The Congress for Progressive Change is something of a populist movement with its presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, as the symbolic vessel of northern underclass angst and radical discontent. Much of this fury is not directed at President Goodluck Jonathan personally but at a national confederacy involving northern elites that has left the north impoverished. The ferocious support for the CPC in the ghettos and slums of the north is therefore a protest movement against a generation of northern oligarchs which has gained influence and affluence while misery and privation have proliferated in the region. Jonathan’s emergence is only a convenient trigger for the rage of the talakawa.
Buhari’s limitations as a politician, ideologue and communicator prevented him from framing the inarticulate groans of the talakawa in a broader grammar of national liberation politics as Aminu Kano, Sa’ad Zungur, Bala Usman, Balarabe Musa and others did before him. These were the luminaries of a northern progressive tradition that has roots in socialism and in the egalitarian preachments of Uthman Dan Fodio. This tradition has been remorselessly assailed to the point of near extinction by the conservative oligarchs. In the absence of progressive voices calling for social justice in the north, groups like the anarchist Islamist sect Boko Haram have emerged.
Where opportunities for social progress are denied, agencies of regress evolve. If the talakawa are denied opportunities to prosper in the 21st century, they are seduced by merchants of chaos preaching the merits of a 7th century Islamic utopia. If the present and the future hold no hope for the seething millions of uneducated and unskilled young males in the slums of the north, then a mythical past becomes more appealing. This is the secret of the allure of fundamentalists who preach a return to an idyllic pre-modern paradise – a return to statelessness since the state is deemed to have failed.
Buhari’s and the CPC’s failings left the party desperately unable to transcend its limiting definition as the party of glass-eyed mobs in the northern suburbs. With proper organization, the CPC may have been able to harness the rage coursing through northern slums to build a constructive opposition to the status quo. Instead, the party will now be terminally defined by the scenes of its supporters burning, killing and maiming, fulfilling the resilient stereotype of ‘the angry northern Muslim mob’ that scares so many Nigerians. Without critical orientation, the party has been reduced to the most primal manifestation of political violence – that rooted in religious differences. This is a pity but perhaps it was to be expected of a party that was apparently solely set up to facilitate Buhari’s pursuit of the presidency.
To be fair, Buhari is no religious extremist but he is uncharismatic, serious, and hopelessly oblivious to how he is perceived by many Nigerians. His record of addressing sectarian violence has been atrocious for one who aspires to national leadership. He seemed happy to milk his popularity with the talakawa, not worrying that their evident ownership of his candidacy was casting him as a sectional champion. He did little to counter his brand as a “defender of the faithful” even though a candidacy charged with such religious meaning is incompatible with the egalitarian settings of democratic contest, and particularly dangerous given our history of divisive politics.
Religion makes absolutist claims about the will of God. Democratic politics is about the supremacy of the popular will. Both claims cannot mix without perilous consequences. As we have seen, when a messiah is defeated at the polls, his disciples interpret it as apostasy and launch a violent inquisition to root out the infidels. This is the meaning of the post-election meltdown in northern suburbs which saw CPC supporters attack homes of Christians who were simply assumed to be PDP supporters and also attack Muslims who voted for the PDP.
It is difficult to believe that the ecstatic mobs at CPC rallies failed to intimate Buhari of the possibility of violent protest by his supporters in the event of his defeat. It was an outcome that could have been avoided or at least minimized. Buhari and his party must accept some culpability. He and the CPC dissociated themselves from the mayhem but it was too little, too late. True, we cannot blame all the violence on the CPC but the tenor of Buhari’s campaign in the north was like a spark to dry tinder. He, of course, has the right to feel disappointed by his electoral fortunes. But his refusal to concede defeat and his decision to challenge the poll results has cemented a reputation for gracelessness unbecoming of a democrat.
Since the days of Ahmadu Bello, northern politics has been a continuing search for a moral champion – a political quest for the twelfth Imam. Even Aminu Kano often framed his progressive socialist preachments in the syntax of Islamic liberation theology. Yet over the decades as Northern Nigeria has reeled from sectarian wars, the place of religion in public life has become contentious. In appropriating the rapturous ecstasies of the northern underclass, Buhari succumbed to the temptation to be a spiritual talisman and undercut his claims to national leadership. This was partly strategic. Financially outmuscled by its rivals, the PDP and the Action Congress, the CPC sought to compensate by whipping its northern base into a populist frenzy. Maigaskiya, (person of truth) the honorific bestowed upon him by this constituency, reflected the esteem in which they held him. Their love was insufficient to fetch him the presidency.
The main lesson of Nigerian politics, which opposition parties have repeatedly failed to learn, is that no party clinches the presidency by appealing solely or mostly to its provincial base. In fact, it is possible for a candidate to win without his home zone as Obasanjo proved in 1999. The victorious candidate is the one who can go beyond his homestead and build broad national coalitions. This is historically what the establishment parties – the Northern People’s Congress, the National Party of Nigeria and now the Peoples Democratic Party – have been good at doing. It is why Shagari fairly defeated Awolowo in 1979 and why Abiola defeated Bashir Tofa in 1993. (In fact, in 1979, Shagari won more votes in Rivers and Benue than in his native Sokoto) It is why Buhari has been losing since 2003. In contrast, the failed merger of the CPC and the AC illustrates the handicap of the opposition. The fact that CPC voters in the south have held their peace, while those in the north went on rampage shows the geographical location of the party’s soul. Buhari’s popularity in sections of the north, while unquestionable, was an insufficient basis for a national victory, especially given his reputational, financial and organizational deficits. Nigeria is a far more complex proposition than the fallacious “Christian south-Muslim North” formulation customarily used to explain our politics.
In a bid to pacify the ‘north,’ President Jonathan may try to forge a consensus with the discredited old guard oligarchs. Ironically, these elites despise the puritanical and uncompromising Buhari, and would sooner negotiate with Jonathan so long as business continues as usual. Should Jonathan pursue this course, he risks being identified more closely with the problematic personalities of the north and reaping even more of the ire of the underclass. Instead Jonathan is better off cultivating a new generation of northern progressives to implement the rescue of the region from poverty. Jonathan’s emergence has sealed the retirement of the geriatric northern elites who have spoken for the region for the past forty years. Their failed politics of entitlement has reduced the north to a zone of misery. There is an opportunity here to inaugurate a new conversation about the north centred on people-oriented development instead of elite privilege.
Regardless of its showing in the gubernatorial elections, the CPC does not seem to have a long term future. Without Buhari’s halo, the party is simply an unwieldy aggregation of political outsiders and malcontents from other parties, all hoping that their proximity to Buhari may yield an anointing by association. With the general’s halo, the party is simply a personality cult. Nigerians who voted for Buhari had high hopes, but on hindsight, the CPC was always a poor vehicle for national change. The search for truly transformative alternatives will have to continue. In any case, the talakawa crisis remains a grave plague that we must confront as a society. Any viable opposition movement must tame the north’s feral ghettoes and translate the fury therein into transformative democratic energy.
As a 69-year old former military dictator, Buhari was always an implausible candidate of change. Most Nigerians had either not been born or were in their early childhood when he ruled. It should be clear now that his three abortive presidential bids have as much if not more to do with a fundamental lack of national acceptability than with the much vaunted rigging of the ruling party. He belongs to a generation that has long exhausted its potential. He should just go quietly into the night.