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Musings on Matthew at 80 (2)

IN this second part, I will address what looks like former President Matthew Olusegun Obasanjo’s new idea for hitch-free presidential succession in Nigeria. At an event organised by the Nigerian Society of Engineers NSE, to mark his 80th birthday, the two-time Nigerian leader recommended the leadership succession of the Society. When a serving President retires, his Vice President takes over as President and a new Vice President is elected.

I don’t really know if Obasanjo meant that Nigeria should adopt the NSE style or maybe he was merely humouring his professional colleagues. Commending that method is one thing. If he had stopped at that, I would not raise an eyebrow. But recommending it for Nigeria is yet another thing. It calls for a critical examination of the idea to see how it weighs with what we already have.

As an issue in the theory and practice of our presidential democracy, it becomes even more compelling to pay the idea closer attention given the fact that the method we currently practise is Obasanjo’s gift to Nigerians as a military ruler. It was under his watch between February 1976 and September 1979 that the Supreme Military Council guided the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Constituent Assembly to jettison the Parliamentary system which we practised during the First Republic.

That system was blamed for the collapse of the First Republic. The American-style Presidential system was adopted because it was seen as a system that would ensure stability as opposed to the Westminster system where a government can collapse if it loses majority support in the Parliament over any major issue. Obasanjo is closely associated with our Presidential system not just because he was its author; he has also had the rare privilege of benefiting from it as President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. So, what would be his incentive to have it dropped in preference for the NSE’s strange method?

In the Nigerian presidential democracy, when a major political party chooses a presidential candidate from the North his Vice President is picked from the South, and vice versa. But if the President dies or becomes permanently incapacitated midway through his tenure, the Vice President is sworn-in as President. This was what happened in May 2010 when President Umaru Yar’Adua (North) died and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan (South) became President. Nigerians are right now praying very hard that we do not witness a déjà vu.

Coming within ten years of each other, the succession of an incapacitated or late President from one part of the country by another from another totally different part (in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and sense of “ownership” of the top job) has increasingly become a problem. When a President cannot complete his tenured mandate, the part of the country he comes from feels “cheated” out of its “turn” because the Vice President from another part has to take over the Presidency.

How will Obasanjo’s recommendation solve the problem? Will the President and Vice President come from the same part of the country until the “turn” of that region is exhausted? This is the only way you can satisfy the “turn-by-turn” criterion. But if we do that, it means we have accepted the preposterous notion that the Presidency belongs to the section of the country it is zoned to. That means we have agreed to constitutionally ethnicise the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria!

The NSE’s method of electing the VP, who will be President, if copied for national use, will actually destabilise the Presidency because the supporters of the President and the Vice President will be at each other’s throats. The relative peace in the NSE has little to do with its succession method. The Nigerian Presidency and the NSE presidency are worlds apart in terms of the power, influence and money at stake.

The problem we are having with our succession headache is rooted in our wrong notion of “ownership” of the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is totally different from how Americans see the Office of the President of the United States (POTUS). The American Presidency belongs to the American people, not to any ethnic or particular group. Yes, the Black Americans and other Minorities felt ecstatic when Barack Obama emerged as the President of the United States in 2008. I saw it firsthand because I covered that election for my newspaper in Washington DC and environs. But that was because Obama was the first Black man to be elected to that office. If more Blacks and other Minorities become Presidents of America, it will cease to be news.

No American President, no matter his personal idiosyncrasies, can afford to put himself out as an ethnic or sectional president. He will destroy himself if he tries. For all that hoopla, Obama subtly distanced himself from being seen as a “Black” President. Many among the Black community swore they felt very little impact of Obama. This was probably why Donald Trump, as the presidential candidate of the Republicans, pledged to rebuild the inner cities where majority of the Blacks and other downtrodden segments live. Obama even kept relatively aloof from Africa, unlike Bill Clinton and George HW Bush who were more intimately involved with Nigeria and Africa. Obama was an American President; so is President Donald Trump. The difference is not in their ethnic or regional backgrounds or colour of skin but ideological contrasts.

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, there is no ideological contrast among the political parties. The mentality is the same: grab power and take the Presidency to your region; to your family and friends. This aspect of Nigerian politics has worsened under this President Muhammadu Buhari dispensation. A lot of ethnic and religious excesses, which have unsettled our nation-building efforts, have been unleashed. The system is reeling from the worst form of ethno-religious vibrations since the civil war, and some groups even want to leave the Nigerian Federation.

The answer to this problem does not lie in copying the NSE method of electing the Vice President instead of the President. We must learn to copy well if we must copy. Power should no longer be given based on ethno-religious or sectional considerations. It should be given based on proven track record of performance and ability to manage the diversity of this nation towards greater unity. We should look for leaders who are intelligent, fit, competent, detribalised and patriotic. The Vice President should have the same qualities and abilities because when the President is no longer available he will be President.

We should stop the practice of looking for ethnic, sectional or religious leaders who will go to Aso Villa as the “conquering generals” of particular parts of the country. We should stop looking for dull or inferior quality Vice Presidents to attach to the Presidents of Nigeria. Experience has shown that Vice Presidents have a way of becoming Presidents in Nigeria. It is always good to have two for the price of one.

I am sure the NSE always looks for tested members to make their President. Knowing that the Vice President will be President they also look for good materials for Vice President. That is the only aspect worthy of emulation. We do not need to elect Vice Presidents every four years. It will harm us more than it helps us, especially if we continue to see the President and Vice President as ethnic booties.

I do not really think that General Matthew Olusegun Obasanjo will like us to abandon the succession plan he gave us 38 years ago. It is one of the longest-lasting legacies of our political history. It is not a bad legacy. Let us just stop ethnicising it.



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