A blind man who only listens to radio must be thinking this is September 2018 rather than September 2017. It is still two long years before the 2019 presidential election but the distraction of that election was so palpable last week.
Aisha Alhassan, Minister for Women Affairs, sparked off the latest round of 2019 election conversations when she swore “by Allah” to BBC Hausa that if Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President, decides to contest the election — as if anyone thinks Atiku won’t — she would support him over President Muhammadu Buhari.
Some of Buhari’s staunchest loyalists, led by Nasir el-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, have publicly made a case for her sack. But Alhassan preempted the move and already saying she was unafraid of the consequences: “If because of what I said, I am sacked, it will not bother me because I believe in Allah, that my time has elapsed; that is why.”
‘Mama Taraba’, as she is fondly called, has been accused of disloyalty, but that’s a small matter. Arguments of disloyalty to Buhari are tenuous; she and Atiku go way back. There is a decade of existing godfatherism that a two-year ministerial appointment cannot alter. Similarly, there is little space in logic for arguments that Alhassan displayed uncommon courage and should, therefore, be retained. The truth is her support for Atiku is not motivated by principle; she isn’t rooting for him because of his incorruptibility or business acumen or man management or leadership qualities; she wants him because he is her Godfather. By her statement, Alhassan gives herself up as one of the numerous na-we-we politicians dotting the Nigerian leadership space. Her brand of politics is man-know-man, the very phenomenon that has rendered the country incapable of fulfilling its potentials.
The more important matter is that by her pronouncements, she has triggered a complex chain of energy-sapping, time-consuming conversations about the 2019 election. Already, el-Rufai, self-acclaimed member of a gang of ministers and governors who are “Buharists”, says the group will ensure that Buhari runs in 2019. And how will this group make this happen? Between Wednesday, when Alhassan spoke out, and now, these ministers and governors must have held a series of meetings. They want to know how many Alhassans are hibernating in Buhari’s cabinet, they want to know why Buhari hasn’t sacked her, they want to compile a list of reasons why she should be shown out of government, they want to re-analyse how many Atikus are lurking around or perhaps loitering in Buhari’s government; they will assign targets to each individual and fix a date to update one another on their discoveries. As reported by SaharaReporters on Saturday, one of such meetings held on Friday, with Buhari and his aides confirming to El-Rufai his decision to run. In short, the time that should have been invested in governance has been diverted to mid-term politicking.
From now till May 2019, governance will no longer run at full capacity. El-Rufai says were Buhari not to run, he would tell them whom to vote for. It’s a bit straightforward if Buhari chooses to run; but if he doesn’t, a few governors and ministers will neglect their duties and start plotting, from now, an imaginary journey to Aso Rock. The likes of Bukola Saraki, who everyone knows will someday contest a presidential election, will feel his time is now. The consequence is that proceedings at the Senate will become even more partisan than they currently are; plenary debates will be nothing more than political wrestling, and bills are unlikely to be considered on the basis of their value, rather the political capital that can be extracted from the sponsor.
The 2019 craze has since trickled to the people. In some states, re-election machinery is gearing up for motion, the most recent being Oyo, where the “south-west office” of the Buhari re-election campaign was launched (in Ibadan) last month.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo isn’t left out, too. A volunteer group that claims “never” to have met him has launched a website propping him for the presidency in 2019. “Note that Osinbajo did not endorse this volunteer group,” the group stated in a fully capitalized disclaimer on the site. “We have never met him. We are strong believers in the fact that he is the right ruler for Nigeria and must create a peoples volunteer base for him.”
Curiously, this group that has never met Osinbajo is in possession of some original, high-resolution photos of him from events staged both home and abroad. The group claims to be volunteering, but the site looks too crisp and user-friendly to belong in the class of volunteer websites. Someone with current or previous links to government is funding these guys. The natural suspicion will be to imagine that Osinbajo knows nothing about it but there is slim chance someone close to him is behind the project. Otherwise — and this is the likeliest scenario — someone in the opposition is floating that site to cause a commotion in the All Progressives Congress (APC), specifically to trigger bad blood between Buhari and Osinbajo. Whatever the case is, high-wire 2019 election mind games have begun, and governance will bear the brunt. It’s official: Nigeria is now in political recession.
It's a shame that this is coinciding with the country’s exit from its worst economic recession in 29 years. Although it is not yet Uhuru, credit must go the Buhari government. At the dawn of the recession in August 2016, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that both the oil and non-oil sectors of the economy were woeful. During the period under review, oil production was estimated at 1.69million bpd, which was 0.42 million bpd lower from production in the first quarter of 2016. Oil production was also lower relative to the corresponding quarter in 2015 by 0.36million bpd when output was recorded at 2.05million bpd. The figures were that low because militants repeatedly bombed oil installations while global crude oil prices fell cruelly. It was inevitable, in the end, that the economy would recede.
The most recent figures from the NBS showed oil production to have averaged 1.84million bpd — 0.15million barrels higher than the daily average production in the first quarter of 2017, and 0.03million bpd higher than the stat for the corresponding quarter of 2016. Credit to the Buhari government for finding a way to quieten the militants in the Delta, thereby increasing oil output. For this — don’t listen to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — the government deserves some credit. Oil prices have recovered slightly as well. Well, that’s down to luck, but if the government stomached the ill-luck of falling prices, it perhaps deserves the luck of recovering prices.
But there are still some concerns. The non-oil sector grew by 0.45% in Q2 2017, a second successive quarterly growth after growing 0.72% in Q1 2017. Such marginal increase is proof of the fragility of the economic recovery. More importantly, it proves we could soon be back where we were — especially if militants return to their cowardly throw-a-bomb-and-run-for-cover war, or if oil prices resume their fall.
Importantly, Nigeria cannot be contented with merely growing out of recession; the economy, particularly the non-oil sectors, needs to be strengthened so that the people can become economically prosperous. A 0.55 percent growth in the GDP is still some 2.3 percent lower than the country’s population growth rate. An estimated 14,000 babies are being delivered every day but our revamped economy can take care of only under 3,000 of them. To measure up, growth must increase by an extra 2.8 percent.
Unfortunately, premature 2019 election shenanigans threaten to derail the government from fully focusing on this, and the many other important tasks ahead. This is why I’ve always thought Nigeria needs to switch to a single term of six years for presidents — focus on all you can do in those six years and never be burdened by the distraction of re-election. It would be the perfect scenario to help the country avoid phases like the current one, where we’re emerging from economic recession and slipping into political recession.
Soyombo, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo