Christian President, Yes But…By Adagbo Onoja

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In 1978, the North argued for and was obliged the presidency. The unsaid basis for this could not but be the unfairness of the South adding political control to its economic veto on the country. But it was still a sacrifice by the Southern leaders in the NPN because if they did not buy into the argument, the resultant stalemate could have delayed or even made the transfer of power from the military to the civilians in 1979 impossible. Though it was such a lousy party as far as building a disciplined liberal democracy, the NPN still came closest to the idea of a national party, what with the leaders of every regional fraction of the power elite in Nigeria therein.

As a way of coming to grips with the confusion created by the continuous manipulation of the IBB transition programme, the entire Nigeria accepted a Muslim-Muslim ticket from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993 in the person of Chief MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe.  Whoever thought a Muslim-Muslim ticket was possible in Nigeria after the Sharia crisis in the Constituent Assembly that manufactured the 1979 Constitution? Although Abiola and Kingibe ended up not ruling, that did not come from the ordinary Nigerians but from the contradictions of junta politics.

In 1998, several Northern leaders like Adamu Ciroma (who had won presidential nomination prior to that), Umaru Shinkafi and Bamanga Tukur, among others, gave up their presidential ambition in the interest of national reconciliation. That was how Obasanjo basically became the president before the rituals of elections and swearing-in were completed. If these gentlemen had insisted, the military would have had to remain in power beyond 1999 because they could not have left the country to anarchy consequent upon NADECO’s maximalist politics.

Against the background of the trajectory supported by the above examples, there is something unstrategic and apolitical in the campaign kicked off recently by the Northern States’ Christian Elders to the effect that that the next president of Nigeria must be a Christian. Nothing can be as prejudicial to reconciliation, especially in the North, as putting religion in the front burner in the selection of the next president whose political personality should, in itself, be such a magnetic and healing balm for everyone, both Christians and Muslims, everywhere in Nigeria but particularly in the North. Even those who describe themselves as hardliners in matters of Christian-Muslim relationship would not find this unacceptable.

As custodians of religious consciousness and praxis, the Christian elders are key players in the democratic process and they have the right to take any position and propagate it. But the point about the three examples which opened this piece is simply that even under the military, leadership selection in Nigeria has been fundamentally decided by reconciliation and this thesis is not challenged by one or two examples of individual power projects that succeeded.

In 1998 when the North contemplated ‘power shift’, reconciliation was central to the debate about which part of the South it should go. There were Northern leaders who insisted that it should go to Dr. Alex Ekwueme because the South-East was to have taken over from Shagari. Others said it was best if the South-West had it for historical reasons as well as reconciling it with the rest of the country after the June 12 disaster. This camp eventually had the upper hand partly because Obasanjo as a person satisfied more group sentiments, including those of our foreign friends, than Alex Ekwueme but mainly because the militicians overwhelmed the others. But even then, those for Ekwueme were still fighting up till they were conquered in Jos.

So, in most cases, leadership selection is well discussed and reconciliation is always part of it. Quite a good number of those who stood for Jonathan did so on the basis that it would be unfair to overstretch rotation principle to block him from succeeding Yar’Adua, both in 2010 and in 2011. And that has enabled the South-South to have a taste of power at the highest level although the approach to the realization of this ended in dividing the country more and more and deepening the crisis of managing the Nigerian nightmare. Still, by 2015, Goodluck Jonathan, a social and ethnic minority politician would have spent no less than five years and seven months as Executive President of Nigeria at a stretch. Nobody can discount the symbolism of this in Nigerian History.

