UNTIL some two weeks ago, before the herdsmen rage exploded again upon Benue State, it was taken for granted that President Muhammadu Buhari would be seeking a second term, regardless of his age and controversial record in office for the past two years and more. Not only was he seemingly persuaded in his own mind to contest, seeing that he actively gave the impression and spoke in tones that suggested he was not averse to that ambition, many of his supporters and even enemies had also concluded he would take that fateful step. The All Progressives Congress (APC) had gleefully assumed they had an unbeatable candidate; and the dispirited Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the leading opposition party yet to find its rhythm and soul, knew they had a tough battle on their hands to find an agile and indomitable someone who could take the battle to the presumed APC standard-bearer. Indeed, they were already despairing, as the APC was exulting.
Now, after the paroxysms of anger and grief in Benue in the past one week, no one is sure anymore whether President Buhari is that invincible champion they swore an oath to back to the hilt, or whether in fact he himself still sees his candidacy, if not victory, as a foregone conclusion. The doubts being sown in his heart and the hearts of his backers will not only linger until the party picks its ticket and adopt a platform later this year, their trepidations are likely to grow in amperage with each tentative step the president takes in confronting the political, ethnic and social evils assailing the country. Fortunately for the president the choices before him are stark and uncomplicated: whether to seek another term or leave office in a blaze of hurrays. His aides and supporters, including some governors, will egg him on. No one among them, at least no one of substance around the president, will have the courage to advise him against a second term. But in the end, the choice will be his to make; and that choice will make or mar him.
Asked, for instance, whether he would endorse President Buhari for a second term, Nigeria’s chief endorsement merchant and leading kingmaker, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, replied tersely that it was not time to respond to such a question. He had been cornered by a reporter with THISDAY newspaper in London shortly after delivering a lecture at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford last Monday. Both the question and the answer are indications all is not well with the president’s second term ambition. Chief Obasanjo was right to dodge the question, for the president has himself not indicated whether he will be seeking re-election. And whether President Buhari will finally indicate interest or not will probably depend on how certain he is at easily getting the support of his party and various kingmakers, and going on to win. That support was fairly certain not too long after he assumed office; it is no longer certain on account of the toll his health challenges have taken on his presidency, his indefensible appointments, the latest of which truly shocked many people, and the Benue conflagration that exposed both the herdsmen’s imperious obstinacy and defiance of the law and the federal government’s impotence.
Last November, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan described Chief Obasanjo as ‘boss of bosses’ in reference to ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar’s presidential ambition. He suggested that without Chief Obasanjo’s support, Alhaji Abubakar’s presidential quest was merely tilting at windmills. “Any politician who ignores Obasanjo,” moaned Dr Jonathan, “does so at his own peril.” It in fact took almost the entire leadership of the APC before the 2015 presidential poll to convince Chief Obasanjo to back Candidate Buhari. Once that endorsement was secured, the APC chiefs felt more confident in rallying the voters behind their standard-bearer. The impression out there is that such a support will be needed again. If they are to get it, they will sweat for it much more than they did in 2015, for it is not hard to tell when Chief Obasanjo is seething.
It is not just the president’s handling of the Benue massacres that gnaw at everyone’s kidneys, as indefensible and inexplicable as that is. After all, a president with a high degree of the concept of justice knows that every killing, whether in revenge or self-defence, diminishes the entire country. Not only must it be investigated, the guilty party must be punished. But above all, a president is expected not to lose empathy for the people he governs, whether they agree with his worldview or not. If Chief Obasanjo is vacillating in his support for President Buhari, seeing that his silence is so loud, it may be because he has some reservations about the president’s policies and methods. It is also unlikely that he or anyone for that matter would find it amusing that in a supposed federation of 36 states, the president would concentrate his security appointments in one part of the country and hope to be able to proffer the right security and political panaceas for the country’s complicated and multidimensional problems. None of President Buhari’s predecessors ever limited himself so egregiously to such a narrow base of appointments. If that posture was unintentional or coincidental until now, last week’s replacement for the sacked Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Ayo Oke, was an eye-opener.
