By Dare Babarinsa
In 48 hours, Nigerians will troop out to elect their next President. It would be the 11th General Elections since Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain in 1960. It would also be the seventh since the new era began in 1999 when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military Head of State and one of Africa’s greatest farmers, was elected as president.
Since the First Republic, it has become an established fact that no single section of Nigeria is strong or big enough to impose its will or candidate on the rest of the country without the support of at least one other section of the country. Life was simpler in 1964, when Nigeria held its first Federal Elections after independence. Today, Nigeria and its politics have become more complicated and unpredictable.
The three major ethic groups are fielding presidential candidates in Saturday’s election. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), is a Yoruba, who had served for two terms as the Governor of Lagos State. His main challenger from the North, Atiku Abubakar, is a Fulani, like the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari and he is flying the flag of the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Peter Obi, an Igbo and former Governor of Anambra State, is the flag bearer of the resurgent Labour Party (LP). Obi, a former running mate of Atiku Abubakar in the 2019 presidential election on the platform of the PDP, had left the party to try his luck with the LP. In its truly colourful history, the LP has produced only one governor; Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State, who has since gone back to the PDP. However Obi is making a good show across the country.
There are other presidential candidates, who parade impressive credentials, but whose party structure and national standings may not be strong enough to support their ambition. One of them is Rabiu Kwankwaso, the former PDP Governor of Kano State, now the presidential candidate of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). He has a large following in Kano and Jigawa states, but his national reach is not guaranteed. He too like Obi, used to be a chieftain of the PDP, and once served as the Minister of Defence under President Obasanjo.
The 2023 campaign has been rigorous and exhausting for the presidential candidates. Last Wednesday, Tinubu addressed a rally in Sokoto State and held series of meetings with leaders before returning to Abuja the same day. The following morning, he was in Ibadan to meet with a conclave of Yoruba traditional rulers led by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Eniitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, at the University of Ibadan. He left the meeting to attend a mega rally of his party at the historic Mapo Hall. The brainstorming has proved that at least the three leading candidates, Tinubu, Abubakar and Obi, have the stamina for the job of President. In 2007, the presidential campaign was so exhaustive for Governor Umaru Yar’Adua that he ended up in a German hospital.
Every serious candidate knows that you cannot become the President of Nigeria by campaigning alone, but you have to be involved in serious horse-trading and calculated alliances. That has been the historic trend since 1964, when the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), dropped its old partner, the National Council of Nigeria Citizens (NCNC), to embrace the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). The romance produced the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA). The NCNC, to confront the NNA, formed an alliance with the beleaguered Action Group (AG), called the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA). The NNA won the election and the UPGA alliance soon collapsed when the NCNC abandoned its partner to join the Federal Government of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
The next election after that was in 1979 organised by the outgoing military government of General Obasanjo. Most of the leading contenders during the Second Republic were from the First Republic. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), which was a successor of his old party, the AG. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe revived his old political structure of the NCNC and the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), was born. The old NPC transformed into the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), with Alhaji Shehu Shagari as its flag bearer. The NPN won the 1979 presidential election and quickly formed an alliance with the NPP. The First Republic structure had been resurrected.
Awolowo too, overwhelmed with nostalgia, had sought to revive the old UPGA alliance when he picked a highly successful Igbo lawyer, Chief Phillip Umeadi, as his running mate. However, he was massively rebuffed in the South-east. In 1983, Awolowo tried to change strategy in his last presidential bid when he formed an alliance with a Northern group called the Committee of Concerned Citizens believed to have been inspired by the late Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters (Vice-President) during the last military regime of General Obasanjo. The NPN and Shagari won the 1983 elections, putting an end to Awolowo’s colourful and fruitful career.
Ten years later, there was the watershed election of 1983 when Chief Moshood Abiola, the billionaire publisher of the Concord Group of Newspapers, won the presidential election of June 12. His victory was later annulled by the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida. One significant feature of that era was the institutionalisation of the two-party structure, Abiola’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the National Republican Convention (NRC), which fielded Bashir Tofa as its presidential flag bearer. Since then, despite the plurality of parties, Nigerians have tended to operate a two-party system.
In 1999, when the PDP fielded Obasanjo, the other two parties, the Alliance for Democracy and the All Peoples Party (APP), jointly fielded Chief Olu Falae. The attempt by the two parties to merge floundered and in subsequent elections, the PDP inadvertently had the upper hand until 2015 when another coalition of parties created another behemoth, the APC, to confront the elephantine PDP.
Now the table has turned. The old PDP has splintered and it’s now fielding at least three leading candidates. Kwankwaso was PDP Governor of Kano State, Obi, who migrated from the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), was Abubakar’s running mate in 2019. Of course, Atiku Abubakar was Vice-President for eight eventful years on the platform of the PDP. Let us see how all these will play out on Verdict ’23.
One thing is clear now; Nigerians, after many presidential elections, are getting use to democracy and its uneven temper and mass inconvenience. Whatever may be the outcome of Saturday’s poll, the losers only need to wait for another 48 months to try again. No longer is our democracy a zero-sum game. We know that when the Biafran boys issued a threat that no one in the Igbo heartland of the South-east should go out on Saturday, we know people would go out and defy them. The ritual of democracy is compelling attractive and nothing can stop millions of Nigerians from casting their votes on Saturday. Not even money or the lack of it.
One also hopes that after the election, President Buhari would remember that he is still the President until May 29, 2023. There is no need for him to abdicate in favour of Godwin Emefiele, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.