Congratulations are in order! So, allow me, first, to congratulate Alhaji Atiku Abubakar for securing the nomination of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to run for president next year. This gives Atiku another, probably his best, opportunity to try to become Nigeria’s president. Next year’s elections will be Nigeria’s sixth since returning to civil rule in 1999. Atiku, Nigeria’s vice president from 1999 to 2007, was a vice-presidential candidate in the first two of these elections, a presidential aspirant in another two and a presidential candidate in the remaining two.
This shows that Atiku, a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s electoral history, is not a diffident leader. He wants, intentionally and decidedly, to be president of Nigeria. In theory, that’s a good thing. Surely, when someone has been trying actively and unrelentingly for nearly 12 years to govern his country, the assumption must be that he has a vision for the country’s future that he would pursue if elected into power. Nigeria has had too many diffident leaders, who never sought to be president, but had it thrust upon them, and then failed woefully in office. Shehu Shagari, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan were in that category. They did not prepare to be president and ballsed up the office when they got it on a platter. So, the theory is that a deliberate, intentional and dogged seeker of the office of president is better than an accidental or fortuitous occupier of that office.
However, that theory doesn’t necessarily hold true. Current experience shows that doggedly seeking to be president does not mean that a person will perform well if elected. Like Atiku, President Buhari was an unrelenting chaser of the office of president. He ran for the office three times before being elected on his fourth attempt. Like Atiku, Buhari had also held a high office before, in his case as a military head of state, and, thus, presumably, knew a thing or two about running Nigeria. What’s more, by persistently running for the office of president, in four consecutive elections, it’s not beyond the realm of imagination to assume that Buhari was fully prepared for the office, ready to hit the ground running, with a vision to move Nigeria forward.
But what did we get? Buhari had no ministers in the first seven or eight months of his presidency. When he eventually appointed his ministers, they were, with a very few exceptions, of poor-to-below-average abilities. In his first two years in office, Buhari’s handling of the economy was akin to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. One policy error after another made a bad economic situation worse. The economy has now tanked, growing at a miniscule 1.5%. Unemployment, poverty and inequality are ravaging the country. Insecurity hasn’t gone away!
So, our theory has been disproved. In Nigeria, a determined seeker of the office of president is not necessarily better than a serendipitous holder of the office. There is hardly any difference, in terms of performance, between Buhari, a tenacious seeker, and Shagari, Yar’ Adua and Jonathan, who were accidental occupiers of the office.
Which brings us to Atiku, another determined and intentional seeker of the office of president. He says he will be different. He says he will turn Nigeria around or, according to his campaign slogan, “get Nigeria working again”! But should we believe him? Well, in my view, he is trying too hard. He appears so determined to win next year’s presidential election that he is making outlandish promises without thinking them through. The phrase “giving hostages to fortune” means making statements or promises that could prove difficult to live up to and that could create problems for you later. But that’s what Atiku seems to be doing in his determined, some would say desperate, quest for power!
To be sure, Nigerians need a high level of political awareness, consciousness and even scepticism to mediate the campaign effects of next year’s elections. These were lacking during the 2015 elections. In 2015, for most Nigerians, Jonathan was beyond the pale and it was anyone but Jonathan, and so few scrutinised Buhari closely. Similarly, now, a lot of Nigerians are appalled by Buhari’s incompetence, and for them it’s anyone but Buhari. As a result, few are subjecting Atiku to real scrutiny. Yet, given that, as The Economist magazine recently predicted, Atiku might win next year’s presidential race, it becomes particularly important, imperative even, that real, probing questions are asked about him.
For instance, why is it that Atiku, if he is extremely rich as most people assume, paid only N10.8m in tax over the past three years? As Professor Itse Sagay, a lawyer and academic, puts it, that “doesn’t show any difference between Atiku and me in terms of tax payment”. Should that be the case? And what’s the truth about Atiku’s alleged status in America? These are legitimate questions that any American or British political office seeker would be asked. Why should Nigerian political office seekers be any different? Anyone who wants to govern this country must be an open book. The secrecy that surrounds the lives of Nigerian political leaders, such as about the nature of Buhari’s illness and the current status of his health, is not acceptable in a democracy. But these are discussions for another day. Let’s return to Atiku’s election promises.
The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICiR) has been doing a good job of tracking Atiku’s election promises. So far, ICiR has identified 10, including the pledges to end Boko Haram, religious violence and pro-Biafra agitation. Note the word “end”! But there are two overarching promises through which the credibility of Atiku’s election pledges must be judged. The first is the promise to serve only one term in office.
In an interview with Thisday newspaper, Atiku said “If I am elected as president in 2019, I give an undertaking that I would only do one term”. The subtext was that Atiku reckoned he could only win by promising to do only one term, given that, by 2023, the North would have been in power for 8 years under the current dispensation, and power should then, under the informal power-sharing understanding, return to the South. Recognising that Nigerians would not believe him, given that previous leaders who made the same promise broke it, Atiku said: “If there is an iron-clad legal document that binds me, I am willing to publicly commit to it”. That smacks of desperation!
Let’s face it, if Atiku wins, he would break the one-term-only promise. Obasanjo did, Jonathan did and Buhari did. No “iron-clad legal document” supersedes a constitutional provision that allows a president two terms in office. But the question is why would Atiku, who has been trying to be president since 2007, say he would do only one term when the opportunity to govern Nigeria is now within his reach? Well, as I said, it’s about desperation to win. But, more seriously, it undermines the credibility of his other election promises. A president who promises to do only one term becomes a lame duck from his first day in office as his end date has been predetermined. What’s more, he has no incentive to deliver because he faces no re-election pressures.
Which takes us to Atiku’s second outlandish pledge: to restructure Nigeria in six months! Atiku said at Chatham House in London that “If you give me six months, I know I will be able to achieve a fast level of restructuring”. Really? Atiku is a genuine advocate of political restructuring, and if he wins in the South it would mainly be because of his commitment to that cause. But it’s disingenuous to say he would restructure Nigeria within six months. Restructuring Nigeria requires elite, cross-party and cross-ethnic consensus, and, so, cannot be done by one party riding roughshod over others. The Economist predicted that next year’s elections would be close and that if Atiku wins, his government “will be fragile”. Surely, in those circumstances, he won’t have the massive support to push through a restructuring agenda. Truth is, as I have said previously, Nigeria can’t be restructured without a government of national unity.
But Atiku says he would restructure Nigeria through executive orders. For instance, in one interview, he said: “I do not need a constitutional amendment to transfer universities from the federal government to the state government. I only need an Executive Order”. Given that most federal universities are created by statutes, it’s not clear how he would transfer their ownership by mere executive orders. President Jonathan couldn’t even change the name of the University of Lagos to MKO Abiola University by executive order!
All of this shows that Atiku is muddling through in a determined attempt to persuade Nigerians to elect him president next year. He is even undermining his promise to run a lean government and a free market economy with a pledge to reduce petrol price from N145 to N87, thus returning to full-blown subsidies.
Atiku is indeed trying too hard to be president. He is giving hostages to fortune and runs the risk of winning on the basis of promises he can’t live up to. That would disappoint Nigerians and undermine democracy. But it won’t matter – would it? – if he will do only one term!