On 7th January 2003, the defunct All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) held a dramatic (some would actually say hilarious) national convention in Abuja to nominate its presidential candidate for the 2003 general election. In the attempt to foist Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) on the party as the presidential flag-bearer without the rigours of a contest, the ANPP Governors came up with the “consensus” option. The idea was for one of the contenders, the late Dr Chuba Okadigbo to be paired with Buhari as running mate while others would withdraw from the race.
Unknown to the governors and party leaders, however, they merely opened themselves up for the onslaught of the aggrieved presidential aspirants led by former Information Minister, Chief John Nnia Nwodo who would end up stealing the show at Eagle Square that night.
Called to make his speech to the delegates after it was apparent Buhari’s candidature was a fait accompli, Nwodo said he could not believe that a party with so much promise would reduce itself to such level of political chicanery. Before announcing his withdrawal from the race, Nwodo said: “My heart bleeds that our great party is about to be destroyed. The process that has characterized this convention is totally without transparency and as I speak to you now, all of you wearing accreditation cards do not have your name on it. It could be dashed to anyone. As I speak to you, none of you has seen a dummy of the ballot paper that you are about to vote with.”
As Nwodo spoke, one could see embarrassment written on the faces of the ANPP Governors and other leaders as bemused Nigerians watched the political tragic-comedy live on television. But Nwodo was not done yet: “As I speak to you now, all presidential aspirants have been denied the opportunity of effective participation in arriving at this so-called consensus. In all humility, my brothers and sisters, I do not lend my name to this charade. I cannot stand on this ballot to disgrace the democratic process…”
Almost in quick ordered manner, the four other presidential aspirants–the late Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, Chief Rochas Okorocha, Chief Pere Ajuwa and Chief Harry Akande–also took turns to castigate their party leaders and the farce that the primaries had become while announcing their withdrawal from the stage-managed exercise. Apparently unprepared for the shocker, the party leaders and the governors didn’t know how to handle the situation. To worsen matters, when it was time to make his speech, the anointed candidate, perhaps still suffering from military hang-over, said whoever wanted to leave the party could leave! It was on that comical note that Buhari’s first aspiration to be president of Nigeria took off.
In the piece titled “ANPP: The Fraud at Eagles Square” published in THISDAY on 8th January 2003, the day after the convention, I said it would be difficult for Buhari to win under the circumstances in which he emerged as the candidate of the main opposition party at that time. As to be expected, the party never recovered from the blow dealt it by the aggrieved presidential aspirants who were forced out of the race for Buhari to emerge. So it was no surprise to me that Buhari lost the 2003 presidential election, even though he would later claim that he was rigged out.
In 2007, the situation was not different because Buhari also did not emerge as the candidate of the ANPP on which platform he contested through any democratic process. Neither did he have any credible political structure to support his aspiration, especially since most of the party’s governors had by then deserted him. While the election was mismanaged by the Prof. Maurice Iwu-led Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), essentially because of the political struggle between President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Buhari could not have won in 2007 and he did not win; even when we concede the fact that the entire process was flawed, as the eventual winner, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua himself admitted. So the challenge of the 2007 presidential election was not that Buhari was rigged out, as he would also later claim, but that the process which produced a winner was lacking in legitimacy.
Since I was not in the country during the 2011 election, I cannot speak authoritatively about that contest but it has nevertheless not only been widely acknowledged as credible, the fact that Buhari contested on the platform a political party he formed only a few weeks to the election was indicative that it would have taken a miracle for him to win. In fact, most reports of the election from local and international observers attest to the fact that Buhari was handily defeated by the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan who then enjoyed a broader national appeal.
The foregoing represents Buhari’s three previous attempts at the presidency but it would appear that the former head of state has learnt sufficient lessons from those unpleasant experiences to prepare him for what appears to be his last stand. Today, so many things have changed such that Buhari has become a very formidable presidential contender in a way he never was in the past. There are therefore good reasons as to why Buhari’s supporters seem hopeful that their man may be fourth time lucky and we may have to look at some of them.
