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.”(http://saharareporters.com/2010/10/04/el-rufai-buhari-should-stick-facts).
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)