Democracy, the elders and Buhari’s presidency
It is very unfortunate that some elders who ought to be looked up to by the younger ones as towers of strength in a delicate and complicated federation are the ones making regular toxic statements that can destroy the country’s basis for unity. The provocative statements by a socio-political group, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), to the effect that its members would not allow strict adherence to constitutional provisions should ailing President Muhammadu Buhari find it impossible to continue in office are insensitive, careless and unpatriotic in the extreme. To start with, President Buhari is only human and the prayers of all Nigerians are that he gets well soon to continue the execution of the duties of his office.
The Northern Elders Forum (NEF) which has been very dubious in defending so-called“ northern interests” since the reported illness of the president met in Kano the other day and warned that some leaders of the ruling party had been exploiting the absence of the president to undermine the presidency. If this was so, such persons should be seen to be just as odious.
The opening part of NEF’s statement was innocent enough. The forum reported that it would support what it called “genuine restructuring of the nation” even as it insisted that the north was never at any time opposed to the move.
Fair enough, the NEF then maintained that the ship of state must keep sailing uninterruptedly until Buhari returns. The elders noted: “We are aware that attempts are being made to exploit the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari to achieve dubious political goals.
“We, therefore, warn those seeking an undeserved political advantage to desist. The north is conscious of its obligations as well as rights and will discharge and defend same without reservations.”
Its deputy leader, Wantaregh Paul Unongo, a former minister from Benue State applauded the president for transferring power to his deputy in line with the dictates of the 1999.
The NEF then pledged its support for Yemi Osinbajo’s acting presidency, advising him to be wary of enemies in the discharge of his duties. His words: ”The forum expresses its full support and encouragement for Acting President Osinbajo and urges him to exercise responsibility, as he did in the past with commitment, sensitivity and respect for the constitution.” The group then urged him to ignore mischief makers who seek to pit him against the president or the people whose mandate they both exercise.”
Unongo, however, continued in a veiled reference to regular national discussion points on restructuring of the federation :“For the record, the forum wishes to state that the north welcomes honest and sincere discussion on all aspects of our existence and remains available to engage any group to discuss and advance the nature of our union. We will resist the attempt to create the false impression that the region is hostile to enquiries into the basics of the nation’s structure and operations.
“We will also join other Nigerians in resisting any attempt to seek sectional and parochial goals outside the constitution and laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Certainly, what the Northern elders are referring to is the current relentless quest for fiscal federalism.
Curiously, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Malam Abubakar Malami echoed the statement of the northern elders the other day in Abuja at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPPS) forum on federalism when he said the issue of federalism is though desirable but not possible at this time. This view, of course, is casual, so dismissive and without the depth or rigour required of a chief law officer of the federation.
The northern elders and indeed, all leaders should note that the task of nation building is not for the fainthearted, not for irredentists, ethnic and religious bigots, especially at a time when the complex diversity of the federation is clearly experiencing some strains on account of the age-long but unaddressed national question. The conflict-resolution efforts of past leaders have produced so many documents including the more recent 2014 national conference report to resolve the national question. Almost all parts of Nigeria’s delicate federation have hailed the contents of that 2014 report as a good starting point following the consensus that led to its adoption. But Buhari has surprisingly disclosed he has not read that report, he has indeed consigned it to the archives. Unfortunately, it is the peace building effort nurtured by democracy in the last 18 years that those leaders who speak recklessly are undermining with their unguarded statements on the illness of an incumbent president. There is nothing unusual about a president being ill. And the constitution is not ambiguous on how to handle such a condition. What is more, even great countries have been successfully governed by men who took ill in office and not by threats from a section of the national constituency of the president. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S. (president, 1933-1945), one of the greatest leaders the United States has ever produced led his country through and out of the Great Depression from a position of infirmity.
Elders have the right to speak in a democracy but there is a time for everything and more important is the fact that their statements have tended to reduce Nigeria’s presidency to an ethnic throne. This perception is unfortunate when it is considered that Buhari was popularly elected into power with votes from majority of the people in the six zones in the country. The stance of the northern elders to the effect that they will defend the presidency of Buhari at all cost is therefore petty and uncalled for.
It is Nigeria’s presidency, not the leadership of any ethnic group. Nigerians are the employers of this president and he is responsible to them according to the constitution of the federal republic. The northern or southern elders should therefore not gather to issue such provocative statements as can lead to further strains on the polity. Their utterances should indeed be a balm to defuse tension, not to exacerbate it.
Nigerians decide for Nigeria. Nigerians, not the Northern Elders Forum, made Buhari President in 2015. If he would continue in 2019, Nigerians will say so through a peaceful democratic process. If he would not, the same process will determine that as no provocative statements from irredentists and parochial thinkers can stop the tide of democracy.
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