THE GUARDIAN February 3, 2022
We need to salute the courage of those who are declaring for the position of the President of Nigeria. I don’t know of any elected leader of Nigeria who has gotten the job by seriously working on the assignment. Most of our elected leaders have gotten there by a circuitous route.
When Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu declared his interest in the job, many Nigerians were not surprised. It had always been speculated since the beginning of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure, that Tinubu is the heir-presumptive of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Since then, many politicians have joined Tinubu to declare their interest. One of them is the internationally renowned celebrity journalist, Dele Momodu, the publisher of Ovation International. He is now a chieftain of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
But there is no safe permutation for power in Nigeria. During the colonial period, the British imperial masters wanted to hand over power to the Muslim leaders of the North for they were regarded as being more pro-British than the nationalists leaders of the South. Therefore, in the run-up to independence, the titular head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth II, knighted Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the North and a prince of the Sokoto Caliphate. Henceforth, he would be regarded as a knight of the British Empire.
The nationalist leaders of the South, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, were conspicuously left out of such honour. Henceforth, Bello preferred to be addressed as Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto.
Bello led the delegation of the North to Lagos and took up his seat as the leader of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), at the old Parliament Building situated at the old Race Course, now known as Tawafa Balewa Square. When the British told him that he should prepare to become the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, Bello refused. “I would rather be the Sultan of Sokoto than the Prime-Minister of Nigeria,” Bello said. Instead, he gave way to his deputy, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa who was also knighted by the Queen of England, to henceforth lead the NPC delegation to Lagos. Tafawa-Balewa became the first Prime-Minister of Nigeria.
Balewa was killed by coup plotters on January 15, 1966 and was succeeded by a man who was obviously not part of the coup. But this essay is not about soldiers and other accidental beneficiaries of power.
The next elected leader of Nigeria after Tafawa Balewa was Alhaji Shehu Shagari who came in 13 years after Balewa was killed. Shagari was a protégé of the Sardauna and both of them were natives of Sokoto. Shagari had served as a federal minister in the First Republic. After the coup, the military governor made him a commissioner in the North Western State. After Chief Obafemi Awolowo resigned from the cabinet of General Yakubu Gowon in 1971, Shagari was again brought to Lagos as a Federal Commissioner. After Gowon was toppled, Shagari went back home to become the chairman of the Sokoto Local Government.
In 1978, Shagari was elected into the Constituent Assembly (C A) and was at the centre of the campaign to stop Awolowo from becoming the President of Nigeria through constitutional means. The Constituent Assembly passed a resolution that no one above the age of 70 should be allowed to contest for the Presidency, obviously targeting Awolowo who was the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) during the Second Republic.
Awolowo celebrated his 70th birthday on March 6, 1979. It was too obvious that the resolution was aimed at only one man. General Olusegun Obasanjo, in passing the decree promulgating the 1979 Constitution, threw away that provision for age limit.
Shagari in his own case, wanted to be a senator. He was making preparations to go to the Senate when a delegation was sent to him that he was needed for a higher office. In the 1979 presidential election, Shagari won, defeating the other four presidential candidates including Chief Awolowo.
After Shagari, the next elected ruler of Nigeria was supposed to be Chief Moshood Abiola who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Abiola’s victory was however voided by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Instead of Abiola coming to power, the next civilian ruler was Chief Ernest Shonekan who neither staged a coup nor contested an election.
After Shonekan was toppled, Nigeria entered the Dark Age under the rulership of General Sani Abacha. Reprieve came in 1998 when Abacha died suddenly and General Abdulsalami Abubakar became our country’s ruler. At that point no one thought of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as a politician or as the next President of Nigeria. After his return from the Abacha gulag, Obasanjo obviously did not think of himself as a politician. However, by 1999, he was elected the President of Nigeria, defeating the famous public sector economist, Chief Olu Falae.
In 2007, Governor Umar Musa Yar’Adua emerged literarily from the blues to become our President after the tenure of Obasanjo. In 2006, no one was mentioning Yar’Adua’s name. Neither Yar’Adua nor the Governor of Bayelsa State, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, were considered as candidates in the loop of power. Both of them were to rule Nigeria for eight years.
General Muhammadu Buhari had become a habitual loser in the presidential race until he was rescued in 2015 by a surprising coalition forces put together by the skillful manoeuvring of Bola Tinubu and his associates. He is now our President. 2023 is far away and yet so near. It is not clear what permutations and coalitions would deliver the next President of Nigeria, but obviously it is not an easy mathematical game.
What is clear is that the President of Nigeria cannot be produced by only one section of the country. To become President, you need an agreement by a substantial part of the power elite across the geo-political zones. No longer can one zone in Nigeria claim to be the home base of national power. That is the beauty of Nigerian democracy now despite its obvious inadequacies. In the Nigerian polity, power cannot be the permanent mistress of any suitor.