Two days ago, as of this writing, former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, formally declared his presidential ambition for the fifth time. Will he be lucky this time? This may be his last chance to get into Aso Rock Villa. I do wish him the best of luck.
Political power matters.
There is an English saying: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Abubakar is in good company. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo took that advice to heart. He tried in 1959, 1979 and 1983, to get the people’s thumbs up for him to become prime minister and later, president. Three times he tried and three times he failed but each time he picked himself up and returned to the ring.
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He was, and remains to this day, the only Nigerian politician of the agbada variety who was fully prepared to lead this country. The only other military politician who was similarly prepared for leadership was General Ibrahim Babangida. He hit the ground running in 1985.
Awolowo gave deep and serious thoughts to the country, its myriads of problems and challenges and wrote books, offering his views on what must be done to set the country on the path of modern educational, economic, and social development. But in politics, power sometimes eludes those who are prepared to exercise it in the larger public interest.
Major General (as he was then) Muhammadu Buhari tried three times in 2003, 2007 and 2011. In 2011, he even registered his own political party, CPC, to make himself its sole presidential candidate. In 2014 political fortune smiled on him when PDP haemorrhaged badly and was deserted in large numbers by men who had profited from it in the executive and the legislative branches of government at national and sub-national levels for 16 years. This fourth time, he was lucky and made it to Aso Rock as president in 2015.
Political power matters.
Abubakar has never hidden his ambition to be president. He nursed the ambition as vice-president when he, like not a few people, believed that President Obasanjo would do what is called the Mandela option and run for only one term in office and hand the baton to him. He did not reckon with the enormous pull of power and that few men ever ignore the opportunity to accumulate it. When his ambition clashed with that of his boss, it poisoned the waters and turned them into sworn enemies. Obasanjo even swore in 2007 that Abubakar would succeed him over his dead body. Abubakar held his position as vice-president but sought accommodation in another political party to realise his ambition. Luckily for Obasanjo, Abubakar did not make it and we were saved the sight of the dead body of the former president.
Of the two powers that rule the world —political and economic—political power matters more. The presidency is such a highly prized possession that the truly ambitious do not give up easily. A man with political power owns his country. He can economically empower the economically powerless. With his say so, the struggling man in Ajegunle can suddenly be transformed into a wealthy man, lapping it up in the salubrious luxury of the wealthy enclave in Banana Island in Lagos or Asokoro in Abuja. You see why the rich still seek political power. It is not greed. It is part of the interplay of political and economic powers. Economic power buys political power but political power protects and expands economic power.
Men slug it out time and time again. You never say die. The recircling of old faces in politics is inevitable because those who taste political power can never easily let go. Some of them get lucky but mother luck is absent in the lives of others. Politicians do not retire. They simply transform themselves into new personages as godfathers and stake holders and continue as puppeteers, pulling the strings that make the new faces at the end of the string dance in the wind.
Abubakar became the first presidential aspirant to declare his intention. Perhaps in the days ahead other aspirants would follow Abubakar’s footsteps and overwhelm us with a rash of declarations. Ordinarily, when a man declares his ambition for an elective political office, two things happen. One, he opens himself to the critical assessment by the electorate; and two, he is free to campaign for that office and market himself to the electorate as the best thing about to happen to the country.
But Abubakar cannot hit the hustings without being laid up by the heels for breaking the law. Section 101 (1) of the 2006 Electoral Act, preserved in the 210 amendment and obviously left untouched in the 2022 amendments, states: “For the purpose of this Act, the period of campaigning in public by every political party shall commence 90 days before polling and end 24 hours prior to the day.”
Abubakar thus has no advantage over other aspirants who may declare much later. Under our form of democracy, the people are supposed to fully participate in the leadership recruitment process. Their duty is not limited to casting the votes on election day. Participatory democracy guarantees the people the right to know their potential leaders and their antecedents, openly interrogate them on what they stand for and use the information to judge their suitability for important elective offices.
I have repeatedly argued here and elsewhere that political campaigns are not just about winning elections. They are more about the people knowing their potential political leaders. INEC fears that campaigns far from an election day heats up the polity. The polity is permanently heated any way. At no point will the polity feel like a cold room; nor is it desirable to turn it into one. This provision in the electoral act prevents the people from knowing who their potential leaders are. It permanently gives the political godfathers the right to impose their bone head candidates of their choice on the people. The people can never get the leaders they deserve unless they participate in their recruitment.
This provision in the electoral act survives at our expense. We can never see the end of the reign of the godfathers. The people can never get back the power taken away from them. They are reduced to onlookers and are unable to fully participate in the electorate process in a participatory democracy. The next time the national assembly is minded to tinker with the Electoral Act 2022, the honourable men and women may like to remove this obstacle to the full flowering of our participatory democracy.