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Obasanjo and Buhari’s second term agenda

Ayo Olukotun

Animated national discussion continues to trail former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s special press statement, released on Tuesday, to the effect that President Muhammadu Buhari should honourably bury his ambition for a second term, in order to quietly savour his “assured place” in Nigeria’s history. It is a delight that the statement and the mild and dignified response of the government adopted a civil and inviting tenor, unusual in a polity so often bedevilled by recriminations, slander and yelling on the top of one’s voice.

As far as polished and urbane conversations go, this is certainly a trend setting example. Still on style, decorum and affableness under pressure, the question has been raised in search of answers, why Obasanjo chose to publicise a special statement, rather than employ a behind-the-door approach to persuade Buhari off the hustings. It is not an irrelevant question, considering that in many advanced democracies, former presidents do not criticise, except in veiled terms, the incumbents of that office. For instance, in the United States, there is an unwritten code that former Presidents will not openly condemn or call out occupants of that office, so as not to set a run on legitimacy or erode the institution of the Presidency.

Hence, bizarre as some of President Donald Trump’s utterances and tweets have been, former Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush have only voiced implied criticisms, which fall short of mentioning Trump directly. Viewed in this light, Obasanjo’s “love letter” of 2013 to former President Goodluck Jonathan, and this week’s special statement seem intimidating and inappropriate. That kind of outspokenness may also reflect the immaturity of political conventions regarding the conduct and comportment of elder statesmen in a situation where everyone makes their rules.

Undoubtedly however, there is no gainsaying the fact that Obasanjo spoke forthrightly about the hidden and not so hidden griefs of a traumatised citizenry. Even as his statement made the rounds, the existential condition of Nigerians continued to plummet, with the return of the fuel crisis, the cascading downwards of electricity supply, and the lacerating aftermath of the herdsmen’s atrocity killings in Benue and some other parts of the Middle Belt. You only needed to have read The PUNCH editorial of Wednesday, January 24, 2018, entitled, “Buhari, your best is not good enough”, to understand how graphic and right on the money, Obasanjo’s statement on the state of the nation is. As Abimbola Adelakun noted on Thursday in her column in this newspaper, many of the issues raised in the special statement are already in public discourse; nonetheless, he managed to bring together the various strands thus giving thematic effect and resonance to the case of underperformance, nepotism, ethno religious partisanship as well as the wobbling and fumbling of the Buhari administration.

Ordinarily, a Presidential second term should be a reward of sorts for good performance during the first term. In this case however, there seems to be a disconnect between the increasingly loud campaign, tacitly encouraged by Buhari, and governance performance. To be fair, this disconnect is not peculiar to Buhari, as underachievement is a notable aspect of all Nigerian governments since 1999. There were similar doubts raised about Jonathan in the prelude to the last election but this did not prevent him, egged on by beneficiaries of his misrule, to throw his hat into the ring. All that this suggests is that the nation is bleeding more and more from mediocre governance, repeating the paradox of the military years in which administrations, which began as reformers, got swallowed up by the problems they started out to solve, ending up as more serious candidates for reform, it may be, therefore, that the problem is less about individuals than malfunctioning structures or even the lack of structures.

       The failures and blind spots of Buhari apart, we must be asking such questions as, why it is so easy for incompetent politicians to hold the nation to ransom, and are so unfaxed about the public mood that a minister actually began to distribute vests for Buhari’s second term campaign at Wednesday’s Federal Executive Council meeting. The undertone of that action is that a narrow section of the political class is prepared to ram down the throats of Nigerians a controversial and divisive political proposition.

This is not to say that Buhari is barren of achievements. Campaign style, government spokesmen have drawn up a list of achievements credited to Buhari, which include lowering of inflation rate, revival of the non-oil sector, the building up of the foreign reserves to $40bn, upgrade of global ranking on the ease of doing business in Nigeria, mark-up in power generation, the anti-corruption policy, as well as the “technical degrading” of Boko Haram. Several of these points were raised in government’s reply to Obasanjo in a partial attempt to rebut the allegations of misrule.

Outside of politics, however, the building up of foreign reserves should have been related to the upward drift of petroleum prices in the world market, and to our significantly accelerating debt profile, which is now computed by government sources to be in the neighbourhood of N8tn. Similarly, not many remember that several policies of Buhari, such as the emerging agricultural revolution, Treasury Single Account, and a new impetus in rolling back Boko Haram had their origins in the twilight of the Jonathan administration.

So, it is true, as The PUNCH editorial of Wednesday observed that “The Buhari government has no signature initiatives”. Even more disturbing is the fact that public criticisms have so far not prevented Buhari from coming up with controversial appointments and policies. For example, the recent appointment of Ahmed Rufai Abubakar from his home state of Katsina, as Director General of the National Intelligence Agency fell into a predictable pattern of regional hegemony.

There is also concern about his health status, which the sponsors of the second term, campaign have either sidestepped or brushed aside. It is idle to believe that editorial opinions or a thousand special press statements can stop Buhari from contesting if he is determined, as appears to be the case. Our semi-democracy and electoral structures are porous enough to admit of their being violated by incumbents who have the temerity to do so.

All we can do is to shudder at the prospects of such a scenario. The culture of defeated candidates gracefully conceding defeat, like Jonathan did, is not yet established, and can easily be reversed. It can also be conjectured that if Buhari’s supporters are daring enough to force and foist his second term candidature, what will stop them from doing whatever they have to do to achieve the results that they desire?

It is not entirely clear how Obasanjo’s suggested coalition will shape up, since it is not fully explained, while its constitutional status is a non-starter. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the Peoples Democratic Party is sufficiently reformed to provide a credible alternative to the underachieving All Progressives Congress. Two possible scenarios offer more hope, one, the emergence of younger politicians who can insist on internal party democracy within the APC; two, a frontal bid for the Presidency by a coalition of minority parties armed with a redemptive social agenda. It will be interesting to see how all of these pan out.

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