President Buhari’s declaration of his intention to seek re-election in 2019 comes against the backdrop of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s contentious advice to join octogenarians and leave the field for “younger aspirants”. President Buhari’s boldness and stern conviction presents various permutations as well as stretches the limits of democracy in a fledgling economy. Often, the material necessary to make informed decisions is misunderstood, misinterpreted and sometimes ignored by the electorate. Consequently, the question as to who becomes Nigeria’s president assumes some complexities, and the role of the professional requires more penetrating focus.
It would be recalled that in his characteristically colourful and anecdotal manner, Chief Obasanjo delivered a “balanced scorecard” of sorts, of the Buhari-led administration, in a Special Press Statement released to the media sometime earlier this year. Permit me to draw your attention to a passage in the statement, where the elder statesman remarked: “We have only one choice left to take us out of Egypt, to the Promised Land. And that is the coalition of the concerned and the willing – ready for positive and drastic change, progress and involvement… If leadership fails, citizens must not fail…”
The former President appeared to have eloquently captured the nation’s insight in his analysis of the administration’s efforts at governance these past three odd years. Although it must be admitted that Alhaji Lai Mohamed (Nigeria’s Minister of Information & Culture) equally drew attention to some of the positive economic gains recorded by this administration. As often with reactionary posture or statements however, it carried little or no weight in the face of the ex-President’s volcanic criticisms. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s call for citizens to act in the face of failing leadership is worth introspection by all, particularly professionals and non-career politicians.
Acting, in this context, implies supporting dynamic, and visionary professional leadership outside of the usual political circles, and strategically working to put such leadership into positions of power. To paraphrase a statement credited to one of Nigeria’s greatest political and cultural icons, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, at the turn of Nigeria’s independence: “…a nation cannot go on, when there are competent people around, to have incompetent people in charge”.
The present administration is by no means utterly incompetent, but it has however been exceptionally slow in many respects; yet recording some successes along the way. It has slowly, but doggedly, pulled the nation out of recession. Again, it is not correct that whatever achievements it has recorded are attributable to increase in oil prices. Negotiating a fragile peace in the Niger-Delta, and the slow diversification of a monolithic economy from oil to agriculture, is worth extolling. These accomplishments must however be weighed against the herdsmen crises and general insecurity. Obasanjo’s advice in connection with these crises must be taken seriously.
That said, a reflection on the 2015 general election and its outcome within the context of the present discussion, leaves one with some optimism, even though cautious. The ascendancy of non-career politicians (as we know it in Nigeria) in the person of Buhari (to a lesser extent) and Osinbajo has taught us that political victory is possible against all odds. Both men campaigned on the mantra of change, but more importantly, backed it with their personal integrity. Nigerians threw their weight behind the duo. While many will argue that all the goodwill may have since been frittered away, I sincerely believe it can be regained.
For the first time, non-career politicians are at the helm of governance. To my mind, this sets the stage for other men and women of character, with the benefit of youth; experience and dynamism, to some-day soon, rule this nation. Perhaps not in 2019, but in 2023. I am speaking of a possible presidential candidacy of the likes of Peter Obi, Babatunde Fashola, Kingsley Moghalu, Godwin Obaseki, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and of course Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN. Even better still, a race between two or more of such candidates, would present a most desirable dilemma. Further down the line (eight years thereafter), the emergence of Northern candidates of similar extraction, such as Engineer Suleiman Adamu, the current Minister of Water Resources, is envisaged.
The point being made here is that this present administration has set a platform for professionals with integrity, to get involved and define the pathway of the country.
The operative word here is integrity, however, the perennial challenge has been the modality for the determination of integrity. As I proposed in a speech given at the Rotary Club, all aspirants to public office must have established worthy antecedents, verifiable by non-governmental organizations, such as the Convention on Business Integrity (CBI). Verification may be conducted by way of interviews with schoolmates, colleagues and members of the aspirant’s community. Having said that, there must be some level of intrusion into the person lives of the aspirants seeking public office. Lin Kuan Yew wrote that a man who has succeeded in leading or participating actively in a voluntary organization by mere persuasion and strength of character, invariably performs exceedingly well when backed up by state authority, in the event that he or she assumes public office. He was unapologetic in his intrusive nature in the lives of Singaporeans when he said:
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
CBI and organizations of that nature can perform that verification exercise effortlessly. They have a sophisticated formula of reaching conclusions about character and the behavioral pattern that is likely to emerge once a person is in a position of public trust, drawing from verifiable pedigrees. Regrettably, the Government institutions that should ordinarily perform this role are seriously compromised. In essence, an aspirant’s pedigree and character must be verifiable.
