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Shagari, Buhari is seeking the presidency three decades after his stint as military head of state and is thirty years out of date.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 abiyamo.com, muhdlawal.wordpress.com, famouspeoplenews.wordpress.com and bizwatchnigeria.ng)