By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
When you fetch your own water, you will know the value of every drop — African proverb
MY column last week was mistakenly published in print without its concluding paragraph. The column itself was a sweeping comment on recent developments in mainstream politics, particularly the tendency of politicians to think in terms of traditional methods of achieving personal goals from manipulating their political environments.
The trigger was the defection of the Governor of Ebonyi State, David Umahi. The focus was on manoeuvres towards the presidency in 2023, with geo-ethnic factors in prominent places of consideration. The deluge of reactions to the provocations implied in the column encouraged this extension of the theme on speculations and mistakes that could cost some politicians and the nation very dearly.
Although hardened politicians may be less guilty here than mere mortals like us, there appears to be some flawed assumptions around the Northern politician and voter.
First, the voter. It is amusing when you hear pedestrian comments about the sheep-like character of a Northern voter who, without fail, does as asked by religious and ethnic champions. Politicians who have been stumped by the fabled popularity of President Muhammadu Buhari forget that the Northern voter could not make him president against a Southerner in 2003 and 2011.
They forget that the Northern voter preferred Umaru Yar’Adua to him in 2007. They ignore the fact that Northern votes substantially helped MKO Abiola beat a fellow Northerner. Politicians from the South who ignore the sophistication and deeply complex nature of the Northern voter tend to assume that he is already sold to his religious and ethnic manipulators, and is, therefore, to be taken whole or not at all.
This leaves them at the mercy of an illusion and Northern politicians who, though not without considerable influence on the Northern voter, know how difficult he is to manipulate using religion and ethnicity as principal tools.
The Northern politician has shrank to the level of state governor. This category of politician, except for one or two, enjoys incredible levels of distrust and hostility from the population. The influence of these politicians is spatially limited and crippled by its association with the two dominant parties. The type of Northern politician that dusted up President Olusegun Obasanjo and led the way to making him president in 1999 is now extinct.
There is a huge vacuum in leadership in the North. Those who look for handles to the Northern voter will have to search patiently and be prepared to build many bridges to get to him. He can be reached, but not by being insulted or blackmailed by threats. When you live with the experiences and the circumstances of the Northerner today, you will appreciate the wisdom in the proverb: “He who is lying on the ground fears no fall”.
Politicians from the South who have ambitions to lead the country need to accord the Northern voter the respect he deserves. He is, like all Nigerians, a major stakeholder in what happens next, and he has learnt many lessons from his disposition and influence in 2015 and 2019. In particular, it will be very useful to recognise the nature of the influence of a Buhari presidency on his perception of regional and ethno-religious politics.
The safest assumption to make at this stage is that the Northern voter will be difficult to influence in arguments over the utility or other benefits of forfeiting his right to freely choose the next president because politicians have an understanding between them to yield positions to each other. The North is paying a huge price for the Buhari presidency.
To convince the Northern voter to escort the presidency to other zones who already have advantages such as economic power and good infrastructure because they demand, threaten or insult him into submission will only make him dig in deeper to retain some relevance in a nation that is becoming increasingly divided by economy and security.
Discussions over competence and merit as primary criteria for leadership in the country will assume greater significance in many circles, but the two biggest parties which have become captives to the rotation spirit will bleed badly in their efforts to protect it.
President Buhari’s sorry legacy to the North will be to remind its voters to be more circumspect in future, and vote for competent and compassionate leaders who will not see power as an end in itself. If the Northern voter can see a Northern politician with these qualities, he will most likely prefer him to a candidate from another part of the country.
It annoys many Nigerians from parts of the South to hear this, but politicians whose job it is to harvest support know that it is the exact equivalent of saying that particular parts of the country are exclusively entitled to the presidency.
These are, of course, challengeable postulations. Their value is to invite attention to a fundamental element of the democratic process: the right of the voter to elect his leaders freely. They also point to a vital missing link. This is the failure of the political process to utilise the art of bridge-building, negotiation and political cohesion among leaders.
The quality of the politician has crashed along with virtually all aspects of national life. Our politicians these days wait for power to be brought to them in accordance with some agreements most of them will breach without a second thought.
Or they mobilise frightening fortunes to acquire power and then use it purely as a private asset. Either way, they alienate large chunks of citizens who resign to wait for four years to see if they can affect a stronger influence through the electoral process.
The rotation of elective offices and distribution of power is necessary in a country with pronounced pluralism such as ours, but its elevation to the level of the sacrosanct has made our politicians lazier and, in many instances, has entrenched mediocrity in the quality of our leaders.
The near-certainty that the two major parties will fight themselves to near-death over rotation before the 2023 elections makes you wonder why another political party which is relatively free of their encumbrances does not enter the ring. In the period since 1999, Nigerians have seen the worse and the worst of the Nigerian politician.
A nation of 200 million people has been reduced to its knees, unable to create a citizen out of its hundreds of ethnic groups and many faiths; to build a nation led by the best and the brightest, inspired by the fire to build a country of opportunities for all; to free leadership from corruption and limit tendencies that weaken the bonds between communities, and to assure citizens that our country can survive unavoidable challenges.
The PDP and APC will threaten the fragile state of the nation even more dangerously as their politicians fight for power at all cost and pitch regions and ethnic groups against each. None of them has the calibre of leadership that can stand above the fray, and their brand of politics makes all of them part of the problem.
There is a theoretical probability that Nigerians from all parts of the country could move from profound but impotent lamentation to real political activities that will provide real and potent challenge to the two dominant parties and their circulating threats which they sell as justice. If this will happen, it ought to have started. Our history has an impressive record of politicians who broke barriers and thought big.
Nigerians will vote for a Nupe, Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani or Idoma candidate if he is the best from the best, and is not an ethnic candidate. He must be transparently committed to being a president for all Nigerians. He must commit to supporting improving our limiting structural foundations, addressing our shrinking opportunities to be a great nation, and creating a safe and secure nation.