Thursday, 12 May 2022 00:43

[OPINION] Presidential Abracadabra! - Olusegun Adeniyi

“…In nearly every one of these gatherings across the length and breadth of this vast, impossible country, active open dissections, and excoriations of the government of the day is on rowdy display, capped often by all manner of hare-brained solutions and scenarios on how best to govern and impose order on one of the world’s most problematic federations. I call this place ‘the land of a hundred million presidents’ without an authentic sovereign because everyone other than the elected president knows what is to be done. In trying to process this cacophony, nothing tangible ever gets done…” 

The foregoing excerpts from Dr Chidi Amuta’s foreword to my 2017 book, ‘Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria’, could not have been more apt. In the past few days, Nigeria has witnessed an epidemic of presidential declarations. In the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), where nomination forms cost a whopping sum of N100 million, the question is no longer who has declared but who has not. The outrageous fee meant to ‘deter’ politicians has become the main attraction and perhaps explains why some insist that the APC nomination process is a not-so-disguised money laundering enterprise. This is perhaps the only plausible explanation for a situation in which ‘anonymous’ groups would pay scandalous amounts of money to procure nomination forms for ‘disinterested’ aspirants. Of course there are also those who argue that the incumbent has so lowered the bar that almost every Nigerian now believes he could be president.  

 
 

Bill Schneider, a former CNN senior political analyst who is currently Senior Fellow & Resident Scholar at Third Way (a Washington think tank) and Professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, once argued that United States citizens choose their presidents like spoiled kids choose Christmas presents. “Americans usually get what they want in a president, but then after a while they discover they want something else,” Schneider quipped. Most Nigerians, as I also argued in the past, would count Americans lucky. In our clime, as Christmas presents go, parents who do the pickings are not as benevolent as to consider the preferences of their kids. That is also the way it goes for the choice of presidents in Nigeria. 

Since I can remember, the election of our number one citizen has been the prerogative of a few power brokers who first make their permutations, leaving the electorate to simply provide their seal of approval. And since those preferences are made more to conform to the predilections of such power conclaves, public interest is never part of the equation. If the morning therefore shows the day, as conventional wisdom teaches, things might not be different this time around. From my reading, it is obvious that some clever jugglers have already thrown several balls into the air and may just be waiting for the right moment to show their hand. 

Ordinarily, open-seat presidential elections attract a deluge of aspirants, but we have never experienced anything like this under the current democratic dispensation. We hear of unregistered associations of hungry Nigerians buying N100 million nomination forms for political fat cats. We are also learning that APC is operating like a secret society with closet members in very high places, including those hiding behind one finger—desperate and ambitious men with no courage of conviction. Although with yesterday’s decision that presidential aspirants should quit the federal cabinet, the men will now be separated from the boys. Even at that, the lack of transparency and accountability in the ruling party’s nomination process is such that a friend told me yesterday that members of the Association of Nigerian Bandits (please don’t ask me for their operational address) collected and took the APC presidential nomination form to their supremo, Bello Turji in Tozai Forest!  

I am aware that right from the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, money has been an influential factor in our electoral politics and governance. But never have we witnessed this kind of brazen bazaar in which the two leading parties are practically hawking tickets to the highest bidders. That the APC has taken the excesses of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from which it took power in 2015 to postgraduate levels is what concerns Nigerians. With contestation for power reduced to a financial shoot-out and sinister behind-closed-doors deals rather than open debates about ideas and proposals for addressing challenges that plague the nation, the foundation for the next government is already on shaky ground.  

There is no longer any debate about the fact that Nigeria is today in a very bad place across all sectors. I may be an illiterate in economic matters, but it must mean something that JPMorgan has “removed Nigeria from its list of emerging market sovereign recommendations that investors should be ‘overweight’ in”. Yet, despite the challenges ahead, the presidency is still seen largely as a big (and glamorous) prize to be won rather than a call to serve the public good. I fail to understand why our entitled politicians cannot see beyond their privileges even when our Titanic may be sinking. 

