By Louis Odion
To frame the epic coronation at the Eagle Square Tuesday night casually as Jagaban’s triumph is to omit one significant detail: a major detour in the movement of the forces of Nigeria’s history.
As 2,322 enervated party delegates began to disperse from the Abuja coliseum strewn with the shards of broken aspirations and the cadavers of decapitated dreams Wednesday afternoon, the one whose ramrod shadow would appear to loom larger over the nation’s political space is no other than President Muhammadu Buhari.
By one supreme act of statesmanship at a very tempting moment, it can now be said that the lanky infantry general from Daura has indeed earned a durable perch in Nigeria’s political history. Added to this historic spectacle is the novelty of a contender, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who chose to live out the true meaning of Ernest Hemingway’s words: to be defeated and not surrender is the ultimate victory.
The factor of tribe is, of course, never to be downplayed in succession rites. The truly discerning would not have missed the rather hideous rendition of this in the build-up to the the contest for the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential ticket, particularly in the last three months.
Not a few became genuinely apprehensive when PMB’s name was being dropped repeatedly in the “anointed candidate” gambit in what had clearly become the last-ditch effort by a powerful syndicate to impose their will, however offensive to the nation’s delicate ethno-religious sensibilities.
Their message was in the name of tribe, packaged to seduce and mobilise a region against the rest. The incidence of Atiku Abubakar emerging the flag-bearer of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ahead of the 2023 presidential election somehow became a perfect excuse to invoke base sentiments. With that spin, they thought they were making the task easier for Buhari, taking his allegiance for granted if only in the spirit of shared kinship.
Like true buccaneers, they continued to draw immeasurable oxygen from PMB’s accustomed taciturnity despite series of setbacks down the road. The “Mefy” racket had become a mess. The Goodluck Jonathan kite would not fly.
But it took the Monday declaration of National Chairman Abdullahi Adamu seeking to foist a “consensus candidate” amid flared adrenaline across the land for the proverbial masquerade to finally get stripped bare. In a display of honour and character uncommon in Nigeria’s history, Buhari unequivocally denounced the self-appointed tribe stimulated by a carnal desire to keep power in the north at all costs.
Earlier, in seething anger, they tried to throw the Chairman of the Presidential Screening Committee, John Odigie-Oyegun under the bus after telling an uncomfortable truth. While submitting his report as chairman of the screening committee for the 23 candidates, the octogenarian did the honorable thing expected of his hoary hair — candour. Ten had been found unworthy. He honestly reported that they had sensed anxiety and saw the disturbing shadow of north-versus-south while chatting with the motley crowd that came for screening. He thus advised the national leadership of the party to be mindful of that sensitivity while taking final decision.
That apparently annoyed Adamu, ironically a beneficiary of re-zoning of national chairmanship from the south to the north recently. He would thereafter tell a bewildered nation that all the 23 were “re-qualified”. By fiat! It meant that Odigie-Oyegun and others had laboured in vain!
So, on the eve of the final hour, the seductive trap was to lure PMB with the maiden of contrived “consensus candidate”. Had Buhari fallen for the temptation of the flesh, they probably would then proceed to consecrate him as the eternal patron saint of the tribe. But Buhari chose to be patriarch of the Nigerian nation. He realised the imperative of power shift to the South as a mark of honor, having benefitted from the same covenant in 2015.
In taking this noble step, Buhari probably also drew inspiration from the worthy example of Jonathan in 2015 in admitting defeat even before results were officially announced despite pressures from agitated disciples who seemed more frightened by the fear of losing unearned privileges than any concern for the continued survival of Nigeria. With that singular act, Jonathan tranquilised a tensed nation into peace so dramatically, to the shame of foreign doomsayers who didn’t see Nigeria existing beyond 2015 on account of disputed ballots. Such reciprocity of the acts of good faith across divides by succeeding leaders, it must be realised, is required in nation-building.
