Vice President Yemi Osinbajo raised the stakes in the politics of 2023 when he added his voice to the politics of ethnic baiting. Speaking during a visit to the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Olayiwola, on December 22 2013, the Vice President was quoted as saying: “Yoruba have a crucial role to play in the 2019 elections so ensure that APC wins. We are looking at 2023. If we don’t do so well in 2019, the opportunity might evade us.” Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State, who accompanied the Vice President to the visit, reportedly went a few steps further. He was quoted as saying: “This coming 2019 elections is between Hausa and Yoruba on one hand and Hausa and Ibo on the other side. It is only a bastard in Yorubaland that will not support APC.” Earlier the Secretary to the Federal Government Boss Mustapha became the highest ranking government official to use 2023 presidency as a bait for Igbo votes.
The opposition PDP, which selected an Igbo, Peter Obi, as its Vice Presidential candidate, has sought to countenance this by variously suggesting that their presidential candidate Atiku Abubakara would serve only one term and would hand over to the Igbos in 2023. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, now a PDP supporter, specifically asked the Igbos not to fall for the 2023 bait.
There are a number of observations around the politics of 2023 and the accompanying ethnic baiting:
One, there is nothing wrong with ethnic baiting in a campaign season because there are group dynamics in politics. This is why even in advanced democracies like the USA people talk of ‘Black votes’, ‘White votes’, Hispanic votes’, ‘women votes’, ‘youth votes’ etc and specifically design programmes and rhetoric that would woo them. It is part of what some people call ‘identity politics’, which is based on the premise that there are fears and needs that are shared exclusively by members of certain collectives. In this sense, just as candidates stoke group fears to dissuade others from voting for a particular candidate or party, they also do ethnic/group baiting to persuade them to vote for them. The difference in the conflicting baiting of Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups with 2023 presidency is that two of the most credible functionaries in the Buhari government were directly involved in the baiting, albeit in opposite directions.
Two, how will Osinbajo’s dabbling into the ethnic baiting game impact on his political future? Many who did such ethnic baiting in the past – sometimes jokingly or innocently to valorise their bases - Zik, Awolowo, Buhari, Sarduana of Sokoto etc – ended up spending most of their political life being deeply distrusted by non-members of their ethnic in-group. In Nigeria, one of the tragedies in our nation-building process is that we lack individuals and institutions whose appeals and legitimacy transcend our traditional fault lines. Though he started shakily (claiming he did not believe in the application of the ‘federal character principle’ – he later clarified he was misquoted), he grew quickly into the job. As the Acting President, he learnt to smartly balance the various contending interests. For instance, to labour protesters who presented an 18-point demand to him in February 2017 when he was the Acting President, Osinbajo told them: “I hear you! The exchange rate is high, the tension is high -- the only thing that has stayed low are your salaries.” He used the same skilful rhetoric and balancing acts in dealing effectively with both the Niger Delta militants and Biafra separatists. As Acting President, Osinbajo became a statesman whose appeal cut across the various fault lines – even party lines. This is why it is painful seeing the Vice President shoot himself on the foot by unwittingly putting himself on a pedestal where his national appeal could be diminished. Why was the VP interested in doing the 2023 ethnic baiting when his surrogates could do that? Ironically the VP’s position on ‘restructuring’ – an omnibus term championed by the South-west in its various incarnations (‘sovereign national conference’, ‘national conference’ etc) - is also not clear: while he says he is against ‘geographical restructuring’ – probably to tally with the position of his boss and most people in the ‘core’ North - he also declares himself a proponent of fiscal federalism and State Police (key features in the geographical restructuring argument). While I respect the VP for his loyalty to his boss (it is certainly the right thing to do), he seems to have gradually forgotten or abandoned the balancing skills he used so effectively as Acting President. So what if his 2023 baiting does not work, and his Yoruba kith and kin choose to remember him as one opposed to ‘restructuring’ which has been their article of faith for a long time?
I am also not sure that the 2023 Yoruba baiting will endear him to many hawks in the Buhari government and the APC apparatchiks. Some will most likely interpret the Yoruba baiting as an indication of his interest in the job in 2023, which could make him a marked man from various actors with competing interests and ambitions. I think in our clime, the most effective campaigners for an office are those who feign disinterest in the job while surreptitiously canvassing for it in other ways. In fact if Buhari wins re-election, suspicions of the VP’s ambition could lead to the leg room he currently enjoys in the government being considerably reduced.
Three, it is difficult to know whether the APC or the PDP will benefit more from the politicisation of the politics of 2023. On paper, Buhari will be the prime beneficiary if internet warfare breaks out between the Igbo and Yoruba factions of our ‘keyboard warriors’ because the South West is the second largest voting bloc in the country. In reality however, given that the Igbo population is often the second to that of the indigenes in most communities in the country, it will be misleading to equate the voting strength of the Southeast with Igbo voting strength. But triggering Igbo-Yoruba animosity (which we saw at its ugliest when Chinua Achebe published his book There was A Country in 2013) at a time when reasonable people are working for improved relations between the two rival groups - just for the sake of votes - is sad, cheap and unfortunate. I don’t think it was right for the respected VP to come down to that level – even as a joke!
Four, the politics of 2023 is based on certain wrong assumptions: first, there is a false assumption that the entire country has agreed on power rotation between North and South. The truth is that power rotation and zoning are contrivances by political parties rather than constitutional devices. For instance, in 2003 when there was a sort of ‘consensus’ that the south should be allowed to rule for eight years through a second term tenure for Obasanjo, Buhari, who was not a member of the ruling PDP, contested for the presidency under ANPP and got 12 million votes from the North! Similarly there are several presidential candidates from the southern parts of the country in the forthcoming 2019 election - at a time there is a ‘consensus’ that the North should be allowed to ‘complete its eight years’ before power returns to the South. Essentially, if a new mega party emerges to contest the 2023 election, it may not feel bound by the notion of power returning to South in 2023.
There is also a wrong assumption that if APC wins the presidency in 2023, it will still remain a viable party by 2023. Remember all it will take to weaken the party and its power rotation arrangement is a grand conspiracy that will see some influential politicians and Governors defect to another political party with their structures. For PDP supporters baiting the Igbo with 2023 presidency, there is also an assumption that Atiku will do only one term if he wins. Given the dynamics of power, it will take a lot of self sacrifice and discipline for Atiku to resist the pressures that will come upon him to exercise his constitutional right for a second term – if he wins.
Five, a more dangerous implication of the politics of baiting with 2023 is its capacity to ‘weaponize’ our politics. Since NADECO took the battle to Abacha in the early 1990s, there has been a dangerous assumption that any group that wants its grievances to be listened to would have to first demonstrate its capacity to hold the state to ransom. Some believe that NADECO’s ability to demonstrate this, led to the presidency being conceded to the South-west in 1999. In the same way Niger Delta militancy was believed to have played a role in the choice of Goodluck Jonathan as running mate to Yaradua and subsequently president. Under Jonathan, some people believed that Boko Haram was used to stake North’s entitlement for the presidency. Some are also attributing the same motive to Biafra separatist groups like IPOB.