By Kunle Oyatomi
IN 1979, Nigeria had a wonderful bouquet of presidential candidates to choose from. Not a single one of them, however, was as rich as, or have access to unlimited finances as the two current front runners in the 2011 presidential race â€” IBB and Goodluck Jonathan.
Forget that the latter is yet to throw his hat into the ring, the delay is strategic. Already, though, both names are somewhat controversial.
Before 1979, Nigeria had hope and promise. Its ethos was respectable, its people were affable, its politics was vibrant, purposeful and sometimes entertaining. Its economy, even if precarious, was said to be buoyant. Life was tolerable, people were happy. At least, all of these, in contrast to what obtains now, was something near paradise.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo was not a multi-billionaire, neither was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, Alhaji Aminu Kano etc; but these people ran a presidential race that took them to the nooks and crannies of Nigeria to seek the peopleâ€™s vote. The major logistical problems they had were transporting themselves across the country with their campaign troupes, feeding and accommodation.
And these, at that time, were ten times less expensive than it is today. They did not have to worry about bribing the voters. The political process was defective â€” yes, but it was not as corrupt as we have it today. That made it possible for us to have alternatives in making our political choices. This era ended for Nigeria in 1983 when the military struck and put the country into the reverse gear, into retrogression.
Today we have a country practically gasping for survival, and the question of who is best suited to be in charge is not being efficiently addressed. We are bugged down in controversy over two possible candidates who we have as much inclination to accept and reject with almost equal passion right across the country.
Incumbent President Jonathan and ex-military President Ibrahim Babangida have so over shadowed the political discussion, their names are beginning to choke!! Where are the alternatives?
If you look carefully into the kernel of the consensus that is emerging from the on-going political debates, the general feeling is that we need a breadth of fresh air in presidential candidates that are detached from the rot of the last decade, and the corruptive influence of the past military era.
If this prognosis is correct, then it is curious that six months before the 2011 elections we have not yet seen a serious alternative candidate being promoted for the presidency come 2011 presidential poll. We are busy talking about those we do not want to be president and why, and we are ignoring the real issue as to who or the number of those that could be alternative choices. I am not too sure if the reason is not psychological.
It would seem that we are hiding behind a phenomenon we cannot address, to lash at the monster we are utterly afraid of, and helpless against – the monstrosity of a monetised political environment.
Money is the very basis of life in Nigeria. You live if you have it; you subsist if you donâ€™t have it; but you become a king, an idol, a power-monger and broker if you have it in the millions, billions trillions; then you will rule the Nigerian world even if you are an idiot.
And catastrophically for our country, those in charge of our wealth are not the most brilliant, or at best they are criminals, and evil-geniuses.
These people have transformed the political culture here into such a money-crazy affair that except you are in the billionaire class, there is no way you can compete for the presidency of Nigeria. You will need truckloads, planeloads or shiploads of naira to buy support and votes, as well as buy the security agencies and INEC to â€œwinâ€.
Not to talk of the grassroots, how many hundred of millions you are expected to give away to rented crowds and mobilisers â€” all of these amount to the â€œlogisticsâ€ you have to budget into your expenses for the campaign. And if you lose, you perish.
Behind this intimidating prospect, it would be easier to talk about the candidate you donâ€™t want, than the one who is likely to do better on the job. Many people have tried to join the billionaire class in order to work from within them to change the system, but they have ended up being sucked into the maelstrom of corruption. We know a good number of them who cannot sound correct anymore because they have been compromised.
The issue therefore is not why a credible alternative is not on offer yet, the real question is who will foot his bill? There is no responsible and credible Nigerian today with integrity and patriotism who have the money to contest the presidency and win. He must either belong to the billionaire club or is sponsored by those who have a vice-grip on this nationâ€™s wealth. And you know what to expect from such a candidate. This is the futility of trying to look for credible alternative candidates outside the rich and ruling political class.
Back to 1979; Nigeriaâ€™s political system at that time was so open and vibrant you didnâ€™t have to be rich to contest. Professor Ambrose Alli was not rich yet he won in old Bendel State. Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande won Lagos while Bisi Onabanjo won Ogun in spite of the fact that both were relatively poor journalists, but they contested and won in a political environment where the people who wanted them to rule contributed the money for their campaign.
Similar situation replicated itself in the victory of Balarabe Musa in the old Kaduna State.
Above all, Shehu Shagari who became President in 1979 did not use his money for the contest. His people and party supporters funded his campaign. It was a pleasantly different environment entirely.
As far back as 31 years ago, Nigeria was as politically mature as America on that premise. The money Barrak Obama needed to win the presidential election in America last year was contributed by voters who believed that he was the right candidate to move America forward.
Today in Nigeria, the very opposite is the case since 1999, and it is getting worse.
We are already hearing of individuals being mobilised with N250 million to seek support for a candidate being proposed for the 2011 presidential election. In 1998, we heard of those who gave an initial sum of N300 million to a candidate. We will never know how many billions of naira are being wasted by presidential candidates at all levels. But what we do know is that increasingly, the Nigerian presidency is up for sale, and only the highest bidder and/or â€œspenderâ€ can win.
In this type of atmosphere, to think and talk of a credible alternative to whatâ€™s already on offer is far too tortuous to imagine. Presidential election for 2011 is a minefield. There will be â€œcasualties.â€