A friend, who is a pastor, chatted me up on WhatsApp recently. We often discuss Nigerian politics. When he buzzed, I knew it was time for another session in view of the prevailing circumstances.
“Who are we voting for o… been looking forward to your analysis,” he asked. Of course, I do not endorse candidates. No matter the soft spot I have for them, I do not say “this is the candidate to vote for”. I prefer to analyse them, list their good and bad sides and let the readers judge. When people seek my opinion, I always try to make them pipe down on their enthusiasm that a messiah is in town. Nigeria’s problems will not disappear overnight. The direction of leadership is the key thing.
After chatting back and forth on each of the top presidential candidates and how we think the elections would go, my friend and I concluded that a credible election will be more imperative than ever. I expressed faith in the ability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), under the leadership of Prof Yakubu Mahmoud, to deliver the goods. My friend then fired a parting shot: “This election’s throwing us into a rare situation. Muslim-Muslim ticket. Igbo presidency. Power remaining in the north. Either of tribal or religious sentiments will have to give way for the other.” I was wowed! “I didn’t even see things this way,” I replied. “You’ve just inspired an article in me.”
There is a sense in which we can say every election in the fourth republic comes with its peculiarities and 2023 would not be an exception. In 1999, we had two candidates of the same ethnic stock and religion on the ballot — Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae. In 2003, we had the first election to be organised by a sitting government and many feared it would end the way the 1964 and 1983 elections did — in chaos, ultimately leading to the termination of democratic rule. Our democracy survived the sad predictions. In 2007, we had the transfer of power from one elected president to another — the first in our history. The elections were a sham but we managed to survive.
In 2011, we elected the first president from a southern ethnic minority but he had to ward off a strong northern challenge from within and without his party. It was also noteworthy because the entire southern states, minus one, voted in one direction, coupled with support from seven northern states, to defeat a candidate from one of the major ethnic groups. In 2015, we recorded perhaps the biggest landmark so far — an incumbent being defeated by the opposition candidate and conceding the election before the final results were officially announced. In 2019, the novelty was not that much, just that an incumbent retained power for the second time since 1999. Small statistic.
As my friend noted, 2023 may be the most significant yet. There are more that the regular two major candidates. We now have four: Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Mr Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), and Alhaji Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). If Atiku or Kwankwaso wins, that means power will be in the north for 12 years non-stop. If Tinubu wins and is inaugurated, a Muslim-Muslim presidency will be a first. It nearly happened in 1993. And if Obi wins, he will become the first elected president from the south-east. Another sensational novelty.
Atiku, unlike Tinubu, does not have any issues with religious balancing — he is a northern Muslim and expectedly picked a southern Christian as his running mate. But a peculiarity, or novelty, is also on the horizon. By May 29, 2023, President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, will have spent eight years in office. Conventional wisdom is that power should move to the south after that. However, Atiku, who harbours a lifelong ambition to be president, was backed by the “elders” of the PDP to win the party’s presidential ticket. In this fourth republic, Atiku has always participated in the presidential race since 2007 irrespective of where the position is zoned. This is nothing new to him.
Although southerners might be calculating that if Atiku wins, power will be in the north for 12 to 16 years non-stop, his calculation is different: that the PDP has only produced one northerner, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, as president. Yar’Adua fell terminally ill and died before his third anniversary in office. Therefore, Atiku would argue, the 16 years of PDP in power was overly dominated by southerners and it is only fair for a northerner in the party to finally get it. He has always argued, openly, that national unity is not a function of what region produces the president but the way the president handles matters of equity and fairness in office. He has promised to be fair to all.
I believe that the PDP decided to go north for practical purposes. That is the only advantage it can gain in the race. The assumption before the primaries was that APC was going to pick a southerner. If PDP had also picked a southerner, the field would be wide open to APC in the north where it controls 14 of the 19 states. By going north, PDP would hope to get northerners to prefer a fellow northerner to a southerner. PDP can also hope to enjoy the fallouts from the Muslim-Muslim ticket in the south and the Christian north. If Atiku wins, there will be novelties to it: the first time power would stay beyond eight years in a region and the first president to be elected from the north-east.
