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Becoming Nigeria’s Next President: Matters Arising, By Reuben Abati

The current presidential election process in Nigeria, the sixth, since the return to democratic rule in 1999, is like no other before it. It is the most contested, the most controversial, and the most demonstrative of the fault lines, and notably, the moral depravity in Nigerian politics and society. By this time in every other Presidential election before now, there was more or less a clear sense of direction and whereas there were contenders, they were few known figures. This time around, the race for the Presidency especially in the two main political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) has become an all –comer’s affair, a lottery in fact, if not a comedy, at the lower end of that spectrum- a farce, a burlesque. About a week ago, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) closed the sale of its expression of interest and nomination forms, and after screening the 17 aspirants that showed interest in the Presidential position, the party came up with a short list of 15. Fifteen: the highest number of eligible aspirants ever in the 24-year history of the party! Today, Tuesday, May 10, the rival APC closes the sale and submission of its expression of interest and nomination forms, having extended this by a week to accommodate the Ramadan holiday.

 The last time I checked, the APC was talking about 40 aspirants, and 24 of them having paid the high fee of N100 million, and the party boasting of over N2.4 billion in its coffers. No other electoral process has been this costly since 1999! By the time the APC closes shop for submissions today, Nigeria would have most probably on its hands, over 40 aspirants trying to be President in just two political parties. There are 16 other political parties. Where are they? Nobody is talking about them. They have been crowded out by the PDP and the APC, most effectively. Due to lack of capacity and prominence, it would be difficult for any other political party in Nigeria at the moment to provide better traction at the Presidential level, even if many of those other parties may have better aspirants, and that is the truth. How inclusive is the emerging democratic process? How diverse, open and fair are the options available to the Nigerian electorate? The two major political parties: the APC and the PDP project much that is wrong with the current transition process and the move towards 2023. It is worse that there is only one female Presidential aspirant!

And why do we have so many Presidential aspirants, so many that nobody is even focusing on what goes on at the State and local council levels in all the 36 states plus FCT and the country’s 774 local governments, or in other political parties?  It is perhaps not so unusual in other political jurisdictions. In the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential primaries in the United States, a total of 29 candidates declared their intention, the largest number in any Presidential primaries in the US since 1972. The primaries in the US are organized in all the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the five US territories and abroad. It is not the kind of overnight affair that we have in Nigeria, rather it is staggered, and it is in comparison based on the principle of proportional representation.

In 2020, on the US Republican side, as early as April 2019, Bill Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts, Joe Walsh in August, former Governor of South Carolina, and US Rep. Mark Stanford, showed interest in the primary, but the party had earlier chosen Donald J, Trump, who was eligible for a second term.  He became the presumptive Republican candidate in March 2020, after securing a majority of pledged delegates. Trump couldn’t be bothered anyway. He referred to those who dared to challenge him as “stooges”. Trump’s advantage was his incumbency in 2020. Four years earlier a total of 17 candidates tried to get into the primary on the Republican side. Trump won narrowly, even with his 44.95% majority.  Those who point to the US example as evidence that there is nothing wrong if 40 or more persons show interest in the Nigerian Presidency, drawing comparisons from the US, may have the plain evidence of numbers, but the truth is that both systems are different. The numbers do not explain everything. Nigeria’s current situation points to other metrics of analysis, within a cultural, social and individual context.

The Presidential position in Nigeria is the most contested and the most attractive in Nigeria today because the position has been demystified so completely, I would not be surprised to wake up tomorrow morning to hear that a herbalist or a vulcanizer has purchased a Presidential nomination form. This demystification has been gradual, and it speaks to the failure of successive leaders to use the office to do grand things, failing to act at critical moments, alienating the people, creating spectacles of doubt and trust, and thus evoking in the general populace the thinking that even the right-thinking, lowliest placed can lead Nigeria. The bar has been set so low, it seems anybody can be President of Nigeria today. The other day, I was asked: what exactly does it take these days to be President of Nigeria?  While I was trying to put an answer together, I was reminded that once upon a time in this country, a cobbler once aspired to be Legal Adviser of a political party: SDP, Kano State. When the cobbler was told that he needed to be a lawyer to provide legal adviser, he was said to have retorted famously that it did not matter! I dismissed the story as entirely apocryphal but I was again reminded that in this same Nigeria, political parties once appointed men as Leaders of the Women’s  Wing of political parties, and 60-something-year-olds as youth leaders. The Presidential race ahead of the 2023 elections, notably in the two major political parties is beginning to look exactly like that.      

You only need to have a group of friends or access to enough money and then wake up on the wrong side of the bed, one early morning and then just decide that if you and your friends can afford the cost of the relevant forms, you too can be President of Nigeria. Money has been the bane of Nigerian politics. It is worse today.  Sums of N100 million or N50 million may look like chicken change to the Nigerian elite, when that is converted to the dollar, but to the ordinary Nigerian who has no job, facing a high cost of living crisis, and a hostile environment, that is more than a fortune. That poor Nigerian has had to witness one big man after another churning out that fortune to buy a form or two, in the past weeks, in what is at best a gamble. Many of the aspirants know that they won’t go beyond the primaries, or may never win, but they are into the lottery all the same. The Electoral Act 2022 sets a ceiling on campaign finance but it seems that this is being observed already in the breach even before the ink on the law dries off. Nobody is even concerned about the law. The Chief Law Officer of the Federation wants to be Governor in his home state of Kebbi and he is the one saying that a electoral provision arising from an enactment of the National Assembly codified as Section 84(12) of the Electoral Act does not matter, indeed that it will be expunged and deleted summarily, in line with a controversial court ruling, so why should anybody bother about what the law says?

