IN the past one week or so, the media has been awash with Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai’s inflammatory remarks against national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The governor is entitled to his views, and reserves the right to hate or love anyone who catches his fancy. Much of his views was of course libellous, but that is a matter between him and the object of his loathing. No person or politician can hope to be loved all the time; just as it is unnatural to be hated all the time. But love or hate, societal standards demand some propriety in expressing one’s sentiments. The sum of Mallam el-Rufai’s sentiments two Saturdays ago at the Bridge Club, a social club founded only last year in Lagos, is that Asiwaju Tinubu is a godfather, and he should be dethroned. He cites the example of his own politics, in which he claims to have unhorsed four godfathers in Kaduna, and recommends the same revolutionary and regicidal method to the businessmen and politicians who listened to him pontificate effusively on politics.
Among his audience was Muiz Banire, a former APC national legal adviser and thrice commissioner mentored by Asiwaju Tinubu from 1999. Indeed, the most inflammatory of el-Rufai’s statements on that day at the Bridge Club, concerning how to overthrow a godfather, was his response to Mr Banire’s cheeky and provocative question. In other words, if the cheeky question was innocent, then Mr Banire would need some political lessons from the brainy, now vastly experienced but scheming Mallam el-Rufai. They form a good pair, even if they have no right to vulgarise the important issues of development and national democratic stability. Mallam el-Rufai of course has the right to his associations, no matter how objectionable; and Mr Banire has the right to take lessons from anyone he wants. It is in the nature of freedom and democracy to exercise one’s liberties. This column will defend their right to assert their positions and proclaim their views.
It is not certain that Asiwaju Tinubu wilfully associates with the label of godfather slammed on him by detractors. But by popular acclamation, he is seen as one. Does that make him evil and the term itself pejorative? Even the most insistent of critics, let alone social scientists wary of sweeping generalisations, must suspect that there are a lot of grey areas in the term. Mr Banire is a lawyer, and Mallam el-Rufai graduated with first-class honours. Between both of them, regardless of the bitterness of their passions and prejudices, statements and actions need to be modulated by restraint, accurate appreciation of issues, and overall interest of the polity. Mr Banire is, however, too wrought up by the truncation of his governorship ambition to exercise the due restraint both his background and political trajectory impose on him. He had many options to reach the top of his political career. But he has limited himself to either getting himself adopted by his hated mentor or, failing that, neutralising him. What of realising his ambition through another party? Or why not build a party from scratch if a hated godfather stood in his way?
In Nigeria where binary thinking dominates and energises the polity, support for President Muhammadu Buhari must translate to hatred for Atiku Abubakar, his challenger at the last poll. Defending the rule of law, for instance, is also invariably a vote for corruption. And criticising the military’s flawed counterinsurgency operations or the police’s malfeasant and often high-handed approach to law and order is deemed a subversion of national security. The brilliant Mallam el-Rufai understands this binary thinking and seeks to exploit it for his own benefit. Indeed, he already anticipates that his criticisms of Asiwaju Tinubu could elicit counterattacks from sympathisers, and he describes the expected rejoinders as unleashing the hired forces of the APC leader’s media group. But this should not stop anyone from ignoring his blackmail and joining issues with him.
In November 2015, in the giddy early days of his governorship, Mallam el-Rufai invited Asiwaju Tinubu to commission Kaduna’s new cab scheme. It is hard to explain why the acerbic views he now publishes did not dissuade him from extending an invitation to a man he described at the time as “esteemed”. The Kaduna governor’s gloomy attacks underscore why everyone, especially leaders, must be careful with whom they associate. Mallam el-Rufai is book brilliant, eloquent and, in direct contrast to his size, somewhat charismatic and persuasive. But scratch him a little, and what comes to view can be quite disconcerting. A little scratch reveals a self-willed, pompous, heady, fanatical and divisive person and politician. He has done quite some remarkable administrative rejigging in Kaduna State, but nothing he has done matches the revolutionary undertakings and progress Lagos has witnessed since 1999 pound for pound– at least nothing matching the size of his egotism and extravagant displays. He has ostracised Southern Kaduna and exposed the people of that region to needless bloodletting, promoted ethnic exceptionalism while disguising his methods as progressive and iconoclastic, and has denounced, hated, and ridiculed everyone nature has undeservedly brought his way to help him along in life.
