In our complex, plural, often fractious society with various mutually-suspicious interest groups, you do not win the presidency by being (or appearing) visionary or radical. You do so by looking harmless, passive and unthreatening. You do not win the presidency by serving up a revolutionary manifesto or rigorously grappling with issues; you do so by affecting a genial cluelessness. You win by demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to regurgitate stale clichés and to utter the bleeding obvious with an air of intellectual profundity. This is the true genius of successful presidential aspirants and it is sadly reflective of where our politics has calcified at the moment.
Muhammadu Buhari looks too threatening to win the presidency. Behind the stern mien lurks a seething moral zealotry and a righteous indignation at what his country has become. During his term as Head of State that zealotry came to the fore when armed with repressive decrees, his regime declared a war on corruption, handed out hefty jail terms to corrupt politicians and attempted to frog march the country into the future. Buhari’s running mate is Tunde Bakare, a pastor, attorney and activist who earned his stripes as a preacher railing against the materialistic excesses of Nigeria’s Pentecostal elites and thundering against official corruption. Thus the Buhari-Bakare ticket is led by two puritans…and two authoritarians, for the Pentecostal movement is an authoritarian institution and its pastors tend to be totalitarian oracles.
Whether a ticket led by two men of authoritarian disposition can deepen democratic habits is a fair question. But Buhari is feared for other reasons. The fanatical support he enjoys from swooning and ecstatic mobs in the north scares many southerners who fear that the ex-general is a closet religious extremist. This allegation owes less to reality than to a smear campaign against the general mounted by President Obasanjo’s minions during the 2003 polls. Buhari has tried to counter this fear but clearly deems it beneath his stature to address such canards. The cruel irony is that in a bid to dispel his sectarian image, he has been forced to play “religious politics” by picking a pastor of questionable political clout as his running mate. Whether this will assuage fears remains to be seen. More importantly, many elites fear that a President Buhari will resume his war on graft after a 26-year hiatus with renewed vigour. For all his grassroots support especially among the northern underclass and others who see him as a potential change agent, Buhari simply frightens too many people – people who could otherwise be valuable supporters.
Nuhu Ribadu suffers from basically the same limitations as Buhari. The former police officer made scores of powerful enemies during his term as anti-corruption czar when he hunted down several high profile fraudsters and thieving politicians. Ribadu is seen as embodying the promise of the independence generation (those born in the 1960s) and has attracted many young urban middle class professionals to his campaign. But Ribadu has lost the toga of incorruptibility to Buhari and is now running solely on youthful promise and potential. Even so, Ribadu can at least look to the future, but for Buhari, 69, this is clearly his last presidential venture.
This leaves us with Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent and frontrunner in the race for Aso Rock. Jonathan fulfils all the requirements for winning the presidency cited above. He is not a radical and has no record of any strong views on any subject. His placid demeanor, in contrast to say Obasanjo’s abrasive persona has made it impossible to cast him as a hate figure in the north even after he torpedoed the PDP’s zoning arrangement. He is clearly a deal-maker and a conciliator rather than a confrontational type. His unlikely ascent from obscurity resonates in a religious country as the stuff of pop religious mythology. His campaign has nimbly exploited this by portraying his rise as the quintessential Nigerian folktale – a man from provincial backwaters rising to be president aided by divine favour. And, as incumbent, he has a war chest of public and private resources surpassing anything his rivals can boast of.
Above all, Jonathan’s appeal lies in his novelty. As the first ethnic Ijaw to sit in Aso Rock, his presidency is a symbolic recompense for the long-neglected oil-producing region. His other names ‘Ebele’ and ‘Azikiwe’ have enabled him to skillfully appropriate the affections of the southeast. His appointment of the first Igbo army chief in 40 years has deepened those affections. For many, Jonathan’s presidency signals the reintegration of the south and southeast zones into the national project. It breaks the perceived northern hegemony of national leadership and conveys a sense that people from other parts of the country can aspire to the highest office in the land. In this regard, Jonathan’s presidency speaks to the deep-seated need for equity and justice in the Nigerian subconscious.
Ethnicity should not matter in our politics in 2011. But Jonathan’s rivals have acted as if it does not matter at all. They have failed to seriously interrogate the roots of Jonathan’s appeal, to grasp the sense of inequity and exclusion that sustains his popularity, and to make the case that their own governments could deliver more tangible goods to those that feel excluded as against the merely symbolic properties of a Jonathan presidency. Instead Buhari and Ribadu, betraying a tin-ear to the sentiments in the southeast and the Niger Delta, picked running mates from the southwest, leaving those two zones with no option on the field except the incumbent. Perhaps, in their calculus, those two zones were deemed unwinnable and thus conceded. The polls will prove this strategy right or wrong.
Yet, Jonathan has significant chinks in his presidential armour. His reign in Bayelsa was so anonymous that not even his handlers have used it to make a case for his presidency. His vice-presidency was largely nondescript. Jonathan has never won an election on his own steam, and his one year in Aso Rock has not dispelled the image of a man promoted beyond his competence by fate. His intellectual minimalism agrees with a society that disdains ideas and scorns men of thought. His handlers have trumpeted his PhD as though it is a Nobel Prize – a scandal in a country that produced Azikiwe, Awo, Aminu Kano, Ahmadu Bello, among others – in an age in which politics was for men of thought and erudition. A more demanding electorate would have scrutinized Jonathan’s claims to the presidency more closely.
As it stands, Jonathan’s campaign rests primarily on his incumbency yet he is yoked to the disastrous brand of his party, the PDP, whose 12 years in power have been appalling. He has built a personal brand and distanced himself from the party in the public consciousness. He has not cast his campaign as one of continuity but as “a breath of fresh air.” Thus placated, many Nigerians excuse him as a good man who just happens to be in a bad party. This is bollocks but it works for some and Jonathan is genuinely popular.
There is one last thing to his advantage. Oppositional figures do not fare well in Nigerian politics. If not, Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Gani Fawehinmi and Pat Utomi might have done better in their presidential adventures. We may romanticize mavericks and outsiders and crown them with such epitaphs as “the best president Nigeria never had” but we rarely validate them with votes. There are many reasons for this. Culturally, we venerate authority and so find the iconoclasm of democratic competition unnerving. Nigerians may disparage the ruling camp but would rather join it than oppose it. Under military rule, political and economic survival meant seeking accommodation with the establishment rather than challenging it. Nigerians still respect the establishment and prefer giving it a new veneer to discarding it. In this sense, our society is conservative. Jonathan and the PDP will benefit from this dynamic this year. Unfortunately, Buhari and Ribadu will suffer for it.
But there are signs that this sort of conservatism is ebbing away provoked by widespread disillusionment and the emergence of a new generation of Nigerians. Young voters, unburdened by memory and prejudice, are more likely to challenge the status quo. This is why the Action Congress and the Congress for Progressive Change have mounted such strong campaigns this term, and it holds great promise for the future. The opposition parties will achieve more in future if they venture out of their provincial strongholds with more conviction to build national networks.
Jonathan has been clever as a servant of the status quo posturing as a change agent. This weekend, most Nigerians will probably agree with his claims at the risk of choosing symbolic change over substantive transformation. His likely victory tells us where we are as a society.