The overall quality of leadership at all levels of power in Nigeria today, the moral and ideological bankruptcy that abound, the death of the party idea and how all these combine to make fairness the scarcest commodity in Nigerian politics might have frightened the Christian elders to make this an advocacy matter. But it is one thing to argue that the best form of reconciliation in the North is for a Northern Christian to mount the saddle in 2015 and another thing entirely to make this a formal item on the agenda of politics because it could be counter productive. For, while nobody would object to a situation where Northern political, cultural and business leaders sit down and consciously and deliberately decide that the interest of reconciliation, cohesion and integration in the North is best served by the next president of Nigeria being a Northern Christian, the same thing could become problematic if it were a religious demand. Meanwhile, the examples of Harold Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ which saved the British Empire the French ordeals in North Africa, Ian Smith in Zimbabwe or Frederick De Klerk in South Africa shows that the kind of political moves the Christian elders might be talking about have been the stuff of History.

Right now, therefore, the task for religious leaders in the North is to build on the example of Christians and Muslims guarding each other during prayers in times of conflict recently. If that is not inspiring enough, the message of the workability of productive religious co-existence signified by the recent nomination of Sultan Abubakar Sa’ad and Archbishop John Onaiyekan for the Nobel Prize in Peace should inspire us. This is precisely because those nominations send a message to Nigerians in general and the Northerners in particular. And this is no idealism but the way forward.

And this leads me to General Yakubu at 78, Dr. Alex Ekwueme at 80 and the return of Dr. Iyorchia Ayu to the PDP. Gowon is an important subject of intellectual speculation at a time when we must move the analysis of the Nigerian nightmare from the objective to the subjective factor. Nigeria has got a great population, good people, (as the slogan goes), great landmass, excellent climate and what have you. Yet, she is not a great country by any standards. Why has the subjective factor for greatness eluded Nigeria?

Looking at Gowon in Nigerian history in this context, we just can’t forget that his was not a case of inordinate ambition, greed and ill-tempered exercise of power; that he won the Biafran War with a big heart; had no house of his at the end of the day, whether in Zaria, Kaduna or Jos. Above all, he put Nigeria first, not only by winning the war but by giving Nigeria the unforgettable Second National Development Plan, 1970-1975. Since the basic test of leadership in all African countries is the question of the leader’s response to the problem of moving the society from primitivity to modernity, Gowon was a model.

The Second National Development Plan and Dr. Mahmud Tukur’s Minority Report on the Privatisation Committee to the Buhari regime are the sort of documents that every politician should be taken to NIPSS or NIIA and be schooled on before being allowed to contest election to any political office whatsoever.

In summary, Gowon is a critique of restructuring, unbundling and SNC, these being mere excuses, alibis and apologia for ruling class incompetence in taking the country from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The collective tribute future leaders can pay to Gowon is for all aspiring leaders who are not already corrupt to remain so while those who have already stolen the country blind should return their unexplained wealth and declare a commitment to a fresh start. Just like the late Murtala did.

Sharing melted leadership with Gowon in Nigerian History is Dr. Alex Ekwueme. It is an academic debate now whether Dr. Ekwueme would have stabilized democracy more than OBJ from 1999 – 2007 but it is the sort of debate we should conduct in Nigeria. Such would enrich our democratic experiment. And it is not too late to do so.

The point about Dr. Iyorchia Ayu in this piece is that, irrespective of his personal agenda in his return to the PDP, it is an ideological coup with great social import for democracy in Nigeria. As one of the original nine who formed the PDP, he is rejoining his fellow founders who have remained in the party to strengthen the struggle for recovering the PDP and, by implication, Nigeria. It bears repeating that the PDP was formed as a social democratic party. Six out of the nine founders, representing approximately 67% are social democrats. The tragedy of the PDP is that the party was taken over by people who have none of the sentiments of the founders and have no qualms trampling on those sentiments, either as militarists or as privatisers.

With Alex Ekwueme, Adamu Ciroma, Solomon Lar, Sule Lamido and Jerry Gana on the ground and Ayu re-joining them, (Bola Ige, Abubakar Rimi and Francis Ella are late), the PDP stands a chance of re-invention in terms of the original vision. That would be most welcome because Nigeria still needs the PDP even as they deride it, partly because those who successfully hijacked the party from its ideologues have used it to inflict great pains on Nigerians but also because PDP has been so badly narrated.

Onoja, a columnist with Blueprint, can be reached via [email protected]


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