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Obasanjo and 2003 elections: he should run; but what if he loses?


Special to USAfricaonline.com
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston

If the President contests the election and loses, and by his own self-will graciously surrenders power, it would be far better for the vitality of Nigerian democracy. Asking him not to run delays our democratic growth. If he wins, then so be it. That would be the choice of the majority of voters. Or, in our patrimonial system, at the least the choice of those who orchestrate the power game on our behalf. But think of the journey we would have made if retired General Obasanjo contests, loses, and actually hands power over to the winner. That would be heady stuff indeed. So I say run, Mr. President, run!

Anyone with even a passing interest in Nigerian politics will know that the campaign for election 2003 has already begun. Actually, for some, the campaign began long before the inauguration of retired General Olusegun Obasanjo as President in May 1999. Men whose place or passion it is to do the crusty calibrations of power have been hard at work scoping out the world of politics in 2003. Only lately, with their increasingly public posturing, have we, the uninitiated, come to be let in on the excitement.

The Electoral Bill imbroglio, the advertised tensions between good old Obasanjo and his ex-military buddies, the rising tensions within the registered political parties, the increasing agitation of the unregistered ones, the 'religious' and 'ethnic' conflicts-; these are only some of the next-step manoeuvres designed to bring us the pliable public into the picture.

As part of these manoeuvres we are now being treated to an esoteric game to either get the President re-elected or stop him from seeking a re-election. Obasanjo's cronies are advancing the totally 'unexpected' argument that he has some important tasks to complete for which he needs a second term. Although there are too many fights across all of Nigeria's social, ecological, ethnic, religious and political landscape since he became president, some of them even suggest that retired General Obasanjo is an integrative force in contemporary Nigerian politics, and as such that he is "needed at this critical stage" to consolidate the gains of our democratic experiment.

As you may have guessed not everyone buys into this benign characterisation of Obasanjo. Some people who are perhaps not so enamoured of the retired general are calling for him either to resign pronto or not to bother to seek a re-election. Their reason? It comes in many languages. Some say that the man has imperial designs and is enjoying his political ascendancy so much that he wants to perpetuate his rule, even though he isn't doing much that is beneficial to the wider Nigerian society.

Others say that the President, who came to power on a popular national mandate, is now playing to his native instincts and has allowed himself to be appropriated to the sectionalist cause of his primal Yoruba constituency (and he may have (or positioned himself as such toward his kinfolks who did not cast significant number of votes for him even in his own local district in 1999). Others still complain that General Obasanjo is intimately connected with the military institution, especially the politically dynamic caste of retired military officers, and therefore that his continued political ascendancy would inhibit the growth of democratic practice.

There are others who ask the President to surrender power after his first term, not for the reasons given above, but because they want him to give the example, rare in Africa and never done in Nigeria, where an elected head of state deliberately and without pressure disengages from power. This is the Nelson Mandela example which they say will establish an important tradition of political succession in Nigeria. The argument goes that since Obasanjo was the first military leader to voluntarily surrender power to a democratically elected civilian leadership (in 1979) he could blaze another trail by being the first civilian leader to give up power without force.

Such a move would have a powerful symbolic message, it is thought, and would secure the place of the President as an important political figure in Nigerian history. The idea is that with such a gesture Nigeria would have passed one of the critical tests of democratic consolidation, which is a peaceful hand-over of power from one elected head of state to another.

I have a problem with all these calls for the President not to run for a second term. It is of course well within retired General Obasanjo's constitutional rights to seek a re-election. But that is not the point. I shall discount for the moment the arguments of the President's political opponents who question his personal and political integrity. I am more interested in the argument of his 'concerned supporters' who think that by not contesting he would be doing Nigeria a great service.

Why should he not contest? Obasanjo would not be doing Nigeria any favour by not contesting in the next election. On the contrary, it would be far more beneficial for the country if he enters the election campaign, fights vigorously for a re-election but loses, and hands over peaceably to the winner. That, I think, would be the true test of our democratic maturity!

The problem with the argument of those asking Obasanjo not to run is this: they assume that he would win the election outright. Of course in Nigeria, as elsewhere, the factor of incumbency is alive and well, and this may well play to the advantage of the President. His control of patronage and the varied instruments of political intelligence and coercion would give him an exceptional advantage over his competitors. With these, if we go by the calculation of the political pundits, there is a strong probability that Obasanjo would win the contest in 2003.