Last Friday night, dozens of gunmen on motorcycles invaded Sabon Garin Damri and Kalahe villages in Bakura Local Government Area of Zamfara State, killing and maiming all within sight. Hospitals and houses were razed and at least 63 villagers were fatally shot in broad daylight. “In Sabon Garin Damri, they killed at least 26. Thereafter, the armed men moved to Kalahe village where they killed more than 10 persons. In between these two communities, at least 40 bodies were recovered,” a resident identified as Aminu Yusuf, reportedly told Daily Trust. Incidentally, a former governor of the state who spent eight years in power before joining colleagues in the Senate that has become their ‘retirement home’ and whose administration planted the root of the current crisis, also wants to be president of Nigeria under the APC platform! 

In a nation as challenged as Nigeria, political aspirations should command sobriety and public office holders cannot afford to abdicate responsibility. Sadly, government and governance have been completely abandoned in practically all sectors of our national life in pursuit of APC presidential ticket. “ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) has extended strike by 12 weeks. Before you know it, Nigerian students would have stayed home for the entire year and selfish elites quickly resolved and stopped airlines from shutting down services”, presidential aspirant on the platform of African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore tweeted on Monday. Those who should be at the forefront of finding a solution to the ASUU crisis are busy plotting how to become president of Nigeria.  

Meanwhile, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor is ‘waiting for God’ to decide for him. But he apparently subscribes to the notion that heaven helps only those who help themselves since he has approached the court for a way to join the presidential crowd. As regulator of an industry that thrives on public confidence, the apex bank governor occupies a sensitive position in the national economy that leaves no room for the kind of partisan politics to which his office is now being dragged. We wait to see how that unfortunate saga plays out. Meanwhile, it is 44 days since armed gangs attacked an Abuja-Kaduna train, killing nine, and injuring scores before abducting dozens of passengers that are still in their captivity. Many Nigerians must have read the statement by distressed families, lamenting that those from whom they expect updates about their loved ones have abandoned them for a presidential adventure. Fuel scarcity cripples the federal capital territory and environs, but the man we should hold to account has also acceded to the ‘plea’ of the mercantile Abuja persuaders who ‘purchased’ for him the APC presidential nomination form. In this crowded presidential field we also find ‘uncommon transformers’ adept at usurping extraconstitutional powers to suborn agencies under them with cronies. The man who chairs the national legislature that makes laws only for their own comfort (as evident in the supersonic speed amendment to the amendment of the amended electoral act 2022) has also thrown his hat into the ring. Nigerians are aware that as many as a dozen governors in both the ruling APC and main opposition PDP have since abandoned their states on this same presidential expedition. In the PDP, a number of aspirants have reduced the process to entertainment while others squabble about zoning.  

On Tuesday in Abuja, I was at the public presentation of the book, ‘Becoming President of Nigeria: A Citizen’s Guide’ by my friend, Magnus Onyibe. Chair of the occasion, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi said that with what is going on today in the political arena, he regrets the role he played in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) whose efforts against the military helped to birth the current democratic dispensation in 1999. “I often ask myself whether this was what we went into exile and made all the sacrifices for,” Akinyemi lamented. Not a few Nigerians share his frustration. 

Interestingly, what we are witnessing reminds me of the farcical drama of the transition politics of late General Sani Abacha. With Abdullahi Adamu, a former Abacha Minister as APC National Chairman, nothing should be taken at face value, especially with each of the party’s aspirants asked to sign an anticipatory but “voluntary letter of withdrawal” under oath. Once smart gods decide on the “consensus candidate,” that piece of paper becomes legal tender. It is perhaps just as well that we now have the Elders Earnestly Asking for Buhari movement led by an otherwise respected Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Meanwhile, in withdrawing his participation from what late Chief Bola Ige described as ‘Five fingers of a leprous hand’ in 1996, Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (of blessed memory) declared that he would not be fooled into a football pitch only to discover that the game being played was rugby. Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka captured the situation better: “If I had written this scenario in a play, I would have been ridiculed.” 

