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Buhari v. Atiku: The Inconvenient Truth

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If you walk by sight you cannot help approaching Saturday’s presidential election with a heavy heart. The candidates of the two major parties, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), have been presented in the worst light possible.

One foreign newspaper said Nigerians have to choose between a former dictator and an alleged kleptocrat. One other foreign paper, “International Guardian”, was not so diplomatic. It said, “without a doubt, this race might boil down to a choice between Buhari, a timid, nepotic but stingy rightist who would sit down on the national wealth without a clue about how to invest, and a lavish and irresponsible spender called Atiku, who could share the national treasury with the wolves that currently surround his candidacy.”

The local news menu is not very different, only fouled up a bit more by the sour taste of partisanship. But as I prepare to vote on Saturday, I choose to have my omelette sunny side up, and here’s why.

Whatever may be the shortcomings of Buhari and Atiku, their parties believe they are the best candidates they can produce at this time. Buhari was pressed into the race by APC kingmakers who not only regard him as the party’s best bet to retain the centre, but also as their own insurance to keep the spoils, get re-election or both.

Atiku’s candidacy, on the other hand, is a child of a convenient marriage between a few influential PDP old soldiers fed up with Buhari’s obtuseness and an extremely wealthy business class used to easy money and unhappy with Buhari’s old school economics.

Neither candidate is easy to warm up to. But that appears to be a modern-day problem with politics, the post-modern variety that produced the fantastically ineffectual Theresa May in the UK, the bombastic Donald Trump in the US, and the reprobate Rodrigo Roa Duterte in the Philippines.

On Saturday, we’ll have to choose from what we have or sit on our blistered backsides for another four years. Things are far from perfect but this time, more than ever before, public scrutiny has been reasonably robust in putting the candidates to the test.

For me, that’s part of the sunny side up. In the five national election cycles in 20 years, no set of candidates has been dragged across more public debating floors, questioned and inspected as closely as have candidates Buhari and Atiku, especially.

The two – and other distant runners – have been forced to appear at live debates or townhalls organized by different groups and when they failed to show up, their empty stands have been mocked as evidence of disdain and incompetence, or both.

The candidates have been forced to reconnect with different parts of the country, however superficially, and in a few instances, compelled to confront, face-to-face, situations that they had been shielded from in their comfort bubble.

Smaller parties that were shut out of the debates have protested or gone to court for redress, insisting, quite rightly, on fairness and greater transparency.

The fact-checkers have been tracking the exaggerations and outright lies, holding candidates to higher standards and forcing voters to take notice. Twenty years ago, when candidate Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP was requested to debate Olu Falae of the AD-APP, the latter turned up only to debate an empty stand.

Even if the organiser’s fantasy had been realised and the debate had taken place, the country had no single mobile telephone line at the time for the sort of community and instant engagement now possible.

Thanks to the ubiquity of technology also, we can joke about Buhari’s awkward moments during his Kadaria interview or wince at the audacity of the audience member who pulled out his phone and aimed a devastatingly ugly reference from Obasanjo’s book at Atiku during a live interview.

Those who insist that the cup is half empty must also remind themselves of how the outliers may have set off a momentum that would change politics as it were. It’s not the first time that a host of smaller parties will seek to wrest power from the more established parties. But I cannot remember any other time when over 90 parties, comprising mostly determined young people, from Omoyele Sowore to Tope Fasua and from Fela Durotoye to Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and Datti Ahmed, would mount a sustained challenge to the status quo at great personal cost and with very limited resources.

The significant number of young people – 51 per cent – registered to vote in Saturday’s election is not only a reflection of the growing frustration with geriatric politics, it is a result of the rallying cry of the new crop of young politicians.

If they do not despair – and there’s no reason why they should – what they have started will impact our politics more in four years than have the last 20 years of alternating between indifference and moaning. Donald Duke even challenged the nonsense that zoning in a party’s constitution is superior to a citizen’s constitutional right to contest. And he won.

Can the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) be trusted to do its job? I believe it can. No matter what you read on social media, INEC is not playing origami with the ballot; it appears far more prepared for the vote than it has been credited. Politicians know this, that’s why they have been inventing new ways to cheat or doing their best to discredit the commission.

From the time in 2015 when 80 election results were nullified by the courts we have moved to the point where only three court-ordered cancellations occurred out of 178 conducted as at February last year.
INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, has done more since then, regardless of the multiple social media executions he has suffered. Apart from prosecuting over 100 employees of the commission for various electoral offences, he has scrapped the “incident form”, which the commission’s field staff routinely used to fraudulently bypass the card reader.

But we can’t leave the job to INEC alone. Better voter awareness and more widespread use of technology will also help greater citizen vigilance.

We don’t need to approach the polling booth with a heavy heart. Apart from Buhari and Atiku, there are over 70 other candidates on the ballot, presenting one of the most delightfully confusing crisis of choice for voters in recent times.

My prediction is unchanged. Don’t let the surfeit of scientific, non-scientific and pseudo-scientific forecasts from home and abroad compound your misery. In an article widely published in the first week of January, I predicted, among other things, that Atiku will lose and gave reasons: my reasons stand.
When all is said and done, when the name-calling, slander, and scaremongering are over, and the voter is alone in the booth, face-to-face with the ballot paper, it will all come down to this central question: which candidate, given what I know, can I trust to have my back for another four years?

Atiku will not lose on Saturday. He already lost in 2006 when he fell out spectacularly with Obasanjo and suffered a Humpty Dumpty’s fall. The sum of the ongoing feverish endorsements and lobbying, the extravagant claims of momentum and the fantasy electoral maps would be insufficient to stitch his candidacy together forever again. He’s done.

Atiku would lose marginally, not because voters are overdosed on Buhari love, but because when trust is at stake – man-to-man – Buhari is the lesser of two evils. This is the inconvenient truth.

Azubuike Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network

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