BY PAUL T. SHIPALE
NEXT month, Nigeria elects a new president, new legislators and most of the powerful state governors. The Nigerian polls could be the most significant elections ever in Africa’s most populous nation. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, presidential power could change hands via the ballot box, as opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari seeks to unseat the incumbent president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.
For most of his life, Jonathan has indeed lived up to his name. First, he became governor of his home state, Bayelsa, without needing to stand directly for election, and then in 2010, he repeated the trick as he ascended from the vice-presidency to the presidency after his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, died midway through his term. But now, after five years as president of Nigeria this luck may have run out, say the analysts.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has a gentleman’s agreement that the presidency would rotate between the North and South every eight years. Olusegun Obasanjo, from the South, served two terms (1999-2007) and was followed by Yar’Adua from the North. When Yar’Adua died, he had only served three years, but in accordance with the constitution, the presidency passed to his Southern vice-president, Jonathan. Many still thought it was the North’s turn, so Jonathan’s decision to run for the PDP ticket for the 2011 election angered several northern politicians. However, Jonathan never won his critics around permanently and further antagonised them by consolidating his control over the PDP and his intentions to run again this year.
Several of the northern figures who opposed his candidature in 2011 crossed the floor to the opposition All Progress Congress (APC) in 2013. Jonathan convincingly won the 2011 elections, pledging to enact his transformation agenda that can at best be described as part achieved. Roads and railway lines have been built, a conservative macro-economic framework has broadly been followed, and the economy is slowly diversifying. However, the administration has been seen as weak on anti-corruption, especially after Jonathan pardoned his predecessor as governor of Bayelsa, who has been convicted of corruption. Similarly, although Jonathan has a large communication team, his administration’s messaging has frequently been poor and occasionally woeful. The handling of the Chibok incident, when Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls, is the pre-eminent example.
If we look at the ruling PDP party, Ekwueme, Nigeria’s second republic vice president (1979-83) had in May 1998, led a group of influential politicians to form the G34, a pressure group, to publicly oppose the bid by Abacha to transform into a civilian president. Abacha’s sudden death four weeks later put paid to those plans, and threw up another general, Abdulsalam Abubakar, as head of state. The G34 – whose members espoused wildly varying political ideologies – metamorphosed into the People’s Democratic Party in August 1998. Ekweueme, as founding chairman, had his eyes on the presidential ticket of the party. But a group of wealthy and powerful retired military officers who has since swelled the party ranks has different ideas. They preferred Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled Nigeria as a military head of state 20 years earlier, and who handed over power in 1979 to the government in which Ekweueme was vice president. The PDP won the presidency, governorship in 21 states, and solid majorities in the bicameral federal legislature.
From early on, managing its success and pioneering status was a challenge. Factions soon broke off to form the All People Party (later All Nigeria Peoples Party) and the Alliance of Democracy, the PDP’s earliest competition.
The party’s biggest ever failing arguably lies in its underestimation of the threat that the APC represented from the beginning and how its emergence was guaranteed to alter the PDP’s own dynamics. Now, under Muazu, nicknamed “Game Changer” in Abuja political circles for his invigorating touch since he took over, the PDP will be facing the battle of its life in Nigeria’s general election next month.
The opposition APC candidate Major General Muhammadu Buhari is a rarity in Nigerian politics. Even a former PDP government official says that Buhari’s supporters, especially young and grassroots northerners, and southern reformers admire and defend him with intense zeal. Despite his popularity, Buhari’s task is formidable. In order to become president, he must do something that has never been done in Nigeria: defeat an incumbent president in an election.
Thus, on paper, President Jonathan should be the underdog in next month’s presidential election. He has been president during the worst bout of terrorism in Nigeria history, is unable to rescue teenage schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram ten months after they were taken, bungled ceasefire talks with Boko Haram and his government has been dogged by corruption allegations while his rival Buhari has impeccable security credentials as a retired army general and former military head of state.
Buhari was one of the young northern officers who staged the July 1966 coup, which overthrew Nigeria’s first military government led by Major – General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. He fought in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. Buhari came into the political limelight in 1975 after he participated in another coup this time helping to overthrow the military government of General Yakubu Gowon. He served in the succeeding military governments of generals Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo as Military governor of the Northeastern State, then as Commissioner for Petroleum and Natural Resources. Buhari returned to army duties in October 1979, after the military government ceded power to an elected civilian government led by President Shehu Shagari.
Four years later, Buhari and some other officers who ceded power to Shagari returned to take it back from him when they overthrew the government in the New Year’s Eve coup of December 31, 1983. Now a major-general, Buhari became the leader of a new military government. It was during his time as military head of state that Buhari made his name and reputation.
Despite being out of power Buhari’s anti-corruption credentials remained unblemished. He returned to national administration when appointed chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund created by the military regime of General Sani Abacha, the leader of the 1985 coup that overthrew Buhari.
Buhari has made three unsuccessful attempts to be elected president in 2003, 2007, and 2011. On each occasion, he was defeated by presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan respectively. The Nigerian public desires change and a new leadership. That does not necessarily mean that Buhari is the change they desire. This presidential campaign must surely be Buhari’s last. If he loses for a fourth consecutive time, he will almost certainly retire from politics.
Whatever the outcome, the election will be close and could spell disaster. Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency focused in the country’s northeast, could heavily disrupt voting in much of the country. The opportunity is enormous with the possibility for Nigeria to come out of the other side of this storm as a much stronger and more robust democracy. Despite his failures and a retiring public demeanour, Jonathan is considered at heart a sharp and canny political operator and this shrewdness could drag him over the finish line, say the analysts.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.