In October 1987, the late Sheikh Abubakar Mohammad Gumi, a well-respected Islamic cleric, granted an explosive interview to the now-rested Quality magazine. It was on Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s transition to civil rule programme. Gumi said: “The two-party system of government will not be South against North but Islam against Christianity. Once you are a Moslem, you cannot accept to choose a non-Moslem to be your leader. If Christians do not accept Moslems as their leader, then we have to divide the country. Nigerian unity is to try to convert Christians and non-Moslems (to Islam) until the other religions become minority and they will not affect our society.”
Who says God does not have a sense of humour? Although Gumi had died before the June 12 election of 1993, the two-party duel was indeed Muslim vs Muslim ─ Chief MKO Abiola vs Alhaji Bashir Tofa. It was not the Islam vs Christianity confrontation that Gumi predicted. Nigerians voted for Abiola, who chose a fellow Muslim as his running mate. The election was annulled, but the ultimate irony was that the contest that eventually produced a civilian president in 1999 was Christian vs Christian ─ Chief Olusegun Obasanjo vs Chief Olu Falae. And it was Northern Muslims that masterminded it! There is something about Nigerians that Gumi did not know.
Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but I am relieved that the 2019 presidential election is going to be a straight fight between President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. This will be one presidential election that cannot be easily framed along the toxic ethnic and religious lines. By that, I mean the template of Muslim vs Christian and North vs South sentiments. In the 2003, 2011 and 2015 elections, religion and ethnicity were well played up and this severely hurt nation-building. I am particularly of the view that we are yet to recover from the bitter power struggles since 2011. It deeply injured “peace and unity” and we are definitely yet to heal.
Hopefully, the 2019 match-up between Buhari and Atiku will mellow things. They are both northerners, Muslims and Fulani. We can reasonably conclude that the ethno-religious brigade will be idle for the most part. They won’t be completely jobless, of course. There will always be something for them to tweak and manipulate to whip up bigotry and sectionalism, but it will be a tough job for them compared to the easy ride they had in 2011 and 2015 when the battles were between President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, and President Buhari, a northern Muslim. It is unfortunate we still discuss Nigeria in primordial terms but that is the way we are.
Apart from the 1999 and 2007 elections, ethno-religious champions have always had a field day during presidential electioneering. There was no job for them in 1999 when it was an all-Christian, all-Yoruba contest between Obasanjo and Falae. It was easier to manage our fault lines that way, even though the undertone was not completely absent. Obasanjo was vigorously portrayed as the imposed candidate of the northern “oligarchy”; some said the north wanted to keep power by proxy. Falae was, in turn, cast as the “Afenifere candidate”. I can live with that, to be honest. I am not as naïve as to think Nigeria would be free of ethnic prejudice at any point, but it can be managed.
The 2003 election was a different ball game — it was Buhari vs Obasanjo. Muslim vs Christian. North vs South. Fulani vs Yoruba. The perfect nightmare scenario. The election itself was preceded by controversies over the introduction of the criminal jurisdiction of Sharia in 12 northern states. Obasanjo kicked against it, saying it was unconstitutional. Buhari supported it, saying it was the right of every Muslim. While Buhari’s stand endeared him to most northern Muslims, Obasanjo lost ground in the north, although this was compounded by the quest for power to return to the region. Obasanjo was accused of not honouring a gentleman’s agreement to do only one term in office.
While Obasanjo lost the core northern states he had won comfortably in 1999 — notably Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Gombe — Buhari did not score 25% in any of the 17 southern states. Buhari was portrayed as an agent of “Islamisation” and stigmatised in the south, especially as he was quoted in 2001 as saying Muslims should not vote for non-Muslims. No matter how many times he denied this, it stuck. The irony, though, is that the more he was hated in the south on the account of his Sharia stand, the more he was loved by the northern masses. He won in 10 of the 12 Sharia states. Meanwhile, up north, Obasanjo was demarketed as an “arne” — an infidel. Things were that bad.
Thankfully, the 2007 election was between two sons of Katsina state, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Buhari, as well as Atiku. Same ethnic group, same religion, same region. There were no divisive sentiments to be summoned for political service. Unfortunately, Yar’Adua, who won the controversial election, died in 2010. Power was coming back to the south so soon. Our fault lines were automatically activated both within and without the ruling PDP. There was a movement for “a northern consensus candidate” to displace Jonathan who had stepped up from his position as VP after Yar’Adua’s death. The polity was irrevocably poisoned and has remained so since then.
Although Jonathan won the 2011 election against Buhari (who ran on the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change, now part of APC), the aftermath was devastating. His backers in the north, such as Governors Murtala Nyako (Adamawa) and Sule Lamido (Jigawa), were dubbed “reverends” and “pastors” for supporting an “arne”. This set the tone for a troubled tenure, not helped in any way by Jonathan’s own failings as a leader. I would not go into the detail of the post-election violence and all the conspiracy theories around Boko Haram as well as the ensuing weaponisation of religion ahead of 2015. In fact, CAN virtually became a political party.
