President Muhammadu Buhari’s seemingly grudging gesture in appointing a few southerners into the presidency and security staff can neither escape attention nor censure. Of the 12 or 13 appointments so far in the presidency, only three have gone to southerners. If appointments to the nation’s security network are added, the number of southerners rises to five out of a total of about 20. It will be interesting to find out how the president’s mind works on this curious issue. He approved the appointments, indeed, he made them. But does he have the presence of mind to appreciate the troubling message the skewed appointments convey about his worldview, and to the country and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC)?
Until last Thursday, many commentators had given the president the benefit of the doubt on the structure and motive of his over 30 general appointments. After the recent appointments, some six in all, few analysts doubt any longer how his mind works or what his perspectives are. They still see him as upright, honest and eager to remake a country battered by more than six years of the Goodluck Jonathan presidency. In fact they will rather have him fighting corruption and sloth in public office than anyone else. But they probably no longer see him as the presumed nationalist of their hopes and imagination, nor conceive of him as the one who will be Nigeria’s moderniser and unifier. In just two or three bouts of appointments, President Buhari may have demystified his government and person.
The signs had been there all along. Top Nigerians, some of them former presidents and former governors, had been uncomfortable with the president’s narrow circle of friends. He had a tendency to stick with those he knew and trusted, they said. He rarely experimented nor ever imbibed the wide-ranging relationships that conduce to great governance in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and very plural and complex nation like Nigeria, others volunteered. Even this column, which fanatically advanced his interest before the elections, muttered under its breath about whether Candidate Buhari had overcome the provincialism and exclusionism that hobbled his past or were ascribed to him by his critics and detractors. Might there be no one else who could galvanise the society, especially the critical mass of voters in the North, to sweep Dr Jonathan out of office? The answer, sadly, was no. And so Candidate Buhari won the support of this column, notwithstanding the reservations.
Whatever his past, whatever was ascribed to him fairly or unfairly, and whatever bad names he had been called, there is nothing in the appointments he has made so far that justifies what he has done as a presumed and corrective patriot. The culmination of the appointments is that Nigeria will in the foreseeable future, perhaps all of four years, have to cope with a presidency that will be distinctly northern in outlook and culture, in the same reprehensible and damaging manner the Jonathan presidency was distinctly Niger Delta/Southeast. Surely, President Buhari must recognise that one of the major reasons Dr Jonathan was repudiated by a chafing electorate was the fact that his parochial aides fouled the presidency in a manner completely irreconcilable with 21st century dictates. Why would President Buhari ignore the lessons of history?
This must be quite an unsettling time for the APC. For, in the end, they will have to both manage the backlash that will follow these appointments and struggle to keep their fractious party together. After the riling intraparty controversy that nearly fragmented the ruling party and the National Assembly in June, it was hoped that the president would take sensible and measured steps in addressing both the apparent exclusion of the Southeast in the scheme of things and the token recognition given the Southwest, the region that inspired, structured, energised and harmonised the anti-Jonathan and anti-PDP coalitions. Instead, even the mistakes never made nor contemplated by the PDP, nor yet by Dr Jonathan, as poor in leadership as he was, are being flagrantly committed.
Assuming President Buhari is convinced he disdained better options, it is doubtful whether there is anything he can do in the short run to remedy the situation. He cannot rescind the slanted appointments he has just made; and there are no more key and powerful presidency and security positions to fill. Worse, once a negative impression of the Buhari presidency has taken root, thus confirming the scepticism of those who doubted the so-called political and attitudinal reformation the president claimed he had undergone, it is unlikely that the hard opinion of Buharisceptics would thaw anytime soon.
What is probably worse is that the political opposition to President Buhari and the APC will now feel emboldened by the sudden realisation that this Achilles indeed has a vulnerable heel. No amount of remedy can dispel the accusation of bias levelled against the president. There are hundreds of other positions waiting to be filled. But the president has already lopsidedly filled the key positions with northerners. All that remains is for this negative impression of him to harden. Every step he takes will then be viewed from that distorted prism. His policies may be sound, and his appointees, tilted towards the North as they are, may be among the best technocrats the country can boast of, but he will be denounced for permitting that skewness, and the value of his policies and the true worth of his appointees will be held continuously in doubt.
Probably the most acute part of the national embarrassment flowing from the appointments is that President Buhari will now be seen as running and nurturing a presidency that is anything but Nigerian in outlook, and a kitchen cabinet he trusts absolutely but is not ennobled by diversified and inspiring perspectives of issues. After ruling Nigeria as head of state and running for the presidency four times, President Buhari was presumed to recognise the need to make the presidency largely reflect the cultural and political pastiche of Nigeria. He failed to understand this. He should be worried. His supporters suggest that by the time he is through with the remaining appointments, Nigeria’s colourful diversity would manifest. Perhaps. But to the embarrassment and dismay of the circumspect northerners he has appointed, that diversity will be absent at the highest level of the presidency.
The problem is not that President Buhari has malevolently assembled a constricted presidency, or that he naturally wishes to exclude the rest of the country from his inner circle. Indeed, those who served with or under him in the military have attested to his sense of fairness and patriotism. The real problem is that he has spent most of his active years cultivating or mentoring a very restrictive circle of friends, mentees and subordinates. He apparently prefers to have close to himself those he can trust and feel comfortable around. It is not, therefore, that he is taking the wrong steps by design, as some Southeast politicians have alleged, but that he seems precisely the sort of leader who would do right inadvertently. For a complex society like Nigeria, that orientation is clearly intolerable, and to the Southeast, indefensible.
Notwithstanding the most copious amelioration of the situation, including vouchsafing the remainder of the so-called juiciest ministerial and MDAs positions to the Southwest and Southeast, the president must have no illusion that any such amelioration can expand the worldview and perspectives of his presidency. Since he assumed office, this column, among many other analysts, had wondered which shadowy personalities were behind his policies and decisions in the absence of a cabinet. These policies and decisions, it was already manifesting in the weeks since he became president, did not gesture appropriately to the wider needs and cultural and political sensitivities of the country. It may get worse now that presidency and security positions have been all but filled up.
The foundation of a government is as important as the structure of governance erected on it. Yet, no Nigerian government has attracted such dreadful unease over appointments as the Buhari presidency has managed in a few momentous weeks. Had he availed himself of appropriate advice, had he assembled a kaleidoscope of technocrats and politicians, it is unlikely he would have made the kind of appointments he made last week and before. Indeed, it is likely he would have avoided the fiasco in the National Assembly that is certain to dog his presidency for some time, not to talk of the current, unseemly controversy over presidency positions. Commentators did their best to warn the president of the growing slant in his appointments a few weeks ago, especially after he announced his new security chiefs. By ignoring them and going ahead to make the even more controversial appointments of last week, it seems clear the president knew what he was doing.
President Buhari knew what kind of presidency he wanted. He has now consciously assembled it, and must live with it. His worldview will very likely remain constricted, unable to benefit from the variegated exchange of ideas and backgrounds that diverse presidential aides give. His perspectives will also doubtless be coloured by the philosophies and textures of the men he has assembled to work in close quarters with him. He and his supporters and party must now hope that the foundation he has laid for his presidency, from which he hopes to govern the country adroitly, will sustain his cumbersome vision of a remade and thriving Nigeria. He has his work cut out for him. If he gets away with this unprecedented experimentation of skewness, he will be a lucky man indeed. What is not certain, however, is that he can deliver on the great country the people envision, a country that retains the Buhari legacy after his time in office, renders superfluous the laying of another foundation many years down the road, and is able to offer Africa leadership because it had itself mastered its own cultural, religious and political complexities.