This scant regard for the law is most signposted by the involvement of the Central Bank Governor of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele in the political process. The ding-dong over the alleged political interest of the CBN Governor has been one of the major highlights of the 2023 pre-primary process. For more than a month, a group of persuaders have taken it upon themselves to persuade the CBN Governor that he must seek the Presidency of Nigeria and that he is the best man for the job. The #MeffyforPresident group, as it is known, has held public events, printed posters, placed advertorials in the media, and paraded campaign vehicles in a show of strength and readiness. Twice, Emefiele has had cause to inform Nigerians that he is focused on his job as CBN Governor and that it is God that chooses leaders. Last Friday, a group of Mefy supporters, majorly Rice Farmers decided to take the bull by the horns. They collected expression of interest and nomination forms on behalf of the CBN Governor on the platform of the ruling APC party – N100 million!

This time around, rather than talk about his focus on his job, as the manager of Nigeria’s monetary policy, Emefiele did not disown the persuaders. He said he is consulting and seeking Divine Guidance given the seriousness of the matter, with a caveat that if he chooses to join the Presidential race, he would pay the N100 million from his own earnings in a banking career that spans 35 years. By saying so, the CBN governor simply crucified himself with his own mouth. He has confirmed that he is in fact a politician and that he belongs to Nigeria’s ruling party. It has since come to light that he has been a card-carrying member of the APC since February 2021, and the Chairman of his local ward – Ward 6 in Ika South Local Government Area of Delta, Nduka Erikpume, has confirmed this to be true. Can Nigeria’s CBN Governor be a card-carrying member of a political party and engage in partisan politics? His supporters point to the fact that in the United States, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is a member of the Democratic Party. Before her, her predecessor, Steve Mnuchin was a Republican. The example has also been cited of the Central Bank Governor of Ivory Coast, Tiemono Meyliet Kono who has now been handpicked by President Alassane Ouattara as his country’s Vice President. But what does the law say in all these places? And what does the law say in Nigeria? In the US, the Treasury Secretary, the Fed Chair, and even Supreme Court Justices are identified by their ideological and party affiliations. In Ivory Coast, the CBN Governor had to resign before he assumed office as Vice-President.

In Nigeria, the CBN Governor does not want to resign. He has gone to court, through his counsel, Mike Ozekhome, SAN, in Abuja to argue that he can be Governor of the CBN and an APC Presidential aspirant at the same time, and that Section 84(12) of the Electoral Act as amended, does not apply to him, he being a public officer (under Section 318) and not a political appointee. The matter has been adjourned till May 12, and the defendants – INEC and the AGF, have been put on notice. This would probably end up as one of the most interesting developments in the 2023 electoral process, and the biggest drama in the history of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). It is the duty of the courts to interpret the laws. But it is noteworthy that before the matter is determined, many other stakeholders have been making noteworthy legal, moral and political statements. Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, former Minister of Education and former Minister of Solid Minerals Development says it means that for seven years, Emefiele had handed over, the CBN, a body that is supposed to be independent, representing the interest of all Nigerians, to one political party!  That is a very serious indictment. The PDP added salt to the matter by saying that the CBN has been turned into the “finance department of the APC”. Emefiele is further accused of having broken all relevant laws: Sections 6, 9 and 112 (2)(c ) of the CBN Act, Section 18 of the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act (BOFIA), and Section 030422 of the Public Service Rules. Femi Falana, SAN says Emefiele has a legal hurdle to cross. Governor Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN of Ondo State, Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa (SAN), and Oby Ezekwesili, think that Emefiele’s reported ambition is a “a joke taken too far” and like many others, they think he must resign forthwith, or be fired by the President. Emefiele is right now ending his career as the first CBN Governor to jump directly from his office into the frying pan of partisan politics with oil splattered all over him and the entire institution from the Bankers’ Committee to the Banking Halls.    

Somehow, some attempt has been made to mitigate the accruing damage by the report in the last 72 hours that some characters have also purchased expression of interest and nomination forms for the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, as if to show that Emefiele has done nothing wrong. The key difference is that Adesina has not uttered a word. I think he should. He is probably silent because he knows that the AfDB is not Nigeria: rules apply there! His silence fuels the speculations. As things stand, Emefiele and Adesina may never submit any forms for consideration and hence, the public reactions and the law suits including the ex parte application filed by Naapah Bariledum at a Federal High Court, in Port Harcourt, to stop Emefiele, would become academic. But would Emefiele and the CBN ever recover from this? I doubt.   

It is a shame that, in addition to this sordid drama, what is predominant in the Nigerian political landscape is the politics of zoning, ethnicity and religion. There is very little about ideas. France has just completed a Presidential election in which the issues were well-defined, from far-right to the centre and the far-left, and the people made their choice. In Nigeria, there is so much smoke and no clarity. In the APC, every Presidential aspirant talks about how they have been endorsed by President Muhammadu Buhari. If indeed this is true, the President must help bring sanity to this confusing race. The seriousness of the office of the President of Nigeria must not be diminished. It is the most powerful office in the land, without doubt, but it is also the office now in most urgent need of protection from ridicule and hijack.                                                  

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