indictment as strongest proof that Buhari has no traction in his immediate constituency, and is unfit to aspire to be president for the fourth time. Similarly, a letter to Jonathan pilloring him as Gummi did will play into a large segment of Gummi’s social environment, one which sees him as a radical anti-establishment man of sorts. As it is, supporters of both have attempted to tear him to pieces. Buhari’s supporters have condemned him in very colourful terms, ranging from deranged to a paid agent of the PDP.

Jonathan’s people, with a slightly thicker skin from Gummi specifically, and the public in general, have shrugged his criticisms as one more from a man and a people who have long made up their minds that Jonathan shall not pass. There is a considerable, but largely silent segment of opinion that applauds Gummi, but they have to be very careful where they choose to clap for him.

There are serious issues beyond instinctive reactions of hate mongers and fanatical followers that Gummi’s letters raise. He says what many close observers have agonised over, and put down as issues which everyone hoped the political process will resolve before they became such combustible matters.

How did the Nigerian political process end up with such a frightening scenario? It is not as if many had not foreseen that any contest between Buhari and Jonathan was going to produce more than a winner. The writing has been on the wall that Jonathan’s candidature will be made to secure another term by all means necessary.

Another Buhari attempt, this time on a much bigger platform is also seen by his supporters as certain of victory, and only his being rigged out will stop him. If he fails to become president in 2015, the nation will pay dearly for it. Buhari and Jonathan symbolise the basic structural weaknesses of the Nigerian political system. The dominance of the individual over structures and processes has bled our democracy since 1999, to a point where today, we contemplate a worst case scenario.

Ordinarily, the concerns over the potential damage which a Buhari-Jonathan contest will cause to the nation can be assuaged by a strong, national consensus over the need for credible elections in 2015. Tragically, there is a major gap in elite consensus and cohesion in the political process, no thanks again to the dominance of powerful individuals rather than functional elements of the system.

The nagging concerns over fallouts of Buhari – Jonathan contest suggests that there is very little faith that politicians will allow a credible election to be organised. There is widespread suspicion that Jonathan will rig the elections to make up for his widespread unpopularity. Buhari’s people think the only way he can lose to Jonathan is if he is rigged out, and they believe this is a distinct possibility. Widespread violence is a key and permanent feature in these assumptions. Jonathan has fringe groups that say they will cause mayhem if he is stopped from being president until 2019, by any process. Buhari’s people have already registered a presence in 2011, and the threat that they will raise the specter of post-election violence if he is not returned as president is real.

Yet, there is nothing wrong in the PDP fielding Jonathan and paying the price for it or reaping the benefits. Similarly, the sentiment that Buhari cannot win in a credible election against Jonathan has been made such a recurring refrain that many people are beginning to believe it. So let us take a step back and catch our breath.

If Jonathan survives legal hurdles over his candidature, he will contest the elections. He could win or lose in a credible election, and the heavens do not need to fall over it. Buhari, if he survives the determined challenges within his party to stop him from flying the flag, can win or lose against Jonathan in a credible election, and the world does not need to come to an end.

Nigerians like Gummi who agonise over the damage a Buhari – Jonathan contest will cause, need to look beyond the contest. No one has the right to threaten our limbs, lives and future over the ambitions of politicians. Let Buhari and Jonathan run, if necessary against each other. What we need to do is to insist that the 2015 elections are credible, and anyone who breaks the law over them will not get away with it. No exhortation will change the characters of Buhari or Jonathan at this stage.

They are men, not saints. What we need to do is to re-possess the political system from those around them who think their ambitions represent the key to a future full of fear, or one that will begin the process of rebuilding our nation. If he still has the appetite for it, Gummi should write another letter to Nigerians and say, do not die for either Buhari or Jonathan.


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