Balance of Power: Southern unity is crucial to Nigeria’s stability

By Olu Fasan

THERE is a confluence of events next week that bears strongly on President Muhammadu Buhari. First, on Sunday, May 29, he marks his seventh year in office, and his penultimate as president. Second, the same day and the next, May 30, his party, All Progressives Congress, APC, elects his successor as presidential candidate and, potentially, president of Nigeria

These two events – the start of his last year in office and the election of his potential successor – have a strong bearing on Buhari’s legacy. Certainly, as he enters the twilight of his presidency, with just one year left in power, after spending seven years, President Buhari must be concerned about how posterity will remember him. But whatever Buhari considers his legacy so far, his most important legacy would be who emerges as his party’s presidential flagbearer next week and, possibly, Nigeria’s president next year. This is so for two reasons.

First, the emergent APC presidential candidate, if he ends up as Nigeria’s next president, could either sustain or destroy Buhari’s “legacy”. Second, and far more important. From Nigeria’s perspective, not just Buhari’s legacy standpoint, whoever emerges as APC’s presidential candidate could, if elected president, be disastrous for this country. Both reasons are enough to concentrate President Buhari’s mind.

Of course, even if a president anoints a successor, there’s no guarantee that nothing will go awry afterwards. After all, former President Olusegun Obasanjo fell out spectacularly with his hand-picked successors, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. In Britain, although Margaret Thatcher anointed John Major as her successor in 1990, they spent the next seven years of Major’s premiership in mutual hostility, hardly talking to each other.

Yet, that’s not a reason why a president shouldn’t anoint his successor. Indeed, provided he acts in the national interest, and assuming he exercises sound judgement, an incumbent president is within his rights to influence the choice of his successor.

So, subject to avoiding the end-justifies-means approach of manipulating party primaries and browbeating every opponent, as Obasanjo did in handpicking Yar’Adua in 2006, Buhari is entitled to steer his party towards his preferred candidate.

But who is President Buhari’s favourite as APC’s presidential flagbearer? Well, no one knows, except, perhaps, those in his inner circle. President Buhari’s taciturnity usually leaves most people puzzled. And on his preferred APC presidential candidate, he has kept his cards close to his chest!

In January, Channels TV asked President Buhari if he had any favourite presidential flagbearer in his party. He replied: “No, I wouldn’t, because he may be eliminated if I mention him. I better keep it secret.” Inevitably, that statement set tongues wagging about the president’s favourite among the 25 APC presidential aspirants, each of whom paid a whopping N100m for the party’s nomination forms.

Yet, one thing is clear. Buhari and APC governors will determine the party’s flagbearer. Furthermore, just as the governors deferred to President Buhari on his choice of Abdullahi Adamu as the party’s national chairman, they are likely to defer to him on his preference as the party’s presidential candidate. Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State puts it succinctly: “Our leader, President Buhari, is very important in this political equation. We are still waiting for him to tell us what to do and we will follow.” He added that Buhari’s “anointed candidate will most likely fly the party’s flag in 2023”.

Well, that places a huge and historic responsibility on President Buhari, requiring him to exercise good judgement and act in the national interest. The first question he must settle in his mind is whether to pick a Southern candidate or a Northern one. Given how much he has been criticised for “mismanaging Nigeria’s diversity”, Buhari would commit a monumental error of judgement, bequeathing himself a terrible legacy, if he favours a Northerner to succeed him. That’s inconceivable and he won’t do it, so let’s shift the focus to the South.

But who will Buhari support in the South? First, would he back a flagbearer from the South-East? Well, he could, but APC would lose if it fielded a candidate from the South-East while PDP didn’t. That’s the point former Governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State has been making, and why he withdrew from the contest for APC’s presidential ticket. Truth is, a president of South-East extraction can only emerge in 2023 if both main parties, APC and PDP, micro-zone their presidential tickets to the South-East. If only one party does, it won’t work; and PDP’s flagbearer seems likely to come from the North.

What about the South-South? Well, the only person touted as President Buhari’s favourite from the South-South is Rotimi Amaechi, former transport minister. His turbaning as Dan Amanar Daura, “trusted son of Daura”, Buhari’s hometown, suggests this. But Amaechi is a self-important politician, who talks loosely, lacks discretion and plays to the gallery.

His buck-passing, self-justifying, outburst after the Abuja-Kaduna train attack is not ministerial, let alone presidential.

Which leaves us with the South-West. First, Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State. There’s an exaggerated claim that Tinubu made Buhari president. This evokes a strong sense of entitlement – “payback time” – among his supporters: Tinubu helped Buhari become president in 2015 and 2019, so Buhari should help Tinubu become president in 2023! But Buhari must not “reward” Tinubu with APC’s ticket and, potentially, Nigeria’s presidency; he is too powerful, too wealthy, too controversial, too Machiavellian, too divisive to be this country’s president!

Well, of the remaining South-West APC presidential aspirants, President Buhari cannot credibly justify choosing Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State or former Governor Ibikunle Amosun over Professor Yemi Osinbajo, his vice president for the past seven years. As Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State said recently, Osinbajo is “Buhari’s Number One confidante”. He’s also a more sellable figure across Nigeria and internationally.

President Buhari faces a historic moment. His decision on his party’s flagbearer will shape his legacy far more than anything else he’s done in office.

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