By Ajong Mbapndah L
Buhari has failed woefully, and Nigerians can’t wait for May 29 ,2023 when a new government is expected to take over says veteran Journalist and author Chido Onumah. In an exclusive interview with Pan African Visions Chido Onumah says at the sunset of President Buhari’s two terms no part of Nigeria is free from violence and terror.
“For me, the biggest challenge of the post-Buhari era would be how to put back the pieces. You’ll have to pity whoever takes over after Buhari. Not since the civil war of 1967-1970 has Nigeria been this divided,” Onumah says.
Chido Onumah says he will like the candidates to dwell more on how they will unify Nigeria, something he sees as the fundamental challenge post-Buhari. Unless that is addressed, the current crisis cannot end, and there is the risk of plunging the country into another civil war,says Onumah, in the interview which also x-rays some of the candidates, the readiness of INEC, influence of former leaders in the elections and more.
President Buhari is serving his second and last term of office between promises that got him elected, and achievements recorded, how has he fared?
He has failed woefully. Nigerians can’t wait for May 29, 2023, when a new government is expected to take over. People have stopped worrying about Buhari and his administration. The economy is in a mess. The local currency, the Naira, which was about N300 to one US dollar when Buhari took over seven years ago is almost N600 to one US dollar today. Students in tertiary institutions have been at home because the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been strike since the beginning of the year with no clear end in sight. No part of the country is free from violence and terror. Engaging the government is like dialoging with the deaf. For me, the biggest challenge of the post-Buhari era would be how to put back the pieces. You’ll have to pity whoever takes over after Buhari. Not since the civil war of 1967-1970 has Nigeria been this divided. There is massive insecurity the type that would most likely take up to a decade to resolve, that is if we get a serious government that knows what to do and has the political will to do it. Even that will be tough. To restore the country, you have to undo many of the things that the current government has done and continues to do. When you dislodge many people who have benefited from the provincialism of the Buhari government whether politically, financially, or even security wise, they are likely to push back. So, it is going to be a big challenge for whoever takes over.
Elections to succeed him will take place early next year, how important will those elections be at this point in the history of Nigeria?
The elections are important for many reasons. For one, they will determine if the country continues to operate in the twilight zone of what political scientists and security scholars refer to as anocracy—a state that is neither autocratic nor democratic. It is a dangerous place for a country to be. As I noted earlier, the current government has exacerbated the country’s fault lines. It continues to divide Nigerians everyday through its rhetoric and actions. It has diluted all the known principles of a democratic state, whether we are talking about the rule of law, the separation of power between the arms of government, respect for the provisions of the constitution or attack on the civic space. I don’t know where a new government will start.
The elections are also important because they will once again test the ability of the country to withstand the shock of power sharing in a multicultural and multiethnic country. It is even more so considering the poor governance that has been the hallmark of the current government. President Buhari is from Katsina State in northern Nigeria. After almost eight years in office, there is the unwritten rule that the presidency would have to move to the southern part of the country. Those who think they will “lose” power are thinking of what it means for them. Those who think they will “gain” power have their own plans. President Buhari has muddied the waters of national cohesion. Whoever takes over in 2023 will have to undo many things. And that has its implications.
In terms of the issues, what are some of the salient ones that could dominate discussions, or tip elections to one side or the other?
There are a lot of issues that should dominate discussion. Unfortunately, this is not going to be an issue-based election. The current government has set the bar so low that we are back to the default position the country found itself in 2015 when it was “anything but Jonathan.” Today, it is anything but Buhari. The country can’t breathe. Citizens have been so asphyxiated that they are not talking about the fundamental issues. They are just grateful that they are alive.
The parties are not talking about debates before their primaries. It just shows you how undemocratic the process is. They are going to present the country with a fait accompli, and I am talking about the two main political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Beyond the delegates, this would have given Nigerians the opportunity to know where the aspirants stand on many issues.
On a personal level, what I want to see the presidential candidates talk about is how they will unify the country. I think that is the fundamental challenge post-Buhari. Unless we deal with that, we can’t end the current crisis and we risk plunging the country into another civil war. More people are killed in Nigeria daily than in many countries undergoing full blown civil wars.
Considering that it has been 8 years of President Buhari who hails from the North, is the gentleman’s agreement of sorts to alter power between the Muslim North and the Christian South tenable in the next elections?
