Finally, the week has arrived when Nigeria will face the oddest and staunchest test for its electoral experimentation.
Odd because, as I have argued for some time, the two acknowledged top contending political parties are ideological twins, united by a shared predatory vision of governance. And if my hunch is right, then Nigerians stand to see, at best, cosmetic and fleeting benefits should the opposition APC win—and the certain continuation of a ruinous order should the ruling PDP retain power.
Staunch because the stakes are even much higher than the 2007 elections when outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a do-or-die battle, or the 2011 elections when many Nigerians, in full sobriety, insisted that they would vote for Goodluck Jonathan, whom they declared congenial and committed to the common good, whilst proclaiming their distaste for his political party, the PDP.
I warned then, hardly heeded, that it was nonsensical to embrace the man and claim to abjure the party that both produced and defined him. I was also at pains to point out the pitfalls of falling for Mr. Jonathan’s narrative of growing up poor and shoeless. It wasn’t so much that one disbelieved the story as much as that, true or false, it was self-evident that the narrative had clearly failed to shape Mr. Jonathan’s political career. It was not as if he was coming out as a political cipher, devoid of a track record. No: he had a well-known middling record. He’d been a deputy governor, a governor, a vice president and an acting president. And, since there was little in his political past to demonstrate a deep awareness of and affinity with the downtrodden, I was doubtful that he would suddenly develop a humanistic instinct or activate a broad social acumen once elected president.
The substance and style of Mr. Jonathan’s administration bore out my skepticism. Under his watch, the few continued to thrive, squandering the country’s resources, at the detriment of the majority. Confronted with the prospect of utter defeat on February 14, it’s no wonder that he and his associates sought a six-week postponement of the polls. He has used the extra time, not to defend his record—of which there’s little to defend—but to literally buy up affection.
The debate is no longer whether he ran a corrupt shop, but whether he outstripped Mr. Obasanjo’s record in that regard. There’s little argument about his ineptitude; the debate is whether he raised the bar so high that no predecessor would be able to compete in that dubious department.
Given the ruling party’s record, not just under Mr. Jonathan but since 1999, one would have expected Nigerians to be anxious to break in a radical and decisive way with the reigning order. I insist that the All Progressives Congress (APC) hardly fits the bill. The party’s best and worst weapon is Muhammadu Buhari. I respect the man’s uncommon example of self-restraint when it comes to illicit accumulation of riches. He served as a petroleum minister and a military head of state, but—unlike many a retired general—has little material possession to show for it. That’s admirable. But a little sense of history ought to instruct us that personal example is hardly enough. For have we forgotten that former President Shehu Shagari was also, by most accounts, allergic to looting? Yet, his government incubated corruption on a vast, monumental scale. Ironically, it fell to Mr. Buhari to dethrone the Shagari administration in 1983.
One feels a profound disquiet that Mr. Buhari and the APC are saddled together. The party is filled with men and women whose dominant reputation, well earned, is one of moral bankruptcy and absence of wholesome vision. Their presence, indeed dominance, in the APC; the party’s failure to develop an identity significantly separate from that of the PDP, and its inability to outline a bold set of prescriptions for Nigeria’s malaise—all these expose the APC as little more than a patchwork, a hodgepodge of strange interests and bedfellows driven by a craze for power.
After “capturing” power, then what? The APC seemed reluctant to share. It and its candidate refused to debate the PDP and Mr. Jonathan. That struck me as rather bizarre, for any serious party and candidate should be able to demolish the PDP and their presidential candidate in a debate. I chalked it all up to the party’s reluctance to expose its own barrenness to Nigerians.
Mr. Buhari may be a good man, but is he prepared for the physical, mental and other demands of running a complex, riven country in the 21st century? He’s many Nigerians’ idea of a mini-Rawlings, but there’s no space in a democratic setting for a Rawlings, lite or at full dose. The question, then, is whether Mr. Buhari possesses the energy to be a hands-on, driven president, one able to make his presence felt in the various sectors of our troubled country’s life? And, even more fundamentally, whether he has the capacity and courage to envision and push for a restructured Nigeria, one in which institutions, rather than individuals, are the engine, and accountability as well as transparency serve as watchwords.
The PDP has contended that Mr. Buhari is physically enfeebled, and that he’s lost a step or two mentally. The APC presidential candidate’s unwillingness to present himself for a debate with Mr. Jonathan has fertilized the perception that he may not be up to the grade. That, in turn, has fed speculation that he’s a tool in the hands of interests whose agenda is, at bottom, questionable.
I believe that the APC’s defeat of the PDP is bound to give Nigerians a great emotional lift. The PDP’s threat to rule Nigeria for sixty years frightens the hell out of many Nigerians, me included. But I don’t see a way around the sneaking suspicion that we’re faced, this week, with a choice between two factions of the same ideological camp.
Still, if on March 28 and April 11 the results of the elections reflect the wishes of the majority of Nigerian voters, rather than a fraudulently manufactured outcome, then it might be said that the victory, for what it is, has gone to all of us and our undoubted commitment to a deepening democratic culture.