By Obi Nwakanma
Muhammadu Buhari’s still appears on the roll, and his picture on the walls of various public buildings, as President and C-in-C, but the actual power of the president has very clearly shifted into the hands of Yemi Osinbajo, former Professor of Law, who has been acting as president of the republic since Buhari embarked on his extended medical leave. And yet again, it is déjà vu. It feels almost right back to the Umar Yar’Ardua situation, when the Nigerian electorate were manipulated and deceived into electing a very sick man.
The difference is that Nigerians from all sides of the great river soon fell for Yar’Ardua, who embarked on his presidency with a virtuous stride. First, he acknowledged that the elections that brought him to office were flawed, and pledged not only to do right by Nigerians, but to rectify the flaws in the electoral system as part of what he’d leave as his legacy. Second, he embraced a peace-building initiative by bring in the militants of the Niger Delta from the cold.
He made very deft diplomatic moves, reached out to them, and opened an empathetic ear, and managed to bring that situation under control. Yar Ardua solved the problem of the Niger Delta insurgency by acting as statesman, a diplomat, and an astute political leader with deep intellectual capacity. Yar’Ardua moved quickly to embrace the nation, including those who did not vote for him, and quickly tried to set Nigeria on an even keel. He was methodical in his moves to bring corruption to an end, and there were hints that he was intent on making his moves, even against the big names who had big hands in the Nigerian cookie jar, before he succumbed to his terminal condition, and his death, many Nigerians still confess, robbed Nigeria of one who might have been her first great president of the 21st century.
But Yar’Ardua came from different stock: his family was politically grounded. His father had been Minister of Lagos – the equivalent today of the Minister for Abuja – in the First Republic. His elder brother, the late Shehu, had built a formidable political following himself, and it does seem that the younger Umar, inherited the leverage and goodwill his brother who was allegedly murdered in Abacha’s prison in Abakiliki had built. But he was his own man also. He had chosen radical politics over his family’s more centrist, and possibly conservative politics, both as a student at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he read Chemistry in the 1970s, and at the onset of the politics of the Second Republic.
Where Shehu dabbled with Awolowo’s UPN, Umar chose to ride with Mallam Aminu Kano’s PRP. Umar had also been finely educated at the Government College Keffi and Barewa College, the two great public schools of the North, where he had also played fine cricket, a game he continued playing, earning his colours on the Ahmadu Bello University Cricket XI, playing alongside the likes of Dan Nzelu, onetime executive Director of the NNPC, among others, with whom he was contemporaries at ABU. He served his stint, taking no advantage of his family’s formidable political connections, as a Lecturer at the Kaduna Polytechnic. Yar’Ardua was young, well-educated, sharp, modern, secular and broad-minded, and did not carry the burdens of fierce nightmarish faith. He was not just a Northerner. He was a Nigerian. He made that absolutely clear. But as I said, he was a sick man, and his handlers knew this, yet they deceived Nigerians into voting a man who carried the burden of his own possibly imminent mortality.
The drama leading to Yar Ardua’s death and the transfer of power to Dr. Goodluck Jonathan set the grounds for the kinds of political anxieties and uncertainties that later grounded Jonathan. But first, Nigeria was governed by a dead man for months. His handlers were in denial. The region of the north, and the political “elite” of the north who felt the presidency was the North’s were in denial and up in arms. The National Assembly elected to be the guardians of the nation was stymied by ethnic and regional interests. The transfer of power became acrimonious, alongside a North-South divide that as I said set the tone for Jonathan. When he finally became president, Jonathan was expected to carry all the burdens of the nation and distil it to its most elegant solutions: here was a president who became president by indirection – almost on a platter of gold: a minority’s minority; an educated man with tertiary degrees; a man of science, and one who grew from extreme poverty to become the leader of a nation.
It was almost as if providence had come to play, and that the so-called Nigerian “common man” finally had an ally on the seat of power in Nigeria. But it soon became very clear that in spite of the enormous goodwill that rode with him into office, Goodluck Jonathan was uncertain about his next moves; he became a captive to special interests – the “privatizers” of public corporations; the “security state” apparatus for whom great national insecurity is big business; the international consortium of what John Perkins called economic Hitmen. Jonathan had a very thin rolodex, and he had to rely on an apparatus foisted on him by ambitious and desperate men.
The tragedy of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency was that he was busy looking over his shoulders, and he was hobbled by anxieties, and it led to the failed policies of appeasement. He failed to make decisive and bold moves: he allowed “Boko Haram” to fester and it became real business for shadowy interests in his government; he tried to appease a so-called disgruntled north, and he was very frontally subverted, and he continued on the path of appeasing powerful special interests rather than serve real Nigerians. It ended his presidency and tied him today to an uncertain legacy.
I’m afraid that Osinbajo is about to embark on the same route that hobbled Jonathan. But he must look to history. Let us call it as it is: to all evidence before us, President Muhammadu Buhari is not functioning as the elected president of Nigeria, and his continued residency in convalescent captivity in London or wherever secret place he may be kept out of the public eye, has now become a national security threat to Nigeria. Buhari has basically, by no direct fault of his own we must acknowledge, abandoned his official duties for far too long. Having been gone for this long, it is clear that Buhari is still not yet able to come back an work to govern Nigeria.
Does it now behoove the elected Nigerian National Assembly to do its duties by Nigerians, write to the president, and make public the real condition of his health, so that he can go home to Daura, and take care of his health in order to allow Osinbajo assume full control of the business of governance in these moments of serious and troubling crises that threatens to unravel Nigeria. The National Assembly has that obligation and that power. Nigeria fails because those the people elect fail to do their duties to Nigeria but choose to cling to primordial and dangerous interests. It is like Osinbajo meeting with the so-called “traditional rulers” over the issue of a Nigeria threatened with separatist agitation.
Same old and tired moves for a man who should know that these “traditional rulers” are relics that have very little influence anymore in these matters in a highly urbanized, demographically young and complex nation. A more effective president elected in a democracy and confronted by an open revolt of the people would seek to meet directly with various community groups: town union reps, Nnamdi Kanu who commands an Army of followers larger than any “traditional ruler” in Igbo land; Professional organizations – the NBA, the NMA, the Union of Teachers, Community Action Groups, Civil Society organizations, Students and Youth organizations, Neighbourhood associations and their Block Captains, Trade groups, and even ask his Public Communications team to organize a wide-range of direct town-hall meetings in the East and in the North, which he should tour extensively to address, and appeal to the people directly.
But Osinbajo may yet fail to read the writing on the wall. He must not make Jonathan’s mistake of appeasement of special interests while ignoring real Nigerians. And he should, right now know that with the rapid and unfolding situations, there will be no second chance.