Will Nigerians be forced to pick between the devil and the deep blue sea again in 2019?
It appears Nigerians are back in the same box they were forced into in 2015.
When President Muhammadu Buhari defeated former President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election, ‘change’ wasn’t just a catchy party slogan anymore, it was a wave sweeping the country.
President Buhari’s victory was the first time an opposition candidate defeated the incumbent in a presidential election and Nigerians were absolutely thrilled with what it represented: the power of the common people to exercise their democratic rights.
Many argued then, as is still argued today, that that election victory was less about complete belief in Buhari as the nation’s leader and more about the overwhelming lack of belief in Jonathan and desire to punish his incompetence.
Nigerians hadn’t just voted Buhari in, they had voted Jonathan out.
However, in the lead up to that election, the Nigerian electorate was caught between a rock and hard place.
The public perception was that Jonathan had failed woefully in governance and Nigerians were not willing to reward his incompetence with a second term that would have kept the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in power for another four years.
When opponents stood to be counted, Buhari was the tallest of them all, perched neatly on the shoulders of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Sure, there were other candidates like Adebayo Ayeni (African Peoples Alliance), Ganiyu Galadima (Allied Congress Party of Nigeria), Rufus Salau (Alliance for Democracy), Remi Sonaiya (KOWA Party), Sam Eke (Citizens Popular Party) among a host of largely unknown others, but nobody was under the illusion of who Jonathan’s challenger was going to be.
Now, not nearly everyone was swept off their feet by the whiff of change that rent the air. Despite Buhari’s self-acclaimed “reformed democrat” shtick, many still treated him with suspicion because of his history and only touched him with a 10-foot pole.
Nevertheless, Buhari, the candidate, survived every wave of campaign attack that was launched at him by the PDP which made the the electorate get even more used to the idea of him as the nation’s long-awaited reformer.
It didn’t matter that there were concerns about the candidate not being academically qualified to contest, or the legitimate concerns about his health, or about his temperament as a democratic leader considering his military past, the electorate wanted Jonathan out, and Buhari was the closest man waving a flag, any flag of note.
Almost three years down the line now, and it appears history is about to repeat itself.
Not the Prince that was promised
By whatever metric anyone decides to wholesomely rate Buhari’s administration after three years, it has objectively fallen way below the high expectations that it set for itself and promised the Nigerian public.
After a period filled with controversial foreign medical trips, corruption scandals involving high level officials in his administration, and perceived sectional bias, the confidence in President Buhari has taken a massive hit in the run up to the 2019 presidential election.
Just like it happened during Jonathan’s reelection bid, many have started blowing hot over the fact that the most important vote in 2019 is the one that puts Buhari out of the Presidential Villa, no matter who has to go in.
And there’s someone who is apparently dying to go in.
Enter Waziri of Adamawa
Despite failed bids for the presidency in 2007, 2011, and 2015, Atiku Abubakar does not seem deterred.
Even though, like Buhari, he hasn’t officially declared his intention to run for president in 2019, it’s considered to be only a matter of time.
With that knowledge, when you glare across Nigeria’s political landscape right now for who Buhari’s biggest opponent for the 2019 contest is most likely to be, it’s Atiku.
The former Vice President has been making obvious moves over the past month that has kept Buhari’s administration on its toes, with the most notable move being his return to the PDP in December 2017 after resigning from the APC.
He surely didn’t move for the love of the flag.
With public confidence in Buhari dwindling everyday, Nigerians are starting to look out for possible opponents to use to push him out in 2019, and Atiku already appears to be leading that line.
The only problem here is, just as with Buhari in 2015, many remain unconvinced by his intentions and are treating him with an abundance of suspicion.
Atiku has had to defend his time served as deputy to former President Olusegun Obasanjo for eight years as he’s been questioned relentlessly on why he thinks he can make any sort of difference now despite being part of the establishment for so many years.
Exactly like with Buhari just three years ago, there are other question marks over Atiku’s suitability to the position especially considering that he’ll be 72 if he wins in 2019, the same age as Buhari at his swearing-in ceremony in 2015.
For all intents and purposes, the 2019 presidential race continues to appear like a straight-up battle between Buhari and Atiku who’ll both be contesting with the country’s biggest parties.
However, seeing the pattern of realistically limited choices, Nigerians have started to resist the yoke of always having to choose between only two uncomfortable choices.
On January 4, a former Minister of Education, Dr Oby Ezekwesili announced her agenda to actively campaign against the ruling APC and the opposition PDP for the 2019 general elections.
According to her, unless the two biggest parties “field new minds with strong record of public interest”, she’ll enjoin Nigerians to look towards the best candidates of all other parties.
Voicing the thoughts of many Nigerians, the former minister referred to the two parties as “a wicked minority political elite class” who are guilty of repeating “similar pattern of bad behavior”.
In her parting shot, she said, “It is the agenda of an ordinary citizen of this country. Mock it. Attack it. Disdain it. Do whatever. Yet it shall prevail. Why? The universe is tired of you.”
Is Nigeria ready for a political revolution?
Current French President Emmanuel Macron created his ruling party, En Marche, just a year before his momentous victory during the 2017 presidential election.
While this should represent hope for Nigerians’ wish to break the hegemony of its minority political class, the country’s political structure is a whole different house of cards to that of France.
