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Anyone who supports Buhari’s re-election will be doubly disappointed if he wins again –Akin Osuntokun

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Mr. Akin Osuntokun is the Director of Media and Public Communications, Coalition for Nigeria Movement and a Deputy Chairman of the Nigeria Intervention Movement. Osuntokun, who is also a former presidential adviser, tells GBENRO ADEOYE that Nigeria’s situation is precarious and in need of quick intervention

What do you think about President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration that he would seek re-election in 2019?

 

It seems as if we are going in the opposite direction. Those that you cannot catagorise as partisan have said some things. First, Transparency International has rated Nigeria worse this year under this government than the previous government. That is as far as the scorecard on corruption goes. That is using the most objective assessor to give a verdict on that. In terms of security, the President has proposed to spend $1bn on containing Boko Haram and other security challenges now. View it in the background that he has been in office for about three years and to the best of my knowledge, money had been allocated for the fight against Boko Haram and a large sum of money has been spent. This government, as we were told, took delivery of hardware worth about N120bn about a year ago. And unprompted by anyone, they bragged that Boko Haram had been defeated. So if you now find the need to ask for $1bn to address a problem which you told us had been contained and defeated, that in itself controverts your claim. Then there is the Fulani herdsmen crisis all over the place, so the security problem of Nigeria today is probably worse than that of two years ago. And of course, this government has given further evidence of that by asking for additional $1bn to spend on security when we know we have competing needs for the scarce resources that we have. It must mean that there is something quite urgent about the situation for the President to begin to ask for $1bn to address the same problem again. What we all know is that the President has increasingly become a polarising figure. Personally, without any malice intended, I think that any President or leader who was medically indisposed for over 100 days in a year, has no need to seek re-election. That record alone should be a reason for you to say there is no need to seek re-election. You shouldn’t give anybody the confidence that you can (do it) and the critical state of Nigeria should not be bound to a leader, who we have objective reasons to believe, will continue to have health challenges and crisis. By his own admission, he said when he was coming back to Nigeria, his doctors told him to eat and sleep more. If the doctors advised you to do that, that advice cannot by any stretch of imagination, contemplate the rigours of seeking another term in office. And of course, he also said that his capacity to perform had been largely inundated by his age. So if you said this less than two years ago, and you are older than you were then and the challenges of Nigeria are growing and not diminishing, so are you saying that despite the fact that you believe that you are hampered or hindered from performing well, you still want to force yourself on the governance of the country? Look at significant stakeholders who have expressed positions on his incumbency, one of which was Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (retd.), recently. If somebody like that could make such allegations on something that was as polarising and crisis generating as the Fulani herdsmen crisis, it is testimony to the situation in the country. And of course, we know former President Olusegun Obasanjo is not a frivolous person and he wouldn’t have come out to say what he said if he felt that there was a chance that in his heart of heart, he could justify Buhari seeking re-election.

 

A lot of people who supported him in 2015 have had cause to express regrets, including members of his party. They were surprised that he turned out like this. I was one of those who had consistently been opposed to his candidature and it is for a simple reason. It is not a position that I arrived at lightly. I feel that anybody who gained political prominence through the instrumentality or instruments of polarising Nigeria and of course his records are there, conspicuously in that regard, should never be rewarded with the Presidency of Nigeria. That summed up my own attitude towards his candidature. Remember someone like Prof. Wole Soyinka and what Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu and his wife said. Extrapolating from that and from all the things that I know about his Presidency, anybody who supports him to get re-elected, will be doubly disappointed and jeopardised than the first time, if he gets it.

 

Why do you think so?

It is because that is the pattern; it is a logical pattern. He is set in his ways. Prof. Soyinka called the things he has done unforced errors. Those are not mistakes, this is Buhari acting deliberately. You cannot make a mistake with the kind of appointments he made in such a lopsided manner. That cannot be a mistake; it is a deliberate act. And this is reinforced by the position he has taken on this Fulani herdsmen crisis. What Taraba, Benue and the states in the Middle Belt are experiencing and the response of his government today has reinforced the kind of personality he has. Any Nigerian who says today that he thinks that Buhari will be better will be deceiving himself because he will even be worse than he was before (if he is re-elected). All those who supported him, from their testimonies today, have been given cause to regret. Everybody is saying now that Nigeria is divided now more than ever before. Why is it so? It has to do with the personality of the leader. I heard there was jubilation in Kano and don’t know of any other place where there was jubilation but you can all see this kind of division among Nigerians. His candidature is so polarising, almost to the extreme. So if Nigerians are saying that the country has never been this divided, so how will his seeking re-election help that?