But can we simply go by the incumbency argument? Obasanjo may have some indubitable advantages for being in office but does this mean that it would be plain sailing for him? Consider, if you will, some of the factors working against the President. His record in office isn't exactly a catalogue of endearing conquests. Sure, there are some notable achievements counting in his favour: GSM; privatisation; NEPA; road works; external debt management; rebuilding of Nigeria's image abroad. But these can hardly be considered to be revolutionary.

After nearly three years in office retired Gen.Obasanjo has barely begun to address the fundamental problems of the Nigerian social formation. All of our deep problems are still firmly in place: the structural contradictions in the economy; the ideological, institutional and behavioural problems relating to politics; infrastructural decay; the seemingly intractable problem of ethnicity; religious conflicts; social insecurity; we are all familiar with these.

No one could reasonably have expected Mr. Obasanjo, after a few years in office, to master these problems. After 15 years of rapacious military rule, preceded by four years of an equally predatory rule by civilians, the currents of our social malaise run too deep for any one administration to control. But the problem for Obasanjo is this, that after the peculiarly obnoxious rule of the Abacha junta, Nigerians can't wait for him to turn things around. To the extent, therefore, that he is perceived not to have delivered, we can conclude that he would be entering 2003 with a significant level of political liability. It may be unfair but surely this factor of popular disaffection is something that the President's opponents can use, and are using, against him.

This however would be just one of retired General Obasanjo's worries. What about the fact that there has been a re-alignment of political forces since the accession of the President? In Nigeria's ideologically arid political environment the numbers game being played by our principal politicians appear to be leading to an erosion of loyalty to the President. Obasanjo's party, the PDP, is in disarray. Of course it remains so far the strongest of the three registered political parties, with the widest coalition of interests. It was on the strength of this coalition that the President coasted to power in 1999, even whilst facing a strong opposition within his domestic Yoruba constituency.

But it seems now that this coalition is beginning to rupture. Some of the power brokers who helped to engineer Obasanjo's rise to power appear now to be reconsidering their options. We've begun to hear some increasingly churlish noises from the North, from the East, and from the rank of retired military officers who supported Mr Obasanjo in 1999. The President has of course gained some friends, as anyone would if they were the incumbent. His Yoruba folk, for one, are now awakening to the rational realisation that the man is one of their own. Obasanjo has also deployed some salient political tactics aimed at consolidating his power. On balance, however, I do believe that the President, though not weakened, is by no means currently unassailable.

Make no mistake about this: It will take a lot to dislodge this president from power. It will require further political re-alignments, within the parties and across the entire political spectrum. It will require a strong popular mobilisation against the President. It will require the emergence of an internationalist figure, with the diplomatic connections that match or even surpass those of the President's. Is there such a person? Perhaps, but we may need to look beyond our current constellation of political leaders.

Retired General Obasanjo has announced that he is waiting for divine guidance to enable him decide whether to run in 2003. Maybe the President has a hotline connection to the divine realms; after all he has introduced GSM and God may have acquired a cellular phone. It is possible that Obasanjo is still consulting and weighing his options. It is equally possible that the President has made up his mind and is already mobilising for his re-election, although for strategic reasons he would have us believe that he hasn't decided, and is awaiting God to tell him.

Whatever the case, I think that he should run. His chances of winning are good, but there is a not inconsiderable chance that he may also lose &endash; less chance at the primaries but perhaps more at the main, national election.

If the President contests the election and loses, and by his own self-will graciously surrenders power, it would be far better for the vitality of Nigerian democracy. Asking him not to run delays our democratic growth. If he wins, then so be it. That would be the choice of the majority of voters. Or, in our patrimonial system, at the least the choice of those who orchestrate the power game on our behalf. But think of the journey we would have made if Mr President contests, loses, and actually hands power over to the winner. That would be heady stuff indeed.

So I say: Run, Mr. President, Run!
Dr. Okoye, a senior research manager and technologist, is based in Bracknell, United Kingdom, from where he will serve as a contributing analyst for USAfricaonline.com, and a forthcoming web site on Nigeria from our community's pioneers of professional internet/web journalism. Responses to this article may be published on this site and in our print edition of USAfrica. This commentary for USAfricaonline.com, is copyrighted and archiving on any other web site or newspaper is unauthorized except with a Written Approval by USAfricaonline.com Founder. January 27, 2002.

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