For starters, Nigeria currently has 67 political parties.
Of those 67, only a few have won elections across all levels of government, and even less possess the influence to contest the presidential election.
In the 2015 election, President Buhari and Jonathan shared a whopping 98.92% of the total votes, while the remaining 1.08% of the votes went to the other 12 candidates.
In the 2011 presidential election, out of the valid 96.81% votes, the duo also shared 90.87%, while the other 18 candidates fed off the scraps.
If this history is anything to go by, there’s not much of a chance that a strong third (or fourth, or fifth) voice is going to emerge to disrupt the process as Nigeria barrels towards 2019.
There will definitely be pretenders; people that will appear to have a real nice shot at causing a crack; people that other people have undying love that they profess every chance they get; people that represent the appearance and plans and the ideals that Nigerians have screamed for and dreamed about; but those people will fall by the wayside.
It’s already telling that despite the fact that neither Atiku nor Buhari has officially declared intention to run, they might as well have because that’s all anyone talks about.
As much as the thought of a saviour riding in to break the wheel of the country’s political monotony fills every Nigerian with sweet feelings, it’s realistically a pipe dream.
To understand why this is so, it’s important to interrogate why it’s near impossible to break out of Nigeria’s political matrix.
Nigeria’s political structure is a problem
Attributing Nigeria’s troubles to a single problem is rather foolhardy.
The country, as a collective, is the result of a series of problems that have mingled so seamlessly into one another that it’s hard to untangle and tell them apart after years of dysfunction.
For the last few years, the word ‘cabal’ has been thrown around to describe a group of people not necessarily elected by the people but more powerful than whichever president is acting as the figurehead.
Whether this cabal is an actual movement or not, Nigeria’s political circle can’t be said to be a large one.
This has been chiefly responsible for why the country has had such a small pool of people to choose from, so much that two of its last four democratically-elected presidents have previously ruled as military leaders decades ago.
The influence that this small circle wields on the country’s fortunes is a stranglehold that has polluted much of the people’s outlook on how the country should work.
Most crucially, this influence has enjoyed tremendous success in suffocating the people’s political will to actually work for anything different from what they’re being fed.
To surmount this very obvious problem, there are currently real conversations, such as the one championed by Dr Ezekwesili, going on in the country right now about how to break this yolk of suffering from a poverty of choices for elective positions, especially for the presidency.
Nigerians, most notably on social media platforms, are ready to persuade anyone that’ll listen that maybe its time to really get behind an outsider that has a real chance to upset the old order and maybe put the country on the front foot for once.
The only problem is the bulk of these conversations are mostly happening in the wrong place.
There are no shortcuts to achieving real change
The same way it’s thoughtless to think Nigeria’s problems can be simplified is the same way it’s problematic to think it’s going to take a quick fix through an electoral victory for whoever is able to convince the electorate that they’re IT.
While Nigerians hold the important deliberations on breaking the sway of the political class, it’s happening among only a fraction of the country’s population.
The population that needs the most prodding is the one that is offline: the man and the woman in the market; the illiterate man and woman in the rural areas; the man and the woman whose vote rests with whoever squeezes naira notes into their palms at the voting booth; the man and the woman whose votes are tinged with whichever bias they tap into.
One of the many reasons why a Macron cannot just emerge in Nigeria is because, unlike France, Nigeria has too many biases competing for attention.
Religion, tribe, and whatever sub-category of those two are some of the key components that make up the decision-making process of Nigerians when dealing with important decisions like who to vote for president.
It’s why there are things like zoning (by religion, and by ethnicity) and why the political class knows to whip up these sentiments to cloud the people’s better sense of judgement.
Another overpowering factor that’s kept this structure firmly in place is the poverty in the country which makes it possible to just buy people’s votes with peanuts.
This is where other parties fit into the discussion.
The Not Too Young To Run movement has been accused, among other things, of feeling entitled to take over political power without putting in required work.
Young or not, the problems plaguing Nigeria’s political structure cannot be swept under the carpet instantly for an outsider to casually swoop in and get rewarded simply for being that.
Opposition parties and thought leaders should rub minds together and realise that working from all the way down might be the most reasonable way out of these roadblocks to a true political revolution in the country.
How do you convince the 97% that voted for Buhari in the north in 2015 to turn against him only four years later especially if you’re a candidate from the south?
How do you educate the electorate that their votes for local government chairpeople, members of the state and federal parliaments, as well as governors are equally as important as the ones they cast for the presidency?
To even start to scratch the surface, Nigerians have to be scrubbed clean of a considerable number of institutionalised problems that always come into play when making electoral decisions.
When we begin to see candidates first for what they are, and not where they come from or who they worship, then maybe we’ll start to make a few smart decisions.
Political parties need to realise this and show more commitment towards fulfilling their roles in leading the country out of political limbo.
This is not an easy task and will definitely take years before it even starts to gain any sort of traction, but maybe it’s a start, and maybe there are people out there with better ideas, but we cannot keep pretending that the current situation will course-correct itself without serious work.
If there’s any question about whether Nigerians will have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea again in 2019 like it did in 2015, the answer is yes.
There simply is no momentum to cause an upset to that structure in time for the election next year, at least not for the presidential race.
Despite this ugly reality, the more important question to ask right now is whether we want to be back here talking about the same problem in 2023.