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[OPINION]: Beyond the Buhari declaration -Akin Osuntokun

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On account of dejavu alone President Mohammadu Buhari chose the wrong moment to lay bare the open secret of his ambition for a second term in office. In terms of symbolic association, departing Abuja for London in the past one and half years evokes all the wrong memories.

Predictably, even before he landed in London, the maniacally driven gossip mills in Nigeria had revved into overdrive in speculations on the real story behind the departure, this time around-afterall, the scheduled meeting of the commonwealth heads of states and government was a week away. Adding sumptuous grit to the rumor mill was the New York Times:

“Despite calls to step aside and concerns about mysterious health problems, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria on Monday declared his intention to seek re-election next year, ending months of speculation. Last year, he spent nearly four months in Britain receiving treatment for an illness that the government has not disclosed, leading to fears that he would never return.

But over the past year, calls for him not to run again — or even to step down before his current term ends — have grown steadily. Two former presidents, civic leaders, opposition politicians and even some of Mr. Buhari’s former allies have said he should make way for a younger generation of leaders. Within hours of announcing his intention to run, the president traveled to London to attend a meeting of Commonwealth leaders. His office did not give a date for his return, leading to renewed rumors in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, that Mr. Buhari would once again be receiving medical attention in London”.

There are the short, medium and long term perspectives to the declaration. In the instant, as we have seen, it brings up the issue of his health. Beyond raising the specter of the pseudo religious taboo of not speaking ill of the ill is the fact that raising concerns about a President’s health is not a partisan issue.

It is the privilege and right of citizens to inquire about the well-being of the most privileged public official to whom they have entrusted their collective destiny. If a military President can hold himself to the bar of publicly accountability in disclosing the precise nature of the medical attention he sought in France-(radiculopathy) how much else should we hold a democratically elected President accountable?.

It is the reason why the Nigerian constitution is not silent in anticipating the scenario of a President taking ill or incapacitated and the consequential remedies instituted for that kind of development.

I can comfortably predict, though, that Buhari will sooner host a Presidential media chat on his return home where he will speak with solemnity and religious fatalism about his health-life and death and all in between are in the omnipotent hands of God who gives and takes away as he pleases.
 
And then feigning superstition and in dubious piety, the clerics, both Mohammedan and Christian, will take a cue and chastise an unruly laity to desist from making the health of a vulnerable victim a political issue. Prayers, we will be told, is what we owe the President.

Yet no matter how much we heed the call to pray, there is little or nothing that supplications to God can do about advancing years and the attendant biological degeneration. According to science, 80% of men and women over the age of 80 years are liable to the affliction of one terminal disease or the other. As the spirit leads us, anyone can then attribute the remaining 20% margin of error to divine providence and the powers of prayer.

On this, we are of one accord with the President himself when he self critically spoke the truth that his ability to govern is circumscribed by the limitation of age related debility and in the spirit of this truthfulness admonished himself against seeking reelection. If he drew this conclusion in 2011 how much more relevant and valid is the same logic now?

On his return from prolonged medical leave last year and to corroborate his own freely given counsel on what age can do to the body, he said he had never felt this sick in his life and his doctors directed him to ‘eat more and sleep more’. Although the President said he was not really sure about his age, but his official records assigned the age of 76years to him.

In Nigeria and for people of his generation, such ignorance about the date of birth is the rule rather than the exception. Another Nigerian convention for the older generation is that official enlistment records tend to understate the age of those being recruited by usually a minimum of four years. So my educated guess estimate is that the age of our President, in all likelihood, cannot be less than 80 years.

I have been opposed to the return of Buhari to the pinnacle of political power since he began his bid in 2003. In subsequent outings, I have increasingly found the conviction to do so. More than any of the previous phases, the subsisting phase has accelerated and deepened the conviction and the reason for this is the real time opportunity, he has had, to confirm or disconfirm the utmost misgivings on which less partisan and critical Nigerians have given him the benefit of doubt.