Having declared his intention to contest the 2019 general elections, it is doubtful that there could be any viable opposition to President Buhari’s ticket. First, by the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that seems to hold an otherwise fractious nation together, the Northern region is expected to lay hold to the seat of power for another term, come 2019. Second, no other Northerner, whether within or outside the All Progressives Congress (“APC”), possesses the political clout, to unseat or even seriously rattle President Buhari’s bid for re-election. This is understandable. It took the sitting President thirteen years to build his political base into its current monolithic proportions. It will be a very slim chance indeed to unseat him. This puts the premise of former President Obasanjo’s letter into sharper focus. It was essentially a roundabout plea to the President not to run, simply because it is unlikely that his candidacy can be defeated.
Following the President’s decision to contest the next general election, it would make sense to pick as a running mate, his present Vice, who seems to have won the hearts and minds of many Nigerians. However, there is no guarantee that he would pick Professor Osinbajo SAN as his running mate once again. Nothing is certain in politics. Even though his Vice clearly demonstrated sterling qualities in strategizing and effectively implementing policies of government, he may be perceived as lacking a political base that could assist President Buhari in a keenly contested presidential race. If this happens, I see Professor Osinbajo as simply walking away, and that might be the end of his political career. The alternative, for the VP to challenge his boss, is unimaginable. The Vice-President, being a man of faith, character and loyalty, will never contemplate running against his boss. Insiders maintain that the relationship between both men is as cordial and trusting as can be.
The logical next step for men like Professor Osinbajo, Kingsley Moghalu, and other professionals who would rule this nation, would be to put machinery in motion to contest the 2023 election. It is certainly not in the interest of most politicians to see candidates like these, elected to the office of President. But rather than a clarion call for non-specific political intervention to unseat the current President in 2019, I believe that a more attainable and worthy objective would be to work to ensure that an honourable professional, a non-career politician, is elected to the office of President in 2023. Nation-building is a marathon, not a sprint. In the absence of a strong political base, what are the chances of any professional having a successful outing at the 2019 general elections? Slim to none. Professor Osinbajo, currently the closest professional to the seat of power, has intentionally and systematically insulated himself from the politics of governance, concentrating instead on delivering a service. Any professional seeking at this stage to build the type of political base that can unseat a popular, if controversial, sitting President, this close to a general election, would have a tall order to fill indeed. Even with the support of the political elite (many of whom are themselves desirous of occupying the exalted office), it will be next to impossible to secure victory in the next elections without first being a household name, with massive support across all geo-political zones.
Professionals with some decorum of integrity have mostly, albeit to varying degrees, performed exceptionally well in politics. They have certainly always been miles ahead of the average politician. The likes of Ambrose Alli, Alex Ekwueme, Babatunde Fashola and Donald Duke readily come to mind. What the professionals have however failed to realise when in power is that they have a silent base of likeminded professionals across the country, whom they can mobilize to begin to build political clout, when angling for leverage with politicians and the rest of the electorate. Therefore, rather than joining the bandwagon of criticising the failures of this administration, it is time for professionals to act, and throw their weight behind a candidate who represents the very best of us. As already alluded, a contest between two or more seasoned, respected and dynamic professionals, can only enrich and elevate the level of political engagement, from tribal and emotionally driven politics, to policy-based discourse on a national platform. While I may personally choose to support the professional who has been tested at the highest level, it will really be left to the individual to side with whomever he believes is poised to actualize the policies that will take the country out of the current doldrums, to the next level.
The political elite have since realised that there seems to be no alternative to President Buhari in 2019. It would however be prudent to remedy the charges of nepotism, dereliction of duty in relation to the issue of Fulani herdsmen and the general state of insecurity.
Rather than continue to simply criticize the administration and move on, our strategic role as professionals, must be to support and guide the present administration to achieve the mandate upon which it was originally elected. The support and guidance must be with a caveat; that when the time comes, President Buhari and the Northern elite will support one of our own to the presidency in 2023. It is unrealistic to expect such compromise without professionals offering something in return. That will come in the form of an organised critical mass of professionals (electoral votes) in return for the politicians “gesture.” If we do have the numbers, the partisan politicians will have no choice but to heed our request.
I will end by saying this. Past political leaders in the highest positions of power have used their influence to elevate their cronies and stooges to the most exalted offices in the nation. Such leaders have shown by their actions that behind every seemingly altruistic act, there is an agenda. Only the professional has the opportunity and desire to positively influence partisan politics, for the sake of seeing true change, and without any hidden motive. Four years is not a very long time, and unless we begin to rally support for the 2023 presidential bid of a true professional of character and proven competence, politicians will never support him. We can no longer continue to wait for the politicians to point the way in our national affairs. We must be prepared to speak out and act to ensure that incompetent people are not put in charge, where there are competent people around. The politics of tomorrow starts today.
Eghobamien, a senior advocate of Nigeria, is managing partner at Perchstone & Graeys.