Dialogue With Nigeria By Akin Osuntokun Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The necessity to choose a favorite between two offspring is an ordeal no parent would ever wish to contemplate. It is certain to inflict a terrible psychological wound on the loser and the unintended cruelty would forever haunt any conscionable parent. Inevitably it will deeply unsettle if not ruin the entire family relationship. This was the situation in which the Afenifere political establishment found itself in 1999. There was not going to be a conventional primary election to choose the presidential candidate of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) - the political party sponsored by Afenifere.
Chiefs Ajibola Ige and Olu Falae were the two personalities aspiring to become the presidential standard bearer of the AD. It was not only the grand old men that found this situation emotionally enervating, the young ones were similarly torn apart. The Afenifere constituted a conclave of 23 men to confront the challenge and make a choice between six and half a dozen. In the end, Falae prevailed and in consequence and all too predictably, the group literarily fell apart and was no longer at ease (apologies to Chinua Achebe). Ige had the presumed advantage of being a senior contender both in age and membership over Falae. He was in fact the deputy leader to Senator Abraham Adesanya. Next to Chief Obafemi Awolowo he was undoubtedly the most popular Yoruba politician in living memory; he was also an unapologetic Yoruba irredentist.
Falae was a technocrat and a newcomer to the Afenifere. He had a lifelong career as a civil servant in the Federal Public Service which gave him national exposure and confer on him the aura of a cosmopolitan. He distinguished himself as a steady, capable and knowledgeable public servant. There were rumours to the effect that peer rivalry and jealousy among Ige’s Afenifere colleagues played a role in the preference of Falae. All told I felt the umpires made the right call. I will elaborate on this later.
President Olusegun Obasanjo is a man of destiny. An early inkling of this attribution was the prophetic foresight of the then military governor of the Northern Region, Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina. In the thick of the 1966 crisis, Obasanjo had to leave Kaduna in a hurry - there was the fear that the safety of military officers of Southern origin was no longer guaranteed. Katsina assigned two armoured vehicles to secure his journey to the airport and warned that Obasanjo must come to no harm because Nigeria was going to need him in the future. At the outbreak of the civil war, Obasanjo was stationed at Ibadan as Commander of the Western sector. There was a group called the Third Force whose leadership comprised Professor Wole Soyinka and the late Brigadier Victor Banjo - who emerged as the improbable Field Marshal of the Biafra army - he was in detention in Enugu and was a friend and colleague of Colonel Emeka Ojukwu. It was in this capacity that he was coopted into the Biafra army.
The Third Force conceived itself as the third option in contradistinction to the other two personified by Ojukwu and General Yakubu Gowon. Their agenda was to seize power in Lagos and install a progressive government - in the mould of Major Kaduna Nzeogwu’s idealistic aspiration. Ojukwu had directed Banjo to, in a swift and commando style operation, march on Lagos, and put Gowon and his forces on the run. The strategy suited the agenda of the Third Force but giving effect to the mission required that the Banjo-led forces pass through the Western Region where Obasanjo was stationed as sector commander. Soyinka had approached and sought the collaboration of Obasanjo; he requested him to look the other way and grant the right-of-passage to Banjo. He turned down the request and reaffirmed his allegiance to the war effort of the federal government. He would go on to take the Biafra surrender as the General Officer Commander of the Third Marine Commando. As military head of state he forced the retirement of General Olufemi Olutoye. The latter made the mistake of broaching with him (in confidence) the subject of military politics especially as it affected their common ethnic affiliation. This kind of behavior has not earned him the affection of the Yoruba; and many of them hold him in scorn and suspicion. The disregard and incipient hostility is mutual.
In 1951, Chief Awolowo engineered the formation of the ethnically inclusive Egbe Omo Oduduwa with a direct appeal to Yoruba ethnic solidarity. The immediate objective of this clarion call was to contain and reverse the ascendancy of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) under the leadership of Dr Nnamidi Azikwe in the politics of the Western Region. Earlier in his political career, Awolowo had espoused the notion that Nigeria was a mere geographical expression; and remained steadfast in his postulation that Nigeria should be founded on ethnic nationality based on Federalism. The accident of history that pitted him against the federal government backed fractionalisation of the Action Group (AG) (beginning in 1962) resulted in the unintended consequence of consecrating Awolowo as the Pope of Yoruba politics. In the presidential election of 1979, he chose a fellow Southerner, Phillip Umeadi, as running mate thus precluding the whole of Northern Nigeria from the presidential ticket.
