Secrecy as they say, creates confusion and opens up the space for wild speculation and conspiracy theories. Nigerians believe fervently in the adage that nature abhors a vacuum. So the more secretive the government becomes about President Buhari’s health status, the more some Nigerians move in to feel the void with their own theories and speculations.
Traditionally African culture forbids people from engaging in any form of speculation that might implicitly suggest that one is wishing death on anyone, even if the person is terminally ill. Our belief is that only God gives and takes life, and that in His infinite wisdom and mercy, God can choose to restore an apparently terminally ill person to good health while taking the life of another who looks healthy and robust. In essence, though no one really knows how ill the President is (except his doctors and the few who have access to him), many feel restrained by culture and good manners from openly indulging in any form of scenario mapping about the health status of the President. To underline this, some are already announcing that the President will run for re-election in 2019 – a posture I regard as the height of sycophancy. In the same vein, I feel that those clamouring for the President to be declared ‘incapacitated’ so that the Acting President will become the substantive President, are neither doing the country nor Professor Yemi Osinbajo any good. The country is too fragile and too polarized for such a move. As long as there is a sense of continuity in government, such a move will be unnecessary irrespective of how long the President’s treatment abroad lasts. My opinion is that given the sensitivities in our fault lines, it is in everyone’s best interest that God will spare President Buhari’s life and grant him the good health to exhaust his first term in office. We can then take it from there.
But what if President Buhari returns from his medical trip and as a man of principle declares that he has had enough, that he wants to devote his time to his health and family? Several scenarios are possible:
One, if the President returns and says he does not want to continue, he will be fiercely resisted by several forces who will impress it on him, that he is not just holding the office as Muhammadu Buhari but as a representative of various interests – Daura town, Katsina State, the North, Muslims etc. We saw such scenario when some people were pressing Jonathan not to contest in both 2011 and 2015. At that time some elements from the Niger Delta were quick to remind everyone that if Jonathan was unwilling to contest (in 2011 and 2015) another person from the Niger Delta would be found to replace him because it was the ‘turn’ of the Niger Delta. This belief in the ‘politics of our turn’ is so pervasive that it is doubtful if we are going to get any President that will willingly resign from office or be allowed by ‘his people’ to do so. In essence, when the President returns, the expectation is that he will continue in office, however ill he may be and will go ahead to contest for a second term.
Two, if the President returns and continues in office as expected, his age and health status will become legitimate campaign issues – ahead of 2019. More people within his party will be emboldened to mount a challenge against his candidacy. Has he performed well enough to merit a second term? Performance is relative and will depend on where the person stands in the active controversies of the day. Performance is like a self-fulfilling prophecy: whatever you want to see in that report card will be there. What is certain is that even winning the party’s nomination will not be a walkover for the President.
Three, if the President announces that he does not want to continue or will not go for a second term, one of the likely outcomes of such an announcement will be an intensification of the competition among the various contending power centres. Under this scenario, and assuming no one is able to convince the President to change his mind, the ‘cabal’ that is believed to rule on his behalf, will factionalize as the members back different power contenders in anticipation of participating in the next government.
And talking of ‘cabal’ let me mention immediately that what we call a ‘cabal’ obtains in any major organisation. It is essentially a set of elites who are conscious, cohesive and conspiratorial (the three Cs are crucial in their definition) and who wield a disproportionate amount of influence in any organisation though control of access to information and privileges. In fact as far back as 1911, the German sociologist Robert Michels, talked about the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. According to him, all complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they were when they started, will eventually develop oligarchic tendencies. A ‘cabal’ will not be doing its job if it fails to protect what it believes to be the interest of the President in a do-or-die manner.
Four, if the President returns and declares he has had enough, the country’s broad North-South dichotomy will flare up from its hush-hush corner. The manner in which it will be discussed will stoke tensions that could lead to possible re-alignment of political forces.
At issue here will be whether the Vice President Professor Yemi Osinabjo, who is constitutionally empowered to take over, will be allowed to do so, and if so, for how long. It is important to underline that Nigeria’s constitutionalism operates within a political framework – or what our politicians will call ‘realities on the ground’. In Nigeria’s peculiar mode of dispensing privileges, the South is believed to control the economy while the North controls political power as a lever. Neither side is very happy with the other’s assumed monopoly. In fact much of the antipathy in the south towards the North was that throughout the period of military rule, the North dominated the political machine. Now, in the 18 years since the return of civilian rule, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, with the South ruling for 14 years. For some, in the North, it not only means that the North has lost its lever (now restored under the Buhari government) but that the South is dominating them politically when they are supposed to be in the majority. In fact it could be argued that former President Jonathan was never forgiven in some parts of the North for breaching a supposed agreement to just serve out Yaradua’s term (and then allow power to return to the North) but also that he went ahead to contest in 2011 and 2015. It is precisely the resolution of the tension between these contradictory forces that will define the character of the political solution reached.
Five, if Buhari returns and says he will not run or keeps silent about his fate, the Senate President as the Number three person in power hierarchy will become a ‘beautiful bride’ to all the contending power centres. This is because the National Assembly as an institution will have to play a pivotal role in the resolution of any impasse that may be thrown up by the President’s decision. Just as David Mark as Senate President was crucial in the enunciation of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ that formally made Jonathan Acting President, so will Senate President Bukola Saraki be expected to become increasingly influential as uncertainty deepens. The suspense in the thriller will of course be suspicions about Dr Saraki’s own political ambition.
Another person that will also become a ‘beautiful bride’ under this scenario is Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, whose political fortunes dwindled remarkably under the Buhari presidency. This is because whatever political solution is reached under any scenario must have the buy-in of the Yoruba political elites, essentially Bola Tinubu and his political machine.
Meanwhile with uncertainty prevailing in the land, what could be surmised is that various political appointees are trading extremely cautiously, unable to take certain risks as they do not know which direction the political pendulum may swing tomorrow. It is in this sense that it can be argued that even though on the surface the wheels of government seem to be rotating normally, underneath, there are tensions.
Let me mention that we are all better off looking forward rather than backwards, even though the past offers useful lessons. We have seen that every part of this country has its own noise value and our recent history tells us it will be unwise to wait and see if a particular group is capable of holding the country hostage before its needs and fears are addressed. Until now this seemed to be the pattern. But we must repudiate that system and begin to pre-empt troubles.