Monday, October 27, 2014

No Country For Young Men

It is difficult to argue that the potential choice of Muhammadu Buhari as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives’ Congress in next year’s polls signifies “progressive change.” A 72 year-old ex-military dictator that seized power in 1983 hardly evokes a sense of forward thinking dynamism. There is something retrograde about seeking the leadership of a septuagenarian in a youthful country where well over half the population is under 40 years.  

It is also unfair to ask eminently qualified politicians currently in their forties and fifties to “wait their turn” in favour of a veteran who had his turn in the early 1980s and who has since had three unsuccessful presidential bids. It is a sordid indication of how the political elite stagnates this country. This is not about ageism. In 1996, U.S. president Bill Clinton was challenged by the septuagenarian Republican, Bob Dole. Much was made of the challenger’s age but Clinton simply said, “I don’t think Bob Dole is too old to be president. It’s the age of his ideas that I question.” Societies rejuvenate themselves with fresh ideas and the idealism of youth.

Whereas Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in 1999, twenty years after handing over to President Shehu Shagari, Buhari is seeking the presidency three decades after his stint as military head of state and is thirty years out of date. That Buhari, who has already had three failed presidential campaigns, evidently cannot perceive a non-aspirational role for himself as an elder statesman and a mentor to a new generation of leaders does him little credit. He fleetingly considered this role when he announced his retirement from politics in 2011 but apparently found it unappealing.

Consider that Nuhu Ribadu spent his national youth service year interning at Dodan Barracks while Buhari was head of state. At the time, Babatunde Fashola was a student at the University of Benin, Rabiu Kwankwaso was already a working class professional and Rotimi Amaechi was a student at the University of Port Harcourt. Adams Oshiomhole was already a frontline labour activist leading the 75, 000-strong textiles and tailoring workers union while Nasir El-Rufai was running his own quantity surveying practice.

It would have been drummed into these men that they were the leaders of tomorrow. Thirty years later, their generation is being enjoined to postpone their aspirations and accommodate Buhari yet again. Indeed, in 2011, the Action Congress literally sabotaged its own presidential candidate, Ribadu, so as to enable an alliance with Buhari. The leaders of tomorrow have become the leaders of next tomorrow. Fashola and company would have to be in their late sixties or seventies before their “turn” finally arrives.

The insinuation is that Nigeria is a gerontocracy and young minds are being inseminated with the pernicious idea that leadership is the preserve of the elderly and that youth, rather than being a time of visionary derring-do, is a period of indentured servitude to living fossils in public life. The result is the permanent infantilization syndrome which sees middle aged men proudly posturing as “boys” or “yoots” and serving as hangers-on, man-Fridays, pimps and court jesters to geriatric power-mongers.

Strangely, Buhari belongs to a generation that did not practise the same fawning veneration of aged predecessors that it now demands from the rest of us. It was Buhari’s generation that forcibly retired the founding nationalist patriarchs from politics by terminating the First and Second Republics. The “labours of our heroes past” commemorated in our national anthem refers to the patriotic exploits wrought by the nationalist generation in their youth. Indeed, the leading anti-colonial political party was appropriately called the Nigerian Youth Movement formed in 1933. Our most epochal acts of political deliverance have been prosecuted by youthful Nigerians whether it is the nationalists that earned our independence or the pro-democracy movement that terminated the military era. Visionaries, not veterans, will propel us to the next stage of our national evolution.      

The not entirely unfair portrait of today’s young Nigerians as politically neutered, demobilized and “deconscientized” hustlers who hire themselves out to vested interests as brigands, laptop-wielding character assassins and mercenary mudslingers is duly noted; but the fruit does not fall far from the tree. The state of the youth is also the result of the deliberate sabotage of the civil society institutions where civic consciousness is nurtured – an act of social subversion for which the military regimes of the 1980s, including Buhari’s, are responsible. 

