Engaging opposition: Buhari’s new lease of soft politics
It was a mixed grill. To some, it was a case of too little, too late. But within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the recent meeting President Muhammadu Buhari, had with the leadership of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was a refreshing development worthy of commendation.
Deputy National Chairman of APC (North), Senator Shuaibu Lawal, was the first to exult the meeting, which he saw as the threshold of a “new vista in Nigeria’s democracy.” The senator seemed overjoyed at the possibility that the President has found, albeit belatedly, that “such meetings demonstrate that political parties, irrespective of their ideologies and status, could give necessary support to the government” or party in power.
But coming shortly after his return from a long medical vacation in the United Kingdom, especially against the facetious explanation by the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, that the meeting was at the instance of the opposition, the meeting may after all, not represent a beautiful flipside to the drab and draconian Buhari political style.
If the meeting was not the initiative of the President, it must therefore be a mark of courtesy by the opposition to sympathise with the ailing President on his health challenges in the true African tradition.However, if indeed the meeting was set up by the President, there is the possibility that it was precipitated by a number of factors, or intended to achieve a new lease of soft politics. Whichever way, the meeting has implications and ramifications, which are worth examining.
Poor Midterm Report
COULD it be that President Buhari, with the benefit of three-month stay on the sideline, saw that his administration has not fared commendably in office and decided to make amends by stoking a political armistice?
But, the rapprochement pales into insignificance when viewed against the backdrop of the political brickbats that have trailed the administration. First, the President, prodded by a few powerful individuals, now euphemistically referred to as a cabal, started shunning any direct meeting with the South West caucus, which engineered the fall of PDP from the pinnacle of political power.
Again, when the president’s leadership was needed to moderate proceedings in the federal legislature, from where the essential raw materials would be generated to deliver on the change mantra and other prodigious promises made during the electioneering, Buhari played the ostrich.
Consequently, without a father figure to serve as a clearing house for crucial decisions in both party and government, APC allowed the country to totter in socio-political suspense. Many commentators hold the opinion that it was the vacuum in leadership by the President that seemed to have given APC the stature of a scalar quantity, having magnitude, but lacking direction.The bridge building seems to be coming behind time, because the hate and division within the polity was unwittingly nurtured by the President, who looked askance while his partymen and loyalists continued to traduce the PDP and blame the former ruling party for every mishap in the polity.
Even at the point of making his appointments, the president went solo. He scaled up the separatist approach by announcing that his leadership style would reflect the ignoble 97 to five per cent ratio between those that voted for him, and those whose votes went elsewhere.
As such, when Shuaibu noted that APC was determined not to squander the goodwill shown to it by Nigerians, he seemed to have lost sight of the criticality of timing. It is often said that there is no second chance to correct a first impression. Most Nigerians believe that APC and President Buhari have squandered the prodigious fund of goodwill bestowed on them by citizens, not only by dousing the gargantuan expectations from the administration through denial, but through unconscionable buck-passing.
Apart from toeing the path of alibi, the President scaled up the hate mongering that preceded the 2015 presidential election by not offering alternatives through communication and association. Although the deputy national chairman of the APC maintained that the meeting afforded the President “a fresh opportunity to renew his call for national unity,” coming more than two years into his four-year term, the fence mending may not bear fruits that could mature before the next hostilities- 2019 election.
PDP’s Surprise Survival
PRESIDENT Buhari’s meeting with the opposition could also be seen as an afterthought, given the fact that while the leadership crisis in PDP lingered (including insinuations of ruling party enabling of a faction), the homes of judges were violated in a series of what the Department of State Services (DSS) tagged “sting operations.”
There were also insinuations that at the height of governorship election petitions against the opposition, the President was said to have dismissed pressures from his associates for direct meddling in the judicial process. It could therefore be argued that the surprising survival of PDP in the legal challenge, as well as, discovery that the party garnered some political taproots in its 16 years of dominance, must have predicated the meeting.
Perhaps, it could be in that frame of thought that chairman of the PDP National Caretaker Committee, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, in his remarks at the meeting pointedly told the President that as opposition party, “we shall keep you on your toes.”President Buhari is perceived, either rightly or wrongly, as being impatient with democratic recourse to dialogue and debate, especially given his body language that suggests nostalgia for his days as military head of state.
Former governor of Sokoto State, Alhaji Attahiru Bafarawa, noted in an interview with The Guardian that President Buhari failed to understand the peculiar history of Nigeria. Bafarawa stressed that unlike former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who engaged capable hands from across party divides to run his administration, Buhari came into office with the mistaken belief that he and his party men alone could solve the myriad of developmental challenges facing the country.