 

He wants to further deepen the division in the country. But all we are saying wouldn’t have mattered if attention had been paid to revising the constitutional structure of the country. The reason why it has become such an issue and why we are so divided and bitter with one another is that nobody likes being oppressed. That is what it boils down to. We have a government at the centre that is oppressing. If we had a good nationalist and a detribalised leader, we wouldn’t feel it as such but if we had a divisive leader, the effects would become unbearable. So that is the problem. So since you cannot guarantee that we are going to have a pan-Nigerian nationalist as President, the most enduring solution is to take away what makes the government at the centre such a dysfunction. And that is devolution and decentralisation back to the regions and the states or whatever people have been talking about so that these problems don’t keep on recurring and becoming an issue until such a time that it would explode. The way things are going, the race to that centre is the most devastating, destabilising factor in Nigeria and it is going to remain so as long as this kind of oppressive power is there.

 

So since he confirmed that he had grown old and needed rest, what would you attribute this declaration to?

Of course, there is the idea of serving an agenda – an agenda that is implied by the pattern of his governance, appointments, and behaviour. It is implied that there is an agenda that is being followed or carried out. So the only thing I can say is that, in addition to selfishness or the usual inability to resist the allure of office, there is an agenda that he wants to serve out. And that agenda obviously is not something that is of benefit to you and me. People are talking about Federal Character and all that. It is not an abstract thing; it is to ensure political equilibrium in the country and make sure that every sector of the country is involved in critical decisions so that the centre is not taken captive by parochial agenda as it is today – the extreme violation of that Federal Character. So you can look at the logic and say this is the reason why people were talking about Federal Character so that we would not become captive to this type of agenda.

 

Considering the gloomy picture you have painted, what then do you foresee would happen if the President is re-elected for another four years?

I don’t think that we will have a luxury of waiting for four years; let us see. General elections are very difficult periods for Nigeria. And that is even when things are normal let alone now with the security situation we have on our hands and the suspicion, total frustration and dejection with the system. Let us see how we go through the next one year first. As I said earlier, it is such a polarising period. It is going to pull the country towards severe threat and I don’t see the capacity of Nigeria to handle that kind of thing again. So I’m not talking about Nigeria in another four years from 2019, let us even see how we go through the next one year. I don’t know the magic that will be performed between now and the day of the election that would give us a more acceptable and contrary image of what we have seen from the President today.

 

What do you make of the state of the nation generally?

I would borrow the phrase that Bill Gates used to describe the prospect of the socioeconomic development of Nigeria. He is very familiar with the country; he said he started visiting Nigeria in 2006. He spent $1.6bn on the eradication of polio, so he is a philanthropist who has a vested interest in Nigeria. But of course, he also went beyond that to speak about the prospect of the country.

 

At the end of the day, you are aware of the unnecessary controversy that was generated by his recommendations that priority and emphasis should be on human capital development. Subsequently, in an interview, he used a phrase that sufficiently captured your question. He said the fate of Nigeria was hanging in the balance. He said if Nigeria gets it right, it can serve as an engine room of growth for Africans. So in the same way, it is also applicable, more in terms of the state of the nation today and the general elections that are looming large before us. Generally, elections in Africa and third world countries are a period of extreme stress for the stability of the countries. That was why what former President Goodluck Jonathan did in 2015 was unique. If we didn’t have the political stress threatening the corporate existence of the country, there would still be fear of the potential of the general elections to destabilise the country let alone talking about a situation which is now compounded by the crises all over the place. If Nigeria is more divided now than ever before as people say, is the case and you are having an election in that kind of situation, it tells you that the situation of Nigeria is very precarious. But Nigeria tends to defy the odds but for how long we will continue to muddle through and get lucky, I don’t know. It will require the positive hand of providence for Nigeria to go through the next one year in one piece and in peace. The signs are not very good and there are so many factors that account for that. But inevitably, the question goes back to the system of our governance, the constitutional structure of the country because that is what makes Nigeria so vulnerable to crises and upheavals, with the desperation to get to office, especially at the centre (Presidency and Federal Government). The race for the centre is always defined in terms of winner takes all; some call it ‘do-or-die’. So until we are able to address frontally the factors that predispose Nigeria towards the kind of precarious situation we find ourselves and then do something about that, there is no point burying our heads in the sand.

 

Nigeria is quite perplexing and whatever assessments you may have about President Buhari, the one I think is most unfortunate is that, by omission or commission, mostly by commission, he has proven to be quite divisive. He has compounded that Nigerian tendency towards fractiousness and division.

You are a key player in the newly formed CNM and NIM. What really do these groups hope to achieve especially as they are not political parties?