Considering the generally agreed upon narrative that Nigeria has been done in by past leaders, especially its military dictators, it is difficult to see how Buhari can escape some indictment. But poor leadership is not merely about abuse of office or corrupt enrichment; it is also the inability to resist the siren songs of Messianism and popular idolatry that tempt vulnerable egos into the prideful belief that they alone are infallible and incorruptible enough to wield power. Leadership requires the willingness to pave way for others by embracing obsolescence as part of the natural sociopolitical continuum. Great leaders are willing to become non-essential. In this regard, the cardinal flaw of those that Wole Soyinka famously referred to as “the wasted generation” is not that they failed; it is that they remain stridently committed to reenacting those failures and have refused to go quietly into the night.

Tam David-West has cited Nelson Mandela who became president at 76 and a host of other septuagenarian and octogenarian African leaders including autocrats as proof that Buhari’s age should not be a factor. This is absurd. Buhari is not Mandela and surely these sit-tight gerontocrats are one reason why Africa is embattled. He mentioned Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 78, whose Liberian compatriots are being decimated by the Ebola plague (which Fashola’s leadership was instrumental in curbing in Nigeria), Jacob Zuma, 72, who is presiding over South Africa’s socioeconomic decline and Malawi’s Peter Mutharika, 74, whose country depends on foreign aid for 40 percent of its national budget. In fact, none of the African countries cited by David-West is doing better than Nigeria. He ignored the younger leaders that are running success stories like Ghana, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. It is preposterous to suggest that Nigeria’s leadership pool is as thin as Liberia’s or Malawi’s. The notion that in 2014, Nigeria’s only hope is a man who ruled the country thirty years ago is galling.

On April 30, 2006, Thisday published a cover feature titled, “Beyond Obasanjo, Atiku, IBB [and] Buhari: 60 Nigerians that can take the Presidency in 2007.” Goodluck Jonathan was not even on that list although Umar Musa Yar’Adua was on it as were El-Rufai and Oshiomhole. If El Rufai and Oshiomhole were deemed worthy of national leadership eight years ago, why are they not today? If such a feature was published now, there would be even more entrants on that list. This country has options for smart leadership. We need not denigrate ourselves through a lack of political imagination or courage. In that Thisday piece, Segun Adeniyi observed that “the kind of reasoning that ties the fate of the nation to one man is self-serving, shortsighted and insults the sensibilities of most Nigerians.” He was referring to Obasanjo but the same words could be applied justifiably to Buhari’s presidential bid. 

The cause of progressive change is best served by Buhari endorsing a younger candidate thereby placing his followership at the disposal of someone more nationally acceptable. Buhari’s now much celebrated 12 million-vote haul from 2011 and his street level popularity make him a force. But since his followership is largely restricted to the far north by a mixture of prejudicial perceptions, opponents’ smear campaigns, the genuine grievances of those who suffered during his draconian military reign and his own serial PR blunders, he is effectively only a regional force. Endorsing a younger candidate would enable the APC field a challenger with Buhari’s following but none of his baggage.

If the APC was truly trying to make a real statement of “progressive change” with its presidential ticket, it would look no further than its capable cast of governors such as Fashola, Kwankwaso and Oshiomhole (and to stalwarts like El-Rufai) and make a strong argument for competence in our public life. Fashola has run arguably Nigeria’s most complex state and the jewel in the APC’s crown creditably as Kwankwaso has done in Kano, another challenging locale. Any of these gentlemen would enter the presidential race with far more gubernatorial and administrative accomplishments than Jonathan did in 2011. Cynics may contend that these hypothetical candidacies are more daydream than dream team. But it is the very paradigms that make their presidential bids seem quixotic that have to be discarded to enable national progress.

(Images sourced in order of appearance from,, and 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Opposition's Dilemma

The APC confronts a significant dilemma as it weighs its options and nominates its presidential flag-bearer for next year’s polls. Thus far, the primaries look to be a three horse-race between Muhammadu Buhari, Atiku Abubakar and Rabiu Kwankwaso. These three contenders bring formidable strengths as well as weaknesses to the table.

Buhari commands the allegiance of the northern street and the fanatical adulation of millions who see him as the only one courageous and incorruptible enough to slay the dragon of official graft. A septuagenarian and a former Head of State, Buhari is experienced and also enjoys the peculiar benefit of having a public record that has been burnished by the passage of time. A significant percentage of the electorate were either too young or had not even been born when he was a military ruler. This “demographic dividend”, in addition to a national amnesia about our collective history, has aided his remarkable transformation from dictator to democrat.

