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Posted on Monday, 23 March 2015 11:47

Which way forward for Nigeria?

By Tolu Ogunlesi and Billie Adwoa McTernan in Lagos and Patrick Smith in Abuja

Nigerians forget political differences to rally against election postponement. Photo©Afolabi Sotunde©ReutersIt was set to be the closest-run national election since the 1960s. Now talk of further postponements or interim governments leaves the prospects cloudy and would-be voters increasingly restive.

A prince from Sokoto and Artillery Corps Commander, Colonel (retired) Sambo Dasuki, has emerged as a key protagonist in what is becoming the high-risk drama of Nigeria's national elections.

Dressed simply in a beige baba riga and cap, Dasuki smiles and dismisses any notion of his political influence. He was appointed national security adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014, having held a raft of state appointments after retiring from the army.

Actually, I'm due to retire, so I have no stake in this election

"I have enough to concentrate on with security. I'm not a politician or member of the ruling party," he tells The Africa Report.

However, Dasuki was one of the four officers despatched to Dodan Barracks in Lagos on 27 August 1985 to arrest military leader General Muhammadu Buhari after Generals Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Aliyu Mohammed Gusau had launched a palace coup against him.

Buhari put up no resistance and was detained in Benin City for two years.

For Dasuki and Gusau, who are working in President Jonathan's government, this year's election is something of a return match with Buhari. Dasuki may be looking beyond government, but for now his attention seems fixed on the elections and the fight against the Islamist insurgents of Boko Haram. With a video released on 17 February of the group vowing to disrupt the elections at any cost, the two imperatives are umbilically joined.

"Actually, I'm due to retire, so I have no stake in this election other than to ensure it is held in peaceful conditions," Dasuki insists.

However, he has already made some critical moves. It was Dasuki's letter to Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), informing him that the military could not guarantee security for national elections on 14 February that triggered the decision a week earlier to postpone the polls for six weeks.

That move could prove to be a turning point. It put centre stage the doubts about the vote, its security and credibility. A senior adviser in the presidency who requests anonymity tells The Africa Report: "Some of us are preparing for the possibility that there will not be a clear and accepted outcome to this election, and we're looking at a process of political negotiation to stabilise the situation and move forward."

Talks with opposition

Talking about such contingencies was not part of some fiendish plot, the adviser insists: "I can assure you that there are people in the opposition as well as the ruling party who see this as a likely outcome and would play a role in its [an interim national government's] formation."

Top All Progressives Congress (APC) officials would only confirm that there had been talks between them and the Jonathan camp about the treatment of senior government officials suspected of malfeasance in the event of an opposition victory.

On matters such as competitive elections or elite pacts, Dasuki says that he is not a politician and does not have a view. But he was very clear on the dangers of elections that lack credibility. So clear that he raised the matter at several events in London in late January, when he first floated the idea of postponing the polls.

I kept asking professor Jega whether INEC is ready to hold these elections, and he assures me all the logistics are in place.

"It is a simple calculation. I kept asking professor Jega whether INEC is ready to hold these elections, and he assures me all the logistics are in place. Then we learn in mid-January that only 36 million of the 68 million registered voters have got their biometric identity cards [...]. That is a recipe for chaos or worse," he told The Africa Report in London.

Jega and INEC emphatically rejected Dasuki's analysis, saying they were absolutely ready for elections on 14 February. They claimed that the biometric cards were all in INEC's state offices ready to be collected, the ballots were printed and some 700,000 volunteers had been recruited and trained.

The politicians also waded in. Femi Fani-Kayode, a spokesman for Jonathan's election campaign, accused the INEC of wilful sabotage of the voting preparations and of secret meetings with the opposition in Dubai to plot how to rig the election.

As Fani-Kayode turned up the volume on his attacks, speculation mounted that Jonathan was about to dismiss Jega. As others joined in the attacks on Jega, it put him on the back foot as he struggled to maintain the confidence of both parties.

The opposition has targeted its criticism at other INEC officials, who, it claims, have been making secret deals about rigging with regional People's Democratic Party (PDP) officials. This furore over INEC's preparedness could lay the basis for a slew of legal and electoral challenges.

That prospect may have swung Jega in favour of postponing the vote and accepting Dasuki's warnings about security. But this raises the question of what Dasuki expects the military to achieve in its fight against the insurgents before the 28 March elections and whether any further postponement or even suspension of the vote might be possible.

