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By Olu Fasan

WEEKS after political parties in the country chose their flagbearers, the issue is yet to be finally laid to rest as a number of the presidential flagbearers are yet to make a final choice of running mate. Ever so inventive in the negative manipulation of the political process, Nigerian politicians have come up with the curious category of placeholders.

These are persons chosen to fill the vacuum, literally hold the place or position of running mate, until a suitable choice is found. Otherwise, the position of the flagbearer will be untenable as nobody could be validly presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, without their running mate.

The choice of running mate should ordinarily not cause the kind of concern that it has caused for some of the presidential flagbearers of the parties contesting next year’s election. But this is Nigeria where what looks ordinary is anything but ordinary, making it difficult for some of the parties to move forward to more important issues of the programme they have in store for the electorate.

More than any of next year’s contenders for the country’s presidency, the flagbearer of the governing All Progressives Congress, APC, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has the toughest decision to make. Peter Obi of the Labour Party, LP, faces a relatively less daunting task in that regard. Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, has since laid the matter of running mate to rest with his choice of Ifeanyi Okowa, the current governor of Delta State.

He and his party members have since been doing the usual fence-mending job that their choice of running mate has left them with as they go around trying to soothe the bruised ego of losers in the contest. For the PDP, the most obvious candidate for this ego-massaging is Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State, who is obviously still smarting from his loss of the presidential flag in spite of the vastwar chest of money he deployed as governor of an oil producing state. He would have been assuaged by his selection as running mate to Atiku Abubakar but he was passed for another. Both Tinubu and Obi have respectively settled for Kabir Masari and Doyin Okupe.

Masari is an unknown quantity who, although occupied a marginal office in the state’s party hierarchy, was not in the front row of those that had been expected to fill that position, mostly among governors and other heavy punchers of the Northern political elite. The choice of Okupe, who went to bed one night as Obi’s campaign director and woke up the next day his running mate, seems like a desperate act to beat INEC’s deadline which was the reason that also propelled Tinubu into picking Masari. Some Nigerians initially had a hard time believing Okupe was Peter Obi’s running mate. They must have thought it was a joke taken too far as they could not make any sense of his overnight transformation from campaign director to running mate. The matter was not helped by the fact that it was Doyin Okupe himself that was initially saddled with the task of announcing his change of role.

But rather than quieten discussions and speculations around it, the choice of party running mates has only raised more talking points, more so in the Tinubu camp than others.

And Tinubu and Olusegun Obasanjo have again thrown the issue of running mate back to the front burner of discussion in the last few days. At a children’s event at his Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Obasanjo mentioned his choice of running mate as one of his mistakes.

The other was his decision to return home during a trip abroad in 1995, contrary to the intelligence provided him by America and their readiness to grant him asylum, following accusation of coup-plotting by the Sani Abacha government.

At an event marking the 60th birthday of Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila in Abuja, Tinubu praised the smooth working relationship between Gbajabiamila and his deputy, Idris Wase, apparently in spite of their diverse ethnic and political background. He ended his observation by saying he was still searching for a running mate. But his apparently jocular remark probably underlined the dilemma he was in than many choose to understand.

Since he announced Kabir Masari as his running mate, some commentators have chosen to make light of the seriousness of the situation Tinubu was in by carping at what they call his lack of strategic thinking by opting for a Muslim in total disregard of the country’s religious configuration.

Others chose to point at his perceived ineptitude not to have anticipated the potential controversy that was bound to follow his choice of running mate. They expected him, they say, to have chosen a running mate much earlier and moved on to other matters. That he did not do this was, for his critics and rivals of the PDP, evidence of his lack of preparation for the office he seeks to occupy.

They say that, like Muhammadu Buhari, he lacks the knowledge required for the job of president or suffers from a diminishing mental alacrity among other perceived physical or medical debilities.

So far, none of these speculations have been confirmed beyond the surgical procedures on his knees that took him to the United Kingdom at different times. Tinubu, however, does appear from a distance to show worrying signs of age-induced ailments that manifest in diminishing physical ability and uncoordinated motor activity. Which should not be totally unexpected for someone on the cusp of his seventieth birthday (ignoring claims that he is much older). Provided his situation does not get worse, he may still be able to function should he win the presidency.

It should, however, be said for Tinubu that he has the toughest decision to make among the presidential candidates concerning a running mate. The stakes are much higher for him given the probability he could win with the right support even on an all-Muslim ticket. Those who say he is slow about choosing a running mate are either being political as would be expected of opponents or are unhappy he has not made the mistake that a hasty decision would have thrown him into.

The choice of running mate or forging of political alliances among parties has never been a simple one in Nigeria, more so in the last seven years of the Buhari presidency when ethnic and religious cleavageshave grown so wide as to threaten the very survival of Nigeria. Ignored, such issues will swallow the presidential ambition of any politician.

The choice of running mate is neither personal nor lightly arrived at or President Obasanjo wouldn’t regret his. It must have the input of the party and voters whose buy-in would be crucial for victory.

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