Just like Jonathan’s opportunistic disciples of 2015, today’s myopic tribesmen are obsessed with the anticipated spoils from the next polls; but Buhari has his eyes on the burden their descendants would likely bear in future. The President’s own kinsman from Katsina, Senator Ibrahim Abu put it most sagaciously: “If a Fulani man benefitted from a gentleman’s agreement in 2015 for power to shift to the north and some people in the north are now saying no more zoning in order to keep power in north, how do you think anyone will ever trust Fulani again in Nigeria”
So, PMB put his foot down by disowning Adamu’s political equivalent of “test-tube baby”. Being men of easy virtue, they misread the essential Buhari. Having befriended past autocrats or flirted with any government in power all their lives in pursuit of bread and butter, they were incapable of appreciating the huge price Buhari had paid in history to be fondly called the Mai Gaskiya (the Truthful One) by the ordinary folks across Arewaland. It is a good name earned from contentment, honour, fidelity to certain principles and a gene to stay loyal to true friends.
By time the body of 13 northern APC governors added their weighty voice through a disclaimer against the retention of power in the north after PMB, there was no more hiding space for the tribesmen. They were completely isolated. It turned out that the man they desperately wanted to impose as “consensus candidate” on the nation in the name of the tribe was not worth more than miserable 152 votes! Meanwhile, a colossal scheme of chicanery had already been activated across the media space, coordinated by a coterie of hyperactive political contractors.
With this gesture, Buhari has also scored a moral victory for APC by projecting it as a party sensitive to the sensibilities of all ethnic stakeholders. Unlike the PDP where sheer lust for power led Atiku, the “candidate of habit” (apologies Dr Tunji Dare), to orchestrate the jettisoning the idea of zoning to prepare the ground for his procurement of the party’s presidential ticket for the second time through dollars bazaar, in clear contempt of the people of southern states which yet constitute the majority in the party.
Truth be told, the Igbo should lay greater claim to the presidency in PDP to which they had maintained Catholic fidelity since creation. Most voted PDP in 2015 and 2019. But with the dollar rain at two consecutive primaries, Atiku has continued to hijack Igbo’s political birthright, inflicting on them the indignity of being sentenced to the status of perpetual “running-mate”.
Even more remarkable is the uncommon neutrality Buhari displayed in the process leading to the emergence of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as flag-bearer. It is a masterclass in moral leadership. If he truly had any favorite, there is no proof such individual was given an unfair advantage in the two-day exercise. Rather, he encouraged everyone to buy forms and even indulged some ministers who seemed to have originally set out to play “lotto” on the assumption that they could vie for the ticket while keeping their offices. Even after organising an elaborate “send-forth” for all formally, those who had a rethink, obviously now persuaded that “a bird in hand is better than a thousand in the forest”, were still warmly welcomed back to the cabinet.
This is in sharp contrast to the model of power transition we witnessed under Olusegun Obasanjo when the sanctity of the Presidency was wilfully immersed in the squalor of electoral sleaze. From his atrocity of attempted third term (and potentially life presidency), Obasanjo freely abused his office by not only deploying state institutions like the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) to hound dissents within PDP into accepting his stooges, but went the infernal distance of getting INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) to declare results so outlandish in fakery, so scandalous in scale that the supposed beneficiary, Umar Y’ardua could not but express public shame and sought atonement by proceeding to institute electoral reforms.
Perhaps, the supreme irony is best captured in a viral tweet by Festus Keyamo, SAN on Wednesday: “OBJ are you watching? The kind of leadership OBJ failed to give @OfficialPDPNig in 2007 is what PMB just provided for the world to see: complete transparent process to pick a possible succesor; no IMPOSITION, NO INTERFERENCE; who’s the democrat now? Congratulations @officialBAT.”
Overall, while it must be conceded that it remains the prerogative of future historians to attempt a valid portraiture of Buhari with the benefit of full facts, the point that must never be lost is that the General is introverted and trusting of those he permits into his orbit. It is clear many have abused that privilege by either trading with his name in dark places or flaunting same as license for evil. As a leader, he is left to bear the burden vicariously.
Odion, a Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, is Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President (Office of the Vice President).