 

CNM is a creation of Chief Obasanjo and of course he analysed how he was led to see the need for that kind of organisation and the submission of course is that first he has become frustrated and disappointed with the political situation in the country and the man whom we hold responsible for that is at whose desk the buck stops, and that is the President. His association with the President goes back a long way to their military days and he was one of the major promoters of President Buhari to become President. Of course, he has an insight into how Nigeria can survive and remain a viable entity, so that is the first part of it. The other aspect is that there are two dominant parties – the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress. Like most people who have appraised the Nigerian situation, the PDP, as an opposition party, has not shown the capacity or the potential to be an effective alternative. For me personally, the PDP’s challenge to compete as a viable alternative at the national level will be because of what it did not do, like not having member of the party in the South-West as the chairman. It reduces the attraction of the party to the people of the South-West and it also makes it less likely for the zone to identify with the party.

 

The legacy in office is also not leaving much to write home about. So we have two parties – one in government and the other in the opposition. There is widespread dissatisfaction and frustration in the two parties and from that kind of analysis and understanding, the position is that there is a need for an alternative position, whether you call it a third force or whatever – that led to the need to put together another platform. A vacuum was created on account of the perception people have of the two parties as a failure in the task of moving Nigeria forward. But there is an aspect of Nigeria that also identifies that the younger generation and women have been denied adequate representation in politics. So anybody of course who wants to create a political platform, that is the dormant asset that you can tap into. With NIM and CNM, there is that focus. Apart from responding to the need for an alternative platform, they are also being proactive in tapping into that source to mobilise them for participation. And if we are able to get them sufficiently, they can become the game changer.

 

Functionally or notionally, the assumption can be valid to some extent that younger generation of Nigerians will be free of the tendencies of bias and the baggage that has come with our problematic political history and therefore will be more cosmopolitan in their approach and decision. And so the criteria for supporting a candidate will be superior to the ones that we have had, which is largely ethno regional, parochial, and about money politics.

 

And of course, it is also tied to the prospect of Nigeria as a nation, which I said was still hanging in the balance. For people like Obasanjo, Danjuma and a former Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, to have come out to say what they have said, and by virtue of their positions and training, we should assume that they are restrained in what they say. If they say something is 10 per cent wrong publicly, the reality is that it is 60 per cent bad, so that is why we should be alarmed if these people are coming out. The tendency is there for them to understate and not to exaggerate the problem or hit the panic button. If we assume that they are understating the problem, then Nigerians have cause to be alarmed. We are almost getting to a stage where crises, violence, assassinations, kidnappings are becoming normal. We are becoming inured to the calamitous situation. If you hear that 24 people were killed in Benue like it was reported in the news today, you are not going to be shocked. We are getting to a stage where we take such kinds of disasters for granted and that is the measure of how bad things have become. It is now risky for people to have farms and yet we are predicating the growth of Nigeria on agriculture. No matter how, we must contrive ways of giving people hope and this is one of the things that the political platforms are doing so that people can know that they are not condemned to the status quo. Although frankly, I don’t know how effective any political organisation can be, both in ensuring competence in governance or getting Nigeria going as a corporate entity.

 

You once said Nigeria was heading for terminal illness without restructuring. Do you still hold that view and think it will solve our problem?

Restructuring Nigeria is not a question of if, it is about when. It is that we either do it in a proactive manner or some kind of force majeure forces us to undertake it. With restructuring, there is a slight chance that Nigeria may not make it but there is a probability that Nigeria will make it. But without it, it is certain that Nigeria is over and done with. In a situation where a President elected by the country deemed it necessary, against all norms and regulations, to do what he (Buhari) did with the security agencies, the signals being sent are not good. A situation which those being appointed are inferior to so many others in their agencies should tell you something. It is not an act of omission, it is deliberate. If the Nigerian President deliberately did what he did, then we should ask ourselves to what end, to what purpose? And I’m not only saying this in terms of interest, it seems he himself does not feel secure being the President of the country and for you to have that kind of attitude, it shows that you are not a Nigerian nationalist. You are not comfortable with others; you feel the need to surround yourselves with your people. Danjuma said it. There is nothing to add or subtract from it. If they are saying the Nigerian army is complicit in the activities of a certain militia, then you are almost signing the death warrant of Nigeria as a corporate entity. So I don’t know what lies in the future. When people talk about structure, it is not an abstract term, it is logically consistent. It is not something that someone is imposing on you or outside of your own conception of how best Nigeria can develop. What those of us asking for restructuring are really advocating is restoration of that formula that served the cause of Nigeria’s development more than any other. Why should we insist on the accident becoming the norm? So because some military guys took up arms to destroy the regional structure and then through military dictatorship, made a mess of state creation, adding states whimsically or whatever, you are now asking me to accept it.

