Three Fates in Nigeria

Terror threats, delayed elections, and inept social media assistants: Imagining the fight for Nigeria’s political future.

Elnathan is a full-time writer and satirist who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African...

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BOLA AHMED TINUBU

“Things change. To refuse to change is to fade away, to die. Do you know how I have kept relevant? Look at the other states, all the godfathers who started out as governors in 1999. They are all either begging for relevance or disgruntled because they have been sidelined. All politicians are disgruntled, but to be disgruntled on the sidelines is to be pathetic. I’d rather die than become pathetic.”

Remi flinches at the word “die.” She hates it when her husband Bola speaks like this, especially after one of his marathon strategy meetings. But things are better now that he no longer feels threatened by Raji Fashola, his protégé and current governor of Lagos. There is no doubt that he is in charge—no doubt that he is, as national leader of the party, also in control of his state. Even if he had to drop his ambition to be vice president after General Buhari won the party’s presidential nomination.

The concession was that there had to be a Lagos person on the ballot—someone who understood the pecking order—because it was Lagos that was going to decide this election; Lagos would upset the balance of things. And so Osinbajo, a quiet Lagos attorney and professor, emerged. That selection had done away with all obstacles and provided a candidate who, as a Christian, offered religious balance, and, being new to politics, came with almost zero political baggage.

“I was chatting to Sumbo on BBM, and she sent me this nasty link where someone said, ‘Is it not the same Tinubu who took money from Jonathan to sell out his own party in 2011?’” Remi says, pouring water from the plastic bottle into a glass.

“Darling, my one problem with you is that, even as senator, you have not learnt from all these years in politics never to read those things.”

“I don’t. But usually when Sumbo sends a link, it is something sensible.”

“Well, not all friends are friends. And like I said, to refuse to change is to fade away. Goodluck is finished goods. A political liability.”

“Do you think he is ready?”

“Who?”

“General Buhari. Will he not also be a liability or embarrass us? Because if it is the same Buhari of 2003, 2007, and 2011, I am afraid.”

“Was I involved in 2003, 2007, or 2011?”

“No.”

“We will clean him up. It is all about packaging. And I think Nigerians are ready. Goodluck has made them ready, the way he is running the country. We can sell anything to them at this point. Even something they have rejected thrice.”

He pulls the temple of his round glasses to stop them from sliding down. Remi looks into his eyes. She knows this look, this pensive pursing of the lips and dimming of the eyes, this look that says, I, the Lion of Bourdillion and Asiwaju of Lagos, will do this. She saw it when he first ran for governor in 1999. She saw it when he told her in 2010 that he was going to unseat the serving Lagos Central senator and make her senator instead. She saw it when he told her Buhari was going to emerge as the party’s presidential candidate. She saw it in 2006 when he said he was going to deal with Ribadu for saying his corruption was of international dimensions. And she saw it all happen.

She is not exactly sure why he even tried to be vice president, a position that would undermine his power and open the Asiwaju of Lagos to unnecessary scrutiny. She wants to say it now—that she thinks he is better and stronger as party leader than he could ever be as vice president—but one of his phones has just started ringing.

“Hello General,” he begins. It will be a long call, she thinks.

*

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN

It is two in the morning, that darkest period before dawn, hours before the sun casts its first shadows. Goodluck Jonathan is angry, his stomach in knots over what the morning will bring, over which direction the shadows will fall over his increasingly unpopular image. He has been told that one of his junior aides, Reno—so junior he barely remembers his last name—has, in a bid to contribute to his campaign, created an online poll that ended up showing the president would lose the elections.

How does an aide do that? Subject me to public ridicule. Anyway, we have bigger problems. We will deal with him later.

He has asked four of his trusted security chiefs and the National Security Adviser to see him immediately. No aides. No assistants. Jonathan isn’t sure whom to trust.

You hold a secret meeting, and before you even finish the opening prayers, someone has leaked that you had a secret meeting.

He has gone easy on the bottles since he started the campaign rallies. He cannot afford to lose focus. The landslide victories of the past have chosen his administration as the time to pack up and leave. Even with the massive amounts of money that he has released to the party chairmen, his rival still has fuller rallies than he does. And now he has been stoned in his rival’s home state. Stoned! By riffraff. But that is not even the worst of it.

Lagos.

Lagos is his big headache. Tinubu, who delivered Lagos to him in 2011, has turned the whole of Lagos against him. In 2011 they told him: Tinubu is Lagos and Lagos is Tinubu. You get him, and the 5.9 million votes in the state will be within reach.

Tinubu.

He thought it was a joke when all the major opposition parties began talks of a merger into a mega party. Everyone told him it was all a joke. The opposition figures were too greedy and too ambitious to all fight for a common cause. Buhari was too rigid and strong-headed. Tinubu was too sly and possessive. As the momentum grew, Jonathan thought it was all a gimmick—that Tinubu wanted to raise the stakes and blackmail him into getting more money and concessions. Jonathan watched in disbelief until the merger became a success and the people of Lagos, who despised Buhari and called him an old dictator in 2011, erased their memories and came out in the thousands to support the new mega opposition party.