Atiku Abubakar is a former Vice President, an experienced and thoroughbred politician with a formidable national political machine oiled by his savvy for wheeling and dealing and his immense wealth. Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso comes to the table with youth on his side, and more importantly, a very impressive stint as governor of Kano, one of Nigeria’s complex and most volatile states. Kwankwaso has shown himself to be both an adept administrator and an adroit politician – a very useful combination in a clime in which governance and politics exist in an uneasy tension.

In an ideal world, the APC would blend Buhari’s popularity, Atiku’s political savvy and machine with Kwankwaso’s progressive energy and drive to create its perfect flag-bearer. It is precisely because it cannot do this that it must reconcile the weaknesses and strengths of these contenders and ensure that its primaries are not so fractious that they fatally damage whoever emerges as the winner.

At 72, this is clearly Buhari’s swan song in elective politics after three previous unsuccessful presidential bids. Elements within the APC leadership favour him because his haul of 12 million votes in the 2011 polls make him a bankable vote magnet particularly in the far north. But there are two problems here. Buhari, for all his popularity in the north, has found it difficult to become a national brand. The manual for defeating him was written in 2003 when President Olusegun Obasanjo’s campaign successfully tarred him as a religious extremist and ethnic bigot. It was slanderous nonsense but the charge has proven potent in our polarized times not least because of Buhari’s occasional flair for untimely verbal own goals and self-subverting soundbytes. It did not help matters that in 2003 and 2007, his party, the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party campaigned as an “Islamic” party in the North.

Secondly, Buhari has never actually won an open and fair presidential primary contest. In 2003 and 2007, he was virtually muscled in as a consensus candidate by ANPP apparatchiks which alienated influential party operatives on both occasions. In 2011, the Congress for Progressive Change which was practically set up as a vehicle for his presidential ambition floundered because it was manifestly a personality cult and lacked the organizational acumen as well as the fiscal and human resources to mount an effective national campaign.

Primary contests are not about popularity. Rather, they test a candidate’s ability to rally party delegates. Buhari disdains the sort of wheeling and dealing that characterizes a nomination process. He perceives himself as being above politics and is frequently condescending to politicians. Thus, he has never been able to win over the political operatives that can secure party tickets in an open contest and has instead typically relied on the anointment of party elders. The fact that his military regime jailed many Second Republic politicians has fuelled a residual elite suspicion of his agenda. The APC’s adoption of a modified direct system for its primaries will allow 300, 000 delegates to participate and this widening of the pool could enable Buhari be more competitive than he might ordinarily have been.

Atiku, on the other hand, is an adept veteran of primary contests since 1993 and is endowed with the sort of personal and political diplomacy that sways delegates. His accessibility is in contrast to Buhari’s aloofness. Kwankwaso also has keen political instincts in this terrain. Both Atiku and Kwankwaso would be far more comfortable in this arena than Buhari but neither of them possesses Buhari’s name recognition or that bankable fund of fanatical devotion that would be crucial in the general election.

It is quite the conundrum. Buhari may be a fairly competitive brand for national elections but lacks the transactional skills for primary contests. Atiku and Kwankwaso have what it takes to fare well in the primaries but do not have Buhari’s following which would be crucial for the national polls. Atiku lacks Buhari’s reputation for incorruptibility and Kwankwaso, despite his impressive work in Kano, must work hard to stamp himself in the national consciousness. In truth, none of these candidates is certain to defeat the incumbent president next year.  

Buhari’s partisans will argue that the party leadership ought to do all it can to ensure Buhari clinches the ticket since he can pull in the numbers. But Atiku and Kwankwaso could counter that the ability to sway delegates in the primaries is not to be scoffed at. It is, after all, a predictor of the ability to mobilize the ground troops for the general elections. They will also point at the rather limited geography of Buhari’s appeal. Having 12 million votes is of no consequence if they are sequestered almost entirely in one region. They will observe that Buhari, despite his adoring legions, has lost thrice to three different ruling party candidates in a decade, and quite rightly suggest that a persistent defect in his brand, whether perceptual or actual, makes him nationally unelectable.

