When Nigerians talk about ‘2019’, we know they are referring to an event they believe will likely define that year – the holding of a presidential election. Several years ago there were also talks of ‘2015’. The year came and birthed the Buhari government.
Though ‘2019’ has been overshadowing events for the greater part of this year, we can credit Aisha Alhassan ( alias ‘Mama Taraba’), for bringing into public glare what had otherwise been hush-hush conversations, plotting, scheming and alliance formations towards ‘2019’. The jury is of course still out on whether openly declaring her loyalty to Atiku Abubakar for the presidency in 2019 (even if Buhari is running) is an act of integrity and loyalty to the former Vice President or just a move to ingratiate herself to the Turaki Adamawa. The jury is also still out on whether her open declaration of support for the former Vice President – if he chooses to run for the presidency in 2019 (as many suspect he will do) – will hurt or boost Atiku’s aspirations. The issue here is whether such an open declaration (when ‘2019’ is still some two years away) will coalesce and strengthen the forces opposed to Atiku’s aspirations or whether such an early whistle will draw more allies to his side.
What is clear is that the race for ‘2019’ is no longer a hush-hush affair. It has started in all earnest. But which issues will drive the election?
Buhari: The crucial question here is whether Buhari will seek a second term or not. Though Aisha Alhassan claimed that Buhari promised not to seek a second term, no one can hold politicians onto such promises. After all Buhari, respected by his supporters for his “integrity”, once vowed he would never run for the presidency again after his unsuccessful bid for the office in 2011. He was apparently ‘persuaded’ to once again present himself in 2015. He became lucky the fourth time.
It is unheard of for African leaders to turn down the chance of a second term. In fact the common trend these days is that ‘constitutional coup making’ (where elected leaders change the constitutions of their countries in order to ‘elongate’ their tenures beyond the constitutionally allowed term limits) has replaced military coup making. To the best of my knowledge, no African leader has ever turned down the opportunity of exercising his/her right to a second term tenure – even if such a leader is gravely ill. Therefore if Buhari turns down his right to seek for a second term, he will be making an African history. But will he?
While some will question whether the President is healthy enough to run a complex country like Nigeria (given the number of days he has been away for medical vacation in the past two years), his supporters, especially beneficiaries from his government and those who hope to ride on his coat-tail to power and other privileges are likely to ‘persuade’ him that there is no substitute for him and that without him the country might implode. The angles of persuasion are usually predictable.
If Buhari chooses to run, there will be the question of whether he can still command the sort of loyalty and support he did in the North in his four runs for the presidency from 2003 to 2015 when he consistently polled some 12 million votes. If that level of support is still there, then it will be an uphill task for his challengers – unless they can come up with a new coalition system that will literally deny him of substantial support in the South and the Middle Belt or ensure that the bloc votes from his strong bases in the North-east and North-west are significantly split.
Atiku: Alhaji Atiku Abubakar has demonstrated an unbelievable staying power in Nigeria’s presidential politics since 1993 when he contested for the defunct SDP’s presidential ticket against MKO Abiola. Very urbane and cosmopolitan, Atiku rivals Obasanjo and IBB in the sheer number of networks he has across the country. With a general consensus that the country has never been as polarized as it is today since the end of the Civil War, some are rooting for Atiku as the person likely to use his networking skills to reconcile and unite a fractious country. He is also one of the few mainstream presidential aspirants that are successful as entrepreneurs.
But Atiku faces some hurdles: his wealth is both an enabler and an albatross for him. Having risen to the post of Deputy Director in the Custom (a parastatal regarded as a bastion of sleaze by many Nigerians), his critics are eager to tie him to the dictum by Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist who famously said that “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” Obasanjo was to further use all state machinery to frame him as corrupt during his ‘roforofo’ fight with the former Vice President. Atiku’s supporters however point out that the former Vice President has never been convicted of corruption anywhere in the world, and that those who link great fortune with corruption are lazy or jealous people who know nothing about wealth creation.
Atiku also has the hurdle of dealing with the ‘talakawas’ in the North-east and North-west. As a self-made man who was not born into royalty or ‘respectable’ family, Atiku faces the problem faced by most self-made successful people in feudal and semi-feudal societies where your family ties sometimes confer more respect than your effort. Obasanjo has had similar challenges in Yorubaland. The elites and ‘well-born’ of such societies often find ways to undermine such ‘gatecrashers’ and ‘pretenders to success’. Can Atiku be able to mobilize the North behind him – especially if the likes of Buhari are running against him?
Atiku’s embrace of ‘restructuring’ has increased his appeal in the South and Middle-Belt parts of the country. However, with the North consistently opposed to restructuring, will the gains from the South and Middle Belt areas offset any loss in the North by those who will regard him as a sell-out?
There is also the challenge of whether Atiku can get the tickets of either of the two major parties. At the moment only the PDP and the APC have sufficient structures across the country to win the presidency. It is likely to be more difficult for Atiku to get the APC ticket – even if Buhari is not running – as Buhari’s loyalists are likely to go the extra mile to ensure he does not get the party’s ticket. Though the PDP has openly stated that it is courting the former Vice President to be its presidential flag bearer, politicians are not exactly people who regard their words as their bonds. It is possible the PDP is just looking for a financier and dangling impressive political offices to as many as it can. Of course as a veteran in the game, Atiku should know this.
IPOB and other secessionist threats
The challenge posed by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) will be of special concern, especially to the people of the former Eastern region. Nnamdi Kanu’s mode of agitation is as much a challenge to Igbo politicians as it is to the country. People long for the lowering of the current political tension. Many Igbos believe the Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon is a creation of the Buhari government and that it is sustained by the neglect or aggravation of the local grievances on which Nnamdi Kanu and his supporters feed. Who will Nigerians trust most to be a reconciler?
‘Restructuring’: The demand for the restructuring of the country will grow louder among many people from the Southern and Middle Belt parts of the country – ahead of the 2019 election. Though there are no harmonized views on restructuring by its agitators, it is doubtful if the ruling APC government can ignore such calls without serious electoral consequences. APC responded late to the clamour and even when it did, it do so very clumsily by choosing Governor El Rufai of Kaduna who had taken a public position against restructuring to head its purported committee on restructuring. Restructuring – a mere buzzword as I argued elsewhere – has acquired the status of ‘gospel truth’ among many people from the South and the Middle Belt. Restructuring will be a unifying theme among all the Southern and Middle Belt factions of the Nigerian elite –ahead of 2019.
The Economy, Boko Haram and others
When it comes to Buhari’s performance on the economy, Boko Haram and other issues such as fighting corruption, we enter into the realms of relativity, subjectivity and self-fulfilling prophecies. Depending on where one stands on the political divide, there will be plenty of evidence to show that either Buhari has performed wonderfully well or has failed dismally. Like in most elections in Africa, emotions rather than substantial issues will drive and determine the outcome of 2019.