Would Nigeria have been better off with Atiku? By Minabere Ibelema

First, some admissions and a caveat. Contrary to the prevailing political fervour leading up to the 2015 presidential election, I didn’t think that Muhammadu Buhari was the right person to lead Nigeria. His political resume was more than enough reason for that stance. Yet, a majority of Nigerians saw it differently, thanks to a powerful PR narrative that portrayed him as a changed man.

And contrary to the correspondingly negative sentiments against Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency, I never thought he was nearly as ineffectual a president as was loudly claimed. But then I had an ethnic and occupational bias in his favour. So, I couldn’t be sure that I was objectively applying the same yardstick as the critics.

In any case, once Buhari was elected, I adopted the view that even his detractors should give him a chance. So, I wrote in his defence when critics lambasted him for Nigeria’s faltering economy. I thought the criticisms were misguided or politically opportunistic. The global economy was in a tailspin and crude oil prices fell precipitously. There wasn’t much the government could have done to forestall the economic hardship.

It is much the same situation now, and this time coronavirus is to blame. If anything, regarding the economy, we could say that Buhari is simply a bad luck president.

Where he has been unquestionably a disaster are with regard to matters of security and national cohesion. After an initial success against Boko Haram, it seems there was some letdown that allowed the group to reorganise and re-strategise. The full impact of their resurgence is only now being felt.

Regarding national cohesion, Buhari couldn’t have done worse. Right from the outset, he seemed either unaware of (isn’t that impossible?) or indifferent to the reality that Nigeria is a fragile nation and that equitable treatment of its diverse peoples is the key to effective governance.

So, come election time in 2019, I again thought that Nigeria would be better off with someone else. It didn’t help that Buhari’s health was faltering, making him unsuitable to continue to lead a restive nation. But fairly or through subterfuge, he was re-elected. After the appeals process was exhausted, Nigerians went on with their lives, as democrats are socialised to do.

But now Nigeria is facing unmitigated insecurity, and Buhari has absolutely no answers. The irony of it is that there is an odd confluence between his failures on security and national cohesion. Buhari’s appointment of leadership of the security apparatus is the most glaring manifestation of his disregard for the federal character. Yet the very region that is so lopsidedly favoured by the appointments is also the region that is bearing the brunt of insecurity.

The Northern geopolitical zones, especially the North-East, are witnessing the most incessant mass murders and other horrors. When governors from around the country met with the president recently, they all had their stories of horror. The Northern governors, however, must have been the most desperate. In the North-East, it is the terror of Boko Haram. In the North-West, it is the terror of bandits. And in the North Central, it is the terror of herdsmen. The violence seems to be coming from different operatives. Yet there may well be a Boko Haram connection in all.

The other day, I read a headline that reports that Buhari has ordered the military to take the fight to Boko Haram and the bandits. And that raises the question of whether he had hitherto ordered them to hunker down in their bunkers.

There are no surprises that Northern political, traditional and religious leaders have become some of the most scathing critics of Buhari’s leadership. And judging from the throng that turned out for the mass funeral of farmers recently, the people can’t possibly feel any differently. That begs the question, are the overwhelming majority of northerners who voted for Buhari having second thoughts? Putting it differently, would Nigeria be better off had Atiku Abubakar been elected president?

I am not really big on what could have been. Yet, on this matter, I think it’s worth exploring. As a retired army general, Buhari would seem to be the ideal president to stamp out the insecurity. Yet, he himself has expressed befuddlement about it all. Perhaps, the challenge requires the expertise of someone much more politically astute than Buhari. And that begs for the pondering of what could have been had Atiku been elected.

Recently, Peoples Democratic Party officials called for Buhari’s resignation. That’s political theatre, of course. Still, it is quite telling that Buhari saw the call as serious enough to issue a statement that he would not resign. And why would anyone expect him to resign? He wouldn’t even replace the service chiefs. A spokesman once claimed that it would be unwise to change them in the midst of a national crisis. That means, in effect, that for as long as the crisis persists, the service chiefs have job security. It sounds very much like an argument that George Orwell would have his characters make in Animal Farm or 1984.

The latest call for replacement of the service chiefs came from the Senate after the massacre of farmers in Borno State. It was the third time in the past 16 months or so that the august body made that plea. Yet, the response by Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, is reminiscent of Buhari’s military government in 1984.

“The clamour for the sacking is out of place considering that the president is not subject to the opinion of the opposition political party which has clamoured for this all the time,” the Guardian quoted Shehu as saying in a TV interview. “It is entirely his determination; he decides who he keeps as his service chiefs and for how long.”

To begin with, the call came from the Senate, not the PDP. Beyond that, Shehu sounds as though the service chiefs are akin to Buhari’s chefs and gardeners. In reality, though the president appointed them, they are serving the country. The people — directly or through their representatives — certainly have a right to express their discontent with the service. That the administration is dismissive of such calls in such paternalistic terms says much about its democratic ethos.

The response raises questions anew about the real reason for Buhari’s intransigence regarding the service chiefs. Does he see their duty in personal terms, as Shehu suggests? Does he see them as guarantors of his government? Given that a Buhari government has been overthrown before, is he afraid to remove the service chiefs? Or is it a matter of blind loyalty?

None of these considerations hampered Jonathan, who boldly made those changes. They probably would not have hampered an Atiku administration. One may question whether the changes by Jonathan made a difference. They certainly did. His administration was making considerable progress in the battle against Boko Haram when Buhari took office and initially built on that success.

Moreover, change, per se, inspires hope. Often it engenders new ideas and strategies. That’s enough to make quite a few voters for Buhari in 2019 wonder what could have been.

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