Ahead of his 80th birthday, Gen Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who ruled Nigeria as a self-styled military president from 1985 to 1993, spoke at length with ARISE TV in an interview aired on Friday. Answering a number of politically sensitive questions, IBB took a position on the thorny issue of what region should produce the next president. The state of play today is that the two leading parties, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC), are yet to make any commitments as to where they will zone their presidential tickets. I guess a mind game is going on. Neither wants to risk losing. Therefore, where one party zones will influence where the other goes.
Many would think it is already customary in Nigeria that power should alternate between the north and south. Even when there are no constitutional provisions to that effect, the politicians always hammer on having had a “gentleman’s agreement”. The incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, is from the north and would have done two terms of eight years by 2023. Southern governors elected on the platform of APC, the ruling party, have been saying there was a “gentleman’s agreement” in 2015 that the next port-of-call would be the south after Buhari’s tenure. In a multi-ethnic and politically inflammable country such as ours, I would say rotation is a no-brainer.
But there are those who argue that democracy means “free choice” and voters should not be limited in their options. Let all who are interested throw their hats in the ring and let the people decide. Another aspect of this argument is that merit should come above any other consideration. Nigeria is in dire need of good leadership, it is argued, and we need the best of the best to be elected, no matter their region or tongue. I don’t think we can argue convincingly against meritocracy. In an ideal situation, where all things are equal, we should not be making any argument for inclusion, equity and equality. We should just throw the door open, assured that everything will be fine.
But as the late Justice Abiodun Nuraini Kessington would say, “It is because parties to a case don’t trust the judge to do justice that they engage lawyers.” If Nigerians are very sure there would be fairness and justice in Aso Rock, not many will be fighting over where the president comes from. But there are fears of exclusion, fears of domination, fears of marginalisation. The constitution provides for federal character as part of the principles of fostering national cohesion and nation-building. This is supposed to be a kind of assurance and re-assurance, in a multi-ethnic and politically fragile entity, that nobody will feel left out. Power rotation can be a good instrument of inclusion in Nigeria.
Babangida has chosen the “ideal” option, saying that where a president comes from shouldn’t matter, that it should all be about merit, competence and other synonyms. “Either we want to practise democracy the way it should be practised, or we define democracy on our own whims and caprices,” he said, appearing to suggest that power rotation is undemocratic. “If we are going to do it the way it is done all over the world, you allow the process to continue. It is through the process that you will come up with a candidate that will rule the country. His beliefs and qualifications should be considered before he throws his hat into the ring, regardless of where he comes from.”
It is convenient to compare Nigeria’s democracy with America’s and go on about “the ideal”, but every country has its own history and peculiarities. Even in America, where some principles are firmly settled after over 200 years of democracy, there are still questions over equity and equality in the democratic process and the systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters. And as we recently saw under Donald Trump’s presidency and his policies on health care and immigration, exclusion is still a major issue in the “ideal” American democracy. It is not for nothing that President Joe Biden Jr has the most diverse cabinet in US history after the Trump years. Is inclusion undemocratic?
Theoretically, northern Nigeria has the numbers to decide where the president comes from. That is why many southerners believe the north holds the ace and the pronouncements of its leaders and power brokers on rotation matter a great deal. The north has 19 out of 36 states of the federation, further reflected in the fact that it has over 52 per cent of the registered voters, plus the visible reality that voter turn-out is always higher in the north than the south. Practically, though, the north is not monolithic and its votes usually go in different directions. In fairness, it has used its numbers — not once, not twice — to support a southerner against one of its own: in 1993, 2003 and 2011.
In fact, in 1999, northern power brokers schemed for the two presidential candidates to come from the south-west as compensation for the June 12, 1993 presidential poll annulled by IBB. The annulment was one of the most anti-democratic attempts in our history, perpetrated by the latest theorist of “ideal” democracy. His renewed attempt at justifying the annulment still falls short. Meanwhile, many would argue that the north took the “power shift” decision in 1999 in enlightened self-interest to keep Nigeria together after a debilitating logjam. Whatever, the north has shown itself to be pragmatic in the power game. They know the line between “the ideal” and “the real”.
Having keenly studied our political temperature in and out of season since Independence, I have often concluded that we need to evolve a peculiar political compromise to keep Nigeria together in order to enjoy some peace and stability — and progress. There are a million and one things wrong with us, but some continue to hurt us more than the others. The uncertainty over where political power will go “next” is a perennial source of tension in the body politic. This not only injures the polity, we now have a situation where those who feel denied political power become bitter enemies of a sitting president and try to make the country ungovernable, adopting every trick in the book.
There is no doubt that since President Goodluck Jonathan defied the PDP rotation agreement in 2011, our polity has not recovered from it. I know people who disdained and criticised him solely because of the fact that he contested at a time the north had not fully used up its allotted eight years in Aso Rock, a situation caused by the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua after only three years in office. We now have a reverse: much of the hate Buhari has been receiving since 2015 stems from the bitterness of those who felt Jonathan was “chased out”. This has been fully cast as a “Fulani jihad” and every crime is now framed as being committed by “Fulani herdsmen”. So it goes.
