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Of treason, treasonable rhetoric and aspiring presidents

By Rotimi Fasan
WHEN former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, made the statement that has been turned into an albatross around his neck, could he have envisaged the meaning that would be read into it or the twist that would be put on it?

But for the exceptional few, Nigerian politicians are not known to be avid readers. Nor are they known for the verbal dexterity or profundity of thought that is often the natural outcome of wide reading.

Thus, when the aspiring president made the now vexed statement, he probably meant no more than to shore up his intellectual pretensions, show that he is a cut or two above your run-of-the-mill politician while putting a dent in the democratic credentials of his rival for the position of presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party and sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan.

Atiku had repeated that well-known quip, one of several either coined or made popular, by the late American President, John F. Kennedy: ‘Those who make peaceful change impossible; make violent change inevitable’. After making this statement Atiku must have sat back in smug satisfaction, contemplating its effect on Jonathan and all opponents of the zoning principle that Atiku’s sponsors claimed is a central tenet of the PDP.

Atiku had made the statement in the context of Jonathan’s (and his supporters’) disdain for so-called zoning principle in the PDP. But the statement had hardly left his lips when it was seized upon by his political opponents, not the least of them, President Jonathan, who sees it as treasonable incitement to violence that could attract official sanction. What did Atiku mean, they wondered? Is he planning violent overthrow of government? Was his a call to arm?

These and more are the types of questions being asked by some Nigerians. And I join to ask in the light of the controversy the statement has generated and is still generating, Was Atiku out to preach violence?

Aside their lack of intellectual or philosophical depth, Nigerian politicians are not unknown for their violent streak. Indeed, violence seems to go hand-in-hand with politics in the country. This is one reason why many decent people steer off it and are prone to describe it as a ‘dirty game’. It’s the very reason many Nigerians, including those merely out to play politics with what’s on ground, are not taking Atiku’s statement lightly.

Our politicians are the hidden faces behind the rise of violence, including armed robbery and assassination, in Nigeria. But in spite of such unwholesome trait of the Nigerian politician, I’m inclined to see Atiku’s statement not as a call to arm. I think the former Vice President simply followed a tendency among the best of us to repeat well-known statements, expressions or words, even when we are unaware of their full meanings or wider implications.

Witness our use of certain words or expressions such as ‘trouble shooter’ which to the average Nigerian speaker of English bears a meaning that is directly opposite to its meaning in a standard context. For the Nigerian speaker of English, a ‘trouble maker’ is the same as a ‘trouble shooter’ and this is not because they don’t know the meaning of the word ‘trouble maker’.

But ‘trouble shooter’ which, unknown to such speakers, carries opposite meaning is more graphic in the ‘Nigerian context’ and, therefore, sounds more ‘like it’ for them. And so trouble shooter it is when what is meant is trouble maker. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a former general, military president and supporter of zoning, has come out in defence of Atiku.

He does not see anything slightly treasonable in Atiku’s statement to say nothing of treason. IBB hinged his argument on his credentials as a former ‘theoretician’ and professional ‘practitioner’ of violence. Babangida seems to be saying that his standing as a former general, one versed in the art of coup making, puts him in good stead to spot treason or treasonable intentions, even from afar, when he sees it.

I still don’t think Atiku meant to promote violence even as I don’t want to create the impression that I’m underestimating anybody. He probably just remembered a popular statement that he thought captured the unfolding situation between him and President Jonathan regarding their different position on the issue of zoning within the PDP.

It’s all the more ironic that in the wide sea of ignorance and anti-intellectualism in which our politicians swim, the attempt by one of them to create a different picture has earned him the kind of attention he probably doesn’t need- especially at a time like this. But since for a politician any type of attention is better than no attention at all, perhaps Atiku might yet count his many blessings from this episode.

And quite contrary to what is apparent, there might be more to compare between Atiku and Jonathan, more that links them as political figures and, hopefully, men of peace  than we care to acknowledge.

Atiku does not have a known army to prosecute a treasonable act like a coup. Nor does Jonathan look the type of politician to pursue a dirty war of vendetta against a political opponent. Naive, you say? But we must give a benefit of the doubt to all until they are proven unworthy.

Still on them: both men were former Customs officers who became politicians. While Atiku rose to a senior position in the Customs, Jonathan left as a young officer within two years of his enlistment to pursue further education. They would both become governors of their respective states, Jonathan first as deputy governor; they became Vice Presidents in very unexpected and fortuitous situations.

While Atiku would be thwarted in his long time ambition to be president after eight long years as deputy to Obasanjo, Jonathan would have presidential offers practically thrown in his laps by the same Obasanjo in a manner that points more, in certain circumstances, to the workings of providence than personal artifice.

Today, while Atiku wants to fulfil his presidential ambition, Jonathan wants to earn a mandate in his personal capacity and not as another’s running mate. This is where matter stands between both men. It is also the reason for the fight between them and why mere songs, as the Yoruba would say, have become proverbs pregnant with biting undertones. Are the bells of treason still chiming? Search me!


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