One, Buhari started his preparations for his current bid very early by joining forces with other stakeholders in the South, especially Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to build a political coalition that became APC as far back as last year. Two, Buhari will, for the first time, be running on the platform of a political party that has at least a governor in each of the six geo-political zones in the country. Three, Buhari has criss-crossed the country in recent months (he even campaigned in Bayelsa!) in a way he never did in the past. Four, Buhari emerged the APC candidate after winning a keenly-contested party primaries that was held, of all places, in Lagos.
Five, Buhari spent considerable time and held several meetings before arriving at the choice of his running mate in a manner almost reminiscent of the trouble the late MKO Abiola went before he could choose his running mate for the 1993 presidential election for similar reasons of religion and geo-politics. In the past, there were no such hassles for Buhari on that score, perhaps because the stakes were not as high and, all factors considered, he could not have made a better choice than Prof. Yemi Osinbajo whom he picked yesterday. Six, there is now a Buhari fever in “strange” places, including in the South-west where the decisive votes may come from in February. Seven, unlike in the last two elections when there were also other bigwig presidential contenders from the North (Atiku Abukakar in 2007; Ibrahim Shekarau and Nuhu Ribadu in 2011), Buhari is the only presidential contender from the region this time around. However, as positive as that may seem, it also comes with its own drawbacks.
I read last week an irresponsible statement credited to some prominent politicians from the North, saying that a vote for President Goodluck Jonathan would be deemed as a vote against the North. Such provocative statement cannot in anyway help Buhari’s cause because nobody has ever won the presidency of Nigeria solely on the strength of support from his geo-political base. In any case, Buhari’s previous futile attempts prove rather conclusively that the North alone cannot make him, or anyone for that matter, the president of Nigeria. Therefore, to project Buhari as a regional candidate would not only be counter-productive, it could even be interpreted as a reaffirmation of the thesis of those who have always seen the former military leader as a parochial person who cannot be trusted by all Nigerians.
The ethnic champions should therefore know that they are not in any way helping Buhari by their reckless rhetoric. While this may go down as perhaps the most competitive election in our history, it could also turn out to be anti-climax, because given the nature of African politics, the odds are usually in favour of the incumbent. So to that extent, Buhari still has his job cut out for him if he intends to send President Jonathan back to Otuoke. To do that, he will need to rein in people like Ango Abdullahi and confederates who would like to play Edwin Clarke and Asari Dokubo without even allowing Buhari to get to Aso Rock first.
As one analyst has succinctly put it, the choice before the Nigerian electorates come February 2015 will be between “a much younger man making the case for staying the course against an older man who wants a radical departure” from the past. The problem, however, as the analyst also contends, is that the next few weeks may be dominated not by issues but rather by geography, faith, fear and lots of money. But since the two parties have the capacity to cancel each other out on those issues, they may therefore not be the deciding factors.
Three critical issues worry Nigerians today and how Buhari successfully project himself as capable of dealing with them could well make a difference between victory and defeat. The first is security, with the Boko Haram insurgency the most pressing. While Buhari’s military background would help, he has to come out clearly to assure Nigerians on how he would handle the situation differently from what obtains today given the nature of the challenge. Ditto for the issue of fighting corruption in a democratic environment where the president has no power to enact decrees, even if we concede the fact that Buhari comes with the power of personal example.
The third and perhaps most important issue is the economy. With the oil price dancing Skelewu and the exchange rate of the Naira defying the law of gravity at a time we are churning out graduates for whom there are no jobs, we need fresh thinking on the way forward. As the challenger in a season of national upheaval, Buhari is ordinarily in a good position but if what his supporters would want to sell to Nigerians is that he is seeking the presidency because it is the turn of the North, then they are setting him up for another disastrous outing at the polls in what appears to be his last stand.
Thisday Nigeria Newspaper