The handshake with the opposition must have also come from retrospection, particularly given that the management of the economy gave out the administration as being ill-prepared and too rigid to accommodate expert ideas.Perhaps, recalling how PDP grappled with the opposition antics of ambushing its policies, the President must have realised the truism in the saying that “better is the end of a venture than the beginning,” to convene the meeting. But coming at such a time when much experimenting had gone into the management of the political economy, as well as, the damage done to trust, the presidential retreat succeeded in giving the impression that the President was capable of rethinking his methods. Placed side-by-side with his national broadcast shortly after his return, the meeting lacked imagination, because it tended to offer a sort of public relations makeover to douse the pervading frustration in the land.
MORE than two years after his inauguration, President Buhari has never found time to sit with the members of his party to iron out differences, or map strategies and action plans. APC has also not been able to constitute its functional organs, especially the board of trustees. All that goes to show that much was expected from the President, as such he could have begun his new style of politics by reaching out to his party men and also informing them of his decision to engage the opposition.
Short of underscoring the President’s penchant for playing solo, the meeting with opposition appeared as a decoy to avoid confronting the greater danger presented by the unease in APC. By failing to uphold wisdom in the saying that charity begins at home, the President’s meeting with PDP leaders ended up as an evasive manouvre.
If building some kind of understanding with the opposition party was necessary for national cooperation, political peace and economic progress, internal party cohesion ought to be the essential building block. There was nothing to show that APC was carried along in the meeting, because the lack of agenda was written on the faces of its national chairman, Chief John Odigie Oyegun, and his colleagues in the party’s national working committee.
Against that background, it would be safe to assume that President Buhari appeared to test the waters for a possible emergence of the much-talked about third force, comprising splinters from APC and PDP. This is because within the APC amalgam, the fault lines separating the legacy or merging parties remain glaring.
And words have been making the rounds that the Buhari’s loyalist in the erstwhile Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), have been meeting in search of modalities to revive a similar platform to be energised with power of incumbency in 2019.
It is therefore, possible that the fear of such balkanisation may have instigated the grumblings by fringe opposition parties as to why they were not also considered in the presidential outreach. All these give the impression that the meeting was merely cosmetic and not programmed to achieve measurable and durable outcomes.
However, if the President’s meeting with opposition leaders is a precursor to more of such exchanges, it should be the beginning of a healing of the charged polity. But if as some sources suggested that it was inspired by the Abdulsalami Abubakar-led peace committee, a non-partisan body should moderate future meetings and set the stage for the deepening of the country’s democracy.
SHOULD President Buhari decide to walk the path of wide consultation and networking with other leaders, he has some guide in what his predecessors did and how they were able to hold the country together, while implementing their blueprints.
Not minding his mercurial style, former President Obasanjo experimented with the idea of unity government by appointing members of the opposition political parties into the federal cabinet.
Although some analysts made snide remarks about that leadership strategy, to the effect that the then president wanted to obfuscate the massive vote heist that attended his election, rainbow coalition helped in building patriotism and reducing tension.
In a way, the move also helped to build capacity, because members of the opposition that got into government had a hands-on in the art of governance. Moreover it helped the opposition to know, not only that leading the country was not an easy task, but also that it was at best, a collective responsibility.
When he mounted the saddle against the background of general despondency following the twisted nature of the electoral system and apparent approbation to the erratic notion of might is right, former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also engaged the opposition. Yar’Adua followed up his accommodating disposition with healthful utterances, such as acquiescing with the popular belief that the election that brought him to office was greatly flawed. Thereafter, he proceeded to set up a broad based committee in an honest search for a review of the electoral system.
Most importantly, President Yar’Adua succeeded in keeping the country united, not by stating in offhand manner that Nigeria’s unity was non-negotiable, but by declaring an unflagging obedience to the rule of law. But for his impaired health that later consumed him, Nigerians still believe that Yar’Adua came close to an ideal democratic president that they have always yearned for.
To a great extent, it could be said that the succeeding administration of President Goodluck Jonathan built on the foundation laid by Yar’Adua to guarantee fundamental freedoms and enhancing the democratic experience through improved elections and equal opportunities.
The former President also did much to achieve national cohesion through presidential communication and personal utterances. In recognition of the fact that his administration did not attempt to muscle opposition, President Jonathan stated that not only was he the most abused President, but that his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian.
With the foregoing, it could be seen that nation building demands the contributions of every citizen, as such it behooves on leaders to encourage unity by ensuing, rather than trying to decree it. As some respondents to The Guardian inquiry demonstrated, there are many sides to virtually every issue in a multi-ethnic and socially diverse polity, such as Nigeria.
Broad citizen engagement with the president should be a continuous exercise, not a one off thing. After all, it is said that communication builds understanding and understanding enhances peace. If President Buhari has decided to start interacting with Nigerians as a complete democrat and no longer as a quasi military leader, his administration must have hit a new highway for national reconstruction.
Nonetheless, the real test of the genuineness of President Buhari’s change of style is how he intervenes in the internal schism within the APC. How far he is able to provide leadership and calm frayed nerves would convince Nigerians that the President has learnt some new and vital lessons after his three month leave of absence. That would also help to rekindle public confidence that the 2019 election would receive the fair judgment of a statesman at the helm of affairs of the country.