Security has become the central issue in the elections since the postponement. It has also turned the focus on the military's campaign in the north-east and its new-found regional cooperation with neighbours Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Within a week, Major General Chris Olukolade issued a string of upbeat reports about the successes – by both Nigerian and Chadian soldiers – against Boko Haram.

Dangerous moment

"The fact is that this election could be a dangerous moment for Nigeria," explains Nasir El-Rufai, former minister of the federal capital territory and current candidate for the governorship of Kaduna State on the opposition APC ticket. "You have two parties determined to win and a weak central authority fighting a losing battle against an insurgency."

His colleague, the APC's national publicity secretary Lai Mohammed, goes further and casts Dasuki as a stalking horse for a scheme to cancel the elections altogether: "We had always warned that the PDP and Jonathan don't want these elections at all. What are the possible scenarios? You could contrive a crisis and hand over to the military. You could make elections impossible by escalating violence in certain parts of the country, scandalise INEC, heighten tension, arrest opposition leaders [...]. I think all these things have been playing out."

As for the suggestion that President Jonathan could declare a nationwide state of emergency and cancel the elections, Mohammed sees that as another ploy by PDP leaders and senior military officers: "We're not at war. What we have is an insurgency, not a war. Why would you say that because 14 local governments, at most 20, are involved in an insurgency, they are going to cancel elections in 774 local governments?"

We had always warned that the PDP and Jonathan don't want these elections at all

Both Mohammed and El-Rufai warn of a widening gap between top military officers – brigadiers and major generals – and the other officers – colonels, majors, captains and the ranks, who are bearing the brunt of poor conditions of service.

A leaked tape of a secret meeting between Ekiti State governor Ayo Fayose, former state minister for defence Musiliu Obanikoro, police minister Jelili Adesiyan and Brigadier General Aliyu Momoh about the Ekiti State governorship election in June 2014 shows the dangerous politicisation of the military, according to Mohammed.

The emergence of an effective national opposition party, argues Mohammed, should make this a breakthrough election: "This is the first time Nigerians will be provided with an opportunity, where a government was not doing well, to change it themselves. Before now, the military would come in, only to compound the problems."

That chimes with the views of Yemi Adamolekun, the executive director of Enough is Enough, which organised protests against cuts in fuel subsidies in 2012: "Nigerians are determined that we must hold elections. There have been rallies and protests in Lagos, Abuja and Kano. If we don't have elections by 29 May and the government is dissolved, we are going to have a big problem on our hands."

Neck and neck

Most opinion polling, the reliability of which varies widely, suggests that Buhari and Jonathan are neck and neck, with a few tilting towards Buhari. Gallup polls record that Jonathan's approval rating had sunk to 29% by the end of 2014, compared to a healthy 55% in 2011. Some 91% of Nigerians told Gallup that corruption was widespread in government in 2014 – 4% more than in a 2011 poll.

Until recently, Buhari's appeal as an alternative was very limited in the south. A clever and clear campaign and a shrewd choice of running mate – respected former Lagos State attorney general Yemi Osinbajo – built fresh momentum for Buhari.

Meanwhile, some senior PDP supporters are taking the possibility of defeat at the centre – for the first time in 16 years – more seriously.

Femi Kuti, top musician and son of the Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, says the electoral controversy has fired up the youth: "As much as I am critical about the political situation, you can't escape the fact that Nigerians are aware and want change. Never have we been so politically engaged. The youth have no say in this country. They can only talk on social media. If they want to get involved in the political process, they get shut down."

The grand corruption and failing institutions that his father sang about in the 1970s are still haunting Nigeria, says Femi. "Will the elections be peaceful? It's hard to believe."

Poor legacy

There are some, such as Covenant University academic Conrad Omonhinmin, who are prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt: "The reasons for postponement [of the elections] are legitimate. We truly have security issues. There are too many negative opinions in society."

Not enough attention is being paid to the poor legacy Jonathan inherited, argues Omonhinmin: "Jonathan is not doing badly. So many things are going wrong, and we need time to fix them. We want democracy. We need to outgrow the military mentality."

A huge chunk of Nollywood is pro-Jonathan

The key to social progress must be massive investment in education says Omonhinmin. On that point there is wide agreement. It was the need to campaign for better educational institutions that drove the only female presidential candidate and renowned linguist, Remi Sonaiya, to run on the ticket of the KOWA Party.

"The issue of the youth of Nigeria is the reason I'm running. I was working as a professor in a university, but then I just looked at [the students] and saw that what they were getting from our educational institution could not compare in any way to what I got as a student," she said.