This explains my relief that in 2019, religious and ethnic politicking would be not be as dominant as it used to be. I still, nonetheless, expect plenty dirty fireworks — there will be a lot of talk about Atiku and corruption as well as Buhari and cronyism. I would prefer this — all day long — to the weaponisation of ethno-religious sentiments. There could be sentiments in the south over where the running mates of the two leading parties come from. But I can live with the Igbo/Yoruba rivalry. It is usually expressed in words rather than in bloodshed. There would also be arguments that Atiku’s north-east zone has not produced a president since 1966. That’s fine. It’s not an explosive.
If the 2019 presidential election goes well without major sectionalist incidents, it may offer us an insight into another political strategy of managing our ethnic and religious differences in a less harmful way. It could be that when the two big parties field like-for-like candidates, there would be less ethnic rancour and less of the spill-over effects that often harm “peace and unity”. When Jonathan won the duel with Buhari in 2011, he never knew peace from some parts of the country until he lost power in 2015. And since Buhari won the rematch in 2015, he has not known peace from some parts of the country. I believe this tendency gravely hampers Nigeria’s march to development.
How does this hamper our progress? Many policies, decisions and actions are opposed not on the basis of their merit, or lack of it, but purely out of politically induced ethno-religious resentment. Opponents do and say everything to pull down the government out of resentment. Jonathan suffered this for five years. Buhari has been suffering it too. It is destabilising. That is why I am thinking that 2019 will offer a clean slate from which we can start to engage more constructively with government across all the fault lines, since neither north nor south, Muslims nor Christians would consider themselves losers this time around. At least until 2023.
My analysis may sound simplistic but it’s an experiment worth observing. It may help us identify a vital strategy for the political management of our diversity. An understanding among the political class that the big parties should be zoning their presidential slots to the same region may remove a major stumbling block to national cohesion. Sometimes, big problems are solved by small gestures. It is from our history, practice and experience that we can design what works best for us. We cannot even begin to talk about building a virile nation when we live in a perpetual state of mutual suspicion, ethno-religious acrimony and acidic antagonism. I am highly interested in this experiment.
I must emphasise this as I conclude. We can’t always run away from our nightmare. It is practically impossible to get the leading parties to bring their candidates from same zones all the time. I know that. The fact that we have a federal character system should ordinarily banish fears of domination and marginalisation. We must achieve a balance so that nobody feels excluded from the federal table. Most importantly, we must ultimately see through the devices of the identity entrepreneurs. In the end, it is always about class interests, not identity or development. Nevertheless, I am ready to observe proceedings from 2019 to 2023 and study the impact on our progress as a nation.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
OBI OR NOT OBI?
The choice of Mr. Peter Obi as the running mate of PDP presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, seems not to have gone down well with some power brokers in his geo-political zone, the south-east. There were reports of bickering on Saturday, with the governor of Ebonyi, Chief Dave Umahi, raising dust. Compare and contrast with 2015 when President Buhari picked Prof. Yemi Osinbajo as his running mate and the support the professor of law got instantly. Meanwhile, the south-west is said to be highly interested in the event that the Igbo are unable to support one of their own as Atiku’s running mate. I am watching the unfolding drama with curiosity. Politics.
Since Alhaji Atiku Abubakar won the PDP presidential ticket, I can see the excitement in the political space about the upcoming contest with President Muhammadu Buhari. I have never seen an opposition camp so very positive about displacing a sitting government in Nigeria. That is why I think we need to give credit to former President Goodluck Jonathan, who lost to Buhari in 2015 and promptly conceded. If he had manipulated the outcome, we would still be having the mindset that it is impossible to vote out an incumbent in Nigeria. I expect a very competitive contest and I believe it is too early to call the election. We have a real contest in our hands. Epic.
POND OF DEATH
The most famous, rather infamous, pond in Nigeria today must be the one in the Dura Du District in Plateau state. Major General Idris Alkali went missing recently and his car was found inside the pond, although his whereabouts remain unknown. We presume he was murdered. Many vehicles have been found in the pond, suggesting that something sinister has been going on there. This is stoking ethnic tensions again in the highly volatile state, but there is a question I always ask: what job do the security agencies do when a pond of death was right there under their nose, undetected? Why do we spend billions on security every month yet we are so defenceless? Why?
I grew up enjoying the glorious comedy of Moses Olaiya aka Baba Sala. I watched his movies, notably Mosebolatan and Orun Mooru. I listened to dozens of his records. I remember the one in which he was learning English. He was so impatient the only words he picked were “O yes”, “It’s OK” and “I’m all right”. He soon got into police trouble when he was found near an abandoned stolen baggage. “Are you the one who stole this?” he was asked, and — without understanding one word of the question — he replied “Oh yes”. He ended up in police custody after answering “it’s OK” and “I’m all right” to the other questions. He died last week at a ripe age of 82. Legend.