Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
President Olusegun Obasanjo recently played a game he is most adept at (grabbing and retaining attention) when he wanted the world to know he was leaving the People Democratic Party (PDP). He did it in characteristic dramatic, fashion in a manner that will either improve his bruised public standing one notch higher, or send his image of a man of permanently in search of honour plummeting some notches lower. Asking a local loyalist to publicly tear up his membership card of the PDP which gave him the feet to stand on when late Abacha had all but finished him, then dusted him up and bulldozed its way with military muscle in tow into a presidency which he was later to turn into a personal asset, Obasanjo announced to a bemused nation that he is no longer a politician, but a statesman.
Given Obasanjo’s fabled native and acquired intelligence, it is safe to assume that he knows the difference between a politician and a statesman. But even a man with a registered reputation for thinking the sun has to consult him before it rises, he must know that the rarest of human breed history has grudgingly labeled as statesmen did not give themselves the title. History itself does not provide a universal version of statesmanship: many who are referred to as statesmen have been rogues and scoundrels in the eyes of many, and not all have started or ended with a consistent acclaim of greatness. Many statesmen were politicians or leaders whose moments in history involved the deployment of personal courage, vision and a ruthlessness unmatched by most mere mortals. Some harvested massive social movements powered by anger or misery of millions. A few died with blood in their hands, but their historians recorded victories that demanded extensive sacrifices of the blood of the resistance again them. A popular distinction between a politician and a statesman is that the former thinks of the next election, while the latter thinks of the next generation. It will not do too much harm to the myth of statesmen to say that most of those who have had the labels stuck on them were actually more involved with overcoming immediate threats and challenges. Then history, much later, assesses their roles and decides their places. Politicians you would say thought of the next generation will include Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mandela and Kennedy. Neither they nor us will endorse categorization which gives them the same values in history. There are a few others who stumbled upon a set of historical circumstances which they engineered to create major turning points in history. It is trite to wonder whether they will fight again over a nebulous status of statesmen.
All this merely suggests that statesmen are not people who give themselves the title. Similarly, although the label sugests a more honourable of the politician spicie, it is by no means the case that while most widely-acknowledge statesmen have distinguished and respected political careers, the label has often been appropriated by many politicians or their historians who apply a little whitewash on their career. This has rendered the label dubious in value, and the tendency of many politicians to force their own versions of history on their people and the world means that there are few genuine claimants to the label these days.
President Obasanjo belongs to the category of politicians who choose their own labels. His personal choice of a place in Nigerian history may vary vastly from those of many Nigerians, but he is not the type who waits to be told on what level of the pedestal he stands. Even arguments that he lowered or raised the bar by a public act that humiliates a party which provided him a lifeline to his current status will only feed a lifetime of controversy over what is an appropriate place in history for Obasanjo. Indeed, this is a time when Obasanjo is leading a long line of people and institutions whose places in Nigerian history will be substantially written by what they do, or fail to do, in the next few weeks. This stage of our nation’s history provides unlimited opportunities for powerful people to improve their investments in a positive endorsement by history, or deplete their store of achievements, such that history will frown at their brief but decisive periods on the stage. By no means exhaustive, these are some of the people and institutions who have historic opportunities to carve out places of honour in Nigerian history in the next few weeks.
1. President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan
President Jonathan has fought hard to convince mostly skeptical Nigerians that he would make a better President if he has another four years from May 29th. His self-assessment and ambition have offended many people, while others believe he provides a better alternative to Buhari, even if he has not created an enviable record for his six years of leadership. If by some miracle President Jonathan wins a credible election, he will go down in history as the longest serving Nigerian president who governed in spite of the most widely-acclaimed weaknesses of any president and administration. If he loses, the nation will embark on a challenging journey under a generic term of change which will attack the structural roots of insecurity, poverty and economic decay, and start a massive rebuilding process that will deliver much in a future with basic security and sustained development. President Jonathan could draw a line on the fine sands of history (if the campaign claims and slogans his party and supporters are putting out can be trusted), as the most misunderstood president who did a lot in spite of terrorist bombs, spilled guts of thousands of innocent Nigerians and unceasing criticism that he is too weak for a Nigerian leader. He could walk away from it all and hope that history will be fair and just to him by awarding him at least a pass mark on effort and good intentions.