President Buhari is in many ways more inscrutable than Chief Obasanjo. But he is less influential, less nationalistic, and less profound. It had been hoped that by underlining his nationalistic credentials, by substantiating his so-called democratic rebirth, and by standing beyond metaphors as father of the nation and displaying fairness, justice and empathy, President Buhari would begin to attenuate the meddlesomeness of Chief Obasanjo in the election of presidents. Instead, he has taken no step whatsoever to reduce Chief Obasanjo’s paternalistic and often self-centred role in the Nigerian presidency. It seems all but certain that the former president, who virtually enthroned the late Umaru Yar’Adua, Dr Jonathan, and contributed immensely to the acceptability of Candidate Buhari, will be involved once again in playing a significant role in the 2019 polls. His roles were not often altruistic, but they will sadly once again be significant and unhappily relevant.
If at all Chief Obasanjo is to finally endorse President Buhari, a proposition that is looking increasingly difficult, he will extract a far more significant promise from him to rule the country with the open-mindedness he is not accustomed to, and without the clustered group of aides who have collectively become his lodestars. Whether the former president can secure that promise is open to debate. More, even party chiefs who may be tempted to support him a second time will also extract some agreements from him. But whether those agreements will amount to anything in the face of powerful interests surrounding the president is a different thing altogether. Before the 2015 poll, no one apparently attempted to tie the president down to any definitive agreement. His word, honesty and supposed good intentions seemed enough.
His reinvigorated health, the rebounding of the economy coupled with high oil prices, the increasingly more assertive place of agriculture in that economy, and the salutary work against insurgency, have all combined to encourage the president to contemplate a second term. That contemplation is not only endangered now, it is also being denuded. But around the president are many governors who will want to shore up his confidence and encourage him to contest. Some of them may not be epitomes of character and inspiring leadership, but they see their political survival as inextricably intertwined with that of the president. On Friday, they were at Aso Villa to encourage the president to throw his hat in the ring for the 2019 poll. Kano’s Abdullahi Ganduje sees the diminution of his archrival, ex-governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, in terms of the ascendancy of President Buhari; Plateau’s Samuel Lalong has become surprisingly amenable to his tormentors, as ex-governor Jonah Jang said accusingly a few days ago; that vast and servile emptiness of human blank, Kogi’s Yahaya Bello, sees the Abuja air as being more salubrious than Lokoja’s and the president irreplaceable; and Kaduna’s Nasir el-Rufai, another nimble political gymnast so perfectly at ease with both sides of the coin, will dote on the president until someone else catches his fancy.
Between these ancillary supporters and the president’s first line of defenders in Aso Villa is an unwritten pact to push the second term agenda. Except outside pressures supersede this internal synergy, the president will continue to be minded to seek a second term. While many things are working in his favour, he has strangely taken many steps to undermine his own ambition. Since he lacks the requisite aides and advisers to nudge him in the right direction, and since he plays ducks and drakes with the affections of his outside supporters and party chiefs, it will be clear in the coming months just how severe a damage to his ambition he has wilfully authored. Before the last major appointment he made into the vacant chair of the NIA, thus locking the entire nation’s security apparatus in the hands of northerners, obviously to the embarrassment of many top political leaders from the North, this column and many others held out hope that President Buhari would reverse some of his questionable decisions, open up his presidency to healthy influences from all over the country, reshuffle his cabinet, criss-cross the country in empathy visits before he would need to junket for the coming campaigns, and enact policies and measures that would restore the nation’s confidence in his presidency. Instead, he has doubled down. It is not clear what to make of these, what to think of the motives that spur him and inform his indescribable worldview, and what things really inspire his bravado.
No one can tell right now whether President Buhari will go on to contest; not even he can tell. No one can tell whether the calculating Chief Obasanjo will endorse the president, for the former president himself, more than as a matter of principles, struggles to always back a winning horse even if that horse galls him. No one can also tell whether Southwest leaders can rein in their obstreperous and angry electorate, without which President Buhari can’t conceivably win. Indeed, the repudiation of a president in Nigeria, though it builds up gradually, often suddenly manifests. If President Buhari can’t turn things around in the next six months, and can’t convince the country he is liberal and open-minded, he will find it extremely difficult to make amends thereafter.
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