Even under a supposedly democratic dispensation almost three decades after Abachapolitics, we still inhabit a country where, as they say on the Charlie Boy Show, anything can happen! That’s why the days ahead are bound to be quite interesting. I already have a reserved seat, with my popcorn and a chilled bottle of coca cola, waiting for the show to begin. 

Nzeribe: A Complicated Life 

About five years ago, when I learnt that he had been indisposed for a while, I visited the late Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe at his Apo Legislative Quarters residence in Abuja. It was difficult to reconcile the man I met in a wheelchair with the Nzeribe I used to know. He was, to put it mildly, in very bad shape. Despite his condition, he was delighted to see me; though he couldn’t hold any meaningful conversation. Not long after, Nzeribe was moved to the United Kingdom where he had spent most of his early life. I therefore felt a deep sense of loss when I heard about his passage last weekend. 

I have known Nzeribe since April 1992 and our relationship will take more than a footnote in my memoir when I write one. On different occasions, I was privileged to have sat with him for long conversations and I could see beyond the façade of a hard man. I recall the weekends I spent at his ‘Haven of Peace’ residence in Oguta, including when he buried his first son. I once broached the idea of writing his biography. He initially agreed until I told him what the title would be: The Odd Man Out!  

The late Nzeribe was a complicated man whose political life (and may be his business life too) was driven by the dictum that only the end should justify the means. From 1983 when he announced himself to Nigerians during his bid for Senate with the drama of pulling a gun at the collation centre when the returning officer attempted to manipulate the election result against him, Nzeribe was a prominent feature of our politics. The role he played during the transition to civil rule programme of General Ibrahim Babangida with his Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) and the subsequent annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election are already well documented. But in October 2002, Nzeribe met his match in the then Senate President (now presidential aspirant), Anyim Pius Anyim.  

Apparently working for Aso Rock enforcers at the time, Nzeribe had been gathering signatures of senators with a view to move for the impeachment of Anyim who had by then become an enemy of President Olusegun Obasanjo. But in a preemptive strike, a ruthless Anyim announced in plenary that Nzeribe had defrauded the Senate to the tune of approximately N22 million through five payments. While he provided no evidence to back his claim, he then requested the Senate to grant him (Anyim) leave to hand Nzeribe over to the police for investigation and possible prosecution. With the prayer adopted through a voice vote, Anyim banged his gavel to seal the indefinite suspension that kept Nzeribe out of the Senate for the remaining period of that term. Four years later, at the PDP primaries ahead of the 2007 general election in Orlu senatorial district where he had a larger-than-life profile, Nzeribe was defeated by his protégé, Osita Izunaso (who was aided by then Imo State Governor Achike Udenwa). Nzeribe never fully recovered from that political humiliation until the health challenge (combined with an advanced age of 83) that ultimately claimed his life last Thursday.  

Ordinarily, the essence of political participation includes improving systems, empowering citizens etc., all in pursuit of the public good. But for the late Nzeribe, despite his brilliance and national reach, the obsessions were almost always about grabbing power, either for himself or in errands for others. To be sure, one can say that of most Nigerian politicians, but Nzeribe seemed to revel in the role of a spoiler while making himself available for any political undertaking, however unpopular. And it was difficult for me to understand why. Nzeribe may not be as rich as he was touted to be, but he was also, by all standards, materially very comfortable so he didn’t need to behave like a desperate man. Yet, in several instances, that was the way he presented himself to colleagues and the Nigerian public. 

At the end, Nzeribe was arguably one of the most reviled politicians of his generation. And he brought that upon himself. He allowed his Machiavellian approach to politics to alienate him from different power groups across the country, and the ordinary people on the street. He was my friend, and I won’t ever forget that. But his legacy and how he would most likely be remembered are civic lessons that other politicians should learn from. I commiserate with auntie Joan and other members of the Nzeribe family. May the soul of the departed Ogbuagu, Oshiji, Damanze Oyimba of Oguta rest in peace. 

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