It was in Mr. Sonala Olumhense’s Lagos home that I first watched the movie, The Seven-Year Itch. This 1955 movie explored a popular belief that every marriage experiences diminishing returns from their seventh year. Some claim that there is psychological proof that one or both partners in a relationship get bored or dissatisfied in a relationship from the seventh year. The movie featured the sexiest lady alive at the time, Marylyn Monroe, as the love interest of Tom Ewel, the protagonist, who imagined himself in a relationship with her after shipping his wife and children to the countryside on holidays.
I remembered The Seven-Year Itch immediately Gov. Bola Tinubu won the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential primary. It appears that Nigeria has now caught a bug called The Eight-Year Itch. We field frail candidates for President every eight years. President Olusegun Obasanjo bit Nigeria with the bug in 2006 when he nudged an ailing Umaru Musa Yar’Adua into office. Eight years later, the northern establishment, with a little help from the west, foisted ailing General Muhammadu Buhari on Nigeria. Both Yar’Adua and Buhari, from the same northwest state of Katsina, spent their time from hospital bed to the seat of power and back to hospital bed. This year marks eight years since Buhari was fielded as a candidate. And, once again, the powers that be are gearing up to foist Tinubu, another frail old man, on the nation.
Why are powermongers so desperate in 2022 that they are fielding an old man with obvious health challenges? And he will take over from someone who spent almost 40 per cent of his reign on hospital beds? More importantly, why did they pair the frail old man with a mate of the same faith?
Before we explore the probabilities, it is important to remember that, prior to 2007, the elections were usually won by dark horses and unwilling candidates. As leader of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), Saudana of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, could have become Nigeria’s first indigenous leader. He was content to tend his northern flock and sent his deputy to carry Nigeria’s headache. When democracy was restored in 1978, the National Party of Nigeria chose Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a dark horse and unwilling candidate. The military chose Gen. Obasanjo, fresh out of prison and never dreaming of the presidency, to rule. Although OBJ also chose someone who was not thinking of the presidency to succeed him, legend has it that it was the health issue that favored him over others. From 2006 onwards, Nigeria changed from the unwilling to the unhealthy in its leadership selection process.
In the 2023 elections, two of three presidential frontrunners – Wazirin Adamawa and Jagaban Borgu – are octogenarians. Our interest, however, is on the Jagaban, for obvious reasons. He is candidate of the governing party, likely to enjoy powerful presidential backup in his quest, all things being equal. He is also the frailer of the two octogenarians, given unmistakable public symptoms of an illness, confirmed by his recent trips abroad for health checks. This leads to the question of justification for yet again finagling another frail old man on Nigeria. To answer this question leads us into a deeper look not only on his selection but also his subsequent choice of same-faith ticket to prosecute the campaign. Can this be considered a masterstroke or is APC whistling in the dark? Will these choices catapult the Jagaban to the Presidency or will they boomerang?
Senator Tinubu is the third frail candidate that powermongers are foisting on the nation, after President Yar’Adua (2007) and President Buhari (2015). There are strategic reasons for fielding Tinubu into the race and for insisting that he choose a northern Muslim as his running mate.
The first and most popular street wisdom is that northern Muslims neither trust northern Christians nor southern Muslims. And this for a reason. The last time a sick northern Muslim chose a southern Christian as his running mate, the North was shortchanged when the President died in office. When power is conceded to the South and a frail candidate wins the election, the North would not like to be shortchanged a second time with a Christian northerner. This thinking shows how low the northern Christian has always been rated and continues to be. It is always assumed that northern Christians will toe the line of subservience. However, there will be a dramatic change if the duo of Babachir Lawal and Yakubu Dogara carry out their threat to galvanize northern Christians to make a statement with their vote.
The second reason Jagaban was chosen, beyond emi lo kan, is undoubtedly the familiar divide-and-rule play for ethnic southern voters. This tactic habitually plays up the distrust among Yoruba, Igbo, and southern minorities. Consequently, hardcore Yoruba regionalists (the Tinubu School) will rather vote “our own” than others, even when it is not their turn. Similarly, hardcore southern minorities will rather vote a northerner than an Igbo. Only the Igbo consistently vote whoever represents their interests the most, using block votes to make a statement. Since 1999, they delivered block votes for Atiku (Fulani), Jonathan (Ijaw), Yar’Adua (Fulani), and Obasanjo (Yoruba). In doing this, they rejected Igbo candidates, including Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. However, and for the first time, the Igbo will likely deliver block votes to their kinsman – not only because it is in their interest but also because the youth and well-meaning citizens say it is in the larger Nigerian interest.
In this climate of distrust among the North, East, West, Christian and Muslim, how will APC’s same-faith ticket fare? The Muslim-Muslim ticket is also a calculated risk with three potential advantages. It effectively divides the South West vote, ensuring majority votes for the Muslim candidate but also yielding the required quarter vote for Obi. Depending on how much hardball hardcore northern politicians play, they could also take away a large chunk of the Christian vote using Igbo fear-mongering and appeal to regional pride. There is always the confidence that the docile northern Christian minority will play ball. The target is, however, Buhari’s religious base through which massive votes are expected from Kano, Kaduna and Katsina states. Political distrust among the regions is a potent weapon that powermongers deploy to shoot down electoral dissent.
Let me end this with a true story. I was appalled one time at a hotel in Enugu when a Fulani Muslim from Kwara State changed his demeanor when he realized the person he was speaking to was Hausa Christian from the same state.
“You are a conquered slave, and you are supposed to bow to me and serve me,” he declared.
I examined his face to see whether this was a joke. I couldn’t detect any hint of playfulness. More worrisome was that the threatened person suddenly lost his composure and thenceforth conducted himself in a more deferential manner. It was at that point that I learnt the necessity to be more cautious when applying the divisive handles – North and South – in the conduct of social enquiry.
Consequently, I used the term “northern” advisedly for a reason. Since 1951 when the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) was formed, politicians usually lump peoples of the current 19 states of the North East, North West, and North-Central as a monolithic group. Interestingly, this 3-in-1 grouping harbours the preponderant of Nigeria’s 240 ethnic groups. It is also a multicultural society with distinct animist, Christian and Muslim populations. However, removing “ethnic group” and “religious affiliation” from the census counts, and consistently playing up the bogey of southern domination, make it easy to sustain the southern distrust for political gain. In other words, this distrust did not start today; it began long before Nigeria gained her independence. The only difference is the current promotion of discord between northern Muslims and Christians through the same-faith ticket.
To find out how this national distrust will determine the 2023 vote, we must return to The Seven-Year Itch and apply it to Nigeria’s eight-year wonder. All partners in our citizenship association are either bored or dissatisfied with the long-term relationship. People assume that the distrust we harbour for ourselves is a Sword of Damocles hanging on Peter Obi’s head. However, I prefer to see is as a two-edged sword that could potentially leave Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu close to the finish line after Obi breasted the tape. Atiku hopes to inherit the vote of the Buhari base and use his running mate to clean out the South-South. Tinubu hopes for the same Buhari base and solid South West voting block to re-enact the magic of 2015 and 2019.
Obi can win the election if the youth vote holds, if there is a Christian revolt against same-faith ticket in the North, if northern powermongers throw their weight behind Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed for substantial core Muslim votes, and if the South West comes through with majority votes for him in Ondo, Osun, and Oyo. If this happens, it will be the first time that a candidate will post a true pan-Nigerian victory.