 

Firstly, it is not working so we have problems with that and it is not going to work. Secondly, when Nigeria got its independence from the British colonialists, there was a foundational logic, formula, reason and analysis that said for what we are creating, this is the pathway for development as a nation and that was federalism. The input that went into that constitution is far superior to whatever imitation we have. So that foundation was not plucked out of the air or accepted in vain, it was something that was tailored to fit what we have. Thirdly, empirically, we have seen how that segment of Nigeria’s political history from 1960 to 1966, in terms of development, is superior to subsequent phases of Nigeria’s history. So it is something that we have experienced, that this is what serves us best. So, it speaks for itself. As people say, it is easier to destroy than to build, so for us now to go back to first principle, to normalise that situation, may result into ‘some sense of sacrifice, forbearing, selflessness and corporate will to survive’. What I am saying is that the structure we have today serves the selfish, aggrandising and greed of the Nigerian political elite. What I have said cuts across the country. We have 36 state governors now. If we are talking of the kind of structure we have in 1960, it will probably require some states merging together. So it will take a level of sacrificial mentality for those who will then be required to let go of paraphernalia of office. So it involves some elements of short-term sacrifice. Of course, we will need to take note of some things in designing a structure that addresses those problems. But the biggest thing that destabilises the country and holds it back and will continue to hold is back, which is the present cause of tension is the concentration of power and resources at the centre, which is enormous. It makes the person there almost like an emperor. You cannot develop Nigeria from Abuja. There is no theory of development that says you can develop a place the farther away you are from it.

 

 You mentioned what Obasanjo said about Buhari’s government but he also wrote an open letter to Jonathan when he was President. Some Nigerians are saying that he is doing that because he is always looking for relevance. What do you think?

 What more recognition does Obasanjo want? There is no African today that is better recognised than Obasanjo. He spends almost 60 per cent of his time outside the country. He is globally known. He is somebody who accepted Biafran surrender ending the Nigerian Civil War in 1970 by virtue of being the former GOC (General Officer Commanding) of the 3rd Marine Commando. He succeeded Murtala Mohammed as head of state, created a distinction for himself at the time as probably the only African military ruler who successfully handed over power back to civilian government, then he was called back in 1999 to become President. And all along, he has the gift of energy. He is so strong and energetic and can do so many things at the same time. He is a workaholic and has been able to seize all the opportunities he had and made good use of them. Okay, forget the messenger, look at what he said, can you take anything away from it? Is it not what is staring us in the face?

 

You said he criticised Jonathan and all that. Okay, then we have been so unlucky. In all honesty, you may find faults with him but at each point, those criticisms have been valid. It will almost look irresponsible for a statesman to see something going wrong and choose to keep quiet. That is a dereliction of responsibility. About his tenure in office, he is regarded as the best we have had.

 

He is not somebody who likes to identify with any parochial identity. So others outside Yorubaland are comfortable with him. But the most important for me is the perception of him as a detribalised leader.

What about you? You were a presidential adviser. Do you have any political ambition?

I don’t like emphasising my ambition over the general view. I always want to subordinate my ambitions to the collective good and that is the only way Nigeria can move forward. There is what we call the preservation of institutional memory. But without being immodest, I think I would be an asset to the governance of Nigeria, be it at the state or national level. First, I’m not prisoner to any ambition even though I have offices I can aspire to. I come from Ekiti State. The factor of zoning doesn’t favour another aspirant from my senatorial district- Central. But if the opportunity permits, I will offer myself to go to the Senate. If the stars are aligned in my favour and the opportunity is there, I will definitely seek that office. That is as far as my ambition is concerned.

 

What do you think about the looters’ lists that have been released by this government?

They are playing political games and I think the APC gets it wrong. Contrary to all evidence that we see, it still persists in wanting to project itself as some kind of anti-corruption fighter. For me, that is silly. The most objective assessment and assessor that you can have is TI. It is not a Nigerian organisation. It has not interest in whether a particular president should be seen as corrupt or not. Who will you choose to believe between TI and the Nigerian government that praises itself? And there have been so many things that the government has done that are contraindications of a government that says it is fighting corruption. Look at what happened with the former Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reforms, Abdulrasheed Maina, for example. The attitude that was demonstrated in that case is an indication of a corrupt government. There is no government that can condone and covertly participate in such to the extent that it did. Look at the case of the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (Babachir Lawal) or that of the National Health Insurance Scheme boss (Prof. Usman Yusuf). And 50 per cent of those in the APC are from the PDP that it has been lambasting so it is pointing one finger at somebody while the others are pointing at it.

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