My central argument remains that any Nigerian politician who rose to political consequence on account of polarizing Nigerians should not be rewarded with the Presidency of Nigeria. Looking back over the past three years, can we, in all honesty, see any mitigation of this shortcoming in his conduct?

The good public service that the Buhari incumbency has rendered to Nigeria is his demystification. It has compelled and revealed, no matter how scanty, a capacity for internal soul searching and self-scrutiny that was hitherto (relatively) lacking within the hegemonic North. The greatest tribute in this regard goes to Dr Junaid Mohammed for his honesty and capacity to juggle fidelity to ‘Northern Nigerian nationalism’ with a relentless and comprehensive call to accountability and critique of the Buhari Presidency.

More significantly and by similar default of his self-demystification, Buhari has validated the argument that the political problem bedeviling Nigeria transcends the trite prescription of elusive leadership competence-seeking solution to the symptoms (rather than the root causes of a seemingly intractable political failure) in the magic wand of messianic leadership.

Were Buhari to provide a semblance of this silver bullet leadership (which he failed to provide) such eventuality would still not authenticate the prescription of good leadership as the panacea for our political dilemma. The validity of the prescription will rest on the presumption that Nigeria will continue to produce a succession and procession of good leadership-a feat of which no society is capable, let alone Nigeria.

To predicate the prospects of Nigeria on the expectation of perennial good leadership (without institutional and structural containment strategy against the equal possibility of leadership gone awry) is to be governed by the utopian anticipation of the best case scenario. As I have said before, science-the universal denomination of civilization and the ability to render an outcome foolproof, assumes the opposite (the worst case scenario)-hence the admonition to hope for the best and anticipate the worst.

One proximate and illustrative product of this scientific imagination is the jetliner, the aero plane-whose design proceeds from the premise of anticipating all that go wrong.

In the culture of scientific imagination, it is required that we predicate the political development of Nigeria on a scientifically rationalized constitutional structure-hence the federalist framework of the independence constitution. As a living document, the constitution anticipates change and dynamism not violation much less the consecration of that violation as the norm.

The whimsical military rule begotten translation of Nigeria from four regions in 1966 to thirty six nominal states with an all-powerful center can only mean one of two things. One is that it is categorically right and the other is that it is categorically wrong.

The most critical aspect of the reversal from the independence constitution is the attribute of a dominant and patriarchal central government with a constellation of wholly dependent thirty six states. For this attribute to be seen as imbued with the best of intentions, it has to be assumed that the President of Nigeria will always be a detribalized and nationalist oriented leader.

To further reinforce this expected orientation is the constitutional stipulation of the geopolitical balancing instrument of federal character in the distribution of appointments and patronage. But as we have come to learn with Buhari, not only is the assumption of a nationalist Nigerian President wrong, there is little the federal character constraint can do to compel course retraction from a determined parochial leader.

The assumption that the pan Nigeria mandate requisite of a direct Presidential election will produce a nationalist President and prompt nationalist behavior has been controverted by the cynical political calculations that resulted in the candidacy of Buhari. On the contrary, it was the utility of the opposite tendency (the ability to hold his regionally demarcated support base captive in a ‘we versus them’ time warp) that served the clincher for his political collaborators outside his geopolitical base.

One such ally characterized it as Buhari ‘having captive and cult followership in the North’. He recently gave a star performance of this proclivity in Kano as aptly captured by Farooq Kperogi

“Even as president with a national mandate, Buhari can’t resist the unhelpful, needlessly divisive “we-northerners-versus-they-southerners” rhetoric. In this December 2017 video, Buhari thanked Kano people for coming out en masse to welcome him and said “saboda yan kudu su san har yanzu inada gata.” Rough translation: “… so that Southerners can see how famous I still am.” That was gratuitous divisiveness… It shows that even as a person who enjoys the perks and privileges of national leadership, he still sees Nigeria in dichotomous, mutually exclusive binaries: as “we northerners” and “they southerners.”

That he said this at a public event where he knew he could or would be recorded is what is even sadder than the fact that he said it at all. It shows that he, in fact, doesn’t even pretend to be a Nigerian nationalist who sees all of Nigeria as one”.

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