Control Of The Presidency Is Inconsequential By Moses E. Ochonu

If I were advising the political elites of the various political zones of Nigeria, I would expose to them how politically meaningless, in the broader scheme of interest-based political calculations, occupying the presidency has become.

It is not the control of the presidency but making oneself politically indispensable (or at least creating the impression of indispensability) to the person/region that occupies the presidency that represents the best, most rewarding political investment.

From 1999 to date this has proven true. Let me demonstrate this thesis.

Because Former president Olusegun Obasanjo was brought to power by Northern political power brokers against the wishes and designs of the Southwestern political elite, which supported AD candidate Olu Falae, he spent his first term, some might say his entire eight-year tenure, appeasing and rewarding the North for their support.

He showed tough love to his Southwestern kinsmen. Ever the self-conscious claimant to nationalist leanings and not wanting to be perceived as pursuing an ethno-regional agenda, Obasanjo paid little attention to the infrastructural and socioeconomic needs of his natal Southwest.

By contrast, he tried at every turn to mollify his Northern backers. A year or two into his first term, he began to lose his Northern support, as Mumammadu Buhari emerged as an embodiment and fulcrum of a new northern opposition to Obasanjo. He was accused of empowering the Northern minorities and neglecting the Muslim North whose support he rode to power.

During his second term in office he managed to construct a PDP Southwestern base and was no longer politically beholden to North. This new base was so crucial to his political survival that he could afford to lose the Muslim northern vote in the 2003 election and still be reelected.

And yet, Obasanjo continued to display loyalty to the North even after he no longer needed the region electorally. A look at Obasanjo’s consequential projects shows them to be skewed in favor of the North. It also shows Obasanjo as lacking a signature project in the Southwest, his geopolitical base.

So, without controlling the presidency, in the Nigerian sense of control, the North benefitted from it more than the Southwest which did. We can debate what constitutes “benefit” here and whether that translates or trickles down to regular folk. But to the extent that in Nigeria political interests are coterminous with elite interests, we can deploy this rubric to determine whose interests are being satiated and whose are being ignored.

Obasanjo was succeeded by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. When Yar’Adua came to power, he had no northern political base as such, although he was from the North. What did he do for his natal North? Not much. He too lacked a signature project or initiative in his natal region. Instead, he spent much of his presidency appeasing the South-South, the restive, oil-producing base of his PDP.

Whether by design or happenstance, the South-South region had forced itself into national political reckoning, making the Niger Delta seem indispensable to any administration’s success. Yar’Adua calculated that the violent, chaotic situation in the oil-producing South-South could threaten his administration and erode his legitimacy. This was not an entirely unfounded anxiety since Niger Delta oil militants had cut oil production by 30 percent and were continuing to do further damage to oil infrastructure, spooking the international oil market and increasing international pressure on Yar’Adua to resolve the situation.

Again, look at Yar’Adua’s signature accomplishments. None of them is in the North. Yar’Adua gave the South-South Amnesty and the Niger Delta Ministry. The North, which controlled the presidency during Yar’Adua’s tenure, benefited little from its control of the presidency except in the area of political appointments, which had limited, if any, impact on the socioeconomic fortunes of the region.

Goodluck Jonathan assumed the presidency after Yar’Adua’s passing and then won the office in his own cognizance. Despite (or perhaps because of) not getting northern Muslim support in the 2011 election, Jonathan spent his entire presidency mollifying the North and trying, futilely, to win acceptance and support there. Apart from Boko Haram, which he was late to respond to, he did much more for Northern Nigeria than he did for the South. He funded Al-majiri education, sinking billions of naira into the initiative. He started the Kaduna-Abuja rail line, the first of its kind in Nigeria, began the Maiduguri-Kano road project, among other projects in the north.

Jonathan focused on the Muslim North because he believed that he needed to win over the region in order to secure his legitimacy and possibly win reelection. His sense of insecurity stemmed from being perceived by many Muslim northerners as usurping their turn at presidency. He overcompensated for this by disproportionately focusing his infrastructural and social investments on the North.

Conversely, this same man could not even build the East-West road, the most important and potentially the most transformative infrastructure project in the South-South region, his natal political constituency.

So, here again, a region that did not control the presidency and in fact rejected the person who did — the north — benefitted more from it than the region that occupied it. This is the origin of the grievance against Jonathan in the Southwest. The feeling was that support from the Southwest, which was midwifed by Bola Tinubu, gave him the presidency in 2011 but that instead of rewarding the region he was busy pleasing the North and, to a lesser extent, cultivating the Southeast.

This was the reason he lost Tinubu’s support, which had arguably given him the presidency in 2011. It should be noted that, beyond appointments, Jonathan did not even do much in terms of projects for the Igbo, who are often posited as being the primary beneficiaries of his presidency.

Enter Buhari. Apart from appointments, what has Buhari really done for the North in his almost four-year-old presidency? Not much. By contrast, a region that does not control the presidency, the Southwest, is the biggest beneficiary of his presidency. Tinubu’s men control the heights of the Nigerian economy. Seventy percent of the capital projects in the last two budgets are in the Southwest! 70 percent! While the Southwest gets meaningful, economically impactful projects, the northwest, which gave Buhari his biggest vote margin in 2015, gets a new prison in Kano. This is because Buhari feels the need to reward and keep Tinubu/Southwest happy and, like his predecessors, he takes the support of his natal base for granted.