Certain actors within the APC would prefer a “bloodless” non-acrimonious primary process in which Atiku and Kwankwaso step down for Buhari. This is unlikely and Kwankwaso has already reportedly rebuffed overtures to concede the ticket to Buhari. This is fair. The APC needs an open primary contest if it is to avoid self-destructive internecine recrimination afterwards and its leadership will have to avoid the temptation to stage a victory for a favoured contender. From all indications, the primaries will be keenly contested. What happens next will be interesting. 

  Images sourced from  (in order of appearance)   

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Lynching of Nuhu Ribadu

Nuhu Ribadu’s defection from the All Progressive Congress to the ruling People’s Democratic Party has been greeted with savage personal attacks that have condemned him as a perfidious and opportunistic turncoat. By joining the PDP, the former anti-corruption czar is said to have betrayed his principles. Ribadu, it appears, is being held to a very rigorous standard of consistency – one that could only possibly be met by a political clairvoyant.

The absurdity and unfairness of the moral standard being applied to Ribadu become apparent when applied to the broader political landscape. Take Muhammadu Buhari who is widely lionized by his supporters as an incorruptible paragon. In 1998, he had told the BBC that he believed politics was “full of fraudulent acts.” “I cannot join people who will go and loot the treasury,” he insisted, “I have no plans to participate in politics” (Tell, March 16, 1998). In October 2000, Buhari stridently denied any interest in politics saying, “I have no desire to take part in partisan politics.” He was adamant that he would “not take part in partisan politics” despite being approached to do so (The Guardian, October 6, 2000). Within a few years, Buhari was seeking the grandest prize in Nigerian politics.

After his failed 2007 presidential bid, Buhari told the BBC, “I have been deceived by politicians, by the people who drafted me into politics. I have discovered that the people who drafted me into politics were not sincere after all; they only wanted to use me to get appointments or for their personal aggrandizement and not to serve the nation or the masses” (The News, September 24, 2007). Buhari was referring to, among other people, the All Nigeria People’s Party chairman Edwin Ume-Ezeoke and the then Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau.

Should we not denounce Buhari for lacking discernment and for being serially deceived by corrupt politicians or for being unprincipled enough to team up with the same politicians he had vilified for being rogues? Is he not an inconsistent hypocrite for allying with Shekarau once again in the APC? No doubt, his supporters would prefer to see this as evidence of his forgiving spirit. No matter. After losing the 2011 polls, Buhari called time on his political career stating that there would be no more presidential bids. But yet again, he reneged on this promise. By the measure with which Ribadu has been judged, Buhari would have to be condemned as a congenital liar; a typical politician who cannot keep his word and is therefore no different from the much maligned Goodluck Jonathan who pledged to govern for only one term but has since reviewed his stance.

By the rigorous standards of political morality applied to Ribadu, it would be impossible for the APC itself (or indeed any of our political parties) to have come into existence. It would be unethical for veterans of the 1990 pro-democracy movement like Bola Tinubu and Kayode Fayemi to countenance making common cause with Tom Ikimi, who served as General Sani Abacha’s foreign minister, and Buhari who also served in that junta and persistently claims that Abacha was not the thieving despot that he undeniably was.

In late 2009, Ume-Ezeoke paid a solidarity visit to Shekarau, then governor of Kano State and lauded him for resolutely refusing to jump ship like other ANPP governors that had defected to the PDP – a strange remark since Ume-Ezeoke himself had championed his party’s alliance with the PDP in a so-called government of national unity two years earlier. Shekarau replied that Nigerians were in dire need of redemption from what he derisively called the “property development party” – a party which he said was suffering from a “cancerous ego and political jaundice” (The News, December 7, 2009).  Shekarau is now a PDP chieftain.

The APC chieftain, Nasir El-Rufai, who came to fame while serving in a PDP government, evinces little discomfort at being in the same party with Atiku Abubakar, the former vice-president whom he criticized for corruption in his memoirs. Abubakar’s trajectory in the last seven years has seen him migrate from the PDP to the Action Congress back to the PDP and now to the APC.

