Monday, November 5, 2018
New York, New York, USA

Dr. Alex Otti

t takes a Northerner to know what animates the Northern electorate, some will say. What if it will take a Fulani to take down a sitting President of Fulani origin running for re-election. Considering how the PDP presidential primaries went down resulting in the emergence of the former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as its nominee, it could be said it was part of the theory behind the delegates choice.. Despite how sublime and ridiculous this assertion might be, I do believe it warrants an iota of oxygen or a pocket of breathlessly speculative space. Such speculation may not just be because he is a serious person of stratospheric accomplishments, it's just that in a country with an entrenched ethno-religious political ethos nothing could be less determinant of who wins the coming presidential elections. There is no doubt as it relates to the PDP presidential primaries that candidates like Kwankwaso, Aminu Tumbawal, and a few others of northern extraction fit the afore-mention criteria, as opposed to Saraki, Atiku invariably had other advantages namely his wealth, cosmopolitan and detribalized bonafides, not to mention his governing experience as a former State Governor and Vice-president.

As the 2019 presidential election approach no two candidates could be more opposite than these two nominees for both the APC and PDP with the only similarity between them being that they are both Fulani men of the Moslem faith who hail from the Northern part of the country with not much of an age difference, if it is to believed that the president is not more than 75 years old. With regards to their differences, it could be safe to say, Buhari is all talk about National Unity as Atiku is a believer in national inclusion and integration. Buhari was dismissive of the national Confab report on restructuring, promising to throw it into a waste paper bin as Atiku would retrieve, dust it up and implement it as he has promised. Buhari doesn't have his hands on the wheel of state having left his governing duties to a cabal as Atiku will be all pin-point GPS navigation. Atiku will be fanatical about recruiting top-notch talent and technocrats of diverse background, ethnicity and religion in staffing his cabinet as Buhari has been all about nepotism. Atiku will be proactive in seeking solutions to the herdsmen killings as Buhari has ignored and paid lip service to the problem with hardly any apprehensions and punishment.

All the afore-mentioned differences notwithstanding, Atiku has to overcome the perception surrounding him about corruption as opposed to the aura of incorruptibility the president exudes. However as recent surveys of public opinion amongst Nigerians indicate such political shortcoming may not amount to much of an electoral concern when we have a president who by his own ineptitude has ignored the many or failed to call out and punish the corrupt individuals in his administration. Just a cursory look at the recently published list of people whose foreign trips been ordered restricted by the president reveals the omission of many APC stalwarts and some presently in his cabinet who are ethically compromised. There is no doubt the Buhari campaign will bash Atiku over the head repeatedly with accusations of corruption and their anti- corruption mantra, however in his response he must not bring a pillow to this gunfight or wimp out as the PDP did in the 2015 elections when aggressive stance was needed. He must not let Lai Mohammed and his APC's coterie of bullies bait him into sideshows and don't hit back forcefully.

As anger and frustration with entrenched political corruption has grown Atiku will have no choice considering public perception of him on the issue but to present himself as an establishment maverick who would not only show transparency in his official and personal dealings if elected but also show a determination to fight corruption and not an appearance of doing so. He must reject the gaudy kleptocratic opulence of the country's leaders or see them as kindred spirit. He must during his campaign events strive to reinvent himself by railing against the establishment he has been part of all the years of his political career. He must as a one-time Mexican presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador promised, to overturn the "Mafia of Power" and replace it with an austere bureaucracy that invests in communities. He must promise to overhaul the EFCC and make the agency an equal opportunity outfit in the fight against corruption in both parties and against every corrupt politician.

Atiku's style and discourse now that he is a presidential candidate must contrast that of his opponent. There must be enough of a signal of change to attract the votes of the millions of Nigerians who are presently struggling to provide for their families, the sense of national disunity that has plagued the country, the feeling of hopelessness and resignation amongst our teeming youths and unemployed graduates, the depressed and deteriorating economy , the blatant nepotism and the utter disregard for human lives as evidenced by the herdsmen killings. But of utmost importance is the prejudice and sense of distrusts that exits between the different ethnic nationalities which has hitherto become a deadly carcinogen. Under the present administration the ethnic gulf that existed in the country since independence has widened. Nigerians are pitted against each by our politicians in order to keep them from seeing each other as allies. Genuine bonds of solidarity that could be forged between people who respect each other's differences and are willing to fight their enemy together has been discouraged by our politics of division and ethnic animus and by political leaders who continue to play their ethnic darker impulses -most often with rhetoric more subtle than evident.

There is absolutely no doubt that since the election of this president there has been a growing erosion of values around tolerance and diversity. With Buhari, it has become evident that the pillars of our political stability are being shaken and stress tested and nowhere is it more apparent than in the South East and to some extent in other sections of the country where many view themselves as strangers in their own country. Essentially, they feel estranged. An estrangement that is suggestive of a rare political moment when Nigerians on all sides worry that they don't recognize what the country is becoming. Normally in a politically polarized society, one side wins and they are content. It is the other side that feels shut out of power. The reality is that, what we are looking at is this sense of powerlessness all around about the ability of any institution or politician to mediate not just a political conflict of fundamental values but also one of frustration and a feeling of negligence. Herein lies the essence of Atiku's candidacy and the national desire for change his warts and faults notwithstanding.