Many writers and musicians have been highly critical of the government, but one of Jonathan's strongest support bases is Nollywood, Nigeria's homegrown film industry, which has been the happy recipient of substantial state funding in recent years.

The industry's biggest names – actors, directors and producers – backed him in the 2011 elections and are doing the same in 2015. "A huge chunk of Nollywood is pro-Jonathan. I do not readily know any top Nollywood practitioner who is a dissenter or openly pro-Buhari," says Chris Ihidero, a director and founder of the digital magazine True Nollywood Stories.

"Many people in Nollywood will want an administration that has done this much to stay in power and do more for the industry."

Oil price calamity

Taking a wider view, Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, who heads the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives in Lagos, warns that the economic inheritance awaiting the winner of the elections will be near calamitous due to the fall in oil prices more than halving state revenue: "I've heard an argument that a $50 oil [price] is a control on corruption, but I think that is a very dangerous argument. The absence of food on your table is not the same thing as a control on your diet."

A most pressing problem will be the corrupt diversion of state revenue, says Gbadebo-Smith: "I estimate corruption in Nigeria is running between 65% and 70% of our discretionary spend, [that is] everything after salaries and so called recurrent expenditures, debt service and soon."

Neither Buhari nor Jonathan can expect much public sympathy after the election dust has settled. Buhari will face very specific problems, Gbadebo-Smith argues, because he has never had to deal with an opposition.

"The PDP will become the most potent opposition Nigeria has ever seen. They have the money, they have the experience and they know where the bodies are buried. So to frustrate the programmes of an incoming government will be easy."

Jonathan's incompetence is pushing agitation for change, but many people have forgotten that Buhari's government [in the 1980s] was a dictatorship

Although the APC expects to find a nearly empty treasury should it win the presidential elections, Kayode Fayemi, head of the party's policy and research directorate, takes a less apocalyptic view: "People have told us their main concerns are security, corruption and jobs, and we plan to deliver on all three as a priority."

Tackling insecurity and theft of state funds is a matter of political will, says Fayemi, so Buhari's military background will give him the authority to restore morale in the army and reform it.

Draw a line under the past

The APC's approach to tackling corruption will rest in part on Buhari's moral authority, backed up with much stronger institutions. "We are not going to waste years on investigations, we are going to draw a line under the past," says Fayemi. "But from day one, we will insist on adherence to the rule of law, and that will apply to law enforcement agencies and an independent judiciary."

The two biggest policy targets for the APC will be power and oil and gas reform. The immediate priority on power, says Fayemi, will be to launch a programme to provide the gas pipelines to fuel already completed power stations.

General Buhari is appalled, says the APC's El-Rufai, at the loss of uncounted billions from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC): "We see a need for radical reform [...] commercialisation of NNPC operations, perhaps privatisation of the corporation and its affiliates."

Both the APC's El-Rufai and Fayemi, while remaining confident of victory in a free election, expect some tough months ahead. If they win, the political landscape could change significantly. Already, some PDP governors and top officials fearing the worst have started negotiations with APC chieftains. And if the APC succeeds in knocking the PDP off its perch, it may encourage the growth and support of other opposition groupings.

KOWA's Sonaiya says people ask her why she refused to join the PDP or the APC in order to stand for the presidency of an unknown party: "It's because of the kind of change I would like to see in Nigeria. I'm just not convinced that those two parties are able to bring about that kind of change."

Similarly, writer Chika Unigwe laments the lack of political diversity. "It is incredibly sad that at this point in our history, we are down to two choices: PDP and APC. APC is as corrupt as PDP, and their presidential candidate is just as bad," she argues.

The momentum for change is understandable and necessary, Unigwe says, but she doubts the APC's capacity to deliver. "Jonathan's incompetence is pushing agitation for change, but many people have forgotten that Buhari's government [in the 1980s] was a dictatorship. We want change, but Buhari is not the promised messiah."

Despite forebodings about the next three months, political debate in Nigeria's newspapers, social media, businesses, colleges and universities is more vibrant than ever. Partly, that reflects fears that the country could slip towards some variant of military rule or that the northeast insurgency could spread still further.

Nigeria has reached a turning point: its economy has grown, despite the politicians, to a level where rapid modernisation, industrialisation and social development are possible. But that would depend critically on radical reform and accountable management of the power and oil and gas sectors.

But in the battles between the APC and PDP in the coming months – the fight for Buhari's change against Jonathan's continuity – such policy details will take second place to the real show, the power show. ●



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