But President Jonathan’s place in history will dramatically be brighter if he superintends the conduct of credible elections in March and April, and leads the challenging demands of a transition to an administration that will be formed by the opposition. While history will record him as the first incumbent Nigerian President to be defeated, he will also be recorded as the first Nigerian President to hand over to an elected opposition. President Obasanjo in 1979 and General Abdussalami Abubakar in 1999 all yielded control of the state, but the circumstances under which they did this could not have been more different than one in which a democratically – elected government loses, and hands over to the winner. History will say of President Jonathan that he was the first politician to give Nigerians the confidence that they can actually change their leaders through largely peaceful and democratic means. President Jonathan will offend people who think he has no business handing over power because he lost an election, but he will restore faith of millions of Nigerians in a system that promises to respect their will, and the certainty that future leaders and administrations will treat mandates to govern with greater care and respect. He will be recorded by history as the leader under whose administration our nation sank into the lower ends of respectability by the global community, but whose final act will match the greatest tradition of African and global leadership. President Jonathan could secure for himself and his close supporters a pride of place in the nation’s future endeavours to build a strong, united and democratic nation out of its current frightening challenges. He and his close associates will worry over how Nigerians and the next administration judge them out of power, but they will have a strong groundswell of national and global goodwill that will provide them solid protection against impunity and abuse. They will be debating the benefits of postponing life out of power, against yielding to popular demands to submit to electoral defeat.
If the next elections hold, and they are credible, President Jonathan will practically re-write history. If he wins beyond dispute, no one will deny him a place in the sun and a large-then-life place in history. If he loses, and then allows a smooth transition, he will have an even greater place in our history. For that place in history, President Jonathan will have to rise above personal ambition; overcome fear of life outside power; whip the military into line to respect the constitution; rein-in his boisterous and dangerous supporters who believe they can intimidate the nation into submitting to blackmail and another four years with or without the ballot; and assure members of his intimate circle and government that life in a post-election, crisis-ridden nation that will make them all virtual prisoners perpetually looking to a future worse than the past is not a better option.
2. General Muhammadu Buhari
Even General Buhari could not have envisaged that his fourth outing in search of a mandate will transform into an unprecedented national movement that dwarfs his ambition. He is very likely to become President of Nigeria on 29th May and begin to confront the practical elements of his party’s nebulous message of ‘change’. His campaign so far appears to have held together a new political contraption which emerged principally to get rid of the PDP. This is no mean achievement. It appears to have touched a widespread and passionate desire among Nigerians of all faith and language for a leadership that will be as different from President Jonathan’s as possible. His persona is the core of a national momentum to restore basic security and remove fear from lives of Nigerians; stop the institutionalized pillage of national resources and begin to fix an economy that can provide jobs, rebuild basic infrastructure and lay foundations for sustained growth. His biggest initial challenge will be to manage the massive crisis of expectation from a people desperate for genuine improvement in the manner they are governed.
But first, he has to win the presidency. While majority of Nigerians are very likely to prefer him to President Jonathan, his journey to the Villa is by no means assured. There is a whole army (no pun intended) of hostile interests, many with genuine capacity for dangerous mischief who lie in wait to frustrate that journey, afraid of a future under President Buhari. Most will do whatever they can to prevent that presidency ever becoming real. Others can facilitate a subversion of popular will if it insists on a Buhari presidency, even if the nation will burn as a consequence. A combination of a President Jonathan and his core support reluctant to yield to the possibility of a Buhari presidency, defence and security leadership hostile to it, and a compromised INEC could produce either of two options: a state of emergency which postpones elections and the certainty of massive national crises; or a rigged election that will produce the same consequences.
It will be unfair to the democratic spirit and to President Jonathan to assume that he cannot defeat General Buhari in a credible election. The most frequently asked question by the General’s adversaries and friends of Nigeria is whether he will concede defeat if he loses in free and fair elections. As he stands on the margins of a historic victory which only a free and fair election can guarantee, General Buhari does not have the luxury of prevaricating on this issue. In equal measure, he will demand that the elections are allowed to genuinely reflect popular will; and commit to concede to President Jonathan if he loses, in the same manner he expects the President to concede to him if he wins.
For a man who had shown unparalleled faith in the democratic process, running for the fourth time and exhausting the entire electoral processes (including the highest levels of the judicial system) in pursuit of mandates, history is about to deliver another challenge to General Buhari that will test the strength of his commitment to the values of democracy. If a credible election pronounces him loser, he will be judged over his reaction, and the manner he influences post-election developments. If he wins, history will serve him a cocktail of challenges and opportunities that will test his leadership qualities, and his judgment over what directions to lead the nation. Buhari as President will need to strike a firm and realistic balance between a past with gaping holes in accountable leadership, and a future that demands a disciplined focus on essentials of national reconstruction and reconciliation. He will need to satisfy the need for assurances that he will not be vindictive, while upholding the highest standards of good governance, particularly the place of the rule of law. History will judge him on his management of popular demands for restitution and justice against corrupt public officials, while sustaining the vital goals of ensuring political stability and morale in basic institutions of state. He will be assessed on the degree to which he addresses the rebuilding of vital public institutions and services, or devotes time in bringing to book those who destroyed them.
