Buhari’s popularity is a clear and present danger to the PDP – By Ejiro Barrett
When Sule Lamido – the Governor of Nigeria’s northwestern state of Jigawa – warned that “the fear of General Muhammadu Buhari”, the presidential flag bearer for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), “is the beginning of wisdom”, during the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential rally in Dutse, the state capital, many didn’t fully grasp the point that was being made. With these words, Lamido clearly acknowledged the growing popularity- almost cult-like following- of the slim gap-toothed retired General amongst the youth of the region, as evidence of the growing dissatisfaction with the current political leadership. The statement was also an acknowledgement that the relevance of the current political leadership was eroding because of its inability to proffer solutions to pressing social challenges and the obvious apprehension over the phenomenal rise in Buhari’s popularity.
The governor’s statement also highlighted a most worrying fact; the realisation that this growing popularity would make it impossible, even foolhardy, to tamper with the electoral process, as has been the case in the past.
To the ruling party, images of large crowds at General Buhari’s rallies must come as worrying evidence of his rising profile and popularity. While these large crowds could only be counted in the north during the 2011 campaigns, today they are a recurring spectacle across the country; in the southwest, the middle belt and even the oil producing states of the deep south – the incumbent President Jonathan’s constituency and southeast – areas where the support for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was initially thought to be absolute and unwavering.
Whether the popularity of Buhari is the result of growing confidence in his proposed policies and programmes, or an indication of growing disenchantment with deteriorating social conditions and the pressing security challenges, is hard to ascertain, but it does present a real threat to the ruling PDP’s sixteen year hold on power. It is the first time a plausible alternative to incumbent political leadership has emerged in Nigeria’s history. For a party that has enjoyed unchallenged political control in most of Nigeria’s thirty six states and at the federal level since 1999, a strong opposition is hard to stomach.
Buhari also appears to have become more receptive to the divergent opinions that characterise Nigerian politics; time seems to have worked magic on his persona. The transformation from a stern and uncompromising figure who, many believed, represented ethnic and provincial interests, to a candidate whose avuncular gait has become one of his most endearing qualities, is impressive. Throughout his campaign he has managed to steer clear of controversial statements that could be interpreted as either inciting or derisive. For the first time since he first contested for the presidential seat in 2003, Buhari’s wife and daughters have been gracing public events and interacting with the public more than in previous campaigns; providing a real human face to the man who the ruling party has gone to great lengths to demonise.
These changes may have been the reason for his growing popularity in the southern part of the country, but that is beside the point; the prevalent opinion is that Buhari’s popularity poses a real threat to the incumbent leadership for some key reasons; the most significant is his insistence on tackling corruption, which has become the mantra of his campaign. It is believed that this is a major source of worry for a government that has been accused of widespread malfeasance. The list of allegations against members of the president’s cabinet is extensive: from the well-publicised cases of inflated costs for official vehicles, and involvement of government cronies in the infamous subsidy scam, to the myriad allegations of nepotism in government appointments and contracts.
It is believed that Buhari’s stern disposition stands as one of his most admired assets as well as one of his most dreaded. Recently, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president and a leading member of the PDP until he recently ripped his membership card to bits publicly, alleged that President Jonathan was afraid of a Buhari presidency because he (Jonathan) was afraid of going to jail. Comic as this may sound, there is genuine fear that the straight talking retired General has a real determination to tackle corruption head on, and this poses a “clear and present danger” to several members of the current administration who, no doubt, would be hell bent on stopping him by whatever means, or so many believe.
Another reason, which seems to have been buried under the heap of social demands, is the issue of trust. Many in the north of Nigeria insist that President Jonathan’s decision to run for a second term is in breach of a promise he made in 2011 to do a single four-year term and allow a rotational system, ratified by his party, to continue. The rotational system is intended to maintain regional balance in political leadership by rotating leadership of key positions, including the Presidency, amongst the six geo-political zones in Nigeria. Analysts agree that this remains an issue of national importance and cannot be overlooked.
In 2010, when he became acting President, following the death of President Umaru Musa Yar A’dua, a northerner, President Jonathan set up a Presidential Committee that would advise on ways to address pressing issues that arose out of his ascendancy. The Committee was chaired by one of Nigeria’s former defense ministers, T.Y. Danjuma, and had a former inspector-general of police and respected leader from the north, Alhaji M.D. Yusuf, and several other prominent Nigerians as members.
The Committee, after its deliberations, called on the acting president not to contest the 2011 elections, in respect for the rotational system that was in existence at the time. In fact, during one of the meetings held with Jonathan, he was told bluntly by Danjuma that if he decided to contest the elections they, the members of the committee, would resign en masse to show their disapproval and to stress their point that it would create unnecessary tension in the country. To resolve the issue, it is alleged that Jonathan agreed to a one term presidency, after which the rotational system would continue. It is even assumed that it was on this promise that Obasanjo supported Jonathan’s candidacy for the 2011 presidential elections.
President Jonathan seems to have lost his mojo. Obasanjo is not the only one to have publicly shown his dissatisfaction with the President’s management of issues within the party. The PDP is facing what many have described as its most serious crisis of confidence; the party has been hit by mass defections of its members in the federal and state legislatures.
Top party members, who have voiced their concerns about the inability of the party to address its festering challenges, have been leaving in droves and joining opposition parties. One of the outcomes is that the PDP has lost its majority in several State Houses of Assembly and in the Federal House of Representatives, a most damaging blow indeed in Nigeria, where political strength is largely built around strong political figures whose control of huge financial resources is an essential tool in mobilizing public support. In fact, several political observers say a sharp-eyed politician like Obasanjo publicly destroying his membership card is compelling evidence that the party has lost its national relevance.
The defection of five PDP governors to the APC in November 2013 saw the PDP lose control of its most populated states where the numbers would have tilted the political balance in their favour against the APC: as it now stands, the key population centres of Kano state in the north west, Rivers state in the deep south, and Kwara state in north central, which were under the control of the PDP, have been lost to the APC. These are added to Lagos state, which has always been an opposition stronghold. The party rightly argues that the defection of the governors does not necessarily mean the loss of public support, or majority votes in those states. However, the popularity of these governors and the financial resources they control could go a long way to swing the votes in there.
Regardless of these events, the party remains adamant that it will coast to victory in the general elections, even if all indications suggest a more uncertain outcome. Many Nigerians believe there is more to this confidence than meets the eye. The recent rescheduling of the polls is seen as an indication of a plot to re-strategise in the face of an impending defeat. To this day, the reasons given for the shift have been varied and contradictory, further giving credence to the widespread suspicions. Whatever the truth, Buhari is a clear and present danger for the continued political domination of the PDP.
Ejiro Barrett is a freelance journalist.