The battle is over. It’s been won and lost. The warriors are home, relishing mutual congratulations – the deafening sound of back slapping and all that. I can see that newspaper proprietors are doing much better than picking the crumbs from the tables of the victories. They are actually laughing, all 32 teeth bared, to the banks, thanks to the obligatory congratulatory messages. Elections seasons are money-making seasons. I am jealous.
Now, the ruling party, APC, faces the crucial task of sharing the booty in a way that heals the inevitable wounds of battle. This, you should understand, is not a simple matter of the president appointing members of his team on merit or supporting the emergence of the principal officers in the national assembly on individual merit. This being the great Nigeria, individual merit counts less than tribal interests. However you may wish to sugar coat it, substituting ethnicity for tribes or use geo-political zones to neutralise the emotions that attach to ethnicity, you are only running without movement; you are actually standing on the same spot. Tribe is it.
Those of us who were old enough to witness the momentous national political movement from the British parliamentary system to the exotic American presidential system of government on the say-so of the generals in 1979, would remember that the khaki-clad politicians borrowed the American system and Nigerianised it to satisfy the critical exigencies of tribal interests, aka, national interests. In the American presidential system, the president of the senate is the vice-president. Although technically, he belongs to the legislative branch, he is not of them. He is president extempore. He does not actually preside over the senate unless the moon turns blue and his attention is required to perform the temporary function. There is no deputy senate president and no deputy speaker of the House of Representatives.
In their wisdom, our generals changed this in their pragmatic response to the peculiarities of our country. We should be grateful for that. At a Newswatch Summit interview, the late Major-General Shehu Yar’Adua, the number two man in the Obasanjo military administration, told us that they felt it was important for the national constitution to create room for and foster a national sense of belonging. This would be the logical constitutional meeting point of such policies as the quota system and federal character.
No tribe would be marginalised where it matters most in the country: political power sharing. All of them must be the sharers and the eaters of the sweet national cake. Therefore, they created the following political offices in the political succession plan – president, vice-president, senate president, deputy senate president, speaker of the House of Representatives and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. These were intended at all times to be distributed among Hausa/Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba, northern minorities and southern minorities.
This was observed after a fashion in the second republic, the first time it was put to the test. Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Hausa/Fulani, was president; Dr Alex Ekwueme, Igbo, was vice-president; Joseph Wayas, southern minority, was senate president and his deputy was John Wash Pam, a northern minority. Politics being a game of reward system, the Yoruba, whose sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, could not help not smarting over the ‘stolen presidency,’ were left holding the short end of the political power stick. They gathered the other three political parties to form the progressives to give the president, whose party did not enjoy a simple majority in the national assembly, hell.
Shagari outwitted them with his invitation to the parties to join him in forming a government of national unity. NPP accepted and what Dr Kingsley Mbadiwe called, in his inimitable expression, accord concordiale – a mutually beneficial co-operative agreement between the NPN and the NPP – was forged between them. This saw the emergence of Edwin Umezeoke, Igbo, as speaker of the House of Representatives; the deputy speaker was Idris Kuta, a northern minority.
In the Obasanjo administration, the Yoruba and the Hausa/Fulani held the first two positions as president and vice-president, respectively. The senate presidency was zoned to the Igbo. Being a fair-minded tribe, they ensured that the position went round. Thus each of the five Igbo states produced a senate president – five senate presidents in eight years; an unbeatable record that other tribes could only envy in vain.
In the Goodluck Jonathan administration, a southern minority was president and a northern minority, David Mark, was senate president for two terms. He refused to follow the Igbo example and let the office go round the states in the zone. No, he was not selfish. We were accommodating.
I have recounted this brief history of our political balancing act to show a) that our politics is defined by the sensible political philosophy of you-chop-I-chop and b) that no Nigerian president could ignore this fact without stretching out his foot as a shooting target practice. In 2015, President Buhari, Hausa/Fulani, was elected president with a Yoruba man, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, as vice-president. But the principal offices in the national assembly were not properly zoned perhaps because the president did not appear to appreciate his role in this and allowed the legislators to do what they ought not have done.
It led to the unusual manner in which Dr Bukola Saraki became senate president. It also created the sweet political anomaly of one party, APC, holding that office and a rival political party, PDP, holding the office of deputy senate president. APC as a party, and the president, both of whom should have determined how the booty was to be shared, more or less let things be. It was a bad mistake. It soured relations between the president and the national assembly and more or less crippled that critical arm of government in the last four years. The hounding of Saraki, a Yoruba from the northern-central geo-political zone, over his assets declaration was a major fall out of this friction that made the man the president’s enemy.
To be fair, the then national chairman of APC, Chief John Oyegun, attempted to offer a power sharing formula when he constituted a committee to advise the party on it. But, perhaps in his eagerness, he made a bad mistake. He did not consult the president. When the details of the committee’s recommendations were leaked to the press, Buhari, as they say in Warri, saw red. And those recommendations died before they arrived. But the baby was thrown into the gutter with the bath water.
Buhari and Osinbajo have been re-elected into a second and final term. It is not foolish to expect that things would drastically change now for the better. In the past four years, Buhari has faced a barrage of criticisms over his lopsided appointments at the expense of the political interests of other tribes and religions. They were not idle tweaking of his beard. However self-justified he may feel about those appointments, he cannot continue to ignore the need for the balancing act formula that has, warts and all, served our national interests this far. He faces greater challenges this time than he did in 2015. It would take courage and statesmanship to respond to them.
The result of the presidential election clearly shows that our country is more divided now than ever before in its chequered history. The responsibility for building bridges across the ethnic divides rests squarely on Buhari’s shoulders as president. If he goes strictly by the natural human tendency to reward only the zones that voted for him, he would leave out the South-east and the South-south – a large and critical political and economic swathe in the land.
That would be both unwise and clearly against the spirit of our constitution. The federal character principle does not take into account political support as the basis for permitting every tribe or zone to join other zones as the bakers, the sharers and the eaters of the national cake. How the president handles the emergence of the principal officers of the national assembly would, more than anything else, define his second and final term in office.
I offer him a piece of advice gratis. Let us go back to the only sensible formula that recommends itself in the circumstances. He and his party cannot afford to be aloof to the inevitable machinations and power struggle in the ninth national assembly. They should follow the beaten path by letting the senate presidency and the speakership remain in the North-central and the North-eastern zone, respectively. Despite his obvious rejection at the polls by the South-east and the South-south, it would be a great act of statesmanship for him to offer them the deputy senate presidency and the deputy speakership, respectively.
That way, he and his party would have taken a giant step towards healing the wounds inflicted on the various tribes by the election battle. And he would have set in motion the process for creating one Nigeria out of many Nigerians.
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