By Chidi Amuta –
President Bola Tinubu is confronted with two identity fights united by politics. His political opponents have kept him busy with matters of personal identity and paper qualifications. Everything from his parentage, educational background, university records, work and career trajectory to his National Youth Service record is up for hostile scrutiny. No one knows how the politics of that basic personal identity will end. Once infected with politics, even the most basic issues acquire toxins.
In recent months, the politics of Tinubu’s personal identity has taken on the form of a travelling circus. Mr. Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the last election, took the crusade to an American courtroom, challenging the United States judiciary to take a closer look at Tinubu’s undergraduate career and the quality of paper on which his diploma was printed. Added to the accompanying media blitzkrieg has of course been the long standing multiple identity issues around Mr. Tinubu. He may win his identity wars in the courts up to the Nigerian Supreme Court. His political devotees and megaphones will keep up the defensive high wall with attack dogs and baboons.
But the doubts will linger. The questions will remain. The reservations about everything about this president’s background and latest doctor’s reports will not go away easily. Even after his presidency, there will remain a sizeable body of Nigerians who will insist that the man was a forger and illegitimate occupant of the presidential mansion. That will be well after the event because by then, the man will have presided over the rest of us with known classmates and fancy multiple degrees for four or eight years as the case may be. In Nigerian politics, once tainted, leaders carry their reputational albatross almost indefinitely.
On the other hand, Mr. Tinubu is winning a different war of political identity. He and his two major rivals for the 2023 presidential contest somehow represented the traditional Nigerian tripod. It may have been unintended and definitely unstated but widely perceived as such. Atiku was unmistakably perceived as the Hausa –Fulani candidate. Peter Obi later came to be perceived as the Igbo man daring the odds to seek to become president of Nigeria. Bola Tinubu was the undoubted Yoruba son seeking the prime office. For full effect, he staked his claim to the top job in plain Yoruba: “Emi lokan”- It is my turn!
Of course, they all campaigned as national candidates. They paraded the obvious gamut of national problems- insecurity, mass poverty, divisiveness- as key national concerns and marketing points. In all fairness, they lost or won first as national candidates on the platforms of political parties that met all requirements of national presence and appeal. Tinubu was declared winner and has been in office and power for the past four months plus. Beyond battling political opponents who insist that his paper identity is dodgy and that he is not who he says he is. However, Tinubu has had no trouble defining his ethnic identity. He is a Yoruba Muslim man from the South West zone, married to a Christian woman. That much can be taken to the bank. All else is infested with Nigerian politics and media cannibalism.
Since taking office four months ago, President Tinubu has unmistakably stamp his more authentic identity on the nation and his office. Opponents and critics may jive and howl about his paper qualifications. But no one in their right mind can still question Tinubu’s Yoruba nationality. He has etched it unmistakably in our national mind that he is perhaps first and foremost a true son of the Yoruba nation. It does not matter which hamlet in Lagos, Osun or Oyo state his ancestry is traced to. He has literally run Mr. Sunday Igboho of the Yoruba Nation Movement out of job and relevance. When Mr. Igboho returns to Nigeria, he will smile in satisfaction that Tinubu has achieved beyond his wildest dreams.
Tinubu has moved swiftly to set up a government whose commanding heights and strategic appointments are squarely in the hands of mostly Yoruba sounding names. Those of us who used to scream and kick that Mr. Buhari’s appointments were lopsided have since gone stone quiet. Mr. Buhari with his hordes of Sahelian appointees and enabling armed herdsmen may now look like a band of saints.
See the telephone book of our new government in terms of strategic ministries and departments of state. Petroleum, Finance, Central Bank of Nigeria, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Police, Army, Justice, EFCC, Customs, Internal Affairs, Ports and Marine Economy, Solid Minerals etc. For the second tier ministries like Agriculture, Water Resources, Defence, Police Affairs, Education and Health, Tinubu has done something deviously ingenious and unparalleled. Both the Minister and Minister of State in each case is drawn from the northern hemisphere of the nation. It looks like a rather cynical way of isolating the problems that mostly bedevil the northern half of the country and passing them back to the political elite of the region and saying: “Go deal with it”!
Following this primitive logic of this geo- ethnic apportionment of the national bounty, whatever is left in the scrap heap of the national resource bazaar is left for the remaining states and regions. Labour, Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, Environment, Information, Post Master General, Federal Fire Service, Navy- just name it.
In a more monolithic and less diverse national space, no one would grudge the Yorubas their preponderance at the heights of state power. In all fairness, the Yorubas as a people are easily on of the most illustrious of our ethnic nationalities. Politically sophisticated, socially cohesive, content at home and conscious abroad, supremely educated and professionally accomplished, they remain the foremost Nigerian group in terms of enlightened self interest. But this is a diverse republic with a presidential constitution.
