Recently, when a class of political actors gathered in Abuja in what they described as Northern Elders and Stakeholders Conversation, the leaders examined the past, interrogated the present and projected into the future. The meeting was so much about the 2019 presidential election as it was out of concern for the future of Nigeria and the need to rebuild the north.
Looking back at the past, the elders found that what made north a united entity seem to have dissipated; as such they contemplated a Northern Political Summit, which they fixed for March 15, 2018. The event was fittingly described as one to commemorate the attainment of self-government in 1959.
Of the present, the participants chewed on the vexed issue of restructuring. For that they set up a committee to study the “desirability or otherwise of the restructuring of Nigeria.”
Projecting into the future the elders blamed state governors for most of the problems in the region even as they suggested a pruning of those powers. But in clear terms the powers of state governors, which the elders seem to be referring to revolve around the power to determine who becomes president.
This is because the conveners of the meeting noted with pain how outsiders have been dictating who occupies the office of president the several times it was zoned to the north. In 2011 and 2015 the state governors played crucial roles in determining how the presidency was occupied. That must have been why the elders took notice of the powers of the governors and the problems they caused the north by their egotistic tendency.
The Northern Elders and Stakeholders Conversation outlined their desire to achieve northern unity so as to be able to rally round a consensus presidential candidate of their choosing before the 2019 election.
One indubitable fact about the conversation is that the elders seem to have realised early enough that the north has a lot of socio-political challenges, which could undermine its ability to hold strong and protect its corporate interest in the Nigeria project, especially the 2019 poll.
While it appears as given that under President Muhammadu Buhari, the north retrieved power as it intended, it dawned on the elders that the region has not much to show for the mandate. Consequently, against the background of declining unity, the presidency, which the region occupies, appears to be exposing the underbelly of northern solidarity, which is their shared socio-political orientation.
Contemporary issues that might have compelled the elders to initiate the conversation seem to be multifaceted. They include the raging controversy over cattle colony accentuated by herdsmen versus farmers’ clashes that have left a trail of pain, tears and blood in some northern states and communities.
It is possible that nothing has ever shaken northern unity and solidarity as the herdsmen crisis and federal government’s slovenly approach to resolving it. As such, the open condemnation and threat of forging fresh alliances by stakeholders from middle belt and southern Kaduna, especially Benue and Taraba, must have alarmed the elders. The impression that the balance of greater population, which the north enjoys was tilting towards the south, could have serious political implications for the north.
The foregoing must have informed the position of confab co-convened by former Defence Minister, Dr. Bello Haliru Mohammed, former Deputy President of Senate, Ibrahim Mantu and Senator Paul Wampana, that the political class must come together to forge solidarity and unity.
Situating such solidarity as basis for a legitimate alliance with the South, Mohammed noted: “From what is apparent in the political arena today, it is clear that the major political operators have agreed that in the forthcoming 2019 election, it is the turn of the north to produce the president.
“Therefore, there is a need to partner with brothers and sisters from other regions to ensure that, this time around, the leadership that shall emerge is one that can unite and develop our country with equity, justice and peace for all.”
Although it sounds as an indictment on President Buhari’s leadership style that has greatly brought about definite dichotomy between the north and south, the conveners are also concerned about imminent implications on the political space.
Although the stakeholders noted with dismay that outsiders have been influencing the choice of Nigeria Presidents of northern extraction lately, it is in the brewing internal struggle that they envisage greater danger.
Two developments made that danger so blatant: The handshake across the Niger and former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s endorsement of a third force to douse the influence and clout of All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Could it be that in the unfolding political circumstances, it would be hard for the north to hold the ace? That is not to be doubted. But as the former defence minister disclosed, the general impression is that Nigerians expect the north to retain the presidency till 2023. Yet, the underlying challenge is how to contain the ambition of some younger elements and governors to contest the presidency.
Even at that, there is another simmering contention: The observation by some elements from the northeast that the northwest has had an unfair access to the Presidency and that 2019 is time to take their turn. That may be why Alhaji Tanko Yakassai observed that it “has become urgent for northern elite to stand in unity and save Nigeria from instability.”
Just as the agitation for power rotation to the northeast is simmering, some state governors and political actors on the APC are said to be stoking the second term ambition of President Buhari for their future electoral interest. It is believed in some quarters that without Buhari on the ballot, APC would haemorrhage greatly, especially in the north during the 2019 poll.
Quelling the fire of both agitations could then explain Yakassai’s stance that “the purpose of our meeting is not to form a political party, (but) to see how to bring about unity of purpose in the North.”
It therefore follows that the major reason of the conversation is the discovery of the fact that rebuilding the political north as one united entity could best be achieved by enthroning a consensus candidate. In tackling that lofty mandate, the elders would also be trying to harmonize the division between those clamouring for a younger president and those who believe that experience and competence should be the deciding factor.
What makes the situation very dicey is the fact that two juggernauts, the incumbent, Buhari, and former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who was the consensus choice of the north in 2011, are in the race.
Most politicians that attended the northern elders meeting believe that former President Obasanjo worked against his former vice out of selfish rather nationalistic or northern interest. Others who feel incensed at the general low rating of President Buhari’s performance, seem convinced that the only way to stop the President is to field a youthful and capable Presidential candidate. Gathered into one basket, those issues make the search for a consensus candidate herculean.
Restructuring, Not Rotation
The resolute stand by leaders of Southwest, South/south and Southeast on restructuring, particularly their insistence on restructuring as precondition for the 2019 election must have some impressions on the minds of northern elders.
It seems possible also that the quick about face by some entrenched northern interests, including the President, on some of the crucial pillars of restructuring, could be evidence that the north does not want to be a stumbling block to the nation’s stability.
Without doubts, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar is on record as the foremost prominent northern politician that voiced out support for restructuring, even to the extent of marshaling out how the north stands to benefit from a restructured Nigeria.
Placed side by side with former President Obasanjo’s new fangled agitation for paradigm shift in the country’s leadership, Atiku’s stand on restructuring and the ruling party’s rethink, must have woken the elders to the political undertones of the new realities.
Who, between President Buhari and the former Vice President, would the north trust to protect its interest in a restructured Nigeria? What does Obasanjo still want, after experimenting with late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and former President Goodluck Jonathan? What if the prevailing contest of views on restructuring throws up a President from the Middle Belt with little or no input from the core-north?
How far the foregoing are impacting on the minds of northern elders would be seen in the outcome of the March 15 Northern Political Summit. But there is ample reason to suggest that a greater percentage of northern elders have given up on President Buhari to sustain a stable Nigeria that guarantees the preeminence of northern voice on national politics.
Could it be that the north is frightened or that it is genuinely concerned about how to restrain the country from falling down the precipice? And, recalling that Buhari’s stay in office do not usually end on a democratic note, what options are open to Nigeria in 2019? All these and more must have compelled the northern elders to initiate a conversation, knowing that it is better to jaw-jaw than war-war. By next month it would be clear what tone the conversation will take.