Frail-looking 74-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari, whose health is being managed by British medical experts for an undisclosed ailment, may gradually be adorning the garb of a statesman, as expected of him by true patriots but criticised for not living up to that expectation because of his divisive, sectionalist tendencies.
The President is perceived by the majority of the people of the geo-political zones of South-South and South-East Nigeria, because of his political scorched earth doctrine of 97 per cent and 5 per cent votes cast for him as a direct proportion of government attention and patronage, as punishing them for freely expressing their democratic right of freedom of choice. These feelings are further enforced by the elevation of sectionalism in favour of the North for their massive electoral support, in a classic case of winners taking all in most appointments into strategic government positions, to a near state policy. Despite the usual struggle for power mostly expressed through ethno-religious sentiments, Buhari’s political scorched earth doctrine is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria’s democracy.
In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo was roundly rejected by his own people of the South-West. Again, in 2003, following a determined attempt to take power back from the South by the conservative North, we saw an impressive outing by then Gen. Buhari that led to Obasanjo’s loss of votes in key northern states of Kano, Borno, Katsina and most parts of the Muslim North. Interestingly, in both cases, Obasanjo did not apply the Buhari doctrine on the people who rejected him at the polls. Rather, he took deliberate steps to re-approach them by extending a hand of fellowship first to his own people of the South-West by appointing Chief Bola Ige, a leading member of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), into his cabinet, then Mahmud Waziri the chairman of the All People Party (APP) as special adviser. Interestingly, these were the coalition partners that ensured his humiliation on the home front. In the 2003 presidential election, the result of this political astuteness was in favour of Obasanjo; AD adopted him as their sole candidate and effected this adoption by not fielding a presidential candidate to forestall a divided Yoruba vote in the face of a strong challenge from the North. Again, in 2007, in order to preserve the dominance of the Peoples Democratic Party, Obasanjo kept faith with the zoning arrangement that rotated presidential power between the North and the South every eight years of two consecutive terms of four years. As the leader of the PDP, Obasanjo didn’t narrow his choice of successor to the Christian North, among whom he enjoyed unalloyed support throughout his electoral contests, but applied realist pragmatism in picking Umaru Musa Yar’Adua from the hostile Nort- West state of Katsina, the home state of his strongest opponent, Buhari. The result of giving the presidency to a region and people who attempted to scuttle his second term bid by massively voting against him was the drastic diminishing of the electoral fortunes of Buhari. He lost Katsina State and recorded lower votes in 2007 (6.6m) as against (12.7m) in 2003.
Enter former President Goodluck Jonathan, who ran for President against the zoning arrangement of the PDP in 2011 and expectedly met with stiff opposition from the conservative northern establishment, which this time worked in concert with a fraction of some progressive elements. Jonathan emerged victorious but suffered heavy electoral losses in the stronghold of the North-East and North-West. Similarly, Jonathan did not set out to chastise the regions where he recorded electoral losses. Not only did he take deliberate steps at rapprochement, he matched his intentions with visible achievements in these regions. He did not shut out the regions of North-East and North-West from his kitchen cabinet and Security Council on account of their electoral choices. Jonathan attempted to solve the educational deficit in the North by establishing universities in states that did not have federal universities.
Therefore, when Buhari excluded the entire South-East and South-South from his kitchen cabinet and scorched the South-East even more by exempting it from his security council on the grounds of what some of his supporters described as “unworthy of trust,” he further polarised the nation.
Matters were made worse when the fragile peace in the restive oil-producing Niger Delta was disrupted by a series of policy inconsistencies that put a question on the wisdom and usefulness of the amnesty programme. One of such was the reduction in the funding of the programme by the Buhari administration, thereby making the amnesty office unable to meet up with its obligations to ex-agitators. The abrupt scrapping of the Maritime University that was one of the few achievements of the Jonathan administration in his home region was a major policy mistake that ignited passive protest of the Niger Delta people against the Buhari administration. The extreme marginalisation of the South-East pushed the people of the region to an edge where the separatist movement of Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB was conferred with enormous legitimacy. For the first time since 1967, the Biafra agitation is being trumpeted loudly.
The failure of victorious Buhari to unite the country behind him by reaching out to every part of Nigeria and allay the fears of people who voted against him was a major failure of common sense statesmanship. The grave consequence of these misstepss haunts the government and people of the entire Nigerian federation.
The tragedy of these missteps is that for nearly two years we lost as much as we would have gained as a nation in peace and security.
However, following Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s common sense diplomacy to the South-South and South-East of Nigeria, guided by the critical elements of negotiations, concessions and reconciliations, we have seen positive results as evident in the gradual reprieve from economic strangulation largely caused by the decline in oil production in the Niger Delta, which was a direct result of the well-coordinated oil installation sabotage by the Avengers.