What is more, Mallam el-Rufai disdains press freedom and has baited them. It is no wonder that a man so completely destitute of character once badmouthed even President Buhari before whom he now genuflects, and has repeatedly tried to tear to shreds the image of former vice president Atiku, the man who brought him into public limelight and protected him against the hyenas of the National Assembly. By now, even Alhaji Atiku must have realised that it is not everyone that deserves to be mentored. There are some potential mentees a leader must scrupulously avoid, as the history of World War II shows in the case of Germany and Adolf Hitler.
Brilliance is one thing; character is another. They do not always commingle, nor are they often coterminous. Mallam el-Rufai typifies that corrosive paradox in a Goebbelsian fashion. Asiwaju Tinubu is believed to harbour presidential ambitions for 2023. He is entitled to his ambition, and the electorate will have to determine whether to accept or reject him. It is also suggested that Mallam el-Rufai might wish to take a shot at the presidency in the next election cycle. Good for him, despite instigating the president against those he said were beginning to manifest excessive ambition so early after the last elections. Perhaps in the months ahead, those who wish to have a shot at the topmost office in the land will ignore every sense of moderation and decency and attempt to tear one another to pieces. Here, Mallam el-Rufai, never known for any kind of moderation, will exceed himself with his customary cynicism and egotism.
The public must be careful not to allow the fanatical and illiberal narratives peddled by Mallam el-Rufai and his ilk colour their appreciation of Nigerian politics. Nigeria has been repeatedly undone by the clumsy and distorted manner the electorate’s attention is focused on the image of a politician painted and distorted by propagandists and interest groups. History reveals numerous leaders whose persons were regarded as openly disagreeable, but whose capacity for mind-blowing achievements became legendary. If voters want orators, they can have them. But they must know that they can’t have their cake and eat it. If they want megalomaniacs, good for them. But if they want those who have a deep understanding of Nigeria, its place at the moment, and the future it must aspire to, then they must decide whether to be hodwinked by glib and pompous people without character.
There are not many politicians with a firm grasp of the existential quandary Nigeria is entrapped in, issues that have paralysed the country and made her vulnerable. Those who do, however, are often in danger of being shoved aside and destroyed by a combination of propaganda and venomous ethnic and religious politics. It is doubtful whether the country is not even engaged in endgame already. If disaster is to be averted, voters must denounce and repudiate the politics of tribe and religion. The next presidential poll must never be about where a person comes from, or whether his face is liked or not, or whether he is rich or poor. For if he is rich, there is a tendency to fear and envy his wealth; and if he is poor, there is a tendency to suspect his bona fides. What should matter is whether the people can instinctively gauge the candidate’s competence, open-mindedness, joie de vivre, and democratic credentials. Mallam el-Rufai is for instance rumoured to be interested in 2023. It would be disheartening to even give a tyrant who has set out to destroy his opponents within and outside the party a hearing.
The next election cycle is going to be a titanic struggle. It is estimated that President Buhari might become a lame duck president before the third year of his second term. Given the fever that has lathered the APC and the contemptuous and disdainful politics being played by Mallam el-Rufai and his cohorts, 2023 may have already begun. The APC is in for a rough time. It was never really a party, and if it had not faced a candidate weakened by ethical challenges, they would have come a cropper in the 2019 presidential poll. It is now almost certain that a fierce fight for the soul of the party will soon ensue. The initial euphoria that followed their recent poll victory has become a mirage. Party chairman Adams Oshiomhole will intensify his sanitising efforts, face up to the turmoil in the party and clip the wings of nascent oligarchs like Mallam el-Rufai who wish to create feudal enclaves for themselves and their cronies.
