It will take some time before the import of recent events in Nigerian politics is fully apprehended.
For the moment, certain questions seem pertinent:
Did the northern political establishment really plan a rearguard action to stymie the candidacy of Bola Tinubu, the frontrunner who eventually emerged as the All Progressives Congress’ (APC) presidential candidate in next February’s presidential election? What was the National Chairman of the Party, Senator Abdullahi Adamu, trying to accomplish when, at the last minute, he announced Senate President Ahmad Lawan as the consensus choice of the party only to be promptly disowned by the National Working Committee? Was President Muhammadu Buhari the quiet orchestrator, goading on several southern aspirants simultaneously in order to, according to some accounts, weaken Tinubu; or is Tinubu’s emergence proof that the president was never in total control of the party machine at any time? Has Tinubu really done the impossible in the annals of Nigerian politics, which is to successfully stare down the northern political class? Did the north blink, or is it just keeping its powder dry?
While answers to some of these questions will become clear in the coming months, what cannot be doubted is that there was more than a little nervousness across the south when, as the APC primaries approached, it seemed as though nothing could talk President Buhari out of his ostensible resolve to impose a candidate on the party. At first, claiming to speak in the interest of both party and country, the President had urged the APC governors to allow him to “pick my successor.” Following opposition to the idea, the president quickly changed tack, urging the party’s presidential aspirants to come up with a “consensus candidate.”
In the south, this was read, and perhaps not unreasonably, as a move by the president to impose a candidate of northern extraction, which, given the earlier emergence of Atiku Abubakar as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, would have made the 2023 presidential election an all-north affair. Adamu’s unilateral declaration of Yobe-born Lawan as the party’s consensus candidate seemed to elevate a baseless speculation to a real possibility.
At any rate, the prospect of power remaining in the north for another eight years, and, personally for Tinubu, the effective end of his presidential ambition—and probably his political career—brought the fight out of him. Addressing party delegates in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, Tinubu pulled no punches in insisting that it was his “turn” to be president, and that Buhari, who appeared to be angling to frustrate him, “could not have become president” without his backing. At this point, all indications pointed to a full-blown crisis within the party. In the south, people spoke openly of Tinubu getting the same rough justice that had been meted out to previous Yoruba leaders who had challenged the northern establishment. At least one prominent southwestern politician, former Ekiti State governor Ayo Fayose, wrote an open letter to Tinubu, reminding him of what befell both Obafemi Awolowo and Moshood Abiola, who “were led to Golgotha by self-acclaimed “champions of democracy.”
Eventually, APC reversed course, but significantly only after the party’s northern governors had insisted that the party’s presidential candidate should be a southerner and appealed to “all aspirants from the northern states to withdraw in the national interest and allow only the aspirants from the South to proceed to the primaries.”
Tinubu’s path to victory at the primaries was smoothed by the last-minute withdrawal of several major candidates, and his emergence sets the stage for what is expected to be a keenly fought political battle with a PDP opponent that seems to be his equal in terms of resources and political acumen, if not broad national appeal.
While a lot will depend on what happens in the coming months, especially the kind of elite and regional alliances that each candidate is able to forge, it has become clear even at this early stage that the choice of a running mate can be determinative. For one thing, the fact that both Tinubu and Abubakar are Muslim makes this potentially treacherous. While Abubakar may have no choice but to go for a southern Christian (both Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike, who came second to Abubakar in the PDP primaries, and his Delta State counterpart Ifeanyi Okowa, have been touted), Tinubu, it would appear, can ill afford not to choose a northern Muslim.
Although both configurations (Muslim-Christian, Muslim-Muslim) have tested positive in the past, the force of personality matters in an ever-changing political climate. Besides, the accruals are never the same even when the configurations are, meaning that the potential benefits to Abubakar of choosing a southern Christian (what kind of Christian and from what part of the south?) may not be the same as the advantages to Tinubu (whose Muslim identity is a non-issue in the south) of choosing a northern Muslim.
In the short term, the political class will have to grapple with mounting social crises, not least escalating violence across the country, spiraling inflation (which soared to 16.8 percent in April), a surge in abductions, and a monthslong industrial action by university professors that seems no closer to a resolution.
Beyond a presidential candidate, Nigeria desperately needs a political reset.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy