I have a theory about Nigerian elections: each time, we move a step closer to the democracy that we crave and deserve. In 2007, we learnt that despite the attempts of a powerful and active two-time Head of State, nobody owned Nigeria. In 2011, we saw that anyone could become president, whether you were a former Head of State or an ethnic minority son of a fisherman from the creeks.
For 2015, we may disagree.
I think it showed that despite electing a man with seemingly unquestionable integrity, one who had relentlessly tried to become president, and who made Nigeria believe in change once again, one man alone cannot save Nigeria. We see this in the many issues that have trailed Buhari’s presidency; from economic missteps to PR gaffes, party mismanagement and tone-deaf responses to crises—or critics, and that three-month absence. Governance cannot be trivialised, and the ability to govern remains the hottest commodity in Nigerian leadership.
This brings me to the current crop of presidential aspirants. I want to listen to a leader lay down policy points and persuade me on the best course of action for Nigeria. But charisma and intellect pale in comparison to the primary trait I desire in anyone trying to lead: they must be able to govern effectively with political acumen and institutional support.
The first signs that President Buhari was ill-equipped to govern effectively could be found nearly ten days after his inauguration when Buhari failed to ensure that his party was unified headed into the election of principals of the National Assembly.
In more 'democratic' climes, there are established forms of choosing caucus and party leaders in a new government, from seniority to objective caucus votes. The APC was not unified headed into the government, and the National Assembly debacle should have been a warning sign, one that fully manifested when the president, a perennial candidate for 12 years, failed to assemble a cabinet for half a year.
The president was part of an established party, with offices and candidates in every ward of every constituency of every state of the Federation, how would this be handled by a party without that level of national exposure or presence?
The candidates running this year include the incumbent President, a former Vice-President, a newspaper publisher, a former Central Bank Deputy Governor, an entrepreneur, and a former Minister turned activist. As far back as 2007, we had three former Governors and a former Minister—not including future Presidents Yar'Adua and Buhari and a former VP (Abubakar). So, what makes this year’s candidates different? Social media accountability? Diversity? More faith in our electoral system? Or are they just more popular?
Regardless of the reason(s), one thing remains: this set of candidates has given us little extra reason to believe they can effectively govern. Many do not have the party infrastructure to form a government.
Put simply, a president can't govern effectively without the support needed in the Legislature and State Executives. For 2019, let's look at the ‘third parties’ that were invited to take part in the NEDG/BON debates. The Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), and Social Democratic Party (SDP) did not field candidates between 1999 and 2011, and in 2015, Galadima received just over 40,000 votes while the SDP simply endorsed President Jonathan. Many of these parties are not fielding candidates in all the Local Governments or States in the Federation. If President Buhari could struggle with a National Assembly which his party controlled, how can we expect a third-party candidate to effectively lead and manage a likely opposition-led legislature with the power to remove them from office?
Let’s also look at the respective running mates. A lot has already been said about the perceived gap between the presidential running mates from the two largest parties and those from the smaller parties. The All Progressive Congress’ (APC) Yemi Osinbajo is the incumbent Vice-President who has served as Acting President and a former Commissioner of Justice, while the PDP's Obi is a former Anambra State Governor with many notable business positions.
Looking at the other parties, we have a VP nominee who is also his party's national chairman, a candidate where all the justification stems from her gender and age, and a candidate whose main experience has been in entrepreneurship in the Northern part of the country. This isn't to say that they would not be able to serve effectively, but their current experience doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
I began by explaining how each election takes us a step forward. I'll hazard a guess for what 2019 will bring. It might be that the electorate becomes more focused on the nature of the election process, perhaps culminating in a proper televised debate between presidential aspirants. It might be a story of the rise of the Nigerian youth as voices of civic engagement, and even aspirants. But, I hope, by now we have already learnt that one person alone cannot save Nigeria, and whoever we entrust with the highest office in the land needs the right team to support them, from cabinet all the way down the rungs of the political ladder.