In the buildup to the 2019 National Assembly poll, Mr Oshiomhole seemed to detest the overbearing politics of the Kaduna governor, and would have favoured more temperate politicians like Senator Shehu Sani, but he found it impossible to pull off the moderation and reconciliation he desired. Mallam el-Rufai knows his party chairman’s preferences, and, from his surly remarks at the Bridge Club, is obviously in the process of coaxing a rebellious alliance out of the many aggrieved or ambitious Southwest politicians roaming the land. The new coalition thinks the time is right, and with pejorative labels and terms carelessly hurled at opponents, they expect victory.
Southwest is firmly delineated between the Tinubu forces and the countervailing forces among rival old and incoming governors. The APC leader knows this himself, and so too do Mallam el-Rufai and the president. While the president may be wary of revealing his hand too quickly, Mr Oshiomhole seems clear where to head. Whether his instincts tell him or not, he knows that the Yoruba hate politicians from their region forming nefarious external alliances to undermine one of their own. Mr Banire may have stayed too long in Lagos, and his political antenna may have become dulled to the ruinous consequences of First and Second Republic political intrigues against Obafemi Awolowo that led to the defeat and extinction of many Yoruba conspirators. But surely he has read enough of the two eras to know that he is treading on thin ice. Mallam el-Rufai can be forgiven for knowing little of the Yoruba politics and worldview. He is not a patient man, and often gets ahead of himself, impelled by his abstract and unfeeling head than his childish heart.
President Buhari was never able to manage the internal squabbles within the APC in his first term, and the party almost self-destruct under the somnolent leadership of John Odigie-Oyegun. Indeed, when the former party chairman lost the argument, and Mr Oshiomhole boisterously assumed office, many Southwest governors who had opposed him predicted apocalypse. The party survived the ordeal, and buoyed by what they saw as a tentative return to ideological politics, its leaders began to reorganise and imbue themselves with fresh unction. But even that tentativeness was not potent enough to inoculate the combative Mr Oshiomhole against taking the fight to APC governors who resisted change. The party had some difficulties reining in a few obstreperous governors, and consequently suffered devastating losses. But on the whole, they have done admirably well, and seemed encouraged to double down on their refining and purifying agenda.
The president may be coaxed into deploying state security machinery against party leaders if matters came to a head; but in the face of a cautious, deliberate and incisive rebuilding embarked upon by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), both the president and his party may think twice about allowing disagreements in their party to fester beyond control. In the last polls, despite dithering almost endlessly, the president eventually chose to walk a tightrope by running with the hare and hunting with the hound. It paid him ultimately. It remains to be seen whether even so aloof a president will let the party go up in flames just to placate the grovelling Mallam el-Rufai and his Southwest allies. It is reassuring that the president has begun to make mention of “true federalism”, a subject that had grated on his nerves for years. Perhaps, the president is not after all as impervious to reason and change as he has been made out to be.
Mr Oshiomhole, who himself sometimes flies off the handle easily, should be encouraged to intensify the reforms taking place in the APC. Reforms? No, not exactly. What is in fact taking place is restoration, an intense reimposition of rules and regulations to make the party operate like a political organisation, one in which discipline, ideology and progressive politics and programmes are enthroned. Mallam el-Rufai was one of the leading architects of the imposition of the infantile governor of Kogi State, the exuberant and incompetent Yahaya Bello. It was a deliberate and cynical manifestation of the callous ethnic and religious politics the Kaduna governor heartily plays behind closed doors, out of sight and the reach of credulous Nigerians. Mr Banire is himself naturally conspiratorial and ideologically unstable. Aggrieved and desperate, they have both reached out to like-minded politicians, exploited the Akinwumi Ambode fiasco, and are creating an alliance they hope to unleash to reclaim the party from Mr Oshiomhole and his fellow ideologues. They also hope to deploy the alliance for their nefarious, sectionalist and religious agenda. It is in the interest of the party to recognise them for who they are, and resist them. After all, the PDP is waiting in the wings to spring a surprise, for no amount of anti-corruption war or abuse of the rule of law can obliterate them.