In the context of our presidential system, for as long as a president’s appointment of ministers satisfies the basic constitutional requirement of nationwide representation of states in political office distribution, he cannot be accused of breaching the law. After all, the argument would go, all ministries are equal! But we know what we know especially when it comes to the control of the commanding heights of the national economy and major levers of state power and authority. When the strategic locations and vantage points are dominated or monopolized by any one ethnic group, we leave the remaining 349 odd ethnic groups in the lurch.
Nigeria may not be a federation of ethnic nationalities but the requirement of diversity management means that the president has a moral responsibility to govern in a manner that does not overtly announce his ethnic preference or leave most ethnic nationalities in mere janitorial presence. Each time Nigeria is governed in a lopsided manner as we are seeing, we lose a bit more of our unity and create more enclaves of exclusion and “otherness”.
I would ordinarily not be found where people are arguing about the villages from where key officials emanate. I would instead insist that those appointed to key public positions should be the best that can rescue our people from the long night of misrule and political rascality that has reduced life in this country into a nightmare. I am also ready to argue that Nigeria has come to that stage where literally every corner of the nation can produce the best possible manpower to man the affairs of state. Of course, political office appointments do not necessarily adhere to meritocratic criteria. But no cloak can hide an unfair arrangement.
Yet it is a disservice to the elementary requirements of diversity management for a president to make key political appointments in a manner that deepens the sense of national division along regional, ethnic, religious or any other lines. After the Buhari political holocaust, Tinubu’s present posture, as far as these appointments are concerned, can only further divide the country and create intractable political headaches for him and his party in the months ahead.
The impression that has gone out is that Tinubu’s election is nothing more than a voracious power grab on behalf of his South West primary constituency. I feel reduced and my essential humanity shredded to be witnessing what is unfolding before our very eyes. For the avoidance of doubt and the interest of the ignorant, I have spent most of my life on the platform of a united Nigeria. I have always believed in the possibilities open to a united and fair Nigeria. I have spent most of my life in parts of Nigeria away from my ancestry. Most of my children bear Yoruba middle names and feel at home in every part of Nigeria with no neither attachment nor bias based on ‘state of origin’, ethnic group or direction on the national compass.
I therefore feel reduced by this descent into a discourse on tribal allocation of political offices. Worse still, it is debilitating to expend useful energy on the interrogation of tribalism than on contributing ideas towards the uplift of the nation that has given us so much. But this is where Nigerian politics has brought us at the moment.
Let us make no mistake about it. Those of us who are privileged to argue about Nigeria on the pages of newspapers or on television screens are an elite. Elite contests for prime positioning is a healthy feature of a democratic polity in a diverse and plural polity. As elite, we are bound to quarrel about who occupies what positions and who decides what matters about our lives and those of the people that look up to us. Yes, we are an elite. No need to apologize about that. No need to shy away from facing up to elite competition in the national space. This nation belongs to all of us.
Minimally, however, we ought to be striving for a nationwide elite consensus on the best way forward for a nation that lost the race for the 20th century and is fast losing the 21st. We cannot achieve an elite consensus if there is a glaring lopsidedness emanating from a power grab and vicious hijacking of the political space resulting in open inequities in access to opportunities and proximity to power and resources.
As a nation, we are still in a deep ditch full of problems that should not be there. It ought to concern President Tinubu and his advisers that not a single one of his xenophobic appointees has elicited any national excitement to date. For the most part, most of these appointees are remembered for having featured prominently in Tinubu’s earlier outing as Lagos State governor many years ago. Nigerians have been quick to point out that Nigeria is greater than Lagos and that, on closer examination, no miracles took place in Lagos under Tinubu. Those who hold these reservations are also entitled to their views.
So far, the noises coming out of Tinubu’s cabinet and the inner recesses of state power are yet to justify the overt ethnic slant of the appointments so far made or even the basic criteria for these appointments. The views of some of these appointees are too pedestrian and ordinary to ignite any excitement or hope for a better future. We listen in vain for that groundbreaking idea or solution that can free Nigeria from the present brink but are hit by a brick wall of silence or boring rehash of worn out cliches and roadside views.
On balance, President Tinubu has courted an unnecessary trouble for himself. The nepotism and lopsidedness of his appointments so far could go with little qualms if his government delivers on Nigeria’s pressing problems. But if in the next two and half years, the nation remains mired in bad governance, corruption and incompetence, the conclusion would be that Tinubu and the Yorubas completed the final ruin of the faulty tower that Buhari and his locusts left behind. The King would go down with his horsemen and his nationality.