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)   

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