By Francis Ewherido
I mean no disrespect to other presidential aspirants, but the 2019 Presidential election is a two-horse between President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Anybody who disputes this should tell me the names of the other contestants and their political parties; and also describe their party logos. If you cannot do so without consulting some external sources, how do you expect less enlightened voters, who form the bulk of the electorate, to do so? For now, no candidate can win a presidential election in Nigeria unless on the platform of a party with national spread.
So let us be clear that we are dealing with only two presidential candidates here: President Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Party men and supporters are back in the trenches; not that they really left the trenches after the 2015 presidential elections. They are abusing two septuagenarians as if they are dealing with their domestic staff. I know politics is war, even in advanced countries, and all is fair and square. In fact it is worse than war. In war, at least we have POW (prisoners of war), but in politics, you take no prisoners. Insults and abuses are part of the price you pay for submitting yourself for public office. But I personally find these abuses and insults unhelpful. They muddle up issues and blur our vision. So, let us stick to issues.
SUPREMACY OF VOTERS: In spite of the apparent defects that still exist in our electoral system; we seem to be making some progress, even if slowly. Voters are getting more enlightened and sophisticated. Why do you think people will leave their homes at 2am to queue to collect their voter’s card and when they get to the collection centres, there are already thousands of people on the line waiting to collect their PVCs? Voters, not rigging, will determine who emerges president in 2019.
Ethnicity and Religion: These will play a less prominent role in determining who wins the 2019 presidential election because the two main contestants are Fulani Muslims.
Successes and Failings: Looking at the 2015 elections, former President Goodluck Jonathan lost not necessarily because of what he did, but because of what he failed to do. And Buhari won because of the perception that he will do what Jonathan failed to do. In 2019, Buhari’s fate will rest more on what he failed to do than what he did. On the other hand, Atiku’s fate will rest heavily on whether or not Nigerians think he can do what Buhari failed to do.
Anti-corruption War: the various probes and revelations have proven that corruption was endemic in Jonathan’s government. Buhari promised to fight corruption and that was one of the main reasons he won the election in 2015. He has been fighting it over the last three years and has achieved some success in certain areas. The revelation that the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board remitted a paltry N50m to the government coffers in five years under a PDP and remitted N5b in one year under an APC is a case in point. But like the Obasanjo government, critics complain that the Buhari government’s fight against corruption is targeted mainly at opposition party members. Many critics see Buhari as a medical doctor who hates abortions and would never conduct it, but allows his clinic and doctors in his employment to do it. The current bribery allegation against a governor who is one of his staunch supporters is a litmus test; it will either provide more ammunition for his critics or his supporters, depending on how it is handled or turns out because it’s still an allegation.
Corruption permeates the entire fabric of the Nigerian society. So many people believe that any real fight against corruption should focus more on having strong independent institutions, not individuals. Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, went on trial recently on corruption charges. That is still not possible in Nigeria. Nigerians want a system where everybody, apart from the president and governors who have immunity, can be prosecuted for corruption. Many Nigerians prefer having strong independent institutions to fight corruption instead of our President mouthing anti-corruption on a daily basis. Buhari is perceived as not corrupt, but not so for people around him.
On the other hand, perhaps the biggest baggage Atiku is carrying is being perceived as corrupt. The fact that he is a retired customs officer has not helped matters. His former boss, Obasanjo and other documented sources have also not helped matters. Now his opponents are behaving like typical wrestlers. They are concentrating on his perceived area of weakness. He has challenged anybody who has anything on corruption against him to go to court. In 1992, former US President Bill Clinton was plagued by all kinds of sex scandals, but he still went on to win the US presidential election and got re-elected four years later in spite of more scandals. Americans wanted a better economy and he gave it to them. He was forgiven for an act that usually brought down top politicians in America. How much damage Atiku’s opponents can inflict on him is also dependent on what majority of Nigerians want at the moment.
Economy: The economy will be a major determinant of who wins the 2019 presidential election. Unfortunately, the handling of the economy has been poor in the last three and half years. Growth has slowed down, while we went into a recession. Buhari’s government and supporters can quote increase in foreign exchange reserve, Nigeria retaining its position as the biggest economy in Africa and other positive economic indices, but what matters to the ordinary man is his disposable income and purchasing power. Both have deteriorated over the last three years. Many small and medium- scale businesses are under pressure. About 11 million Nigerians are said to have gone into unemployment since 2015. I do not know how the Buhari government wants to reverse the trend, but if they go into the 2019 elections with many Nigerians in this state, it will hurt his chances.