That is one of the many issues confronting Nigeria. We have managed not to resolve it in a way that is just and enduring. Many countries who have found a way around this have had to do it after a civil war or bloody crisis. I think the biggest challenge is that Nigerians have left the resolution of the crisis to the political elite who have neither the interest, desire nor capacity to resolve it.
The political class in Nigeria is one of the most, if not the most, bankrupt political elite in the world. For them, the concept of enlightened self-interest means absolutely nothing. They are ready to drag the country down to fulfil their personal political or economic interests. But you can only take a people for a ride for so long. We are at the stage where anything can happen. People are hungry, the country is insecure, unemployment is high, students are at home. This is a recipe for disaster. For too long Nigeria has been held together by rhetoric. If we do not translate this into action, I am afraid the country would have to pay dearly for it.
Considering that this is a long-standing problem, I mean the question of power sharing and added to the way President Buhari has mismanaged Nigeria, in terms of the economy, politics, and the issue of national cohesion, I don’t think the best outcome of 2023 will contribute to the resolution of the Nigerian crisis. So, we need to go back to fundamentals. We need to fashion out a new constitution that takes into account the lingering problems. Many people can’t see life outside the current system. You expect that people will resist any attempt to put new ideas that will bring about change. But there is no other way to travel.
The ruling APC party and the opposition PDP remain dominant, at this point, which of the two parties may have an edge over the other, what are their key strengths and weaknesses?
It is hard to say how it is going to pan out. But one thing is clear. The next president will emerge, by hook or crook, from either of the two parties. Going by the nature of politics in Nigeria and the weak democratic institutions and structures, we would expect that the APC will bring state power to bear in the way the election is managed. Once the ruling party settles for a candidate, they will put every machinery in place to ensure their candidate wins.
For the first time in 2015, we saw a situation where the ruling party lost power, when Buhari defeated the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. But that was an aberration. The circumstances were different. President Jonathan mismanaged his relationship with some of the big players and spenders in the PDP like the current minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi, who is now a presidential aspirant under APC. Once the opposition APC saw that the PDP house was divided they cashed in on that. There were other factors, like the quest for power to return to the North. But this was secondary. If the PDP was united, it would have used the same strongarm tactics that incumbents have used to retain power since independence in 1960.
The APC may implode after the presidential primaries at the end of the month. There can only be one candidate from the long list of aspirants that includes the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo; a national leader of the party, and former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu: and one of the major financiers of the party, Rotimi Amaechi. It is to be seen how that will affect the fortunes of the PDP, which has its mounting problems. One thing to take away from the scenario in both parties is the fact that we are not dealing with democrats. At the end of the day, the outcome will be what the dominant power bloc in the country wants.
How equipped is the electoral body INEC to ensure that the elections are free and fair, and Nigerians get the President they truly want?
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) seems poised to conduct free and fair elections. Whether it will get the needed support from the state, in terms of finance and other logistics like security, is another thing. It will be nice to see INEC enforce the rules on the role of money in the elections or the need for public officers who want to contest to resign ahead of the elections. That is not happening, partly because the state itself doesn’t want to play by the rules. I have a feeling that INEC will wring its hands on many issues surrounding the 2023 election and allow the courts to decide the outcome as is usually the case.
We will like you to assess the chances of some of the big names that have expressed interest in the presidential race beginning with Vice President Osinbajo, how credible is he as a candidate?
As I noted earlier, at the end of the day there will be only two candidates, one in the APC and one in the PDP. I really can’t see the road of the current vice president to the presidential ticket. He is from Ogun State. At the last count, there were about four candidates running for president under APC from the state. If you are not assured of delegates from your state, I do not know where your hope lies. Credibility is one thing and translating that to votes in the primaries is another. The point I am making is that the vice president doesn’t have the political base to make his ambition a reality. And I am not sure the Presidency is behind him. I think President Buhari has stopped short of coming out publicly to say so. Add to that the fact that he appears to a be divisive figure in his political zone of the South-West where many party bigwigs feel his joining the presidential race will undermine the chances of his benefactor and one of the leaders of the APC, Bola Tinubu.
What about APC Chieftain, Bola Tinubu, how formidable will he be as a candidate?
