With his re-election, President Buhari becomes the second military leader to serve a second-term as a civilian leader. Beyond this achievement, a litany of questions abound in the minds of people: will he be in good health to see it through; have the mistakes of the first-term been learned from or will they be repeated, such as the appointment of dead persons as officials; which ministers and appointees will be retained, and who are the likely new appointees; when will the ministers be appointed; who will constitute the new cabal; will Tinubu be sidelined again and will the President fight corruption “ruthlessly” across party lines? The very important worry, that’s puzzling millions of Nigerians, is how the President will treat the regions of the country that didn’t vote for him.
During his first term, the president was repeatedly accused of tribalism and nepotism when the most juicy and sensitive political appointments went to people of his region. He didn’t deny this charge but rationalized it. At an interview with Caroline Baker of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on 22 July 2015, his rationale for not having an inclusive government was, “I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, that gave me 97% [of the vote] cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%.”
Even though the figures he gave didn’t add up, the statement made many across the country shiver. It was also a shock to many who heard him say at his swearing-in on 29th May 2015, that he belonged to everybody and belonged to no one (This contradiction, in hindsight, was probably misinterpreted because of the euphoria over the first democratic transition). That May afternoon, many thought the healing process had started but his statement at USIP made it clear that the wounds were far from healing.
Despite the uproar from this divisive statement, the president did not back down. Whenever he was accused of discriminating against the people from the eastern region, he would say “I got 198,000 votes which virtually any local government can give me but I have four substantive ministers and seven junior ministers from there”.
The Igbos did not only feel short-changed or neglected by the appointments, they also felt the federal government treated them differently in its response to IPOB and other insecurity challenges in the region.
Some commentators have accused the president of treating the easterners as enemies. Some have blamed his apathy to Igbos on his militarily training. A military man is trained to know his enemy and how to tackle his enemy. For President Buhari to focus only on the infinitesimal number of Igbos who voted for him is short-sighted. He does not seem to appreciate, beyond their votes, what the Igbos contribute to the country: their entrepreneurial drive which generates revenues, creates jobs, and their academic achievements both at home and abroad. If the President saw the Igbos with this pair of lenses, he probably would have a better relationship with them.
Surprisingly, during his campaign for the 2019 election the president came to the East to solicit for votes; the 5% have their value after all. Farooq Kperogi who captured the irony well said: “You don’t trust a people to appoint them to ‘sensitive positions’? Then don’t ask for their votes — and don’t whine”.
Unfortunately, the easterners are not interested, not even the promise that the 2023 presidency will be zoned to the East could entice them to change their minds. On the 23 February they vented their frustration and voted overwhelmingly Atiku Abubakar.
Though he got more votes than in 2015, it’s clear that four substantive ministers and seven junior ministers from the region won’t do.
The President can react to this result in two ways. Either with the same divisive mindset of 2015 or that of a lionhearted leader. This will be in keeping with his acceptance speech when he charged his supporters “not to gloat or humiliate the opposition”. The president must respect the right of the electorate to vote whomever they want but this doesn’t give him the right to cherry-pick those he wants to rule. He has been elected the President of Nigeria not the president of a particular religious or ethnic group.
As President Buhari prepares to begin his second-term, Genevieve Nnaji’s latest film, Lionheart, provides a few insights. President Buhari needs to have a lionheart both in terms of courage in tackling the daunting challenges ahead and in his magnanimity in treating all justly. Nigeria at the moment can be compared to the motor company Lionheart, which at a point was at the verge of bankruptcy, but rebounded after its merger with Maikano Motors. Nigeria is at a point where the line between the North and the South, the rich and the poor appear to be expanding. We need a president who can close the divide; we need someone, like the character Genevieve plays in the movie, to strike a merger deal. If he can’t, he should not make it worse either by words or deeds.
The late Maitama Sule called for a similar approach in 2015. Maitama Sule who led members of the Northern Leaders’ Forum (NLF) to congratulate President Buhari encouraged the president to be just. He said, “with justice, you can rule Nigeria well. Justice, is the key. If you do justice to all and sundry – and I say all and sundry – because Allah says if you are going to judge between people, do justice, irrespective of their tribe, religion or even political inclination; justice must be done to whosoever deserves it.”
Continuing, he said, “I am not asking you – and I know you will not – to discriminate against any part of Nigeria. But I am asking you to do justice to all parts of Nigeria. Justice will bring about peace. Peace and stability are the pre-requisites of development.”