General Buhari’s place in history will change dramatically in the next few weeks. If he loses in credible elections and conceded to Jonathan, he will be listed among the rarest breed of African politicians who submit to the will of the people. If he wins he will embody the triumph of faith in the democratic process. He will be the first Nigerian opposition candidate to defeat an incumbent president. He would have given Nigerians the confidence that they have powers to change their leaders. He will hold up the hope that Nigerians can rally around values which defy ethnicity, faith or class. He will embody the deep yearning for solutions to the nation’s vulnerability to terror, impunity and corruption. His victory will raise hope that Nigeria can be fixed; human life will mean something; public institutions will work; the young can look to a future with confidence and have faith in their nation; and politics will regain its place as a means of freely choosing a better option from others. His personal style and disposition towards the values of democratic governance will show if he has transformed from a former military leader who ruled with an iron first, to a leader who respects the limitations of power. If General Buhari wins and President Jonathan and other powerful interests let him assume power, the nation would have successfully negotiated a frightful turning point in its life. President Jonathan will not need to give himself the title of statesman the way Obasanjo does.
3. Professor Jega and INEC
Recent events demonstrate that the legally–backed independence of INEC is largely wishful thinking. It is, in fact, substantially dependent on the politicians who influence its operations and conduct; on the integrity of its leadership and management; and on a political culture that breeds perceptions that it is not possible to do the right thing in Nigeria. Yet INEC presently holds the key either to a future full of apprehension, or one that will restore hope that Nigerians can rise to occasions and walk away from disaster. Professor Jega is a very important person in INEC, but there is a lot more to INEC than his disposition, personal will and courage. At this stage, INEC’s gameplan is out there. If the elections fail to hold, it will not be because INEC is not ready, but because forces greater than INEC say they will not hold. If they do hold, they will test the degree to which Jega and INEC are involved in the search for appropriate verdicts of history over them.
It is scary to contemplate the fact that the only thing standing between a nation that will go up in flames and descend to anarchy, and one that will survive the next few weeks with confidence, is that INEC must conduct an election that is so credible that no serious disputes will follow it. INEC is a veteran of subversion, from within and from external forces (truth being that these two are intimately related). Even if it still pleads complete innocence, it bears scars of the PVC controversy, the national security bogey; the failed assaults on its card reader; vicious attacks on the integrity and competence of Professor Jega by the ruling party, and God only knows what else is being contemplated. Either alone or with colleagues and a management team that recognizes the historic significance of these elections, Jega has soldiered on with plans to conduct the elections on 28th March and April 11th, and insists that if they become mired in controversy, it will not be because INEC has failed. Many Nigerians reserve their judgments, but pray he is right.
At no other time in the history of our nation had so much depended on one event and a process as our future does on the next elections. INEC has the unenviable task of frustrating all efforts to divert it’s attention, subvert its systems and processes and undermine its integrity. Most Nigerians will ardently hope and pray that it has learnt all the right lessons from its previous experiences. They will hope that every voter who wants to collect his PVC does so before the elections; that card readers work; polling and collating officers do not collude to rig the elections; its deployment of personnel and material is efficient; and it succeeds in keeping the military out of mainstream election activities. There will be no excuses for failure, and anything short of transparently credible elections will be visited with massive uprising in a nation already on its knees from violence. History beckons on Jega and his colleagues to write their places in it. They do not have control over all it takes to do this; but they will succeed to the extent that Nigerians feel that they have acted entirely on the side of a people who need evidence of honour and integrity in persons and institutions trusted with sensitive responsibilities.
4. The Armed Forces
For the first time in a long while, our armed forces are attracting applause and commendation from Nigerians as they appear to be winning the war against terror. For a military with a deserved pride in its past, it could not have been indifferent to a disastrous crash in its image and effectiveness. Its untidy involvement in the elections postponement saga has dipped its standing further in the eyes of many Nigerians. Rumoured attempts to procure a singing Shekau in order to hurt the political opposition will further damage its integrity and professionalism. It will require an emphatic defeat of Boko Haram and painstaking rebuilding of its capacities and values for the military to resume its place as an institution which has given our nation much of its backbone, even if it took wrong turns on a number of occasions.
The Nigerian military has another historic opportunity to march on the side of the people if it shuns the temptations and pressures to damage the democratic process by corrupting the electoral process or preventing the conduct of credible elections as scheduled. If its leadership decides to drag the entire institution to support a betrayal of national trust, what will be lost will be more than opportunities to surmount a critical hurdle by Nigerians. The military will be part of a conspiracy to plunge the nation into new depths of desperation from which it will be difficult to recover. This is not what military men and women signed for, and swore to avoid. There is a future which can provide security in a united and prosperous nation, but no institution is more critical in providing it than our men and women under arms.