It is still unclear why PDP’s poaching of Jimi Agbaje or Ribadu provokes diatribes against these gentlemen while the APC’s recruitment of PDP stalwarts like Rabiu Kwankwaso, Rotimi Amaechi and Bukola Saraki is hailed as a victory for progressives. What exactly makes Ali Modu Sherriff or the catastrophically inept Murtala Nyako progressive? We may now await the defection to the APC of Aminu Tambuwal, a leader of one of the most avaricious legislatures in parliamentary history and his consequent baptism as a “progressive.”  It is worth noting that some of the elements now castigating Ribadu were involved in the ACN’s betrayal of his presidential candidacy in 2011 in favour enabling the PDP’s victory in the southwest.   

In October 2010, El-Rufai issued a scathing public statement asserting that Buhari “remained perpetually unelectable” and that his “insensitivity to Nigeria’s diversity and his parochial focus” are already well known. He cited the draconian record of Buhari’s military regime as proof of “the essence of his intolerance” and rubbished Buhari’s presidential aspirations saying that it was now “time for a new generation of leaders with new thinking and wholesome democratic attitudes to move our nation forward.” Buhari’s ill-tempered reaction to his suggestion that he abandon his presidential quest was “proof enough that a Buhari, the new Democrat, tolerant of views different from his own, is yet to evolve” but it would “take more than attacks on personalities to become electable. Having seen his version of discipline, Nigerians are not likely to cherish an encore.”(  

El-Rufai’s acidic comments on Buhari’s electability would later be seized upon by Jonathan’s campaign team. In his memoirs, The Accidental Public Servant, published in 2013, El-Rufai (now a Buhari ally) lamented that his comments on the former head of state were still being brought up incessantly “as if I could not change my views based on new facts, information or emerging circumstances” (p.450). Herein lies the central lesson. Politicians change their views all the time based on “new facts, information or emerging circumstances.” Like Ribadu, Buhari, El-Rufai, Atiku and any political personage we care to name have at various times exercised the prerogative of changing their own minds.

It remains only for voters to decide whether or not these changes in perspective constitute such egregious reversals that they permanently place the politicians in question in terminal disrepute. In making this judgment, it is important that we do not hold politicians to a standard higher than that to which we are willing to subject ourselves. Nor should we confuse prideful inflexibility and our delusions of infallibility for a noble fidelity to principle. Being flexible enough to learn, adapt, and change one’s ways is, after all, also a principle, and a worthy one at that.

It would take people who have never changed their views and never will; people who are either incapable of learning or unwilling to do so, to insist on the exacting standards of consistency with which Ribadu is being bludgeoned. Inflexibility and infallibility are dangerous.

Of course, utterances matter and public figures should be called out on their perceived inconsistencies as a means of keeping them honest. Here, for example, is a scorcher from that erstwhile scourge of corrupt and inept power-brokers, Reuben Abati in The Guardian of October 2, 2005: “Even when a Nigerian leader is openly stupid, a Nigerian in search of his or her own share of the national cake, and who has been invited to come and eat, cannot summon the courage to tell him so. The unfortunate thing is that the people who manage to get to the corridors of power are ever so grateful that they dare not speak the truth.” As self-indicting, self-fulfilling prophecies go, this statement is probably unparalleled.          

Given the melodrama surrounding Ribadu’s defection, it is perhaps necessary to seek electoral reforms that would allow independent candidacies. Letting individuals run on their personal antecedents rather than on nebulous party platforms may give us more clarity in judging their worthiness for public office. It will also save us the histrionics that accompanies these defections. In the meantime, we should weigh the choices before us and vote for good governance regardless of what party label it comes under.

Political nomadism is to be expected in an environment where ideological distinctions are still ill-defined and where self-interest, patriotism, idealism and Faustian pragmatism must necessarily co-exist.  We must also grasp the distinction between political expediency and administrative acumen. The fact that Kwankwaso and Amaechi were once in the PDP does not detract from their administrative accomplishments. Similarly, in or out of the APC, Ribadu remains a superior alternative to Nyako.  

Our addiction to cartoonish heroes and villains warps our electoral choices. Democratic politics is not about canonizing saints. At worst, it is a calculus of greater and lesser evils. At best, it offers a choice between competence and incompetence. The important thing is to choose, on balance, the best man or woman for the job.

(All images sourced online)