Quarter Past Time For Nigeria

by Okey Ndibe

Last week, Tunji Fagbenle, one of Nigeria’s finest columnists, alerted his readers to the fact that President Goodluck Jonathan and the operators of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had commenced campaigns for the 2015 presidential polls. Mr. Jonathan’s aides have disowned campaign posters that suddenly flooded the streets of Abuja, proclaiming him a second-term shoo-in. That’s the official script. And, as Mr. Fagbenle knows full well and argues eloquently, it’s a predictable line – and a capital lie.

In several levels, it’s bad news that Mr. Jonathan’s handlers have their sights set on 2015, deny it as they may. Give the devil his due: the PDP has no equal in the department of power grab. It’s a party that desires power for the sake of power.

When the PDP thinks about 2015 – even if it does so by vehemently denying that it’s ever thought about the next elections – it means the party is already fashioning a technology for winning the plumiest prizes in the next “rig-fest.” Sadly, Nigerians seem unable to shake off the bad habit of dozing off between elections. We appear to rouse ourselves only after the game is over, after it’s too late, and after Africa’s biggest, scruffiest political party has hijacked power, by every crooked means.

President Jonathan’s aides have said the right things. The president, they’ve argued, is focused on delivering on this, his first, term. Mr. Jonathan will decide about 2015 at the appropriate time – after he’s fulfilled his current contract with Nigerians.

In justice, the president shouldn’t be entertaining any fantasies about a second term. Not when he has appeared baffled by the demands of statecraft, unable or unwilling to remember the bazaar of promises he made as presidential candidate – or, if he remembers, to rise to the challenge of translating promise into reality. More than any other candidate, an incumbent has an obligation – or should – to have his first term define his case for a second.

Mr. Jonathan’s first term, so far, has been marked by ethical blunders (a failure to fire ministers dogged by charges of corrupt enrichment) and a wastefulness that’s unforgivable in a man who once made much political hay out of his shoeless days (think about acquiring new jets for his office and pushing for a new presidential banquet hall as well as a brand-new, multi-billion new pad for the vice president. This, at a time the important roads in his home state of Bayelsa are impassable. Even Asari Dokubo, one of the president’s most vocal supporters, has seen fit to remark on the irony that, under Mr. Jonathan’s watch, the Niger Delta may be facing its deepest developmental woes yet.

On the strength of his record, the president’s desire for a second term should be a non-starter. But here we are!

The only thing more remarkable about Mr. Jonathan’s apparent fascination with another term is that no serious opposition party is saying anything with much of any traction about the issues, shape and content of the next round of presidential campaigns. There’s the usual talk about an alliance of opposition parties, but such histrionics often end up bogged down in the personality clashes. In other words, the evolving alliance strikes me, once again, as bereft of ideas. It’s the contrivance of a few men and women who are too fixed on securing their perch and prestige in the new arrangement.

One’s nagging fear is that, if care isn’t taken, Nigerians will arrive in 2015 to discover that the notorious “steakholders” had already cornered the prize. Why do the so-called opposition parties operate as if time was on their side? Are their strategists too ignorant to realize, as the PDP seems to know, that the day to start preparing for the next election is the day after the last one?

As a Nigerian public policy professor told me recently, the PDP has operated as an ant-people party. And the recipe for uprooting the party, suggested the academic, is through a serious, sustained grassroots campaign.

The place to start, I suggest, is to put the question of who’s to be president where it belongs: last. There’s a far more pertinent discussion about the kind of country we want. At present, there’s little or no content to the idea of Nigeria. It’s not too radical to stipulate that there are no Nigerian citizens. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as a shared national sense of direction.

The political party that would give the PDP the scare must begin, it seems clear, by articulating a set of principles around which it would be possible to build a huge tent of diverse interests. Such a party must set out to force Nigerians to confront the fact that we have lived – and live – a lie. And it should lead the effort to unmask the nature and scope of this malaise.

As currently structured, Nigeria is rigged in favor of the most determined rigger. A country that permits elected officials to get away with pocketing huge sums (whether in the form of the scam called security vote or through contract inflation) is bound to pollute an angel if one became its president. A country where grand robbers in Government Houses are shielded by broad immunity protection can never have credible elections. In a Nigeria where people are at liberty to flaunt stupendous ill-gotten wealth, there’s no hope – no matter who becomes the president. In a country where too many judges accept bribes and declare that white is black and black white, there can be no foundation to build anything on. When law enforcement officials must seek presidential approval before inviting certain cadres of suspects and criminals for questioning – then there’s nothing there. In a space where dubious mushroom groups offer performance awards to governors and legislators whose specialty is money laundering, there’s only doom.

A Nigeria where the PDP is vanquished will be a sunnier address – at least marginally. I believe that there are, at minimum, thousands of Nigerians who will make much better than the mediocre run the PDP has offered us, including the present occupant of Aso Rock. But it’s up to those who feel passionate about the task to rise and announce themselves and voice their readiness.

Nigerians’ challenge of securing what gains they can from the 2015 set of elections is urgent. My hope is that progressive and enlightened elements within the various opposition parties will get cracking. They ought to present Nigerians with an ideas-politics for a change, spelling out a vision for the country and how they propose to get us there.

My hunch is that it’s already a quarter past late in the day. So those who would be president, governors, legislators and local government councilors ought to make haste.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

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