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[Opinion]: 2019: Nigeria’s emerging political leaders - Reuben Abati

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A strong indication of both the quality and failure of politics in Nigeria, as the people look forward to the next general elections in 2019, is the manner in which virtually “every” Nigerian believes that he or she is good enough to be President of Nigeria. This may speak to a deepening of political consciousness, but it is also a reflection of the people’s anxiety and frustration about how the office and position of the President of Nigeria seems to have been mishandled and demystified. The process of that demystification has taken different shapes and tones since the return to civilian rule in 1999, but now everything seems to have gone so bad, far beyond expectation.  My mechanic couldn’t have phrased this national dilemma better. He came to see me the other day, full of excitement.

“Oga, it’s you I have come to sete oh.”  Typical Nigerian manner of speaking: you are right in front of me, and yet you still consider it necessary to announce your presence. Anyhow, I nodded affirmatively, already working out a response to a likely solicitation for money. It is school resumption time, and it is usual for people to go soliciting for help to pay children’s school fees in a country where basic education is so unaffordable.  

“Oga, I have come to inform you that I am thinking of running for President.”  I thought the guy was talking about the Presidency of the Mechanics Village Association. So, I brightened up. No, he meant President of Nigeria. I removed my eyeglasses and dropped my pen.

“President of Nigeria? How? Look, have you been drinking?”

 “Oga, you know I am a Christian.  I don’t drink. I am serious oh. I have been thinking about it for a while. I can do a better job. The way these people are running Nigeria, some of us have good ideas about what can be done. If we leave this Nigeria to these politicians, they will finish all of us. Anybody that likes this country should get involved.”

I paid attention to him.

“Oga, look at me, I can do it.  We can do it. I have worked it out. By the grace of God, I will be the next President of Nigeria.”

I had known this mechanic for a while, but I never suspected he had very tall ambitions. I had not yet given him my honest opinion; he had already conscripted me. “We can do it”. We?  Every Nigerian politician is an optimist, and the most optimistic are often the ones who don’t even stand a chance at the polls.

I pretended to be interested all the same; so he continued with his campaign.

“Oga, you know me. Am I a lazy man? No. I am not.”  When people insist on answering their own questions the best you can do in the circumstance is to listen.

“What this country needs now is a mechanic, somebody who can take a look at a vehicle that is having problems, and fix it.  We mechanics do that every day. When they bring a car to you, first you diagnose. What is wrong with the car? Why is it not functioning well, and then you go straight to the problem and fix it.  Why can’t people fix Nigeria? If we mechanics were to behave like politicians, this whole country will be littered with broken down vehicles. In the hands of these politicians, Nigeria is broken. E be like say Nigeria don knock engine sef. I am the man who will fix that engine.”

“But nobody will give you any chance. Everybody will laugh and think you are joking.”

“I am not joking, Oga. What does it take to be President? I have done my homework. The only thing they are asking for is a WAEC certificate.  I have my certificate ready and I can produce it to prove that I completed secondary school.”

“How many credits?”, I asked, trying to humour him.

“INEC does not ask for five credits. Even F9 parallel sef can be President of Nigeria. No be Nigeria?”

“But you don’t have the resources. You’d need a lot of money.”

“Oga, it is not about money. And if it is money, God will provide. Our Pastor in our church has been praying for me and God is speaking to us. When I become President, I will declare free education, free health and there will no lazy youth in Nigeria again!”

“Why don’t you start at a lower level. may be local government chairman, gain some experience.”

“Ha. Oga, Experience has shown that in Nigerian politics you don’t need experience. Who has experience helped? All those former Governors in the National Assembly, what kind of experience do they have? In fact, let me just say a lot of them go there to sleep and collect free money, travel free. I have seen their pictures. They go there to sleep. When some thugs stormed the place to steal the Mace, not one of them could stand up and protect the Mace. Lazy Senators. Only a woman, a sergeant at arms was courageous enough to challenge the Mace thieves. When I am President, nobody will dare steal the Mace. It won’t happen.”  

I felt like telling him that there has been too much drama over the significance of the Mace in our legislatures.  It is at best a ceremonial symbol.  For a session of the legislature to be valid under the 1999 Constitution what is required is a quorum as defined under Section 54, but of course the kind of criminal conduct that was put up at the Senate, last week, is condemnable and should be investigated and all authors of that act of impunity must be sanctioned accordingly. I didn’t say anything to him along these lines, rather I was more impressed by his passion, his determination to save Nigeria and arrest the drift.  I was also struck by the fact that he is not the only Nigerian with such passion. There have been many of his kind, now active on social media, promoting a vision of Nigeria and insisting that they would be better materials for 2019.

The number of these aspiring Presidents keeps increasing everyday and while I consider some of their posters a bit curious and the candidates a bit unusual, taken together, the shared anxiety about the Presidency and who is best fit to lead Nigeria beyond 2019 says a lot about public expectations.  There are online, video-tapes of a certain Aunty Monica, for example. She is based in Europe and she wants to come home to be President, to bring investment and tourism to the country, and she says she has “ideas in her head.” I have also seen such banners as “Vote Iya Bayo for president, Aunti Ramota for Vice President”, and “PFANN: A new refreshing wind blowing over the nation. Get ready. Elishama 2019.”

