Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Counting Down to 2011 Elections

Politics, we have often been cynically reminded, is a dirty game. It is a game that participants have to employ whatever means necessary to win; sometimes politicians have to do incredible somersaults or reverse their principles for short term electoral gains. However, politics can also be an interesting game. When one dispassionately analyzes the actions taken by the key figures especially towards an election, one can’t help but smile at the intricate maneuverings going on. Yes, I am talking about the backroom deals; the bonds forged in secret places; a ‘convenient’ marriage of self-interests by sometimes radically different people for the purpose of securing a victory at the polls. Such scheming, wheeling and dealing is certainly familiar to Nigerian politicians—at least one expects such rather than the all-too-familiar bloodletting that happens whenever there are elections in Nigeria.

It is that time again in Nigeria: 2011 is a presidential election year.

For the uninitiated, elections are a particularly difficult enterprise in this 150 million-strong nation of disparate faiths, political views and ethnic nationalities. Routinely marred by violence and gross electoral misconduct, many Nigerians have gradually grown cynical and distrustful of the whole process. And they are not to blame—several times, the clear mandate and choice of the people are scuttled by dirty and compromised election officials, choosing instead to impose on the people a pre-selected favorite of the hegemon in Aso Rock.

There is also the issue of the superabundance of political party platforms, each one seemingly regional in design. For the country to make any meaningful progress past the familiar tribal or ethnic politics which has retarded the country’s expected exponential development, it is necessary to have stable political institutions and parties which are not only national in scope but truly perceived to be so. That has not been the case in Nigeria. Thus, what one observes is a hodgepodge of small and unviable political arrangements, usually on a regional or geographical scale, vying to win local elections, but at the same time pretending to have the capacity to compete on a national scale. On the national scale it would appear, there is only one party that truly exists and that is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Having no credible or evenly matched opposition, the PDP has evolved into a vicious monster with ever-increasing taste for unchecked power. This, unsurprisingly, came with disastrous consequences.

After 16 years of military rule, President Obasanjo was sworn into power in 1999. When he left in 2007, he masterminded the ascension to office of one Alhaji Umaru Yaradua, then governor of Katsina state. I do not want to bother you at this point with the intricate political maneuverings that occurred when Obasanjo decided that he wanted to amend the constitution to allow him to run for the third time. He almost won that exercise were it not for principled opposition. Ironically, his own vice-president was counted amongst the ranks of a massive public outcry against Obasanjo’s self-succession plans. I suppose that ‘betrayal’ was never forgiven by Obasanjo; we can see from his actions that he swore that since his own VP was bold enough to kick against his political machinations, he would also go out of his way to prevent erstwhile Vice President Atiku Abubakar from ever becoming the president of Nigeria.

Fast forward to 2010...

President Umaru Yaradua was supposed to be in office till 2011 when his first term is due to expire. Also, by some dubious arrangement between the Northern and Southern factions of the PDP (the only party that is national in scope, and has the political capital and machinery to actualize their grand designs), it appears that there might have also been some agreement that as a Northerner, when Yaradua’s first term ends in 2011, he was to be unanimously re-elected for a second term. I do not know the details of this party arrangement, but if the whispers in the press, or the interviews of political power-players are anything to go by, it would appear indeed that in the PDP, there is some kind of rotational power-sharing arrangement between Nigeria’s geographically-based Muslim-dominated North and Christian-dominated South.

It is some kind of compromise whereby the party as a whole would choose as its flag bearer in a presidential election, a Southern Christian with a Northern Muslim as his vice president for 8 years of two terms, and then flip that arrangement afterwards. After Obasanjo ruled Nigeria for 8 years as a Southern Christian (the term here is used in as loose a sense as possible), the North was okay with the ascension of Alhaji Umaru Yaradua as the President under the banner of the PDP even though they could have credibly opposed him and selected a much worthier candidate to represent the so-called North. Isn’t it amazing how Nigeria’s politics is still marred by sectarian considerations? Well, to cut a long story short, President Yaradua died in office and was thus replaced by his VP Goodluck Jonathan, who by PDP’s arrangement had to be a Southern Christian.

Then cue the noisy murmurs of disapproval and protest from the North! Apparently, the Northern political class feels like they were cheated because the presidency still ought to be occupied by someone of one Northern extraction. This makes sense of the whole drama surrounding Yaradua’s death. You remember, don’t you—when for 93 days, Nigeria was officially governed by the deceased remains of the late Yaradua? Yes, he had fallen into a coma and was to all intents and purposes completely motionless and incapable of discharging his constitutionally-mandated duties, but stalwarts loyal to him refused to allow his VP to step up in his official capacity to run the ship of state. Some who had already read the tea leaves knew what it would mean. Eventually, common sense prevailed and that was how President Goodluck Jonathan got to be where he is now.

There is still incredible opposition to his presidency from many quarters of the North. But we shall soon see, whether he’ll continue to be the president of Nigeria in the coming year.

Initially, you had figures like the former dictator Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) stepping up to the plate to give a grassroots, party-based, primaries challenge to the incumbent president. Eventually, the North united behind Atiku. What followed was strange. The group that formed to spearhead IBB’s efforts to secure the presidency suddenly decamped and threw their weight behind Jonathan. Atiku and forces loyal to him have already subtly implied an escalation of violence if their ambitions are scuttled. Throughout the south, from public office holders to the public, Jonathan has a clear lead. The battle lines are drawn and we wait with baited breath for PDP’s January primaries. Will Atiku somehow manage to secure the presidential nomination in the PDP? That seems very unlikely. Certainly not when you have an Obasanjo still around working against Atiku’s emergence as PDP’s choice for the 2011 election. And definitely not when you have the sort of firm and resolute support his rival has been enjoying in the South. Furthermore, Atiku’s problems are compounded when smart Northern politicians and northern outfits, who having understood the maneuverings that are often the hallmarks of politics, decided to throw their support behind Jonathan Goodluck. Politics, they say, is a game of numbers. Will IBB decamp to a new party and contest? That seems unlikely because even IBB knows that despite whatever influence or goodwill he imagines he has, it is rather pointless going against the PDP in a national election. Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari is largely irrelevant. Who else from the geographical north is capable of wresting power from Goodluck Jonathan in 2011? That remains to be seen. As things are right now, it seems that everything is conspicuously aligned to return Mr. Goodluck to Aso Rock next year.

Alas, the truth sometimes is stranger than fiction. If past history is anything to go by, no one should fold his or her hands now or count the chickens before they hatch. I am sure that there will be interesting events to look forward to in the New Year. Hopefully, there will not be another conflagration of religiously-inspired or ethnically-based violence which as any Nigerian will readily volunteer, you really ought to expect.

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