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The choice of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the consensus candidate of the Northern caucus – the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF), a faction within the ruling People’s Democratic Party, ahead of the party’s Presidential primaries has been hailed as a good development resulting in a rash of congratulatory adverts, but I do not think that this is necessarily a development that anyone should crow about. There are reports that even the Goodluck Jonathan camp is happy, believing that Atiku is a much easier opponent. Those who have always opposed the return of the military to presidential power and are particularly opposed to the interest that had been shown in the race by former President Ibrahim Babangida and former National Security Adviser, Aliyu Gusau are also reportedly happy. It is probably more advisable to situate the matter in a historical context. And it is as follows: similar consensus (es) in the past, along ethnic and geographical lines in the long run brought Nigeria sheer woe and misery.

The division between the North and the South on the question of independence in the early 50s further prepared the grounds for the British colonialist’s manipulation of Nigeria’s North-South dichotomy. The events leading to the 1966 implosion also had a North-South dichotomy at its heart, with the North using certain stooges in the South to achieve its aim. The June 12 crisis also was soon turned into a fight between the North and the South. The ethnic and geographical card often serves the selfish purposes of politicians, but not the national interest. The cabal that has chosen Atiku Abubakar as its consensus candidate for the PDP presidential primaries, a process midwifed by Adamu Ciroma and the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) which has not tried to hide its Northern bias and irredentism, has shown just how resilient and critical the ethnic factor is in Nigerian politics. Before the meeting which threw up Atiku Abubakar, pundits had concluded that the four candidates involved would never reach such a consensus because of their individual ambitions. But the pundits have been proven wrong. Not only was a consensus candidate chosen, the other three aspirants: Babangida, Governor Bukola Saraki and Aliyu Gusau have congratulated the winner, and have pledged to work together for his success. This is a fall-out of the struggle over the politics of zoning within the PDP, with many Northern politicians insisting before now that it is the turn and the right of the North to produce the Presidential candidate for the 2011-2015 slot. It may be said that this is an intra-party affair, but given the relative weight of the persons involved and the geographical/ethnic character of their scheme, there are far-reaching implications for the rest of Nigeria. Through this process, the PDP North would seem to have spoken, and the statement is strong and frightening. What it means is that the PDP presidential primaries is now a straight fight not just between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, but between the North and the South. Whichever way the PDP presidential primaries go, ethnicity is now a major issue. The religious factor has also now been frontally positioned. So what we have within the PDP as the party prepares for its primaries is: a North vs South, Christian vs Muslim, Atiku vs Jonathan pattern. The nine “wise men” who purportedly chose Atiku have been described elsewhere as “unwise” but the logic of their choice is perfectly understandable. Being former military leaders, IBB and Atiku, they knew, could attract opposition even within the party and also in the larger political North. Bukola Saraki may have been avoided as consensus candidate because given his experience, he could still be useful in other capacities and would make a good candidate for the future. Atiku has been Vice President for eight years (1999-2007). He is the leader of the Musa Yar’Adua political machinery, the PDM, which President Obasanjo and his strategists had tried to “eliminate” within the PDP. Atiku’s choice could re-energise that machinery and provide the necessary momentum for re-organizing the PDP from within. Atiku has also shown in his battles against former President Olusegun Obasanjo for the control of the PDP in 2006/7 that he can be his own man. He is probably the kind of person that is needed to checkmate Obasanjo’s renewed influence in the party. He has the experience, the necessary network of contacts across the country. He has also been tested in the field of political intrigue. It will be absolutely wrong for the Jonathan camp to underestimate him and his political associates, including the new-found ones. Ima Niboro, the President’s spokesman was quoted as saying: “We are totally excited by Atiku’s selection, because this decision has made the coast even clearer for President Jonathan.” Really? But is all this a good development for Nigeria and its democracy? No. For, again, we have seen how internal democracy within a political party can be compromised for ethnic reasons. It is not the party majority that is choosing Presidential candidates, but a cabal, an ethnic and religious cabal, flying the flag of zoning and a prior agreement. The group insists that the North wants political agreements to be respected, but have they forgotten that the same North, through its political elite, has always breached agreements? They even managed to give the anointment process a semblance of democratic cover by choosing to vote! However, if Jonathan ends up winning the PDP Presidential primaries, the North that is represented by the Northern Political Leaders Forum, is likely to feel short-changed: a 2011 Presidential election that delivers a wounded North could be disastrous! And if Atiku wins, the same Niger Delta whose militants do not appear to be supporting their man in Abuja at the moment could also feel hurt. Despite the existence of a multi-party democratic system, it is sad that the politics of the PDP is bound to determine the future of Nigeria’s democracy, as it plays up existing divisions, more than anything else. Atiku in his acceptance statement had said: “I commend the Consensus Committee for this endorsement and for their sacrifice, their patriotism, their commitment and their integrity. They have made an important contribution to the unity and stability of this country.” I don’t see how. What unites the members of the NPLF is not Nigerian unity, but their desperation for power and ethnicity. The divisive politics within the PDP makes a strong case for the urgent need for strong and quality opposition parties in Nigeria, to empower the people to make a free and unlimited choice, rather than the present situation whereby national politics appears to have been hijacked by a so-called dominant party. In the next few days, the word, “consensus” will dominate political discourse in the country, but at the risk of restating a trite point, the kind of consensus that Nigerians want is such consensus that cam move the country forward. Most successful nations are driven by elite consensus, but strictly in the national interest. The quality of elite consensus in Nigeria is weak, advantage-driven, and so it has often been unsustainable. In the United States and the United Kingdom, to cite two familiar examples, consensus politics refers mainly to bi-partisan co-operation on ideological issues focusing on what needs to be done to protect the common good. For more than 50 years, British political parties agreed on the ideas of the welfare state and a national health service. American political parties are united by the belief in American exceptionalism and how state policies must promote that objective.

Thus, the consensus is ideas-driven, and even when it breaks down, it is due to differences in beliefs and preferred pathways, not profit-sharing goals. Nigerians would like to see for example such elite consensus that focuses on the human development challenges in the country: can’t the Nigerian elite reach a consensus that all roads in the country must be tarred? That there will be regular power supply at a specific date, that all schools in Nigeria will be world-class, that in the next fifty years, Nigeria will not be known for its slogans about development, but concrete achievements? Instead, the kind of consensus that is emerging is focused on Presidential endorsements, and group ambitions. Is there any chance of the people’s vote being made to count now or in the future, then?

One more question: Will members of the NPLF stay together? Most likely for as long as Atiku, their anointed candidate, remains their client, and the other three Presidential aspirants can play the role of Godfathers. But what they have done is precisely what the Afenifere and the Alliance for Democracy (AD) did in 1999 and again in 2003, selecting candidates and handing over politics and the people’s choice to so-called “wise men”. All the PDP Presidential candidates from the North should have been encouraged to go to the PDP primaries to test their popularity and submit themselves to the party’s electoral process. They have tried to hedge their bets, to protect ethnic interests, because they know that the PDP is not in any way a democratic party. However, the politics of anointment and selection is the bane of the Nigerian democratic process, and it does not always serve the interests of its promoters as we have seen in the Afenifere/AD case, and the conflicts between Lamidi Adedibu/Rasheed Ladoja in Oyo state, and Chris Uba/Chris Ngige in Anambra state. And it may well be so with the NPLF consensus.

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