By Minabere Ibelema
Nigerians who rue President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure will not like to read this. But he might have the least challenging path to re-election for any incumbent in recent history. For a president who has polarized Nigeria more than any other since the civil war, this will be a remarkable paradox.
And it will be another demonstration that even fair elections, the scope of resentment generated by the incumbent is not always a determinant of the outcome. Victory often results from electoral chess games and calculus. Right now, Buhari is playing the chess game rather well and the calculus is adding up in his favour.
Except for the North Central, the northern geopolitical zones are solidly behind him. The South-West zone — the pivot of his victory in 2015 — will probably return to the fold after Buhari made amends with APC Natonal Leader, Bola Tinubu, and made him a peace broker amidst political restiveness.
The South-South — the PDP’s stronghold during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure — also seems headed in the same direction. Even in the South-East, where secessionist politics reached a fever pitch because of Buhari’s slights, may be gearing up for rapprochement.
This is a remarkable achievement by a taciturn retired general and one-time despot who is not exactly gifted in oratory. Despite his much-noted ethnocentric policies, he seems to be assembling enough of a coalition around the country to ensure a smooth re-election. That’s assuming his faltering health doesn’t do him in.
This scenario of Buhari’s re-election seem ludicrous given the political unrest even within his own All Progressives Congress. But the instability within political parties, including the APC, is all to Buhari’s benefit.
By this time in 2014, the opposition to the Peoples Democratic Party’s 16-year rule had coalesced around Buhari as the APC’s presidential candidate. In contrast, there is still no standout candidate for Buhari’s opponents to rally around. The PDP remains in chaos. That it’s being branded nPDP, as in new, is itself an admission of failure.
The much-credentialed Olusegun Obasanjo — retired general, former military head of state, former president, and former chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees — is scrambling to put together a coalition to unseat the party he theatrically embraced in 2015. But his political gravitas is falling far short of what it will take to generate the kind of enthusiasm that propelled the APC to the top in 2015.
Not when he is facing stiff head wind from fellow Yoruba political heavy weights Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, and even the Oba of Lagos. The Tinubu and Osinbajo obstacles need no explaining. What may surprise many is that the Oba has so publicly skewered Obasanjo.
“I prefer Buhari to Obasanjo,” The Punch quotes Oba Rilwan Akiolu as saying early this month. “Obasanjo keeps deceiving people for what he is after. But if Buhari is given another chance and God gives him good health and he chooses the right people to work with, Nigeria will be a better place.”
It may also come as a surprise to many that several former leaders of Niger Delta militant groups have issued statements pledging cooperation with the Federal Government. As the Vanguard reported on Monday, “Key leaders of various camps of ex-agitators in the Niger Delta have pledged to work with the Federal Government to deepen peace and stability in the oil-rich region in order to pave the way for hitch-free elections in 2019 and beyond.”
This falls short of an endorsement of Buhari’s re-election. But for groups that long made oil exploration in the region treacherous, the pledge of cooperation is itself a victory of sorts for Buhari.
As to the South-East region, that’s where support for Buhari is understandably very low. Yet, there was the governor of Ebonyi State pledging the other day to desist from criticizing Buhari. “I have left all those issues to political parties not because the president is doing everything right, but because he is not God,” Vanguard quotes Governor David Umahi as saying during a meeting with the press in connection with Democracy Day. “He might not be doing everything 100 per cent but it is not my duty to castigate my boss. I will only face my duties.”
Umahi’s conception of boss-subordinate relationship between the president and a governor belonging to a rival party is a curious one in a democracy. And the governor apparently didn’t reckon with the irony of making the statement while observing Democracy Day. But that’s besides the point. What’s of note is that Umahi’s comments reveal the increasing deference to Buhari even in the South East.
That’s not exactly surprising. With the imperial Nnamdi Kanu out of sight and his secessionist IPOB of declining clout, mainstream Igbo political leaders now feel freer to play their political cards. And understandably it is to do what best serves their political needs and those of their constituencies.
When Igbo traders in Calabar ignored IPOB’s call to stay at home on Democracy Day, their reasons reflect the thinking of Igbo political leaders. As reported by The Punch, citing the News Agency of Nigeria, one trader’s view encapsulates it all: “What is the order for? Will sitting at home put food on my table with my children? Such order cannot be obeyed by me and my household.”
Governor Umahi probably wouldn’t put it this bluntly. But the logic may well underlie his pronouncement that he would no longer criticize Buhari. It helps too that Buhari has pledged to make amends in his dismayingly parochial pattern of appointments.
And while on bread-and-butter matters, the surge in crude oil price and revenue also augurs well for Buhari’s re-election. His administration came to be just as the price and revenue were plummeting. The inevitable hit on the economy was a major obstacle to the economic policies he had pledged. Now, as though on cue, the reverse is happening. Oil prices are about double what they were in 2015, and so Buhari has quite a bit of largesse to spread around.
And talking of largesse, the Buhari administration is reportedly relying on a little known budgetary subterfuge to boost its campaign funds. Citing Transparency International, Reuters reported on Monday that, “Nigeria’s government has in the run-up to elections expanded the use of opaque $670 million-a-year funds that fuel graft.”
The budgetary allocation known as “security votes” was introduced by the military regimes as a mechanism for distributing money in cash with no accountability. In the context of elections, the money is readily used to assuage the long suffering and co-opt their votes.
So, yes, the forces that augur well for Buhari’s re-election are considerable — to the elation of some and bewilderment of others.