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he concluded that one secret of America's success was its ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively. He praised its mastery of the "art of association" which was crucial he believed for a self- governing people. This unfortunately is the opposite of what obtains in Nigeria where in the past 58 years our polity has been plagued by ethnic suspicions, distrust and resentment. Where every Government policy intention, policy, action or inaction are viewed with suspicion or support depending on not only who is proposing the policy but also who stands to benefit the most. The cattle grazing bill being a good example. Everywhere one goes there is a growing partisan hostility between parties and politicians with many Nigerians increasingly fearing and loathing people from the other side of the political, ethnic and religious divide. There is no doubt one of the important tasks before Atiku if elected will be to reduce political polarization, encourage civil dialogue and attempt to heal national and ethnic divisions by reversing the 3 plus years of unvarnished tribalization of national life by the Buhari presidency .

At the heart of all the ensuing debate after his nomination was who he will pick as his running mate couched on the dubious narrative of which tribe will provide more electoral value. However by picking Peter Obi, Atiku invariably put an end or a band aid to a spasm of division-a sobering drama which may be followed by a calm resolution than an event that deepens the national mood of political distrust in a country that is gripped by sectionalism. His choice of Peter Obi may not solve all our ethnic problems or feelings of marginalization in certain sections of the country at a time when our historic grievances around ethnicity and nepotism are coming to a boil under a president who is dismissive of the concept of national unity and the federal character principle as enshrined in the constitution, but at least it is a good start and a veritable indication of a consciousness of the problem and a determination to tackle the problem. More important, his choice is indicative of an eagerness to display competence, detribalization and gravitas. A show of leadership that is in sharp contrast to the few Igbo political and selfish irredentists whose complaints about not being consulted is emblematic of the caliber of failed and non -performing Igbo political leaders that are abound in the South East.

The reality however is that Atiku cannot alone and on his own make Nigeria less tribal, less polarized, less resentful if and when he gets elected president as most democracies have always trended towards tribalism, authoritarianism and great ethnic conflicts but he can by this choice of his running mate, his utterances, actions, and cabinet appointments if elected give most Nigerian politicians pause about exercising their darker sides. He must during his campaign preach a new spirit of compromise, communication and cooperation between the different ethnic groups to bring about the national unity and integration that has for so long eluded us. The fundamental question of our time as we approach the 2019 presidential election is whether we have the will to survive together as a country of multi-ethnic nationalities at a time when we have a president and candidate who in the past 3 plus years have contributed manure to the soil in which ethnic distrusts and disunity has thrived. A president whose emotional incontinence instead of empathy has masked his response to the many killings in the country thereby inviting more lawless violence while plunging many of the affected into a state of vengeful despair.

Outside the mathematical realm that favors an Atiku victory, this is election is not going to be a cake walk for him. Obviously every election is about contrast. Contrast between a president who has no idea on how to fix an ailing economy, grow the country's depleted foreign reserves, reduce its foreign and domestic debt, create jobs and a candidate who was part of an administration that did the opposite. A contrast between a president who is transactional in his approach to governance and an opponent who understands the importance of social cohesion and political decisions not distorted by the tyranny of randomized controlled political experiments. A contrast between a president with autocratic inclinations and one with attributes of a social democrat. These distinctions might be cruel, glib, imprecise-maybe even inaccurate to the point of senselessness but such is the solemn enterprise of politics. For Atiku to win, he must make the issue of national unity and integration the guiding and motivating force of his campaign. The people of the middle- belt must be made to feel safe and protected, just as citizens from the Niger Delta should be made to have a sense of appreciation and compensation for their contributions to the nation's economy. South Western Nigerians must feel a sense of inclusion in an Atiku administration with the potential of losing the position of the Vice-presidency presently occupied by one of their own. The teeming dispossessed, neglected and exploited poor masses in the north must be made to feel more than just second class citizens. Choosing Peter Obi as his running mate must not be a case of "stroking the Igbo's erogenous zone". Much more will be needed to give the South East a sense of full integration in a country that has over the years made them feel like stepchildren. For they millions of Nigerians who are opposed to this president and will not vote for his re-election has nothing to do with his age, his religion or his ethnicity as the same voters loved and revered the late Yar Ardua rather the problem they have with him has more to do his governing ineptitude and more importantly his lack of empathy, vindictive inclinations and uncaring disposition. This is a president who acts like Caesar in his own little Rome, hence to them Atiku is the right antidote to the poisonous venom ravaging the country's body politics.

In the fight against corruption and the continued menace of Boko Haram, he must show discipline and strength, in the realization that everywhere in the world there is a growing dissatisfaction and frustration with the statuesquo, fueling the rise of populists with open disdain for democratic institutions hence Nigerians demand a drastic course correction. His campaign must be couched on the faith of the Nigerian people hence if that faith is sufficiently shaken the vital hope Nigerians have on his candidacy could be shattered and his opponent is not without options but to capitalize on it. He must lay claim to Yar Ardua's like dignity and duty to serve all Nigerians and not just those who voted for him. The coming presidential election is going to be a choice between a supposedly perceived corrupt and an equally perceived incorruptible president-between the devil and the blue sea, hence as Wole Soyinka once opined, with the devil we can use the proverbial long spoon when dinning with him whereas with the blue sea, you have little chance of surviving after you drown. In my opinion while Atiku may represent the devil we know, the president on the other hand is a clear manifestation of the deep blue sea. In another sense they are both devils hence it will be a choice between which devil is less evil. In the final analysis, and conscious of what we know of the two, I will want to believe that a majority of Nigerians will go with the combination of Atiku and Obi, for they represent a better, saner, less divisive and empathetic alternative.