Between Jonathan, Babangida and Atiku
As the drumbeats of the political season reverberate through the entire public space, we are once again reminded that we have entered the season of theatrics. Those who seek to lord it all over us and their agents and cronies are all over the place, promising heaven and earth, and dropping hints by body language and innuendos that if they fail to get the crown, not only will our material circumstances worsen, the country, ever on the precipice, will actually trip over this time around. But beyond the polemics and shenanigans, what are we likely to get at the end of it all? It may be safe to surmise that barring any divine intervention and assuming that the 2011 presidential election holds as planned, one of these three men - Goodluck Jonathan, Ibrahim Babangida and Atiku Abubakar - will on May 29, 2011 be crowned the new Lord of the Manor.
True, there may be some 50 candidates, the opposition is simply too fragmented and too much in disarray to pose any serious threat to the PDP - despite the party's obvious weaknesses and failings. For Buhari, whose Congress for Progressive Change was registered only late last year, and who appears to command reasonable personal goodwill in some Northern states, there is nothing on the ground to suggest that he has the organisational capacity, strategic alliances or financial resources to put up even a good fight. The game therefore may simply be over if the PDP manages to choose its presidential candidate without imploding.
So what is likely to be the trajectory of our politics and quality of governance after the elections? An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the three leading PDP candidates could provide a clue.
President Jonathan comes across as an unassuming man of even temperament. His assumed lack of ego, even self-effacement, endeared him to many people when he was the Vice President of Nigeria and subsequently Acting President. During the protracted illness of the late President Umaru Yaradua, the persona of an unassuming gentleman without any lust for power which he projected onto the public space won for him a tremendous amount of goodwill.
Critics have however argued that beneath the mask of the president's meek, even diffident ambience lurks a power hawk, and that those labelled 'the cabal' during the events that culminated in his elevation to Acting President, saw through his power schemes. Critics accuse him of tacitly unveiling elaborate schemes to become the substantive President the moment he was made the Acting President. They argue that his insistence on running for president against his party's zoning arrangement not only makes him an unreliable person but also complicates the nation building process, because trust and respect for agreements, so vital in any nation building project, may be forever buried in the country if he wins the PDP's nomination.
The President is equally accused of profligacy- buying three presidential planes at a time of worsening poverty for the general population, depleting the country's foreign and excess crude reserves and increasing the country's indebtedness within only nine months of being at the helm of our affairs. He is equally accused of incompetence and underperformance - of not having made any impact in the lives of the citizens since he became in charge of our collective destiny. The president's supporters however dispute the charge of underperformance, pointing out that he has managed to solve the problem of perennial queues at petrol stations and ameliorated the problem of epileptic power supply.
Babangida has for many years been a mythical figure. There are tales of how he remembers the birthday of friends and colleagues and even the names of their grand children. Though he has managed to remain relevant despite being out of power for some seventeen years, since formally announcing that he would run for President in 2011, opposition for his candidacy has been vociferous, especially from the South West political zone which appears unwilling to forgive his annulment of the June 12, 1993 election won by MKO Abiola and his suspected complicity in the killing of Dele Giwa. Babangida is also accused of institutionalising corruption in the country, of having the most tortuous and deceptive transition programme in the country's political history and of inaugurating the IMF/World Bank-supported structural adjustment programme, which perhaps, more than any other economic programme in the history of the country helped to emasculate the middle class, accelerated the brain drain of our professionals and worsened our underdevelopment crisis. While Babangida's supporters flaunt his experience and his ability to network across ethnic and religious divides, his critics contend that he has become such a polarising figure that were he to become the President in 2011, the regime would be inaugurated with a legitimacy crisis reminiscent of the Abacha era.
Atiku Abubakar , like the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, has perhaps shown more hunger for the top job than most candidates. Whether this should be counted as a positive or negative for him is debatable. While his critics see his persistence in the quest for the top job as evidence of desperation, his supporters contend that in the more advanced countries of the world, only people who show such doggedness and preparation for the job are given the chance. Atiku's supporters attribute the curse of poor quality of leadership in the country to the tendency to crown 'reluctant' and 'unwilling' candidates. They also argue that Atiku has a good knack for spotting and cultivating talents, pointing out that in the Obasanjo regime, most of those who were believed to have performed remarkably well - Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, El Rufai, Ribadu, Soludo and Oby Ezekwesili - were recruited by Atiku. His supporters equally claim that he has been a champion of justice and democracy in the country, pointing that as a custom officer during the Buhari regime he refused to allow 53 suitcases thought to belong to an emir to be smuggled into the country, that together with other democracy activists he fought the Abacha regime to a stand still and was forced into exile, and that he helped to truncate Obasanjo's ambition to elongate his tenure - at great personal costs. Atiku's supporters also claim that their principal, who was born in November 1946, is just the right age to rule the country as a cross between the young and the old.
While Atiku's critics regularly accuse him of corruption and question the sources of his stupendous wealth, his supporters claim that allegations of corruption are merely part of smear campaigns by political opponents and that there is hardly anyone who has been in public service in Nigeria who does not face allegations of corruption - whether contrived or not.
While it is obvious that none of these three candidates is a saint, the crucial challenge will be to look beyond their weaknesses and pose the question of which of the three candidates holds the promise of giving us quality governance and also has what it takes to hold the country together, including managing crises and advancing our journey to nationhood.
Madaki Ekeh teaches comparative politics at a European university. He can be reached at: