For all its dramatic buildup, Nigeria’s much-anticipated national election, originally scheduled for February 16, but held, after a late-minute postponement, on February 23, ended up on anti-climactic note. Okey Ndibe turns his gaze on life after Buhari’s snapped victory from what could have been the jaws of defeat
But on Tuesday, February 26, three days after the nation-wide polls to elect the president and members of the national assembly, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared that incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari had coasted to victory. According to INEC’s collated figures, Mr. Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) received 15,191,847 votes to best his closest rival, Atiku Abubakar, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who garnered 11,262,978 votes.
The official tally stunned many. In a seeming dim reaction to the news, the Nigerian stock exchange lost a whopping N86 billion in one day. The electoral surprise also sparked controversy, with the PDP characterizing Mr. Buhari’s victory as an electoral heist. Opposition party officials asserted that their own tabulation of figures gathered from polling units across the country revealed a convincing win for Mr. Atiku, who from 1999 to 2007 served two terms as Vice President during the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Mr. Atiku has vowed a legal challenge to INEC’s declaration that the incumbent president had been reelected with a margin of close to four million votes.
Going by the country’s antecedents, the odds of the opposition candidate triumphing in court are quite slim. One reason is that Nigerian judges who hear election petitions hardly ever overturn verdicts. Indeed, there is no precedent where the courts overturned a presidential election victory. Several of Mr. Atiku’s PDP associates hinted that their case against the APC would hinge on such irregularities as the use of thugs to suppress votes in pro-PDP areas, vote inflation during collation, and widespread malfunctioning of card reader machines, a key feature of the electoral system. They cited hordes of videos, many of them widely circulated on social media. Some of the videos showed acts of violence or fraud, including the burning of ballots, illicit mass thumbprint of ballots, and a few returning officers stating that APC candidates had forced them to announce false results. Clearly, some videos shot in Lagos suggested a strategy to thwart voting in areas where the PDP had good odds of gaining votes.
The visual evidence can be powerful and persuasive. Yet, whether they would have much traction in Nigerian courtrooms is a different matter. In a country where the judiciary, like most other institutions, is prey to corruption, incumbents, bolstered by access to the public treasury, enjoy a decisive advantage in enticing judges with cash inducements.
Further complicating matters for the loser: most of the foreign monitors who observed the elections seemed eager to overlook, or minimize, the irregularities. One observer, Bill Campbell, commended the Nigerian army and other security agencies for curtailing incidences of ballot box snatching. According to him, the army conducted “itself professionally and within the ambit of the law even in instances of provocation as experienced in some states.” He added that the northern part of the country, notorious for underage voting, did not experience that this time around.
Atiku’s prospects for success via litigation were also dimmed by a development weeks before the election. On January 25, Mr. Buhari’s administration orchestrated the suspension of the country’s top judge, Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen of the Supreme Court. A southerner from Cross River State, the embattled justice was accused of failing to declare his assets.
Many were astonished that the head of the country’s judiciary would be so remiss and others shocked at the stupendous sums that were reportedly lodged in his various bank accounts. Even so, many senior lawyers and political groups decried the move against Justice Onnoghen, viewing it as a portent of the Buhari administration’s intention to emasculate and terrify the judiciary. Particularly suspect was the timing of the judge’s removal. Deemed emotionally sympathetic to the PDP, Justice Onnoghen was rusticated on the eve of his composition of judicial panels that would have heard petitions arising from the 2019 elections. In his stead, acting Chief Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed, appointed the electoral panels.
Atiku and Buhari’s campaigns were long on histrionics, slogans and the exchange of epithets. The APC spotlighted Mr. Atiku’s reputation for corruption, questioning the PDP candidate’s role in overseeing the privatization of public assets during the Obasanjo presidency. The former VP has been dogged by accusations of undervaluing the assets and funneling the juiciest deals to his associates, some of them suspected to be his proxies. The PDP, on its part, highlighted the hypocritical nature of Mr. Buhari’s anti-corruption stance, pointing to the president’s apparent inability or unwillingness to question corruption among his political allies. The opposition party also mocked the president’s record on the economy and his unimpressive record in warding off the Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram.
Amid the rhetoric, the two main parties were pitifully bereft of policy prescriptions for addressing Nigeria’s myriad crises, including absent or dilapidated infrastructure, deepening poverty, growing unemployment, a healthcare system that is in a shambles, a broken educational sector, poor power supply, environmental degradation, brutal violence by herdsmen and deadly acts of terror by Boko Haram.
Both major candidates shunned a televised debate for presidential candidates that would have challenged them to spell out concrete programs. In their absence, three minor party presidential candidates, Kingsley Moghalu of Young Peoples Party (YPP), Oby Ezekwesili of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), and Fela Durotoye of Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), engaged in a debate that was a model of eloquence and substance. Sadly, Nigerians were too focused on Buhari and Atiku to notice.
Some Nigerians had hoped that 2019 would prove to be a breakout year for a corps of young, informed, visionary and technocratic candidates in the country’s political life. There was no shortage of such candidates in this election cycle. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who had reluctantly backed Mr. Buhari in 2015 only to sour on the president’s nepotism and indolent style, went as far as endorsing Mr. Moghalu, a charming scholar who had worked for the World Bank and served as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. In an enlivening campaign, Moghalu warned Nigerians that the two men regarded as frontrunners were clueless throwbacks incapable of thinking beyond Nigeria’s earnings from crude oil exports, which he described as “the god of small things.” But his message—as well as those of his contemporaries—failed to resonate with voters. Even though one of his party’s candidates, Ifeanyi Ubah, won a senatorial seat, Moghalu received a miserly 21,886 votes throughout the 36 states. Durotoye of ANN and Ezekwesili of ACPN fared even worse, with 16,779 and 7,223 votes respectively.
Soyinka acknowledged to our reporter that the odds were too daunting this year for the more progressive candidates and their party platforms. Even so, he hoped that “a seed [has been] planted for a better organized challenge the next time round.”
For many Nigerians and observers, the imperative of choosing between Atiku and Buhari presented a dismal scenario. The sense of forlorn helplessness was captured in an opinion piece written by Ken Tadaferua and titled “Buhari, Atiku: Either Wins, Nigeria Loses”. His dour prognosis warned that Nigerians were “in for another four year cycle of ruthless greed, disdain for the poor, entrenchment of the unitary system and sustained looting from that cesspool of corruption called Federation Account. Whether Atiku wins or Buhari wins, be assured of this prediction: Nigeria will lose.” Ikhide Ikheloa, a US-based Nigerian social media pundit, recognized that Atiku was no saint, but found the PDP candidate a tad more promising than Buhari. In an essay for the UK Independent newspaper, Mr. Ikhide wrote: “The reality is that Nigeria needs an extreme makeover. Many Nigerian institutions are colonial relics that must be overhauled to meet the standards of modern states – the bloated civil service, the police, the army, the educational institutions and the health system.” He described Mr. Buhari as a man “whose tenure has been plagued by gaffes, unforced errors, incompetence and a puzzling cluelessness that seemed to point to the challenges with his age and health.”
One of the president’s costliest gaffes was to proclaim his determination to marginalize sections of the country that had not voted for him in 2015. Among those areas were the southeast and oil-rich Niger Delta. In a pattern that was unprecedented in Nigeria’s history, the president appointed northern Muslims to head all key security agencies, including the military, Directorate of State Security (DSS), and the police. His government seemed unperturbed as armed herdsmen invaded farm communities in several states, massacring the residents, raping women, and occupying land. Yet, it was in no mood to use diplomatic means to resolve an agitation for secession by members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). Instead, it launched Operation Python Dance, sending soldiers and military tanks to intimidate unarmed agitators with a maximum deployment of force. When his administration unveiled a plan to lay new railway lines, the country’s southeast zone was conspicuously excluded.
Another error was a crudely protectionist economic policy that doomed scores of small businesses, triggered massive layoffs, and deterred investors. The administration’s other disturbing missteps included ignoring judicial orders, selective prosecution of allegedly corrupt persons, acting outside of legislative approval, indifference to herdsmen’s homicidal horrors, and exceedingly slow response to the deteriorating economy.
Mr. Ikheloa’s reference to the president’s health is of great import in contemplating the consequences of Mr. Buhari’s reelection. During his first term, the president spent several months in the UK undergoing treatment for an illness that neither he nor his handlers specified. One of the big ifs of his second term is whether he would have the physical and mental stamina to be a hands-on captain of his administration, or be content to abandon the running of the country to a handful of associates Nigerians have taken to calling the cabal. Some members of this shadowy cohort of insiders, like Abba Kyari, the president’s Chief of Staff, are ensconced within the corridors of government. Others, like Mamman Daura and Isa Funtua, a businessman, wield enormous political influence from the outside.
In his inaugural address as president, Buhari had made the famous statement, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” However, some pundits would argue that the president has often behaved more like a sectional champion than a national leader. Critics, among them the president’s wife, Aisha Buhari, have alleged that members of the “cabal,” not Mr. Buhari, called the shots.
Mr. Buhari’s first term straddled the spectrum between unremarkable and woeful. As he readies for his second term, the question is whether he would open himself to learn the lessons that would rescue him from abject failure. One such lesson is that vendetta, even against sections of the country that rejected him at the polls, is politically costly. That lesson is even more urgent considering the dominance of sectarian and ethnic sentiments in the 2019 elections. The perception that Mr. Buhari is anti-Igbo, anti-Niger Delta, and anti-South is exacerbated by widespread suspicion that he incubates an agenda to Islamize Nigeria.
A look at the map of the recent election underscores a deep divide along ethnic and religious lines. Most Christians and voters from the southern part of the country voted against the incumbent president. Far from viewing these as his enemies, Mr. Buhari ought to reset his presidency as one possessed of a more inclusive and expansive vision of Nigeria. He can signal a departure from the lapses of his first term by giving more prominence to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Indeed, the best moments of Buhari’s first term were the times when Mr. Osinbajo, an urbane professor of law and pastor, acted in the ailing president’s absence. Where Mr. Buhari tended to be stiff, impersonal and severe, the VP was always able to bring some energy, warmth and a calming presence to the office.
Few watchers of the Buhari presidency expect him to transform the character of his statecraft. In fact, some expect him to harden into a full-blown autocrat, reprising his days as a military dictator. Farooq Kperogi, a US-based academic who comments on Nigerian politics, fears Mr. Buhari would evolve into a “fascist” over the next four years. Mr. Kperogi accuses the president and his party of brazenly stealing the recent elections.
Part of what fueled Mr. Atiku’s popularity among voters in his strongholds was his commitment to push for Nigeria’s geo-political restructuring. President Buhari, who has scoffed at the idea of restructuring, is bound to encounter growing demands for it. His legacy and the fortune of Nigeria may rest, in large part, on how he responds. Is he going to make overtures to the disaffected groups within Nigeria, including those beating the drum of secession, or take a decisive turn toward repression?
Source: New African Commentary