For those who are religiously sensitive when it comes to politics, a Muslim-Muslim ticket is a no-no, and this is one battle Tinubu will have to fight — and win — if he is to actualise his presidential ambition. The peculiarities of Nigerian politics, as I have pointed out in the past, are evident in the dilemma. It is usually thought that a southern presidential candidate must be Christian and a northern one must be Muslim. Since we like to do balancing, we always prefer a Muslim-Christian match and a north-south pairing. If this understanding holds forever, a northern Christian will struggle hard to be president or vice-president and a southern Muslim will find it very hard as well.
With Tinubu, a southern Muslim, as the APC presidential candidate, he was faced with a dilemma in choosing a running mate. It had to be a northerner, no questions about that. But should it be a Muslim or a Christian? That was the question. The north is predominantly Muslim, plus Tinubu will be up against Atiku, a “homeboy” in the region. I guess Tinubu did his calculations and decided that he would stand a better chance up north with a Muslim-Muslim ticket — with the hope that he would also win convincingly in his south-west base and put up a decent showing in the south-south. It is a big gamble, I would say, but some political analysts were expecting this scenario all along.
Tinubu probably calculated that those who would vote for him would still do so irrespective of the faith of his vice-presidential candidate and those who would not vote for him would not change their minds even if he picked someone of a different faith. It is possible he reasoned that many of those opposed to the Muslim-Muslim pairing even before he picked Ahaji Kashim Shettima are known to be opposed to the APC. In the final analysis, nonetheless, if Tinubu wins with a Muslim-Muslim ticket, a major jinx will have been broken and political balancing at the national level may experience a re-engineering. After all, this is how precedents are set. We eagerly await how it will pan out.
If Obi wins, that, in my opinion, will be the biggest landmark. Virtually everything about it would be novel. That would be the first time a party without a state under its control would win the presidential election. It would be the first time a party without control of the national assembly would produce the president. Above all, it would be the first time an Igbo would be elected president. The icing on the cake, of course, would be that an Igbo is elected president without “zoning”. Before the presidential primaries, Igbo leaders were asking the APC and PDP to concede their presidential slots to the south-east. Achieving this without zoning would be extraordinary.
Obi’s candidacy is, as it were, accidental. He wanted to contest for PDP’s ticket. With the signals not looking bright for him, and with the possibility of being picked as the vice-presidential candidate not looking good either, he defected to LP. Before you knew what was happening, his popularity caught fire on Twitter as he was branded the “frugal” and “honest” president Nigeria needs. Soon enough, his Twitter popularity started translating to tangible support on the streets, so much so the notion of him being anyone’s running mate was no longer something to be contemplated. Although much of his Twitter base is considered ill-mannered and foul-mouthed, I believe it is working well for him.
Many things are aligning for Obi: the home support in the south-east, the passion of the youthful #EndSARS movement, and the displeasure in sections of Christendom over the choices of the other parties. Plus he is the new symbol of those searching for “change”. Buhari was the symbol in 2015. Obi’s strength outside the south is not considered significant enough to turn the table, but he can also make use of the relatively long period between now and the February 2023 presidential election to widen and deepen his base. If he wins, it will be one of the most momentous developments in our politics since 1960, ranking almost side-by-side with the defeat of a sitting president in 2015.
We have quite an election in our hands. It will be the third president-to-president transition via the ballot, thereby consolidating our democratic experience. Beyond that, the election will challenge some received wisdoms. Will the voters choose to have power retained in the north — in spite of the power rotation understanding? Will they vote for a Muslim-Muslim ticket — overlooking lack of religious balancing? Or will someone from the south-east finally break the jinx by winning organically — proving that zoning is overrated? No matter who wins, something unusual is bound to happen next year. INEC and security agencies must put in their utmost best to help us make history. Epic.