Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet.
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica — since 1993
It is presidential succession season in Nigeria. Even before President Buhari begins gathering his belongings from Aso Villa, a throng of successors is virtually at the doorstep imagining what drapes to change and which to keep. Some ambitious wives may already be practicing the dance steps of First Lady in anticipation of the big day. The parade of presidential aspirants is typically and predictably Nigerian. All men. No woman yet. Scarcely any of the starry -eyed youth of the generation that trooped out to rattle Abuja with the ENDSARS protests last October.
So far, it is a mixed grill of the familiar long -suffering cult of perpetual presidential aspirants: former governors, legislators and some anonymous political quantities. They are being joined by a thin squad of not so familiar names ranging from academic technocrats, some bureaucrats, failed corporate executives and a few noisy lawyers whose legal practices have not done too well.
At this early point, party affiliation counts for little. Declare as an ‘independent parties to join a party later or join one of the myriad other parties except the APC and PDP who have their succession lineup fairly frozen. Better still, just wake up in your bedroom, don a costume that fits your political fancy and pose before your cell phone camera. Declare your intention and aspiration to save Nigeria on social media. Low budget politics in the era of everyman as celebrity is a new growth industry! These are still early days in what has become a national circus every four years.
In all fairness, the aspiration to assume the highest office in the land is a legitimate license that democracy freely grants every citizen. Democracy confers on all citizens the right to aspire to be president without charging you a fee. The theory is that in the absence of disabling factors such as criminal conviction or medically confirmed infirmity, terminal debility or proven insanity, every Nigerian is free to join a party, canvass an interest in or claim a right to aspire to become president subject to the rules set out by the parties. Therefore, the current parade of presidential aspirants is all within the parameters of the democratic ritual of legitimate rights and entitlements.
Over and above the charade and the comic pageantry of the season, it is also fair to say that a few of the known aspirants are people who mean well for the country. Their interest in Mr. Buhari’s job boils down to a desire to do a better job than the Daura herdsman. But the primary entry requirement for the cult of presidential aspirants is that one must fit into the mould of the specie globally recognized as zoon politikon, political animal. Politicians are a special breed. They are incurable optimists, instinctual salesmen of intangible goods and subscribers to a unique language in which every fantasy is a possibility.
Let us have the magnanimity to assume that we have in our midst Nigerian political animals with enough patriotic fervor to want to spend the next four to eight years worrying about everyone else’s problems. They want to chase bandits and Boko Haram around the savannah and the Nigerian end of the Sahel. They want to rescue those kidnapped, send delegations to assuage those whose wives have been raped. They want to worry about unemployed youth, women with unwanted pregnancies with no husbands, the price of cooking gas, ASUU on another strike, undulating oil prices and the generous supply of fake drugs in public hospitals. I know a few good men and women who suffer insomnia because antiquated refineries are being fixed with billions of dollars every year but refine next to zero liters of crude oil. Another friend of mine wants to be president so that he can attend climate change conferences since he could not be bothered to understand what it is all about. He already offered me a seat on the presidential jet if I can spare a few days!
What no aspirant will tell you is that they are applying for one of the most lucrative jobs on earth. In truth, the Nigerian presidency is one of the most powerful offices on earth. It is replete with benefits and little mandatory responsibility in real terms. There is a guaranteed four years of publicly paid endless vacation, rent- free housing, free food and wine for self, family and an endless string of hangers on and pointless guests. While the US president has free housing and attending butlers and other staffers, the occupant of the White House has to pay for food for himself and family as well as all food and drinks consumed by his guests except on officially scheduled state banquets.
In our case, there is the unstated limitless air miles and sometimes foolish foreign junkets in search of ‘investors’ from backwater countries with economies smaller than Ikeja local government. A Nigerian presidential tooth ache is best checked in the best European dental clinics!
In the line of officially mandated duty, the presidency of Nigeria comes with unlimited powers and unfettered license, privilege, pomp and indulgence. On paper, the Nigerian president is constitutionally fettered by the powers of a bi-cameral legislature and modulated by the presence of the judiciary. But in reality, the Nigerian president is a near absolute monarch. He can convert the legislature into a gigantic rubber stamp, inundate the judiciary with a collection of bewigged yes men (and some women!) as judges. Our presidents have been known to frighten off or blackmail many state governors into nodding obeisance in exchange for federal handshakes.
These excesses and abuses do not however detract from the reality that the presidency as an institution has evolved with time. A presidency that is merely 42 years old may not be expected to have acquired all the institutional refinements of those in older democracies. Yet from the inception of the presidential system in 1979 to the present, the character of the institution has evolved into a life and identity of its own. I take it that from 1979 to date, everything that has taken place at the seat of political power in Nigeria can be ascribed to the ‘Presidency’ as the central institution of governance and political authority.
We need to be clear about the cultural identity, historical necessity and philosophical basis of the Presidency in Nigeria’s democracy. As an immediate but helpful contrast, the United States equivalent to a philosophical premise for its presidency is rooted in its history. There was a need for America’s New World political authority to reject but also resonate with some trappings of the monarchical absolutism of old Europe from which America’s founders were fleeing. Above all, the political authority of the new nation needed to embody the Puritan ethos that wove the pursuit of wealth and individual happiness into the heart and soul of a new creedal nation. Thus was born the US presidency as both ultimate authority, mandated dictator and perennially checkmated symbol of democracy.
Nigeria is both an ancient cultural collective and a modern nation state. We came into modern nation statehood from a diversity of traditional formations. So, our supreme political institution must appeal to both dimensions of our heritage. We are a state that revers the ceremony of traditional authority but requires the governance management of a modern corporate state. So, the Nigerian presidency must combine ceremonial festival authority with executive fiat and the constitutional powers of modern statesmanship. The Nigerian president is both quasi royalty and constitutional chief executive rolled into one.
As an institution therefore, the Nigerian presidency has evolved with time and the varying character of different occupants of the office since 1979. With Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the inaugural executive president of the new system, therefore, we had the rudiments of a Bureaucratic Presidency. Bred and socialized into a British parliamentary political culture, Nigerians expected Shagari to adhere strictly to the best traditions of orderly British-style civil service governance. He was also expected to be guided by the outlines of Washington style presidential executive authority. The strength of the Shagari presidency derived from a trinity of structures. First, party supremacy ensured that the president was implementing the mandate of the party- the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Second, an orderly civil service ensured that the deep civil service state endured to stabilize the keel of government and insulate it from the vagaries of periodic change. Thirdly, a gamut of presidential executive appointees- Special Advisers and sundry aides- guaranteed that presidential orders were carried out with a dispatch that justified the executive requirements of the new system.
The return of the military did not erode the centrality of the presidency as the new heart of power and nexus of political authority. With Ibrahim Babangida, we enter easily the most powerful and decisive executive phase of the Nigerian presidency. An army officer who came to power assuming the curious title of ‘President’ deserved special attention. This was the birth of the Imperial Presidency. For Babangida, the presidency was not merely a source of governance direction. It was the centre of ultimate political authority and symbol of national power at home and abroad. For the bureaucracy, the spirit of the presidential system was to become real. Permanent Secretaries became Directors -General who would leave office the moment the tenure of the administration that appointed them ended. The entire nation became a uniform economic and political space, a landscape of wide ranging reforms towards a new economy, a new polity and a new society. National power was no longer a manner of speaking but a reality to be projected beyond our borders. Nigeria moved to alter the national histories of Sierra Leone and Liberia, to export trained manpower to third world countries, to summon the medium powers of the world into a concert of relevance. Nigeria moved and South Africa became free under a freed Nelson Mandela. The presidency became a symbol of power, glory and influence.
After Babangida, Mr. Sani Abacha presided over a tragic shrinkage of the presidency to his personal stature. Wole Soyinka opined then that the only way Mr. Abacha could rule Nigeria was to reduce it to his modest physical and mental stature. Enter the Autocratic Presidency. The presidency was reduced from an institution of national greatness to a pathetic object of personal aggrandizement and general political suffocation. Goons and killer squads stalked every island of liberty. Many lovers of freedom died needless deaths. The presidency became the central machinery of evil and repression to the extent that peace and order could only be restored by the terminal subtraction of the autocrat himself.
The Babangida inspired imperial reformist tradition continued under an elected President Obasanjo. The ebullient Owu chief continued with a moderated version of Babangida’s Imperial Presidency. This president was a combination of traditional chief, military general and cane-wielding chief executive. The institution became an extension of the strong personality of a president with strong convictions about Nigeria and the world. For Obasanjo, the presidency would be strengthened if it became an institution for the establishment of other institutions on which democracy could thrive and grow. Anti graft agencies were born to prosecute his almost personal war on corruption especially among state governors who did not share his political leanings.
After Obasanjo, we enter a phase that began with the nationalistic temper of Mr. Yar’dua. But fate dealt us a deathly blow in the rather brief tenure of Mr. Yar’dua, an altruistic good man with a bad health. With Ya’dua and Jonathan, we enter a phase of rule by persons of anonymity. It is a ohase that that can be described as the “Presidency of Ordinary Things”. No new grounds were to be broken. No novel initiatives or bold strides. No innovation either in vision or enterprise. Only a mere sustenance of traditions, institutions, practices took place. At best an incompetent prefecture presiding over a self driven corruption gravy train at a slovenly pace and a desire not to rock the boat. This was the dominant temper of the Jonathan presidency. It was this timid posture that energized the 2015 clamour for ‘anything but Jonathan’. Political entrepreneurs invested in Mr. Buhari’s mythic antecedents to sell the world and the nation an incompetent militarist as a messiah riding on a mantra of ‘Change’.
With an elected Buhari as president, the presidency entered its present worrisome phase. A man elected as an executive president to preside over a democratic republic has been most deficient in exercising either executive authority or obeying the dictates of democratic civility . A slovenly civil service pace of governance has sometimes drained the life out of governmental processes. A detached monarchical absolutism has deprived Nigerians of the instant responsiveness of an executive presidency. A reliance on force and belief in fights has deprive the nation of the benefits of dialogue. A certain monarchical distance has ripped apart the republic essence of Nigeria’s democracy. In its place, Mr. Buhari’s natural autocratic disposition has created a quasi garrison regime in which the military has been drawn into civil internal security assignments at a scale unknown under any other civil democratic presidency in our national history. Under Buhari then, what we have is best described as an absolutist, Monarchical Presidency.
It is precisely the many limitations of the Buhari presidency that have defined the agenda of the present scramble for his succession. Those who are currently consulting and canvassing their interest in the top job have their task well defined and jobs cut out. A whole gamut of national travails and calamities define the current state of the nation. As it were, nearly all the factors that can kill a nation have been activated by Mr. Buhari’s
monumental incompetence and lack of capacity to run anything bigger than a small agrarian local government.
Primarily, the next president has to cobble back the fabric of our nationhood to reassure Nigerians and the world that the Nigerian state will not finally fail. In the absence of a viable nation, all the parade of aspirants will come to naught. An effective management of our diversity through inclusive governance requires a president that is first and foremost a Nigerian nationalist, not a sectional bigot. This requirement automatically disqualifies all those seeking to succeed Mr. Buhari because they hail from any so-called marginalized section of Nigeria. It is not the turn of any geo-political zone to produce the next president. Rather, it is the turn of Nigeria to have an effective, knowledgeable and detribalized president. Nigerians have waited in the rain for over sixty years.