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Men of Straw By Sonala Olumhense

On 31 December 1983, I was one of millions of Nigerian who danced in the streets of our country.  We had lived through the menace of a “democratic” political party called the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) for four ugly years, and it was a relief, even for those of us who resented the sight of soldiers in charge, when the military shunted the circus aside.  Muhammadu Buhari assumed office as Head of State. 

On 31 December 1983, I was one of millions of Nigerian who danced in the streets of our country.  We had lived through the menace of a “democratic” political party called the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) for four ugly years, and it was a relief, even for those of us who resented the sight of soldiers in charge, when the military shunted the circus aside.  Muhammadu Buhari assumed office as Head of State. 

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Prior to last weekend’s presidential election, I had heard many commentators cite that coup as one of the reasons why Buhari should not have sought elected office in 2011, and I thought that was either mischievous or uninformed.  In 1983, what we had was not a democracy; it was a charade that had rotted so badly we were begging in our sleep to be saved from the NPN.

In 1999, after a tortuous military journey through civilian territory, the NPN was back in control, having assumed a new business registration as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).   

This part of the story is well-known to us all.  In the following 12 years, the PDP excelled as the only “national” party, but it had no heart.  From one election to another, it cheated and muscled its way to success; in between, it neglected the challenge of good governance for games of looting and manipulation.

By 2007, even the newly-elected president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was confirming his election had been a hoax.  So had his appointment as presidential candidate in the first place been illegal but what was worse, his government went on to be quintessential PDP: uncaring, unmotivated and unpatriotic.  As in 1983, Nigerians could not only smell the rot, they could feel the pain in every aspect of their lives. 

In 2011, by coincidence, emerging as a strong contender for leadership was Muhammadu Buhari.  The occasion did not call for dancing in the streets, but I gave him my endorsement in the conviction that, of the candidates we had to choose from to break from the menace of the PDP, the former army chief offered the most realistic opportunity. 

As it turned out, however, there were only two kinds of Nigerians on the ballot: those who wanted Jonathan, but not the PDP; and those who wanted change, but not Buhari.   

And as it turned out, those who did not want Buhari were buying no arguments about what he could do in the interest of change.  Let me phrase that differently: those who did not want Buhari obviously did not believe in him as an agent of change, as was being advocated by people such as myself. 

Instead, they offered a different argument in which he was but a man who stood against change.  They saw a man who perpetuated the “perception” of the Islamic North that they should never have lost the presidency when Yar’Adua died last year.  The irony is that that argument belonged within the zonal policy thinking of the PDP—not the national picture beyond it—but the moment there were ‘Northern’ candidates arraigned against Jonathan, there was no way Buhari could escape the perception he was representing an Islamic North that did not want a Christian southerner.

As it were, Jonathan won that argument.  To be sure, he won partly because of rigging, but mainly because more Nigerians seemed to want him than any other person.  The problem is that the rigging that benefitted him was more clever and insidious than in previous elections, so not only was it not readily visible to observers, it is of greater challenge to future elections in Nigeria. 

For the present, Buhari lost because of some other factors.  The first is the self-serving character of the Nigerian politician.  People talk about the failure of the Action Congress of Nigeria and the Congress for Political Change to achieve a last minute merger but that is really a smokescreen for a darker dilemma.  A true opposition, even in true political philosophy, does not exist in Nigeria; what exist are collections of politicians and fragments of non-PDP organizations that are content to exist on the sidelines picking up the crumbs.  On some days of convenience, as we have seen with the All-Nigeria’s People’s Party and the defunct Alliance for Democracy, they may even marry into the PDP and never be heard from again. 

Think about it: this was the third major election in which the opposition cried all night about the need to forge a united front to oppose the PDP, but by day could not muster the commitment.  The latest attempt started as far as 2007, but they could not get it done when they chased a “mega” party; the presidential election eve attempt between two parties, even if it had succeeded in form, would have remained divided in practice. 

How bad is the situation?  In pure numbers, 20 parties presented candidates for the presidential election, but if you took away the PDP and the CPC, the remaining 18 (including the ACN and the ANPP) won only 8.35% of the votes cast!  Most of the parties, including the CPC, had no practical presence in most of the country beyond some opportunistic refugees from the PDP.

Buhari did not mount much of a spirited campaign, either.  In an era in which propaganda has become easier to disseminate, Nigeria’s demographics and the new technologies have also made it easier for targeted groups to accept it.  Despite this, the Buhari campaign had no discernible plan either for attack, let alone defence.

Finally, Buhari made another critical mistake: the announcement he would not contest the results of the election in court and that the people would defend their votes. 

This position implied he would let the people fight it out by extra-legal means should he lose.  Thus, when Buhari was announced as having lost, the consequence became the cause.  These strategic errors and mental mistakes are why Buhari must accept responsibility for the violence in the North against non-Muslims.  No Nigerian deserves to lose his life because another Nigerian did not win an election.  Buhari did eventually speak out, but his intervention was neither timely nor appropriate.  He needed to rise early and loudly against a violence he knew would come, perhaps not necessarily against southerners, but a violence he had himself suggested. 

Still, Jonathan has the victory.  He did not win because the voting was flawless; he won because his Nigeria was bigger and more acceptable in more homes nationwide than his competitors’.   His haul of votes was curious in several places, compromised by the dissonance between the voters’ register and actual voters, as well as between voter turnout and voting patterns. 

But doubtful also are Buhari’s total numbers given the menace in the North of underage voters, and hopeless was his poor presence in the South. 

In the end, I believe that Jonathan’s victory is owed to the perception that he is different from the monsters that have come before him and are around him.  In that light, it is a protest vote for a man who was promising to be different. 

The question is whether Jonathan was faithful when he campaigned, or whether he will be faithful now that he owns the land and all that is in it.  Without delay, we will now begin to see whether he is really different from his party, as some voters suggested, or whether he is made of clay. 
I did not support Jonathan because I believe he is a true child of the PDP.  I will not applaud him until he absolves himself of its crimes and games that have set Nigeria back, and proves he can be a statesman.  

Part of that statecraft will involve continuing the half-hearted electoral reform that he began last year, but on the basis of the inspirational Justice Uwais Report.  The objective remains the establishment of an electoral body that is independent in spirit and structure, not just in name.  Right now, INEC is not independent of anything or anyone. 

A similar kind of challenge faces Buhari.  The general must understand that he does not have to run Nigeria in order to serve Nigeria.  I would have loved his victory, but he does not have to win an election in order for Nigeria to win, and if he wishes to be remembered respectfully by History as a statesman and not a man of straw, he must emphasize country when he is confronted by self.  

My final word on the 2011 presidential election goes to Nigeria’s youth: anyone who is 30 or younger.   Nearly 30 years ago, Buhari assumed office as Head of State.  I was in my 20s, with the world in front of me.   Since then, regrettably, I have only seen Nigeria travel alarmingly in the negative direction.

If you do not snap yourself away from your convenient cocoons and your little screens and grab Nigeria by the neck, in considerably fewer than 30 years you will be asking yourself angrier and bloodier questions than I am asking now. 
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