Some have called it Buhari’s litmus test. Others have said, he rose above the fray. Some others said, it had nothing to do with Buhari or APC, but it signalled that, in Nigeria, democracy had come to stay. A voice of a partisan edge growled that it was the rebirth of PDP.
But the battles for the Senate and the House signified Buhari’s first storm. The cloud gathered, the lighting flashed, droplets of rain drew faint lines on the horizon. But President Muhammadu Buhari did not know they presaged a storm. Or did he encourage the elemental fury and play bystander?
It was so perhaps because of his often quoted assertion that he belonged to everybody and belonged to nobody. While the Senate sat and anointed Bukola Saraki as Senate President, the senators regarded him as a nobody even though he called a meeting of all party leaders, including members of both chambers. Or was he the somebody who goaded them on as though he didn’t?
The other miscue was when Femi Adesina, his media spokesman, broke the ice and said it “somewhat” served the higher purpose of democracy. And analysts wondered, how could it be good when your party lost in its first battle after the elections? Later, in an apparent contradiction, Garba Shehu pitched in for the president and said the APC senators defied their party leader and president. Is it the case of a stern, muscular Buhari playing a wishy-washy card?
I chewed both releases and wanted to know if Adesina had one brief and Shehu another and whether one was intended to annul the other. That, I thought, was the problem when two persons serve as a president’s spokesmen. I think it is not neat and looks at best like duplication and potentially as a battleground. For the sake of both gentlemen, I hope not.
“Somewhat” in Adesina’s statement implied ambiguity in the process. But Shehu’s follow-up indicated that the president was interested but not interested enough. For a party of change, that is not good enough.
But by defying their party leaders and conniving with the opposition, we shall say it was the dubious triumph of politics over commonsense or over values. But what is politics, but the art of the possible. That was the point of the Saraki victory. But the presidency has not up to the time of writing made any indication of moral tone.
It has spoken the language of politics and law, and not of values. The reason Buhari was voted in by those enamoured of his biography was his moral and puritan appeal. We did not see this in this first and auspicious test.
Some have said Saraki was going to win anyway. So why did he not wait for the president? It was an overthrow of decency, if it was political marksmanship. But for me, neither Saraki nor even the PDP lawmakers deserve all the blame.
Were the PDP supposed to wait for the president because of an APC meeting? The PDP lawmakers do not belong to APC, so they had the right to fuel the rebellion. On the meeting the party scheduled, we learned that Buhari’s advance party was at the venue, but he did not come.
Why not? Shehu said he was about to come when the fait accompli of Saraki’s victory occurred. Was that not enough reason for the president to express open disavowals of condemnation rather than a tame Channels interview? Or shall we say the advance party of the president was a dummy and he was not going to appear at the meeting? After all, Adesina said it was a party meeting and not the president’s.
That is where the spirit of loyalty failed in APC, and that is where Saraki and company, including Atiku Abubakar, lacked moral grace. More blame lands right at the doorsteps of the president. And I think the president knows that, and that accounted for the afterthought that was Shehu’s frenzied intervention on Channels Television to clarify the president’s stand. The meeting could have been held earlier. Perhaps the previous night.
But the die is cast. Both houses have leaders that defeated the party choices. I think it is an early lesson for the president, unless the president wants it so. He should now understand that his presidential office compels him to be interested in the direction of politics. If he did not have his politics right, he would not be president today. He would not have the opportunity to set policies. Politics defines policies. What policies can he champion with a Senate full of the members and sentiment of the ancient regime?
Atiku Abubakar, who lost to Buhari during the APC primaries, recently said the president is a leader and not interested in politics. Atiku, a restless man of ambition but little vision, received Saraki after the victory. He confirmed all the reports that he championed rebellion in his party. The peripatetic harlot of politics who sways right and left simultaneously, may be smacking his lips, but he is no noble man of this era.
I hope Buhari has learned that he has to be both politician and leader. If you are president, it is because you have a vision. If you have vision, it is because you need men who think like you to pursue the vision. So, as president he was wrong if he stayed off who emerged as leaders of both chambers. And if he didn’t, what sort of agenda can he push now?
Dogara emerged in a clear contest in the House, and a graceful Femi Gbajabiamila has conceded. If Saraki and his men had waited and allowed the other APC men to be in the chambers, he probably would have won. That could have dispelled suggestions of bad faith, desperation and even the air of hurried primitivism that sullied the process of his emergence.
President Buhari has started off on a learning curve, and he ought to know that both houses can paralyse him if the PDP works with Saraki in a camp against those who were absent in the chambers.
What has haunted the president is the “everybody” and “nobody” refrain. I don’t know of any successful leader in modern democracy that is not interested in the leadership of the legislature. The parliamentary system places the law chamber at the centre of activity. The challenge of the Obama presidency is the hostility, sometimes racism, of the Congress. He has not been able to work with Senate leader Boehner. And when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, she even sometimes did not pick his calls. Obama has disavowed the mushiness of schmoozing with the lawmakers. They have paid him back in brutal kind.
The National Assembly story is good in that it has given the opposition a new bite, a potential fang. Opposition reminds me of the lament of Poet Walt Whitman: “my enemy is dead. A man divine like myself is dead.” You need your enemies. APC needs a soulful opposition.
But the APC will end up a contraption of convenience if it allows itself to collapse so early. It will be bad for our democracy, and it will deprive us of the quality of dialectical tension required to build a vibrant democracy. The APC was built in order to kill its merging partners. They should not hark back to ACN, CPC, ANPP, etc in the pursuit of a spoils system. It will only suggest that what we have is not a party but various parts that have come to pack their own parts of the booties. It will be naïve to shut out their birth places, but to hold on to them as reference points of loyalty only tells us that the party has a lot of work to do to build a family.
It also tells us that the battle to entrench it as a platform of ideas has not begun. This is still a democracy of big men and not of conscience. That is the lesson President Buhari must take from the National Assembly narrative.
The National Assembly story may determine much of the pattern of the Buhari era. He should beware not to shoot himself in the foot. As a solider, the message cannot be lost.