When Buhari returns

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Considering The Most High did bring to naught the futile calculations of dark figures around Umar Musa Yar’Adua, the last ailing Nigerian leader from the north, brethren of that ilk around the current one are here forewarned: do justice or another would be put in your place and they would not be like you.

Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria, who after much ado succeeded to his current exalted position, must have had a foreboding of his present dilemma. I suppose it informed his meticulous consideration of candidates presented by his All Progressives Congress (APC) party to run with him on its presidential ticket in the 2015 elections. Even though his hands were tied somewhat – it was politically expedient for the choice to be a southerner and a Christian – he was spoilt for choice regardless. So, the trait then candidate Buhari valued uppermost and sought was total and absolute loyalty. Because even though a vice-presidency is really just a ‘velvet ghetto’, with all the pomp and ceremony of office but no real power, the office-holder could by an Act of God be called upon to lead the country.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a mystical figure in Nigerian political circles and the quintessential Yoruba political leader, was clearly not going to be acceptable: not only was he already so influential in the south, it was well-known he had presidential ambitions of his own. He is also officially a Muslim. Babatunde Raji Fashola, the celebrated former governor of the country’s commercial capital and state, Lagos, was reportedly disqualified for the same reason. A Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket would have been considered insensitive. Even so, Mr Buhari likely rejected Mr Fashola’s candidacy for the vice-presidency with some pain. President Buhari has not hidden his liking for Mr Fashola, a very serious man with a demonstrated capacity for hard work, diligence and follow-through: he put him in charge of the country’s infrastructure (works, power and housing), making him perhaps the most powerful minister in Nigerian history.

Stoop and conquer
Being quite intimately conversant with the ways of the Hausa-Fulani, I am almost certain Mr Buhari’s health status was known to his close aides long before he assumed office. The Fulanis rarely fear a confidence would be betrayed: the consequences can be grave if one earns the reputation for being a blabbermouth. So, those with presidential ambitions within Mr Buhari’s inner circle – call them ‘the cabal’ if you like – were quite aware early on that he may not be able to serve a second term. So when Yemi Osinbajo – a southerner and Christian – was offered as a similarly ‘no-drama’ alternative (but whose presidential prospects were not as bright) to Mr Fashola, ‘Buharists’ were somewhat relieved. Restless beings that they are, which is typical of the ever-scheming Nigerian politician, they remained antsy: Vice-president Osinbajo was not only disrespected on occasion by some very senior Buharists and a particularly vocal northern state governor who is very close to Mr Buhari, they reportedly did so sometimes in the presence of their principal. Such is Mr Buhari’s stature in the north, that when he reportedly ordered his associates to keep the peace, they mellowed.

So, it is to Mr Buhari’s credit that Acting President Osinbajo has been allowed to do his job. It is not happenstance. It was envisaged he may have to do the job at some point – maybe not this early though. And Mr Buhari has had some experience with this type of rule. Back when he was military leader in the 1980s, he allowed his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon (a Muslim southerner), considerable latitude. Thus, those who are already praise-singing Mr Osinbajo are not doing him any favours. He couldn’t do the job effectively without the political cover of his principal. What Mr Buhari lacks in strength, he has in an able vice-president. True, it was unwise of him not to have allowed the humble law professor take on more responsibilities early on. But better late than never.

Respect zoning
Indications have emerged that suggest Mr Buhari would probably need regular medical care during the remainder of his tenure in office. So although he may return anytime now, or later but just in time before the statutory ninety days, after which his deputy may be vested with full authority, he would probably have to visit his British doctors much more regularly. An admonition: wolves already circling should let him be. And Mr Buhari must make it clear to his loyalists that Mr Osinbajo is to be allowed a peaceful rein. They would probably listen to him. But there is just one man they all worry about.

Mr Tinubu, titular national leader of the APC, was a little ‘indiscreet’ lately, suggesting he might contest the presidency in 2019; comments considered insensitive by the northern establishment in light of Mr Buhari’s ill health. While he is not in government, the potential casualty of what is clearly an ill-advised action at this time, would be his ‘political son’ (albeit not as close as many others, but now to be certainly given the utmost political affection), Mr Osinbajo. Yes, he has since clarified his statement, asserting his loyalty to Mr Buhari and declaring he would never contest against him. Still, his message has been heard loud and clear: astute and experienced politicians of his ilk do not make such utterances without careful consideration. And his cohort in the north have definitely taken notice: measures to avoid a repeat of their Yar’Adua – Jonathan loss are probably now in high gear.

In the interest of our peace and security, the political elite must ensure zoning is not jettisoned yet again. It may seem self-interested for northern politicians to clamour for it at this time, in light of Buhari’s potential single-term presidency, but essentially the north-south power-rotation arrangement benefits minorities in the long-run. And we should not soon forget what happened the last time that pact was betrayed.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/when-buhari-returns/

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