The Southwest is getting much more now that it does not control the presidency (at least not directly) than it got when it did during Obasanjo’s presidency. It is getting a new standard-gauge rail line from Lagos to Ibadan, which is similar to the Abuja-Kaduna line and is designed to connect the two cities in one commuter corridor as the Abuja-Kaduna line has done.

Most importantly, President Buhari has approved the Lagos-Lome highway project. This is a project that the late great Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo, visualized as a way of weaning the region from dependence on Northern agricultural supplies and as a way of giving the region an alternative pipeline of economic communion that would come handy if something unpalatable were to happen to the Nigerian union. It remains to be seen if Buhari would follow through and actually execute the project. Nonetheless, this is the first time that an actual presidential approval has been given for the project. Obasanjo, a son of the southwest, did not sign such an approval.

Once again, as in other presidencies, the region benefitting from the current presidency is not the one that purportedly controls it. It’s not the one from which the president hails. Rather, it’s the one that the president feels he needs to reward, mollify, and cultivate for his electoral/political survival. It’s the region that the president feels — rightly or wrongly — that he cannot afford to alienate. That’s the region that’s benefitting.

During Obasanjo’s presidency, that favored region was the North; during Yar’Adua’s, it was the Niger Delta/South South; during Jonathan’s, it was the North; and during Buhari’s, it’s the Southwest, where he thinks his reelection will be won or lost.

The political implication of this reality is deep. It should inform how regional political groups approach presidential politics and their maneuvering within that politics.

The reality can also be extrapolated to the state level. I am from Benue State, where the Tiv ethnic group has had exclusive access to the governorship, causing the Idoma, the second largest ethnic group in the state who occupy the Southern senatorial zone, to perpetually decry the situation and their political marginality.

I am sympathetic to the cause of the Idoma and their desire to produce a governor in order to foster a sense of democratic inclusion and harmony in the polity. In fact, I support the constitutionalization of rotational presidency, rotational governorship, and rotational local government chairmanship as part of the menu of reforms some of us envisage as a restructuring agenda.

Unlike my Idoma kinsmen, however, I do not think that in the particular case of Benue, an argument of democratic inclusion is the most compelling one. Rather, the most convincing argument is that an Idoma governor would actually be much better for the Tiv (and by extension the entire state, since the Tiv make up two senatorial districts) than it would be for the Idoma. It is simple logic. An Idoma governor would be so politically insecure and would be so beholden to the Tiv whose support and votes he rode to power that he would spend his/her tenure doing everything in his/her power to please the Tiv elite who “allowed” him to get to power. His/her governorship will be marked by an overarching commitment to showing gratitude to his/her political benefactors. Examples of “minority” governors who did exactly that include former Governor Boni Haruna of Adamawa State and the late Patrick Yakowa of Kaduna State, but I digress.

Such an Idoma governor would “perform” infinitely better than the succession of Tiv governors who have governed the state because he/she would only secure legitimacy, administration stability, and possible reelection by providing the tangible benefits of governance, especially in the Tiv area. Along the same lines, such a governor, given his/her insecurity, would self-censor, resist the temptation to abuse power, and would exercise a measure of ethical self-restraint in the area of managing public funds because he/she would not have the long leash that Tiv governors have by virtue of being members of the dominant ethnic political elite.

Such a governor would know that to survive politically he or she would have to keep the support of the Tiv majority and their elite and would only accomplish that by “performing” and catering to the interests and wishes of the Tiv. A Tiv governor would not feel such pressure, would not feel that they have to perform to be legitimate or be accepted since they would represent the majority ethnic group and would not feel their position threatened by a potential rebellion of this majority.

Benue has had the misfortune of having arguably the worst civilian governors in Nigeria. All of them have been Tiv. All of them have approached the office and its responsibilities with a sense of entitlement and complacency. This is because they have not needed to appease or cultivate anyone since they did/do not owe their position to the magnanimity or political concession of any ethnic constituency.

An Idoma governor cannot afford to approach the task of governor with a similar attitude. For all these reasons, I believe that it is in the best interest of the Tiv elite and people to empower an Idoma governor, whom they would control and get to do their wishes with the ever-present threat of leveraging their majoritarian numbers and clout to undermine him/her or to withdraw their support.

In the same way that segments of the north, under Buhari, feel shortchanged and denied the attention and benefits deemed commensurate with the region’s status as the birthplace of Buhari, the Idoma, too, will find, should they ever produce a governor, that the governor is paying more attention to the Tiv area than to his natal Southern Senatorial constituency. Like today’s north, they would be disappointed.

If the Idoma hope to ever occupy Government House, Makurdi, the foregoing is the argument they need to articulate. They need to persuade the Tiv majority that an Idoma governor would actually serve the Tivs’ interests in ways that a Tiv governor would not and has not. It is this appeal to self-interest, not the emotive frustrations of marginality and its attendant appeal to democratic inclusion, that will cause the emergence of an Idoma governor. For no people, in our ethnically charged political process, would willingly give up the electoral advantage that their population confers on them without a strategic epiphany about the benefits of doing so.

The hypothetical leverage of the Tiv elite over a putative Idoma governor is analogous to the political leverage Tinubu and the Southwestern political elite have over Buhari, a leverage that they are pressing strategically and effectively to exert their wishes and priorities on the president.

The question of course is that if Buhari wins a second term and no longer feels beholden to or in need of the support of the Southwestern elite, would he change course, disengage from the Southwest, and begin to focus on Northern priorities as he has done in terms of appointments? If he does that, he would upend the pattern and thesis I have outlined and argued here.

Professor Ochonu can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com

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