One of the most frustrating things about Nigeria’s political history is how it keeps repeating itself and nothing ever seems to change. The present administration has not yet spent up to two years in office and already the language of politics is dominated by the phrase: “the battle for 2019.” Nobody is talking about the next general election of 2019, but “the battle!” As is crystally evident, the 2019 general elections are likely to end up as one big nationwide war, and this won’t be a war of ideas, but a war of egos, of ambitions, and utter desperation for power.
Perhaps what makes this prospect even more believable is the narrative already being peddled that the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari may decide to be a one-term President, and therefore step down from office in 2019. He would be 77 then, and should he decide to retire from politics, that would leave the field open to a fresh selection of a Presidential candidate.
The only matter that seems settled in this regard, however, is that the successor must come from the Fulani North. You get the sense that this seems given and should President Buhari decide not to run, that may well give the North, the advantage of holding Presidential power for another eight years making a total of 12 years depending of course on the performance of whoever succeeds the incumbent. We are still a long way, therefore, from that future when political contests can be determined solely on the basis of the candidate’s merit; the complexity of our ethnic politics has ensured an unwritten rule where power is rotated at all levels among ethnic groups and geographical zones, creating a turn-by-turn sharing of power and office, both in terms of moment and duration. The Ijaws would most certainly someday in the future insist that they deserve another shot at power at the centre.
We may however be dealing with political naivete on the part of those who are basing their 2019 permutations on the likelihood of a one-term Buhari Presidency. There is certainly nothing in the Nigerian Constitution that disqualifies a septuagenarian from being President or seeking a second term. This is why the jostling for Presidency in 2019 by self-appointed crown princes in the All Progressives Congress (APC), and non-APC Northern politicians may ultimately be a case of giving away the game too early in the day.
In 2002, that was how some ambitious elements began a campaign that then President Olusegun Obasanjo should embrace the Mandela option, that is, spend only one term in office. It was their idea, not the incumbent’s. They wanted Baba to retire so they could take over. But the same President Obasanjo not only completed a second term, he was so strong by the end of his second term, some lobbyists even began to campaign for a third term – that failed of course – but since leaving office in 2007, President Obasanjo has remained extraordinarily busy and energetic.
The way it works, a powerful lobby would soon emerge to persuade President Buhari to seek a second term, not just because he is entitled, but because, that is how they usually phrase it: he needs to complete the rescue job that he has started. Already, half of the first term has been overtaken by economic recession, rising uncertainty and an overwhelmed and alienated citizenry. The President would be told that he needs more time to change the tide and leave a stronger legacy. I have seen these open and hidden persuaders at work at very close quarters. They are legacy constructionists who can persuade any political office holder to remain in office forever.
Where age is the issue, they would insist that it is not. Where there are health matters involved, they would invoke the name of God. Where neither age nor health is an issue, they will invent reasons to justify why nobody in power should give it up when he still has a second chance. For example, if at any time in 2014/15, President Goodluck Jonathan had wanted to change his mind about running for a second term, the strong forces driving the second term project would not have allowed him. They were so overpowering even the ethnic card was thrown up when he was reminded that he was not representing himself in Aso Rock but the entire South South and the Ijaw nation and that the zone is entitled like any other geopolitical zone to a second term. Delegations after delegations stormed the Villa and the media to make their case. President Buhari would most certainly face the same challenge.