NIGERIA: Buhari's Quest To Crown His Successor

Somehow, President Muhammadu Buhari has a knack for starting late and finishing very badly. Earlier in the week, he expressed the wish that every departing executive always wanted: to anoint a successor. “I wish to solicit the reciprocity and support of the governors and other stakeholders in picking my successor,” he told the governors of the All Progressives Congress on Monday shortly before he departed the country for another in his numerous overseas tours.

Buhari told the governors that his desire was the party’s policy and that if all the exiting governors had by that policy been allowed to anoint their successors while the returning governors had been given the right of first refusal, it was only fair that he would be allowed to do that at the federal level. This is not exactly correct and his speechwriter must have mixed up things.

The party has not shown that it has any policy at all, wandering about since the president ascended to power in 2015. Governors have always had to battle for their political lives. In 2019, under Adams Oshiomhole, the truculent erstwhile national chairman of the party, many of them struggled to retain their seats while those that were exiting had hard times installing their replacements.

In Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode was shunted aside and unseated despite the intervention of his colleagues. In Ogun State, where Ibikunle Amosun, a bosom friend of Buhari, held court, his choice, Adekunle Akinlade, a former federal legislator, was worsted by Dapo Abiodun, who is now in the saddle.

Amosun’s experience was particularly interesting. Riding on his close relationship with Buhari, he did anti-party, asking Akinlade to cross the carpet to another party where he emerged as the flag bearer. Thereafter, the decamped fellow was taken to the Presidential Villa in Abuja for an audience with the president who received him with glee. As loyal party men protested this high-level acceptance of organisational indiscipline, Buhari appeared at a rally in Abeokuta to add insult to injury. “Vote for the candidate of your choice,” he told the mammoth audience that consisted of the renegade’s supporters as well as APC members.

The situation in 2021 was not different. Virtually rudderless since 2020 when Oshiomhole was elbowed out of office, the party managed to install new leadership in March this year. How that leadership emerged is too notorious for its interrogation to detain us here. But it is enough to say that leadership has yet to settle down to promulgate any transition policy referred to by the president. Rather it is already manifesting internal strife as Salihu Lukman and Isaac Kekemeke, vice-chairmen of the North-west and South-west zones, have publicly complained about the one-man-show of Abdullahi Adamu, the new national chairman, in cahoots with Buhari.

The president’s quest, it would seem, was, therefore, based on a falsehood that the governors he addressed are certain to have detected. No wonder their meeting on the night of the address over Buhari’s request in Abuja reportedly ended in a deadlock between the protagonists and antagonists despite their promise earlier in March that they would do his bidding during the transition period.

However, it is important to note that Buhari’s wish is neither novel nor illegitimate. It is the practice for an exiting executive to desire to entrust the reins of power to a trusted successor that would ostensibly continue and consolidate their policy legacies. This political objective is responsible for the military’s insistence on imposing a guided democracy so that an incoming democratic administration does not rock the boat. This was why in 1979, Olusegun Obasanjo, a four-star general, preferred little known Shehu Shagari to a tested political warhorse Obafemi Awolowo. It was for this reason that Abdulsalami Abubakar preferred Obasanjo to Olu Falae in 1999. Obasanjo too managed the process for his preferred aspirant and candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, in 2007.

But the attainment of that political objective needs a tactical approach that would legitimise its desired outcome. This will require the internalising of that political objective within the context of the structures and processes of the party. In other words, the president’s choice has to be taken through the party’s selection process. And for it to be seen as legitimate, it cannot be executed overnight or in the middle of the process.

Once Obasanjo won his second term, he made it clear that his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, would not succeed him. And as soon as he lost out in his third term agenda bid, he unveiled Yar’Adua as his preferred choice so that every other aspirant knew who and what he was up against. His deputy, therefore, explored another platform, the Action Congress. So, when Yar’Adua coasted home to victory at the party’s nomination convention, the talk of imposition by the worsted opponents within the PDP was seen to be in bad faith.

If Buhari had a sound political management team, he would have been advised to project his preferred successor long before now. Rather, and asked by a broadcast network, during a choreographed interview, who his preferred successor was, he replied that it was not his problem.

Now, after 28 persons have purchased nomination forms at a whopping N100 million price tag each and have expended much more resources on electioneering nationwide, Buhari is talking about nominating a successor a few days to the elastic nomination day.

What he needs to note is that although his wish might be understandable as the party leadership reserves the privilege to point the way for its members, it is, however, the right of the rank and file to reject the hierarchy’s choice if they are convinced that it is not in their interest. It means, therefore, that the president’s choice can be defeated in an open and fair contest. This too, will not be a novelty.

In 1978, Obafemi Awolowo, leader and presidential aspirant of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, wanted his long-time associates, Emmanuel Alayande and Josiah Olawoyin, to fly the governorship flags of the party in Oyo and Kwara States. His younger associates, Bola Ige and Cornelius Adebayo stood stoutly in his way. Twice the congresses were conducted, and twice the young Turks won resoundingly. Awolowo bowed to the wishes of the rank and file in the two states.

I hope Buhari’s handlers will bring this to his attention.