Conversely, many Nigerians find the combination of Atiku and his Vice Presidential Candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, very tantalizing as far as running the Nigerian economy is concerned. Both are very successful and accomplished businessmen. We must give credit to whom it is due. Even if Atiku made so much money as a customs man, was he the only customs man who made money? Go and see many of these retired customs men; they are either broke or financially stagnated. Others are still asset rich, but cash poor. Atiku left Customs more than 25 years ago and left government in 2007. Many of those who have been out of government since 2007, including former governors, are very broke. Some only go to Abuja when somebody sponsors the trip. No matter how he came by his wealth, Atiku knows how to turn N1 to N2 and that is why he is still stupendously rich. Many believe he and Obi can do a similar thing with the Nigerian economy.
Human Capital Development: Human capital development is another area where this government has not done very well. The Buhari government has some great programmes on human capital growth, but they have not had the desired impact. Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the world with 87 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty. Nigeria, with an estimated population of 200 million people, replaced India with a population of 1.4 billion people as the world’s poverty capital. Other indices on human capital development are just as damning.
Securty: Buhari has been far more successful on the security front, especially the fight against Boko Haram insurgents, than Jonathan. It is difficult to argue that a “bloody” civilian like Atiku can do better than Buhari, a retired army general, on security matters. But the Buhari government’s handling of the herdsmen crisis has left a major dent on his achievements on the security front. Curiously, in those times Prof. Yemi Osinbajo was acting President, Herdsmen seemed to lose their appetite for violence. Minus this blight, it is very difficult to say that Atiku can do better than Buhari on security matters. Although, you can argue that improvement in the economy will automatically lead to improvement in the security situation.
National Integration: The Buhari government has performed very poorly in the area of national integration. Headship of the security agencies is very lopsided and insensitive. Kano and Katsina have also been unduly favoured in recruitments into government agencies and establishments. The number of entrants from Kano and Katsina alone in some recent recruitments was sometimes almost or more than that of the entire South East or South South. Only the South West seemed to have a good showing in the South. The defence by some Buharists that Jonathan did the same thing is tactless. It left many people angrier. Do two wrongs make a right?
I thought the Igbos in government should have drawn the attention of Buhari to the unfair treatment of the region, but they do not seem to have done that. No matter how much you fear or revere your boss, there are ways of pointing out his errors to him without antagonizing him. It is in his interest. For instance, you do not tell a superior he has bad breath. But when you offer him sweets, chewing gum or other mouth fresheners unsolicited, he understands. I do not think the Igbos around Buhari offered him any sweets or chewing gums. That is a fatal flaw which might come to hunt Buhari in 2019.
You can feel the anger of the people from the region everywhere. All those promising Buhari millions of victory in the South East are lying. The Igbo sentiments towards APC is not good and there is little even the governors can do about it. The average Igbo man is independently minded and their society, republican. And when you talk about Igbo votes, you are not talking about the South East only; Igbos are scattered all over Nigeria and the sentiments are predominantly anti-APC.
In the case of the Niger Delta, it is a traditional PDP stronghold. Attempts by opposition to penetrate it have always had one drawback or the other. Just when there was hope that things will change in 2019, the APC threw spanners in the works with the way it handled the state congresses and party primaries, especially in Delta State and Rivers State. Before, APC winning the South South was like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Now, it is like climbing Mount Everest.
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Restructuring: Whatever restructuring means to you, it is something that is very dear to people in the South, but Buhari does not seem to be enamoured with it. He told a delegation I was part of that many of us asking for restructuring are only pursuing parochial interests. This might be true, but even as nebulous as the agitation currently is; he should have followed up on the report of Gov. El-Rufai committee on restructuring set up by the APC. His aides should have prevailed on him. His lack of action on the report might hunt him in the South in the 2019 election, especially when Atiku is promising restructuring.
In the final analysis, the way I see it, who will win the 2019 presidential election will be determined by what is most important to voters at this time. If it is fighting corruption, Buhari will get re-elected, even though his anti-corruption war is flawed. But if people are more interested in restructuring and a better economy, Atiku will carry the day. Whoever gets elected must, however, put independent and enduring anti-corruption mechanisms in place.
Francis Ewherido is a Vanguard columnist.