The emotions raised by the recent Presidential, National Assembly as well as the Governorship and State Houses of Assembly elections will take a while to settle – especially from those who were not favoured by their outcomes. Elections, across all democracies arouse emotions, deepen divisions and polarize the society along certain fissures and contending fault lines. However as Bernie Sanders, the 78 year old American politician, who recently raised $18 million in just 41 days after formally announcing another bid to be the Democratic Party nominee in the 2020 US presidential election, would say, “[e]lection days come and go. But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the one percent - a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice - that struggle continues.” So without prejudice to the challenge of the outcome of the presidential election by the PDP’s presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, I will, in this reflection, propose a number of low hanging fruits, which if plucked wisely and early enough in the life of Buhari’s second term in office, will help the course of reconciliation and promotion of social justice:
One: It took Buhari almost six months to appoint his cabinet during his first term in office. And when the appointments were made, not many were enthused by the quality of the people appointed. The disappointment caused largely by the long delay in forming a cabinet led to various insinuations that ranged from allegations that Buhari was unprepared to govern to rumours that he did not expect to win the election. That perception dogged much of his first term in office.
The President should use his inauguration for a second term in office on May 29 2019 as an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes in his first term in office. He should not just announce nominees for key political positions (preferably made up of accomplished technocrats and people untainted by political scandals and controversies) but should also use the occasion to make some major but non-controversial policy pronouncements. This should go beyond the rhetoric of fighting corruption or the waste and corruption in the 16 years of PDP rule. People are tired and bored of such rhetoric. Making critical appointments and major policy pronouncements on inauguration day will imbue his government with that sense of urgency it largely lacked during its first term in office.
Two: Buhari should use the appointments made on the inauguration day to change perceptions of his government – especially perceptions of clannishness and nepotism - in some parts of the country. It is unhelpful to believe, as the government seems to do, that such perceptions are either untrue or animated by hate. The truth is that people’s perceptions constitute their social reality and determine the way they relate to what others may call ‘objective reality’. It is not weakness to utilize what the American political scientist Joseph Nye called ‘soft power’ to get the buy-in of people who have unfavourable perceptions of you. The more the number of cross sections of citizens supporting a government, the more enhanced its legitimacy. A government that suffers from legitimacy crisis from sections of the country will often resort to authoritarian measures to enforce control and order in those areas, which will in the end prove politically damaging. So even from a purely self-preservation perspective, it is good politics to get the buy-in of as many Nigerians as possible into a government’s programme. Although the issue of political appointments is purely an elite game (and cheap politics in my opinion), it is part of the issues that colour the perceptions of a government. For instance former President Jonathan never recovered from certain perceptions of his government as ‘marginalizing’ the south-west because no one from such an important political zone was in the first five or so of the country’s protocol list in his government. Such a sense of alienation facilitated the mobilization of people from that zone into the APC and support for Buhari’s candidacy. Following the crucial role played by the zone in Buhari’s election, it has every right to push for as much compensation as possible – just as those who feel excluded also have a right to cry foul. Noise has its value in politics, especially in the politics of entitlement, and of who gets what, when and how – which appears to be the motif force of the country’s political life. The President should step in and do a necessary balancing act, knowing full well the fluidity of political alliances in the country.
Three: The President should also take active interest in the leadership of the National Assembly in his second term in office. Though how an Okeke or Mohammed being the Senate President or an Olanike being the Speaker of the House of Representatives benefits the South-east, the North or the South-west respectively remains unclear, most Nigerians are ethnic and religious watchers because these variables have become filters for political realities in the country. This means that though it is at best only an emotional or psychological succour that someone of one’s ethnicity, geopolitical zone or religion is represented in the architecture of governance, getting the politics wrong can be extremely damaging to any government – even if a government gets away with it in the short term. This is the more reason why the President should take more than a passing interest in who emerges as the leaders of the National Assembly. For the leadership of the National Assembly (Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker and Deputy Speaker) I will propose that the President urges his party to eschew the attitude of winner-takes all. I feel the President should push for the North-West and the South-West, which produced the President and the Vice President respectively to recuse themselves from taking part in the contest for these positions – however persuasive their arguments for these positions may be and despite the fact that there is a precedence for zones that produced the two topmost political positions to also hold one of the four top leadership positions in the National Assembly. This will be tough love and the President can always find other ways to compensate zones he believes gave him special support. Optics is everything in politics and the visibility of the National Assembly’s top leadership positions, even if they are denuded of real substantive power, counts for much in a society like ours. If possible, the President should encourage that one of these four National Assembly positions should be conceded to the opposition PDP in the spirit of inclusiveness. And to ensure that the National Assembly is not made to look like a rubber stamp, it will make a lot of sense that after zoning these offices to the four geopolitical zones (outside the North-west and the South-west), legislators from such zones should be allowed to elect from among themselves the person to take the slot allotted to each zone.
Four: It will be good politics for the President to use the occasion of his inauguration to make concessions, even if symbolic, to the clamour for restructuring. True, the clamour for restructuring may be just a tool of political negotiation by the southern faction of the political class in their competition for power with their Northern counterpart; it has over the years acquired the character of a mantra and an assumed magic elixir that will solve all of the country’s political and developmental problems. Certainly announcing on his inauguration day that he will set up a committee to look into the various recommendations on restructuring will win him some new friends. The idea of running an inclusive government is not just about mirroring the diversity of the population in the small group of people given political appointments, but also of making concessions to the main contending developmental philosophies in the country. Despite the lack of consensus on what ‘restructuring’ means or what it should entail, there are good recommendations from the restructuring argument (such as the idea of state police) that deserves a closer look.
Five: Buhari should on his inauguration day also announce plans to set up an independent inquiry into the conduct of the 2019 elections. The 2019 elections were not just the most expensive in our electoral history (gulping over N245bn), it was also characterised by remarkable violence, logistic challenges and allegations of partisanship of both the electoral body and the security agencies. Though it is ‘normal’ for losing sides in elections in this country to cry foul, there appears to be a consensus that the elections fell short of expectations. Certainly it will not be a sign of weakness for the government to admit that the elections were less than perfect – as Yaradua did after the 2007 elections. Such an admission and a promise to find ways to make it better next time around, may help to restore confidence in the country’s democratic processes.