BARELY two days after the accusative Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly, a.k.a. southern leaders or SNPA, pointed out what they described as President Muhammadu Buhari’s inequitable pro-North appointments, the president blithely went ahead to announce a few more positions along his idiosyncratically default, pro-North mode. The new appointments have caused a huge uproar, an uproar that had been seething below the surface for weeks. After he was sworn in on May 29, the president’s critics reminded the nation, his first set of appointments largely benefited the North. Some three or four tokenistic positions, they added, were grudgingly conceded to the South out of the 15 or so appointments made so far. And in a scathing but informative July interview, Col Tony Nyiam (retd) had also wondered whether those who accused President Buhari of being caged were not accurately reflecting the nation’s sad reality.
At any rate, Thursday’s fresh presidency appointments will doubtless give amperage and trenchancy to the criticisms of the southern leaders who had suggested in their Tuesday Akure, Ondo State, meeting that the president was not really mindful of the insularity of his appointments. There had been some suggestions that the public needed to wait until the president had concluded his appointments in order to be able to accurately gauge their temper and colour. After Thursday’s announcement of fresh appointments, it is doubtful whether apart from the expected ministerial postings in September there are any other presidency appointments sensitive enough to arrest the attention of the public or preclude an accurate conclusion.
Perhaps President Buhari will feel the need to offer logical reasons for what his critics say is the skewness of his presidency appointments. And perhaps those reasons will be persuasive enough. But if the reasons do not cut ice with the people, if indeed the critics see the appointments made so far as indicative of the president’s mindset and of his general lack of exposure and closed circle of trusted friends, he faces the danger of allowing a critical mass of southern animosity to form against his presidency and against his government’s political and bureaucratic exclusionism. In particular, the southern leaders in the SNPA will feel reassured in their conclusions about the Buhari presidency, and engender a new vroom and venom to their pained voice, if the public and commentators respond well to their pungent view of the Buhari presidency.
Politics is all about perception. President Buhari must be encouraged to deftly manage how his government is perceived. It is doubtful whether at the moment, and given the temper and colour of his appointments, his presidency is managing that perception with the sensitivity the situation and the distress of the country demands. He of course has the freedom to make appointments to suit his purpose; and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), can do little to shape those appointments. But in Nigeria’s syncretic and still coalescing democracy, it is expected that the ruling party must form part of the defence bulwark for the president and the government. Whether the APC can play that onerous role when the chips are down is, however, a different matter, going by how the president has seemingly shut out the party from his critical appointments.
Shortly after the APC won the presidential election, Oba Rilwan Akiolu of Lagos was quoted as privately urging those who knew how to pray to intercede on behalf of APC leaders who, it seemed to him, were about to be shortchanged in terms of the spoils of electoral war concluded in April. Some weeks later, former APC interim leader and one-time Osun State governor, Bisi Akande, stridently warned that some parochial northerners were ganging up against the Yoruba in the party. It is not clear just what level of disquiet exists in the APC, particularly its southern wing. But it won’t take many more appointments, especially if mismanaged, to unravel the careful edifice built to snatch power from the conservative Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
After the elections, groups that reasoned and politicked like the SNPA were fading in national significance and relevance. The SNPA had met in January in Enugu at a well-attended forum to endorse former president Goodluck Jonathan. Critics had suggested they were presumptuous to label themselves southern leaders, not to talk of the additional mishap of choosing Dr Jonathan as the South’s standard-bearer. The spectacular shellacking they and their candidate received was strong enough to consign them to the dunghill of Nigerian politics. Unfortunately, President Buhari’s leadership orientation and methods are exhuming them and imbuing the pressure group with a new life and purpose. The resurgence may gather steam in the weeks ahead, going by the southern leaders’ clever casus belli. Apart from suggesting President Buhari’s appointments so far have not been fairly spread, a point seized upon by the Southeast to label the president insular, they are also suggesting that his anti-graft war has become selective.
As brilliant as the need to fight graft is, and as great as it sounds to talk of looking for brilliant people to serve in his government, President Buhari must not forget that in a democracy, politics is the common denominator, the unassailable leitmotif. He must be cognisant of the numerous, if sometimes powerful, tendencies in the society, not only in terms of opinions and beliefs, but also in terms of appointments, positions and ethnic dynamics. As popular and timely as the first 1966 coup was, for instance, it quickly became embroiled in the quagmire of tribal and regional politics because of wrong perceptions. Part of the job of politics is recognising, managing and placating society’s competing tendencies. President Buhari will have no choice but to find ways to manage this difficult political chore that obtrudes on his leisurely pace and programmes.
For now, the southern leaders, the Southwest section of which is an aggrieved faction of the Yoruba socio-cultural and political organisation, the Afenifere, are more or less a part of the Peoples Democratic Party defeated in the last presidential poll. President Buhari should run his government at an elevated, transcendental level, and make appointments and enact policies that will persuade the public to view the SNPA as an appendage of the loathed and defeated PDP. If by chance that loathsome view is altered beneficially for the southern leaders and they gradually become rehabilitated and are recast as the South’s popular and leading opinion moulders, then the South’s progressive forces will become weakened, thereby vitiating the hold of the APC on the South’s geopolitical zones.
This dreaded mutation is not far-fetched. Even if APC leaders refuse to acknowledge it, the Southeast and a section of both the South-South and Southwest are beginning to fear that an unhealthy skewness might have slipped into the Buhari government’s appointments. That skewness, which may in time be transferred to policies, has probably led to appointments that give the wrong impression of deliberate orchestration of northern political irredentism and bureaucratic reclamation. This is probably unintended. If that impression is in fact unfounded, then those who have the ears of the president, either in the wider public or in the ruling party, must give him the benefit of their wisdom. They must remind him that a few months ago, Dr Jonathan found himself in that distressing position of trying to undo the damage his thoughtless appointments of many years had caused him. Perhaps the damage during the Jonathan presidency was also unintended. But, alas, it was too late by the time he sought to remedy the situation.
If the progressives are to lead the country for a much longer time than their enemies hope, they will have to do much better in policies and appointments. So far, their puny and conflicting efforts are depressingly uncoordinated and disconcerting. They will also have to learn to listen to those who even appear, like Bishop Matthew Kukah, to be in love with the enemy and the former president. They will have to learn to prosecute their good causes, not with the reckless bravado of fanatical politicians, but with the calm and magisterial detachment of wise elders and statesmen. They will have to look at the bigger picture with the paradoxical humility of those awed by the importance of their future goals and the attraction of the distant utopia of their dreams.
President Buhari will have to change tack and, in a brilliant and sublime manner, do much more than he has done so far in policies, appointments and methods. He needs an expanded and expansive vision of himself and the country he leads to enable him engage the electorate and revamp and remould Nigeria. For, whether he likes it or not, his methods are as relevant and invaluable as his goals. If democracy is to endure, and if Nigeria is to achieve the greatness that has eluded it for decades, then President Buhari will have to dig deeper and fetch a magical rabbit from somewhere. It will indeed be sad if the southern leaders who foolishly endorsed Dr Jonathan in Enugu in January, and gathered again in Akure early this week to complain of selective anti-graft war and parochial appointments, are rearmed by a presidential lack of caution to regain their force and voices in the nation’s body politic.