The names of a popular Fuji musician, Wasiu Alabi Pasuma, and that of the legendary footballer, Kanu Nwankwo have also been mentioned as potential Presidents of Nigeria. Neither Pasuma nor Kanu has confirmed their interest in the job. But the social media is the forum where many ideas are hatched, and many of such ideas also die on social media, but what is said about public reality should not be ignored. Nigerians want what is now referred to as the #realchange. They are disappointed. They are angry.  There is also a growing resentment to the repeated claim by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and President Buhari’s handlers that there is no alternative to Buhari.  In a most recent article, Garba Shehu, a Presidential spokesperson asks what he considers “an important question”  - “who do you have that is better?.  Then he answers it himself; “…certainly there is no face (other than Buhari) that can be called the President of Nigeria.”  Garba Shehu even scoffs at the Coalition Movement that started a protest against the two leading political parties in Nigeria - APC and PDP, and asked for a one-term Buhari Presidency.  He says “a so-called Third Force has failed to gain political traction since its birth.”  

My mechanic, Aunty Monica, Iya Bayo, Aunti Ramota, and Elishama – these are ordinary Nigerians- certainly disagree that only one man’s face is good for the Nigerian Presidency. They in fact believe that they will do a much better job. But perhaps the more significant development is the emergence of new faces on the political scene who are also keenly interested in rescuing Nigeria and whose declared starting point is the Presidency. I once described them as products of the Trudeau-Macron effect. Justin Trudeau, 46, became Prime Minister of Canada in 2015.  Emmanuel Macron, 39 assumed office as President of France in 2017.  There is also the current Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz - he is the youngest President in the world. He is 31.  An emerging group of Nigerian political leaders falls into this category: they are challenging current political orthodoxies; they are educated, they are internationally exposed, they can think out of the box and above all, they are united in their resolve that President Muhammadu Buhari is replaceable in 2019.  They equally pose a challenge to the traditional political elite, which so far is yet to make up its mind about presidential candidates or alternative platforms for the 2019 Presidential and general elections.  The usual tendency is to dismiss them as “noise makers and attention seekers”, but they probably constitute the real “Third Force” that will produce the traction that the Presidency is yet to see.

One newspaper has identified up to about 24 of these emerging “game changers”. There is Bukunyi Olateru-Olagbegi, 27 who has registered a political party – the Modern Democratic Party (MDP).  He is not running for President but the MDP could become a useful platform for youth mobilization and conscientization.

There is also Omoyele Sowore, 47, former students’ union leader, civil rights activist and founder of Sahara Reporters, an online newspaper.  For the past month or so, Sowore has been on the campaign trail, addressing students and civil society groups. He has also appeared on radio and television.  His main message is that Nigerian youth should “take back Nigeria” from those who have destroyed it.  He has in particular been very critical of the Buhari government. “I can run Nigeria better than Buhari in my sleep”, he says.  When a serving Minister, Adebayo Shittu told Sowore to go and start as a councilor, during a radio programme, Sowore held his ground. Kingsley Moghalu, 55, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), an author and a scholar, has also declared his interest in the Nigerian Presidency.  He is offering Nigeria, “bold and decisive leadership …something different … by a capable, experienced technocrat.” Like Sowore, Moghalu means business.

You also have Fela Durotoye, 47, a Presidential aspirant on the platform of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN).  Durotoye wants to rebuild Nigeria through visionary and inspirational leadership.  Alistair Soyode is the founder of BEN TV in the United Kingdom.  For years, he has been reporting Nigerian stories to the world and to Africans in diaspora. Like Sowore, he has also decided to become directly involved in Nigerian politics. Other emerging aspirants include Professor Funmilayo Adesanya-Davies, 55 who says “power must go to women and the youth”; Sam Nwanti, an international detective, and a member of the Labour party, who wants to “fight crime and corruption”. Others include US-based Omololu Omotosho, Lewis Omike, a filmmaker and photographer, Dr. Thomas-Wilson Ikubese, 47, of the National Conscience Party, and 35-year old Adamu Garba II.

The temptation is to dismiss this category of aspirants as Minister Shittu has done, in part because they do not preach the message of religion, ethnicity and money, and they do not seem to have any Godfathers who can offer them existing structures in exchange for conditions of service.

Many of them may even throw in the towel before the actual race begins. The old brigade of  Nigerian politics is not in a hurry to retire, change tactics or yield space. People don’t become Presidents in Nigeria by merely pasting posters and social media messages or through sheer idealism. IN 2011, Dele Momodu, 51 at the time, tried to run for President. He has many stories to tell. The Trudeau-Macron effect in our politics may still take a few more years. But it would be wrong to ignore what the new faces represent: a more deep-seated yearning for change among the youth and the middle class, and at least two of them: Sowore and Durotoye are already exercising much influence among the Nigerian youth, not just on social media but also across the educational institutions and the streets.

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