he truths of history often reveal themselves to us by a ruse. A president who in 2015 happened on us on a mantra of ‘Change’ is today the object and embodiment of a clamour for decisive urgent change. Call him Mr. Change and pronounce it anyway you like, something is clearly undeniable. Mr. Buhari has changed the Nigerian landscape more for ill than for good.
Even as he heads for the exit gate of power, it is very true that the man has left Nigeria vastly different from the way he found it, which is arguably what a presidential tenures are all about. Consequently, he has made decisive urgent change an imperative for all those who seek to succeed him in office. His track record as elected president has also become the benchmark for marking what just has to change about how Nigeria is governed and how our people live and relate with each other. Call it a watershed, but the Buhari presidency has become the gold standard that demarcates good governance from serial mendacious atrocities in the name of power incumbency.
As campaigns for the 2023 elections open and hit the streets, Buhari’s ambiguous legacy will occupy centre stage in nearly all the campaigns. Candidates who want to make Nigeria safer and more secure will be citing the total collapse of national security under the Daura general as the basis for the changes they want to make. Those whose campaign is to fix the economy will have enough statistics of woeful economic management since 2015 to cite. Candidates whose interest is in the astronomical increase in the rate of impoverishment among our populace will have abundant statistical support in the figures which in the last seven years have made Nigeria the poverty capital of the world. Not to talk of candidates who want to preach the urgent need to reunite the country after seven and half years of divisive politicking under Buhari and his friends and cohorts. The fields of negative emphasis are too numerous to catalogue. As the source of urgent campaign subjects, the Buhari presidency has provided more than a generous supply of concerns.
It is in this cynical sense that Mr. Buhari can rightfully be seen as the indisputable single dominant change agent in this season of campaigns. His presence will loom in every campaign even if he says nothing. The loud footsteps of his inactions deafen other contending noises just as his serial bumbling will provide models of what no serious presidential candidate should aim to be.
A leader becomes a change agent either by the positive examples he lays to be emulated by his successors or the negative footprints he leaves to be avoided by all respectable aspirants to the throne. In our context, the broad majority of what the candidates do not want to see in the Nigeria of the future are embodied in the essence of Mr. Buhari’s toxic presidency. This is the mood today and it is the one that will pervade the campaign season and lead into the elections proper.
The ambiguous legacy of the man from Daura does not end there. Too many Nigerians will swear that Buhari has divided Nigeria more than ever before. But again by a trick of history, Nigerians are also now more united than ever in one respect: everybody is determined that never again must a Buhari type presidency happen here. That has become a unifying cry, a loud determination and clear and present wish. It cuts across faith, region, class and tongue. Most importantly, it cuts across partisan divides. Of all the 18 presidential candidates of the parties now assembled and ready to traverse the country, there is no single one who has opted for a continuation of Buhari’s leadership or legacy as his campaign objective.
Not even Mr. Tinubu of the originating APC dares take this gamble.
What may in fact be unfolding is a historic convergence and a curious informal consensus in the politics of Nigeria. Somehow, all the significant presidential candidates are joined at the hips by one aim: how to stylishly reject Buhari’s unenviable legacy. Ordinarily, an incumbent president cannot be casually wished away in an election to choose his successor. He is significant in either of two ways. Candidates, especially of his party, may want to massage his ego by rhetorically promising to advance his cause, sustain his goals or uphold his legacy. On the contrary, all opposition candidates will campaign to replace or reverse his programmes , policies and legacies. In the best traditions of political civility, a moderately tolerable outgoing president can at best be politely ignored if his actions did not hurt the polity or key interest groups. Rarely do we find departing incumbents on whose legacies all aspiring candidates show a unanimous rejection and an intent for immediate reversal when elected. It is even rarer where the common run of public opnion across board coincides with the consensus among political aspirants to the throne. Mr. Buhari happens to have met this rare strange combination of requirement.
There are of course redeeming features that some candidates may want to market about Buhari’s legacy. A candidate may want to point at some infrastructure bright spots such a few successful rail and road projects. This would only fly for as long as the candidate believes in physical landscape decoration as the essence of the dividend of democracy. But politics is about human beings living meaningful lives in a safe space called a nation state. A space full of modern highways, bullet trains and shiny sky scrapers but full of impoverished people who are not sure to see tomorrow is a nightmare. No one wants to go there!
Of all the presidential candidates seeking to take Buhari’s job, however, Mr. Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is in the most unenviable position. His campaign promises to be the most difficult and also most engaging from point of view of messaging. For reasons of all manner of political conveniences and exigencies, Mr. Tinubu may not want to annoy Mr. Buhari. Even in the face of aggravated irritation, Tinubu is the least likely to look Buhari in the face and tell him to go you know where.
Instead, Tinubu is doomed to sing a meliorative campaign anthem in which Mr. Buhari does no overt wrong. In critical high demographic locations, the standard expectation would be that Mr. Buhari would stand shoulder to shoulder with Tinubu to endorse him publicly as his party anointed. Already, both the Buhari presidency and the Tinubu campaign are sharing common platforms of spokespersons and a common propaganda line. They can still plead party solidarity at this early stage. Regime town criers like Lai Mohammed and the rowdy Festus Keyamo are already busy singing Buhari’s positive anthems hoping to confer Tinubu with the benefits. At some point, however, ordinary Nigerians are likely to ask if they are being asked to vote for Mr. Tinubu or to re-endorse Mr. Buhari for a third term. If care is not taken, Mr. Tinubu’s campaign train and indeed his entire political project may struggle to survive this quagmire.