Quite formidable. He is the man to beat, other things being equal. But in the rough and tumble of Nigerian politics, other things are never equal. Tinubu appears to have paid his dues politically. He has the war chest to match and outspend any other aspirant in the primaries. If the primaries are to be conducted democratically, I think Tinubu stands a better chance than any other aspirant. He has built enough political goodwill across most parts of the country. He has the resources, human and financial. But as I have said repeatedly, you are not dealing with democrats. They are even ready to undermine their own rules. They will continue to shift the goalpost just for their preferred striker to score. Unfortunately, I do not see Tinubu as the candidate of the establishment. So, they will do everything to stop him. One of the reasons the APC has a multiplicity of aspirants in the race is to checkmate someone like Tinubu.
I see a situation where many of the aspirants will step down a few days to the primaries and move their support to the establishment candidate. The power brokers in the APC want to make it difficult for anybody to have enough votes to win the primaries. Once that is achieved, they will move into the consensus mode. I think that is how the candidate will emerge and it is not likely to be Bola Tinubu. Part of the challenge is that the dominant power bloc in Nigeria is not disposed to transferring power to the South-West where Tinubu comes from. Then there is the other angle of Tinubu being a Muslim. Picking him as the candidate would mean the APC running on a Muslim-Muslim ticket because the Northern power bloc will not concede the position of vice president to a Northern Christian. That has major implications in the general elections.
What about the chances of Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, and others, any possibility of seeing a surprise pick for the APC?
It won’t be much of a surprise if he emerges the candidate. I have a feeling the APC, if it has its way, will cede the presidential candidate to the South-South. The powerful people in the APC do not want a South-West candidate, and they are not disposed to a South-East candidate either. For them, a South-South candidate will be a compromise, while fulfilling the quest for power to shift to the southern part of the country. They are also reaching out to former President Goodluck Jonathan, who if he becomes president will only serve one term of four years and then power returns to the North.
It is a divide and rule tactic that has worked well. What we need to understand is that there is a fundamental question of power play here. The Northern bloc wants to control power as always and they are ready to do it through any means necessary. We don’t know who they have decided on, but 99 percent of the aspirants in the APC are pawns in the process. They stand no chance. Of course, this brinkmanship has consequences, which the dominant power bloc can’t contain.
On the PDP side, what are the chances of Atiku Abubakar, its last Presidential candidate?
The situation in PDP is even murkier because there appears to be a balance of forces. There are some big-name contenders who are influential enough to shift things. The former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, is one. Then there is the current governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, and former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, who appears to be the crowd favourite. My feeling is that the PDP will end up having a northern presidential candidate, considering that they have succeeded in jettisoning the idea of zoning the presidency. This will pitch their candidate against, most likely, a South-South presidential candidate from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
Atiku’s running mate in the last elections Peter Obi is already in the race. how formidable a candidate can he be?
He appears formidable. A lot of people are rooting for him. Whether that can translate to victory is another thing. The party primaries are a closed affair. A lot of things take place behind the scenes. It is not like the general elections. He is also riding on the wave of the idea that the presidency should go to someone from the South-East zone, being one of the three main power blocs in Nigeria that has not produced a president since the return to democracy in 1999. Whether that sentiment will sway the political class and ultimately the dominant power bloc in the country is another thing.
Any chances of a third-party breakthrough for any of the other highly qualified candidates who may not get the backing of the major political parties?
I don’t think so. It is getting late for any of them to change position and still be able to change things. No party outside the APC and PDP has the groundswell of support across the country to win a general election. The INEC timetable is tight. The APC and PDP will have their primaries a few days to June 3, 2022, which is the deadline by INEC for parties to conduct their primaries. It leaves the losers very little time to maneuver.
We end with a last question on the role of former leaders like Gowon, Babangida, Obasanjo and Jonathan what role do you see them playing in the elections?
Not much. Their influence is waning if it hasn’t waned completely. The last seven years of President Buhari have neutralized any influence someone like Obasanjo may have had. Gowon has not been a factor in the politics of Nigeria in a long time. Babangida is struggling with his health and is rarely seen in public, even though he may still have influence through proxies. Jonathan is being dragged here and there by the APC because of his insatiable lust for power. He may end up joining the APC and running in the primaries. If he loses, it will discredit him permanently. Even for contemplating joining the APC and contesting in the party’s primaries, he has lost a lot of admirers. The feeling among Nigerians is that the former president is living up to the tag, “the clueless one.”