Nigerians have sympathized with a once proud and competent military when it became clear that it has been badly let down by the present political leadership. There will be no excuse or sympathy for our military if it lends itself as willing tool to a class of politicians who will render it and other Nigerians worse victims of its own failings and designs. The military has pulled many national chestnuts out of the fire in the past. The verdict of history will ignore its sacrifices to preserve the unity and survival of our nation if it fails to show the highest levels of commitment to the national interest, which is currently entirely manifest in the need for a free and fair election. An overly-political role by military will make this impossible to achieve. The nation will hope that the entire military institution will stand up against abuse of its hallowed values and traditions, and face the future with courage and confidence in a nation that will survive its current challenges and build its future with a strong and professional armed forces.
5. The International Community
The global community has been worried by the paralyzing circumstances in which Nigeria has been plunged in the last few years, because our nation represents so many positive values as an leading African and important developing nation. Those that have followed our history and leadership role, as well as the capacities and potentials of our key institutions are bewildered by the spectacular inroads which terror, corruption and weak leadership have made in our lives. They have followed the painful journey to our present crossroads, and they are holding their breadth to see if we will survive and re-build our nation, or descend lower into chaos and uncertainty. The global environment is replete with wrecks and skeletons of states that made series of successive blunders. Many have been sunk by ambitions of rulers who think they are greater than the people; some took their unity and survival for granted; some failed to strike at the right balance between what is practical and what is necessary; and a few had no helping hand during their moments of needs.
Nigerians cannot accuse the world of indifference or hostility. We are generally perceived by the world as an intensely proud people who are used to solving our problems. Still, many nations with stakes in our security and economic wellbeing have agonized over our seeming inability to pull out of our current challenges. A few appear to have turned their backs on us, angry that we dropped the ball at critical moments. Some wonder how a nation with Nigeria’s military, its huge economic and human endowments, as well as an enviable record as survivor can be helped.
The world has found an entry point through our democratic process. This is a door we cannot shut, unless we embark on a dangerous path of living outside the demands of constitutional democracy. Our elections are therefore everyone’s business, and this time the world believes we are at a point when our democracy will undergo its most servere stress test. There is a huge store of private concern that we may not pull through, and a long queue of help, assistance and counsel on helping the electoral process to deliver a verdict that will be respected by Nigerians and save our nation from going deeper into distress. Our weaknesses have created gaping holes in our integrity and capacity to limit foreign interference, and we are now spoken to will the most minimal of respect and decorum. A few countries are lining up to claim credit for delivering on credible elections which will be the first in which an incumbent president will lose. That credit will not be theirs. It will belong to Nigerians, but it will not stop a global celebration of the triumph of global pressure on an important nation to pull back from the brink. It will take a while for Nigeria, under an effective and respected leadership, to restore the balance between appropriate international roles in our affairs, and our right as a people to manage our affairs and solve our problems. Until then, the global community will and should sustain its vigilance over the forthcoming elections, and work with INEC and Nigerians to ensure that the elections are credible, and politicians respect the outcomes. Nigeria can rise again and reclaim its pride of place in the global community. When that happens, the whole world will be the better for it. A severely distressed Nigeria is a major liability to global security.
It is perfectly conceivable that the March/April elections will pass with the most minimum of disputes and new leaders will emerge and lead the nation along the path of greater national security and unity. Sadly, the opposite is also a distinct possibility. What is clear is that Nigerians know all the options being contemplated. The elections can be postponed on grounds of national security, using a pliant legislature and massive inducements. This option merely buys a little time for a leadership that could become desperately mired in more dangerous schemes to stay in power. It will be violently resisted, and will drag the armed forces directly into fighting the Nigerian people. Or, the elections can be so massively rigged, even the international community with its very low bar for Nigerian elections, could reject the outcome. The government that will emerge from rigged elections will literally declare a war on Nigerians. And it will lose, sooner or later. And then, there is the possibility that many Nigerian leaders and elders will prevail on President Jonathan, the armed forces and security agencies and interests that are terrified of change to allow for credible elections and an orderly transition. This tiny group can make a major difference, and their places in history will reserve what they do or fail to do now as its final verdict. For Nigeria, history will record whether we move beyond this election to build national consensus and strategies on dealing with Boko Haram, fighting impunity, curbing corruption, improving how we live with each other like a coat of many colours; or whether we succumb to the temptation to risk further decline and damage because a few of us place themselves above the nation.
_____________________________________________________* Text of a contribution at the Kaduna Roundtable, 22nd February, 2015.