BY MAHMUD JEGA
In the sprint towards the finish line of this long 2023 presidential race, some political pugilists have removed the gloves and are throwing punches with naked fists. Some even have stones and broken bottles hidden in their palms. I am not out to answer anyone in particular, but to summarise the case for the election of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Saturday election’s most likely outcome.
The first case for supporting Tinubu is that it will consolidate an evolving shift in the political psychology of Nigerians. This is not a trivial matter, because it promises to have untold benefits for national peace and stability, which in turn is necessary for any further socio-economic progress. Talk about regional power shift reminds me. In 1980 when the country was struggling to adjust to the new federal character provision in the 1979 Constitution, many analysts argued that the formula discarded merit. Professor Godwin Soglo however said at NIPPS, Kuru that maintaining peaceful coexistence and sense of belonging in a plural society is the polity’s highest goal and there is no other consideration above that. He said you have not lowered any standard because achieving peace is your highest standard and there is no standard higher than that. Power shift and federal character achieve the same psychological aims. Electing Asiwaju Tinubu with majority of Northern votes promises to achieve national peace in the short and medium term.
The second consideration is that, in political strategy, foresight, eye on the ball, mentoring, horse trading and sagacity, Nigeria has not produced a politician quite like Tinubu in many decades. Let me mention three things. He is about the only one among the first generation of state governors in this Republic [1999-2007] who rose to acquire major national political stature. He is much more influential politically 15 years after he left office, when most of his mates in that circle have since faded into political oblivion.
In the Second Republic, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo reigned as supreme political leader of the Southwest, then Lagos State Governor Lateef Jakande was widely touted as the Baba Kekere, Awo’s potential successor. Just one slip, accepting to be General Abacha’s Minister of Works in 1993, overnight ruined Jakande’s position. Tinubu however rose to become political leader of the Southwest without anointing, pulled up by his own bootstraps. Since 2003, he has committed no political blunder that torpedoed his standing. This adroit political tip-toeing and adept balancing act are sorely needed in the Presidency.
Thirdly, Tinubu used that position to bring the West into a major national political alliance that wrested federal power from a ruling party for the first time in Nigeria’s history. Although he did not reap political benefits commensurate with his contribution, he displayed unparalleled patience with the situation, when most other Nigerian politicians would have used that excuse to change parties as, sorry to say, Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi and Rabi’u Kwankwaso repeatedly did.
In Nigeria, the most perilous power contest, one with the greatest potential to foment trouble, is not between political parties, such as happened in 2015. A presidential power contest between North and South is the most perilous situation in Nigerian politics. Nigeria faces the most danger when the presidential race is between a Northerner and a Southerner, as in 2003, 2011 and 2015. The country is safest when both major candidates are from one region, as in 1999, 2007 and 2019. This year there is an interesting twist. The main Northern candidate has a political party that has most of its support in the South while the main Southern candidate has a political party that has majority of its supporters in the North. That the ruling APC, which controls 14 out of 19 Northern states, managed to retune the psychology of its supporters to support a power transition to the South is a major achievement that should not be overlooked nor discouraged. This was mostly achieved by a coalition of APC governors and has removed inter-regional tension in this contest.
The most oft-repeated arguments against Tinubu’s election are, APC’s record of rule at the national level and his physical state. With respect to the first, we can argue until the cows come home where to place APC rule at various levels on a scale of 1 to 10. Most criticism is directed at the Federal Government but at the state level, no one can say that APC governors are necessarily better or worse than PDP or APGA governors. Nigerians therefore know that individual candidates matter, more than their political parties and predecessors. The fact that your party did well under your predecessor, at federal or state level, is no guarantee that you will also do well, and vice versa. None of the major parties is known for any policy, and Nigerian politicians change parties as often as they change their underwear. Atiku Abubakar for example, changed parties four times since 2006, while Tinubu never changed parties, only transformed his parties. So, which party’s record should we hung on Atiku’s neck?
If people were voting for successors entirely based on the record of their outgoing party colleagues, PDP would never have ruled unbroken in Rivers, Enugu, Abia, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Taraba and Bayelsa states. For example, international financial scandals involving some first-generation state governors did not prevent their parties from winning subsequent governorship elections in their states. At the national level too, a scandal over Third Term did not stop the ruling party from winning two subsequent presidential elections.
In the critical last lap of this election, the most pressing national issue is the tumult occasioned by CBN’s cashless policy. It caused an unusual situation in national politics, with the ruling party’s presidential candidate publicly assailing the policy, APC governors going to Supreme Court to contest it, while PDP and LP presidential candidates have voiced support for it. Some people have misinterpreted Tinubu and APC governors’ stance to be that they are unhappy because they stashed away billions of naira to buy votes.
This is a mischievous reading of the situation. Tinubu and APC governors instead fear that the deep public anger at the cash shortages could affect them and their candidates in the elections. PDP and LP leaders also stand to suffer from the cash crunch, but they are hoping that public anger will cause a backlash against APC, hence their apparent support for it. Doesn’t look like their hopes will be realized after APC governors strategically distanced themselves from Buhari.
A favourite opposition allegation against Tinubu is that he is physically frail and, allegedly, may not be able to withstand the rigours of presidential office. His running mate Kashim Shettima has already said we are voting for a president, not an Olympics sprinter. Tinubu might not be able to outrun Usain Bolt in a race, but then, will you put Usain Bolt in charge at the Villa? Sure, the President’s schedule is tasking, but it is nowhere as punishing as campaigning in 36 states and FCT within a few weeks. Asiwaju has done more of that than any other candidate. At least a president he will have more space, more security, more protocol and more room to delegate responsibility than as candidate.
Nor is this the first time that political opponents in Nigeria allege that their opponents are physically unfit for office. In 1978/79, it was routinely alleged that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was 72, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was 75, were too old for office. On one occasion when Mr. Tunji Braithwaite repeated the charge, Zik answered that he was a young man in the 1930s when Tunji’s uncle, Reverend Braithwaite, was their leader in Nigeria Youth Movement. Zik said if he had asked him to retire due to old age, the Reverend Father would have quoted the Bible, “O ye, generation of vipers!”
Asiwaju however has not made any reference to anyone’s father or uncle in this race. Instead, it was PDP chieftain Dino Melaye who recently hurled abuses at Kashim Shettima’s parents and ancestors at a rally. It was the lowest of all low points in this year’s campaign. And what did Atiku Abubakar do to Dino? “If your campaign MC descends to this gutter level, will you keep quiet?” Are you not afraid that APC men will, as Field Marshal Idi Amin once said, thank you for the hostility and retaliate?
Which brings me to the matter of a president’s circle of aides. A president’s job is hectic, but if he surrounds himself with able advisers and aides, it becomes much less so. Surrounding himself with competent and dependable aides has been Tinubu’s most demonstrable strength as Lagos State Governor and afterwards. By all standards his eight-year rule in Lagos State was a smashing success, hence his rise to national prominence. Right now, he has a very able deputy in Kashim Shettima and a coterie of able aides. It is a quality sorely needed in the Presidency.
Finally, there is the small matter of the options you have as a voter. In an election you may never have a candidate who meets all your wishes. Only these ones waka come? So, you must choose among the options you have. You draw up your own criteria and be guided by it. If you put national peace and stability on top, followed by ability to build geo-political bridges, plus strategic political sense, plus a highly dependable deputy, plus a thoughtful program, plus a history of picking, retaining and nurturing competent aides, in addition to a stellar governorship record, then Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is your choice this weekend. You can’t accuse me of primordial sentiments.