Sir Ahmadu Bello has been credited with such Nigeria abnegating utterances as the ‘mistake of 1914 has come to light’- in thinking aloud his dissatisfaction with the amalgamation of Nigeria; and the Fulani imperial belligerent impulse of threatening to dip the Quran in the sea to carry forth the jihad conquest to Lagos. In a barely disguised disdain for nationally oriented politics and the Parliamentary system norm of the leader of the winning party assuming the position of the prime minister, he delegated that authority to his lieutenant Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He stayed back and called the shots from Kaduna.
Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe arrived to take the Nigeria political scene by storm in the late forties, as a confident, broad minded and fire spitting pan Africanist. He was so dominant and inspirational in the politics of that era that Herbert Macaulay was only too glad to crown him heir apparent and cede to him the leadership of the NCNC. He took Nigeria to the future we can only contemplate by becoming the potential Premier of the Western Region when his party defeated the AG in the Western Regional elections of 1951. This aspiration was dashed-(not as a result of cross carpeting or defection as erroneously believed) when six independent candidates from Ibadan and Ekiti cast their lot with the AG. Often fired with bursts of Nigerian nationalist enthusiasm, Azikiwe once urged on Ahmadu Bello ‘to let us forget our differences’ and the latter poured cold water on his nationalist exuberance with the icy retort that we should in fact seek to acknowledge and understand those differences.
Following the Babangida-led coup of 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the Military Head of State. His Deputy - Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters was General Babatunde Idiagbon. It was a unique development in the history of Nigeria. Buhari and Idiagbon are both Muslims and ‘Northerners’. There were also speculations that both are descended from a common Fulani ancestry. Their regime was noted for the propagation of public discipline and some would argue anti-corruption. It governed as a full blown dictatorship.
Confronted with a formidable existential political threat, the young Governor of Zamfara State Ahmed Yerima opportunistically adopted the Sharia legal system soon after he assumed office in 1999. Yerima and Nigeria got more than what they bargained for. Dormant religious volcano erupted all over the far North; orchestrated and self-motivated distemper were let loose; untold religious passion was kindled and inflamed as never before. The season will long be remembered for the damage it wreaked on the peaceful coexistence of Nigerians.
Buhari rose to the occasion and poured unadulterated gasoline on the inferno. At his defiant best he declared “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria ... God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country ... What remains for Nigerian Muslims in Nigeria is for them to redouble their efforts, educate Muslims on the need to promote full implementation of Sharia law”. Not done, he soon brought piety to the service of mammon and charged ‘Muslims should vote at the next presidential election only for someone who would defend their faith’. We are all too familiar with the Boko Haram crisis and the position Buhari took to warrant any recapitulation here.
Vice-President Atiku Abubakar worked, lived and integrated in Lagos more than many Yoruba. He married a lady of the same ethnic stock. He would be remembered for the role he played in forcing the issue of conceding the presidency to the South-west in 1999; and standing against the proliferation of political Sharia. If he were to call a meeting of his political associates today I’m fairly certain that every nook and cranny of this country will be significantly represented.
Let us now go back to where we started. Chief Ige had defined and committed himself in speeches and writings as a Yoruba irredentist and we all acclaim him as our hero. However in a Nigeria ridden and bedevilled by sectional cleavages, I do not see a logical continuity from being a Yoruba hero to the presidency of Nigeria. In the working out of the same logic, Chief Falae, as the anointed Yoruba candidate, was weighed down by this regional ascription and consequently competed poorly against a ‘detribalised’ Obasanjo at the election proper.
Let me make an important clarification. I do not imply any value added or subtracted from all these eminent Nigerians in their individual capacities. I proceed from the standpoint of ‘value neutrality’ to contrast categories of politicians and offer an opinion on their relative suitability and marketability for the office of the President of Nigeria. To make myself clear I wholly subscribe to Chief Awolowo’s prescription of decentralised federalism as the optimal political configuration for Nigeria. I’m not confident that our status-quo quasi federalism will long endure but it is what we have now and it is the basis for the template of my analogy. No Nigerian leader, living or dead, is more criticised than Obasanjo, yet he is one Nigerian who cannot be disqualified for consideration for the Nigerian presidency on the basis of not being Nigerian enough. The same assertion can be equally made for his former deputy, Atiku Abubakar. And of the three Nigerian political titans, there should be no quibbling on the choice of Azikiwe as more Nigerian than Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello.
It is the same consistency that leads me to find fault with Buhari seeking to become Nigerian president. He has his virtues and they are in no way diminished by his parochial self-identification. Going forward and if I were requested to propose a more suitable candidate from the ‘North’, I will concur with the defunct Action congress of Nigeria (ACN) and pick someone in the mould of the upright, cosmopolitan, new generation and all round Nigerian patriot, Malam Nuhu Ribadu.