My argument in 2011 was that it was humanly difficult for Jonathan not to run after having been the substantive president for one year following the death of Yar’Adua. More so, there was no law barring him from running, although he was said to have entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” to do only one term, which he denied. I argued then that Dr Nelson Mandela was the only sitting African president to have declined a second term. My proposal, as ever, is to entrench rotation in the constitution so that the certainty can address a defining aspect of our nationhood that perennially inflames passion and hurts national cohesion. We need to seriously consider this option.
I have a few more things to point out. One, I disagree with IBB’s insinuation that power rotation is undemocratic. A lot of things go into democracy in addition to voting. Political accommodation is one of them. Elite consensus, worked out politically, is part of the democratic process and cannot be termed undemocratic. Also, context matters a lot, beyond a rigid reading of democratic theory and practice. For democracy to thrive, it must be adapted to the political realities of its environment. Democracy acknowledges that all fingers are not equal. Balancing is part and parcel of democracy, especially in a developing country where political maturity is still budding. We cannot ignore this.
The history of Lebanon, for example, is heavily rooted in religious lines. They had to devise a power sharing formula to calm tempers and have some political stability. The Arab country’s parliamentary seats are split between Muslims and Christians and proportionally divided among the different denominations within each religion. The president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Lebanon is a democracy. The arrangement is not “ideal” and I am not proposing this for Nigeria because things are not that bad here, but the Lebanese realised they needed to have a country first before discussing the “ideal”.
Two, I support “merit” by any means — but I refuse to accept that power rotation is anti-merit. No. I insist, and will continue to insist until I am proved wrong with solid evidence, that there is no part of Nigeria that does not have merit. There is no state, zone or region that does not have eminently qualified people to be president. As I typically say, I can give a list of five possible candidates per state. I do not buy the idea that the moment you zone presidency, then you are excluding merit. If it is the turn of your region and you refuse to put your best candidates forward and instead choose to nominate errand boys and misfits, you cannot turn around to blame power rotation for that.
Finally, I find it antithetical that a country that has federal character in its constitution can think it is undemocratic to apply it to the choice of presidents. Why not discard the federal character altogether and settle for the “ideal” then? Also, the constitution says a presidential candidate must have “national spread” by scoring at least 25 per cent of votes cast in at least 24 states — a clear attempt at national integration. Yet, we cannot see the reason why power rotation is also a veritable tool of national cohesion. I totally agree that power rotation is not the ultimate solution to Nigeria’s problems — but it will, at least, address an emotive issue that always puts the country on the edge.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Abba Kyari, the deputy commissioner of police at the centre of a US indictment, initially rushed to Facebook (ill-advisedly) to make all kinds of claims when the court papers were unsealed. He didn’t even seek legal advice before posting. He has now sought to withdraw his curious claims about native caps and is trying to push the narrative that Ramon Abbas, the self-confessed international scam artist better known as Hushpuppi, only engaged him as a debt collector. Smart? No. For a superstar cop that was so well decorated, it is a bit disappointing that he does not know much about digital footprint: all his posts have likely been archived. He is now trying to undo them. Crass.
When I saw one headline that 20 people died from cholera in Zamfara, my reaction was that of empathy. Bandits kill them every day. It now seems they can survive bandits and still get killed by cholera. That is the lot of ordinary Nigerians. Cholera cases and fatalities are disturbingly on the rise at a time COVID-19 is making its third entrance into the dubious limelight. It appears Nigerians do not have any fears about COVID19 again. Some actually think it is a hoax or that it kills only “big” people — or that it is “ordinary malaria”. Whatever you believe, please protect others even if you don’t care about your own health. Always use a face mask correctly and keep a safe distance. Please.
Can any Olympics be called Olympics if Nigerian administrators do not win a medal for mediocrity? The international embarrassment in Tokyo is so typical. A leopard does not change its skin, does it? We do things anyhow in this country. Ten athletes were disqualified for failing to meet the minimum out-of-competition drug tests requirement. Shot-putter Chukwuebuka Enekwechi had to be washing his jersey daily because he reportedly got only one for the entire Olympics. This country can kill your spirit! Something tells you Nigeria can be far better than this, but until we have the right people with the right attitude in the right places, we will keep disgracing ourselves home and abroad. Disgusting.
IBB ON CORRUPTION
Gen Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, claimed in his ARISE TV interview that corruption is worse today compared to the military era. “I think we are saints when compared to what is happening under a democratic dispensation. I sacked a governor for misappropriating less than N313,000,” he said. He may be right — I can’t say — but not just that the N313,000 of 1989 is not the N313,000 of 2021, military rule was shrouded in secrecy. Nigerians had no right to demand accountability. With democracy, more things are now in the open. Democracy also means accused persons can’t be summarily dismissed or jailed. IBB’s logic is called “false equivalence”. Dribbled.