Between a calamitous lame duck Buhari and candidate Tinubu, a war of jaded nerves will certainly erupt sooner or later along the campaign trail. Both men will need to determine their status fairly early in the day. Buhari will need to be reminded that he should be heading in the direction of humble dusty Daura. Mr Tinubu, on the other hand, will not need to be prodded to scream out loud that he has an election to win. People in his campaign, if they are minimally honest, will need to tell him that eulogizing Buhari will not take him to the Villa but only back to his Bourdillon abode. In effect, not even an APC presidential candidate can expect to win in 2023 if he insists on running on even a sanitized Buhari script. How Mr. Bola Tinubu navigates this treacherous divide will be the high point of his journey to Aso Rock Villa.
For Mr. Atiku of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), running against Buhari should by now have become second nature. Atiku has wisely re-attached himself and his messaging to the Obasanjo legacy. With the benefit of hindsight, most adult Nigerians now look back at the Obasanjo presidency (1999-1997) as a recent bright spot in Nigeria’s post military democratic politics and governance. People recall that Obasanjo had easily the most credible economic management team in recent times. Debt management saw a near total wipe out of our external debts and a significant reduction in domestic debts. The economy witnessed the emergence of clear growth sectors in telecommunications, banking, the stock market and the oil and gas industries. The Nigerian economy joined the international system of payments through the introduction of credit and debit electronic cards. Security of life and property was significantly reasonable while government’s resolve to deal with corruption saw the establishment of anti -graft agenciesn like the EFCC and ICPC as legal entities.
Mr. Atiku has indicated a determination to run the 2023 race on an improved version of the Obasanjo template with the additional impetus of correcting the misdeeds of the Buhari tenure. On the track of politics as usual, Mr. Atiku would seem to be defiant of Buhari’s conservative political fixations and embarrassing economic mismanagement.
Among the three foremost presidential candidates, Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) is the more pointed departure from the Buhari albatross. Mr. Obi has boldly and courageously name the felonies of the Buhari government one by one. He has described the continuing fuel subsidy regime as an ‘organised crime’. He has decried the astronomical poverty numbers and the high (40%) unemployment rate. He has openly pointed at the rampant insecurity as the greatest enemy of economic growth.
Mr. Obi has, in a relatively short time, emerged from the shadows of relative anonymity to become a disruptive force in the nation’s political history. His appeal is to the broad majority of Nigerians whom previous politics had left behind. Most of these people detest the old “Big Man” politics symbolized now by both Mr. Tinubu and Mr. Atiku. Mr. Peter Obi is of course the first to admit that between him and the politicians of the ancien regime, there is indeed no ideological difference. He describes himself as an Onitsha market trader, a free- wheeling capitalist who however cherishes law, order and security in order for the market to thrive and business to survive. However, he maintains, with incontrovertible anecdotal evidence from his stewardship as a two term governor of Anambra State in the South East, that he is the one Nigerian should trust for integrity, character, commitment and a can do spirit that can fix the nation from the devastated crime scene that Mr. Buhari is leaving behind. He has emerged as something of a pop star who can do no wrong. His outings have become tumultuous pseudo crusades attended by hundreds of thousands of devotees. In public places, to speak ill of Obi and the “Obididients” is to run a risk of being mobbed. It is even worse in the social media.
Even ahead of the formal commencement of campaigns a few days ago, Mr. Obi’s devotees stylishly called “Obidients” have thronged the streets of every significant urban area in all zones of the country. Their street parades and solidarity marches have since translated into a huge followership for the simple man in love with simple back outfits. Over and above his Labour Party affiliation, the “Obidients” have metamorphosed into a popular movement of the type that we have recently come to associate with major popular revolts and mass led changes in places like Egypt and Sri Lanka.
Perhaps Mr. Peter Obi may emerge as the greatest beneficiary of the overwhelming imperative of change that Mr. Buhari has unconsciously made inevitable. The extremes of adversity and negativity that the incumbent administration has enthroned as the new normal in the country have made the Peter Obi appeal irresistible. The new man in black has emerged as something of a messianic figure, a good man who seeks power not for his personal aggrandisement but for the good of the majority of ordinary people. His narrative of personal modesty, discipline and frugality as evidenced in his past record in managing public finances has caught on like wildfire among a populace that had hitherto come to see politicians as a tribe of wasteful brigands whose recklessness has sacked the treasury and imposed misery and poverty on the citizens. Mr. Obi’s appeal is in his presentation as a credible antithesis to a past tradition of treacherous and wasteful politics. His immediate attraction is also as a symbol of law, order and security in contrast to Buhari’s reign of terror and promotion of bloody anarchy.
As matters now stand, the 2023 elections are looking more and more like two sets of referendums rolled into one. At the level of Mr. Buhari as the principal causative change agent, the election may be a referendum between pro Buhari policies and an anti-Buhari wave. The outcome of that referendum is not far to seek. The screaming unpopularity of the incumbent regime ought to instruct its few remaining devotees that the train has since left the platform of fake myths and dubious claims.
By far the more far- reaching referendum is that on the old politics. The choice is between the populist new movement of “Obidients” and the gamut of traditional parties with the APC and PDP as leading cartels of power. In this more consequential confrontation, Mr. Peter Obi seems poised as the symbol of something new against Messrs Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu as mascots of an old order. Three significant international opinion polls , including Bloomberg, have recently in quick succession projected the direction in which Nigerian politics is moving in this new volcanic disruption. In either of these referendums or confrontations, however, Mr. Buhari must be credited with the role of catalyst and change agent as the one who authored what must now be changed at all costs. Without Buhari’s disastrous presidency, the need for urgent change would not have been so pressing. Similarly, the areas of radical change would not have been so clearly marked if he did not dabble and muddle up most areas of national life. Even more consequential, the crushing urgency to save Nigeria before it sinks would not have acquired the fierce urgency that we all now feel.