Jonathan goes over the options with the security chiefs. With the momentum of the opposition, the election, only a few weeks away, will be a disaster. He needs to be sure they are all on board. That they will back him on doing something to stop the rise of this thorn in his flesh. But whatever is done, he wants it to be clean, justifiable. He does not want the international community to say its favourite word: sanctions. But something must be done.

There is something legitimate, one of the generals says: the new shipment of equipment for the Boko Haram war has arrived. We will simply say that new phase of security operations to secure and stabilize the country will begin on February 14.

“Don’t worry, your Excellency, we will handle it at the level of INEC. We just have to tell the chairman we have no personnel for the elections. It is he who will postpone them. You will not have to say anything.”

“Are you sure?” the president asks.

“Legally, only INEC can shift elections,” the National Security Adviser says. “And INEC cannot conduct elections without the security agencies. If we are not ready, then they are not ready.”

“And come February 14, they will see us fighting, winning—people will quickly forget,” the Chief of Defence Staff adds.

They have barely driven away before Jonathan makes a beeline for the bar in his bedroom. His hands are trembling as he pours the expensive cognac until the glass is half full. He feels the warmth travel down his throat and spread quickly through his body.

The sun is just up now. He is still afraid of the shadows, but he feels better prepared to fight. The Chief of Protocol reminds him that they will visit three churches this Sunday. As the day’s itinerary is read out to him, he interrupts.

“Please remind the Chief of Staff that we need a new Special Assistant on Social Media. We can’t let that Reno boy keep embarrassing us. Find me someone smart from Lagos.”

*

GENERAL MUHAMMADU BUHARI

“Allahu Akbar,” the General intones as he bows on his knees and lets his head touch the prayer mat. The morning light has barely begun to show, but already there are three people waiting to see him, one of them from his campaign office, who needs to make sure Buhari has everything he needs for the trip to Kano. It is the new Emir of Kano’s coronation, and he is a special guest.

But something bigger weighs on his mind. Someone sent a message in the middle of the night to say that, unless there were any surprises in the INEC chairman’s meetings today, it was certain that the elections would be postponed.

Allahu AkbarAllah is greater than his machinations. We sat at the Council of State meetings and he pretended to agree with us ex-Heads of State that there was no need to postpone the elections. He looked us in the eye and he agreed. And now if something happens, they will say it is I who provoked people to violence. They will not see the hands of the architect. They will judge the reaction and not the action. But Allah is greater than him.

He still does not understand why they had to make so many clothes for him, with all the clothes he already has. He had resisted this at first, arguing that the masses who came out in their thousands to his rallies loved him precisely because he was not ostentatious.

Tinubu had looked him in the eye and said, “Your people will vote you, whether you wear rags or garments made of gold. They are not our target. We need to appeal to the millions betrayed by this government, to the undecided, to those who have been fed propaganda about the General being a man from the past. We need to appeal to Lagos and make that appeal spread. The people who love you, in Kano or Katsina or Borno, who have loved you since before 2003, will not suddenly stop loving you because you have new clothes.”

He is learning to enjoy Lagos. He is learning to smile, to enjoy the private jet rides he would normally have resisted, to shake the hands of people he might have thought of jailing if the stakes were not so high and this merger was not absolutely necessary to defeat the ruling party. He felt particularly conflicted about having to publicly visit General Babangida, his colleague in the army who overthrew him and his austere government in 1985. Again he had complained to Tinubu about this, but as Tinubu told him, “this is politics, not love.” As Buhari spoke in the presence of the press in Babangida’s lavish living room, the words seeking support, bitter on his tongue, rolled out as if from somewhere other than his mind. On their way back from Babangida’s house, Tinubu said he had done very well. “We had better win these elections,” the General had retorted.

The things we do for politics. This is how low Jonathan has made us stoop to fight: to have to collude with these criminals who benefitted from this government just to force free and fair elections.

Buhari’s hands tremble when he finally hears it from the mouth of Attahiru Jega, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. He confirms everything. That the army is unable to support the election because, of all the days in the year, they have to begin major operations against Boko Haram on February 14. That his hands are tied. That he would have to give the army the six weeks they ask for. That the elections will now be held on March 28.

But he has played this game too long to have an outburst. Not now. Not when, for the first time, he has support across Nigeria. He calls Osinbajo.

This is all part of the plan. We get angry. Our supporters get angry. They go to the streets and the military finds an excuse to shut it all down. Then they say: Aha! We told you. Buhari loves violence. Buhari kills people. Buhari cannot control his own.

Before Buhari even calls the campaign office to talk about new plans, Tinubu has spoken to everyone:

No protests.

No playing into the hands of the military and government.

Restraint.

They are pushing us but they are within the limits of the law.

Restraint.

At least until March 28.

When Buhari speaks to the guys at the campaign office, they have already created a new slogan. The “FeBuhari 14” posters go down; the “March4Buhari” ones go up.

The new slogan and posters are even better, Buhari thinks. As he scrolls through the new designs on his new tablet, he shakes his head, smiles and says to himself: “These Lagos people!”

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