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Will Buhari Contest For Second Term? The Issues At Stake

Less than a year to the 2019 general elections, it is still not clear who the leading contenders for the office of president are.

The Punch's Olalekan Adetayo examines the build-up to the 2019 Presidential Election, the clamour for the return of President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term and the retired army general’s golden silence on the issue.

On May 29, 2015, Buhari took over from former President Goodluck Jonathan who had earlier in the year lost his re-election bid. By virtue of the nation’s constitution, Buhari is expected to be in the saddle for four years. The constitution also allows him to seek a second term of another four years.

By May this year, the Daura-born retired Major General would have spent three years running the affairs of the country from the Presidential Villa, Abuja. He therefore has to take a decision whether he will seek a fresh four-year mandate or he will adopt what has come to be known as the Mandela Option and restrict himself to only one term.

The Independent National Electoral Commission had, earlier in the year, released the guidelines for the next general elections, indicating that the conduct of party primaries, including resolution of disputes arising from the primaries, would take place between August 18 and October 7. According to the commission, campaigns for presidential and National Assembly elections should begin by November 18 while the last day for the submission of nomination forms by political parties for the elections is December 3.

While preparations have started among politicians for the elections, all eyes have remained on Buhari who has so far remained silent on whether he will seek re-election. Despite the pressure being mounted on him by his loyalists as well as the various endorsements he had received among the chieftains of the ruling All Progressives Congress, including state governors, Buhari has maintained a dignified silence.

Things were working well for Buhari, who came to power based on his promise to fight corruption, secure the country and efficiently manage the economy up until early last year when he fell sick. His ill health kept him outside the shores of the country for the better part of 2017, therefore casting doubts on his ability to discharge his constitutional responsibilities.

The President has since recovered from that illness to the surprise of many and to the admiration of his followers across the country. He is looking good again and has been engaging in many public activities unlike during the period of his health crisis when he remained largely incommunicado.

Beyond his health status, however, is the major issue of age. Buhari will be 76 this year having been born on December 17, 1942. If he decides to throw his hat into the ring one more time, the President will be travelling to all parts of the country next year, seeking a fresh mandate as a 77-year-old man. If he wins, then he will finish his second term in 2023 as an Octogenarian. This is instructive because Buhari himself had admitted in 2015 shortly after he assumed office that old age would limit his performance. “I wish I became Head of State when I was a governor, just a few years as a young man. Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do,” he had told Nigerians resident in South Africa in June 2015.

But his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, will not hear of this. In an interview with our correspondent, Shehu said he entertained no doubt that Buhari was physically and mentally fit to lead the country despite his age. He said, “We are dealing with physical and mental fitness of leaders, not their age. You can have a fool at 35 or 40. There are foolish people who are 35 and there are astute people who are 100 years.

“Again, Presidents have their own ways of operating. A President can choose to operate as a CEO and he will have his hands and fingers on every pie. A President can also operate like a board chairman, putting competent people around him in the cabinet and all that. I am not in doubt at all that the President maintains the capacity, presence of mind and physical fitness to continue to perform the job of the President.”

How has Buhari’s continued silence on this all-important issue been affecting the polity? It is instructive to note that among all those who have so far publicly expressed interest in the President’s job in 2019, none is from the ruling party. This is not because there are no interested persons in the party. The truth however is that those interested within the party are only waiting to know Buhari’s disposition before taking their destiny in their own hands.

Why then has the President remained silent on the issue? A school of thought believes that Buhari may be waiting for a national leader of the party, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to complete his assignment of reconciling estranged members of the party across the country before making any move.

The truth is that things have fallen apart in many state chapters of the party. From Kano, Oyo, Rivers and Kogi to Kaduna, Zamfara, Plateau and Osun among others, the story is the same. In Kano, there is a disagreement between the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, and his predecessor, Rabiu Kwankwaso. In Rivers State, there is also a disagreement between the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, and Senator Magnus Abe.

Osun State is not in any way better. The governor, Rauf Aregbesola, and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yusuf Lasun, are not in good terms. Lasun is aspiring to become the state governor after Aregbesola whose tenure expires this year. In Kaduna State, there is crisis between the state governor, Nasir El-Rufai, and Senator Shehu Sani. A similar scenario is playing out in Zamfara between the state governor, Abdulaziz Yari, and Senator Kabir Marafa. Also in Kogi State, the governor, Yahaya Bello, is at loggerheads with Senator Dino Melaye. In Oyo State, there is a friction between the state governor, Abiola Ajimobi, and the Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu. The Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Solomon Dalung, and Governor Simon Lalong are not on the same page in Plateau State. The list appears to be endless.

With this kind of a heavily factionalised party, Buhari’s declaration, whether for or against re-election, at this time, may unsettle the ranks of the APC. Imagine a situation where he says he is stepping down, the jostling for the presidential ticket among party members can only be imagined. Even when he says he will contest, what happens to those believed to be nurturing silent ambition to succeed him? Will they dump the party and seek alternative platform to realise their ambitions?

Shehu admitted that the reconciliation move could be a factor but he insisted that the major desire of government at the moment was to deliver the dividends of democracy. “That can be a factor but I am telling you that the most important thing before the government is to deliver on the promises made. Once the government opens itself to electioneering, there is hardly anything that can be done again. The President is statesmanly; he places governance above partisanship,” he said.

The spate of insecurity being witnessed across the country is also seen as combining with other factors to seal the President’s lips on re-election for now. It is believed in many quarters that it is not politically expedient for the President to be talking about re-election at a time scores of Nigerians are being killed by Fulani herdsmen and insurgents in parts of the country.

Again, Shehu did not share this view. “No serious government anywhere will allow itself to be held to the ground by terrorists. Insurgents cannot dictate the pace at which the country is governed. I don’t think any responsible government will look at these terror activities to decide what government will do or will not do,” he told our correspondent.

What then is keeping Buhari back? Shehu attempted to give an answer. “You know that the moment he declares, there will be no governance in the country. Even the budget and other hallowed objectives will be jeopardised by politics. So, we have to push this thing far into the year.

“It is in the interest of this administration that we implement the budget. The projects that have been designed like the railway projects, the roads and power projects should take off. Otherwise, the government will be distracted from these objectives. They will hold us down,” he explained.

For how long will Buhari keep his party members and indeed all Nigerians waiting? Will he seek re-election or will he quit the stage at the end of the current tenure? The President appears to be keeping answers to these questions close to his chest for now. Only time will tell.

But the National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Bolaji Abdullahi, said the party was not losing any sleep over Buhari’s delay in making his position known. The former Minister of Sports said although the party was working on the assumption that the President would vie for a second term in office since it is his constitutional right to do so, it is also important for the APC to prepare for all possibilities.

The APC spokesman added, “The seeming delay in the President making his intention known is not affecting the party in any negative way. As you know, the party is for every member, not just for the President. We will work on the assumption that the President will re-contest because that is the constitutional provision unless he pronounces otherwise. Once the President pronounces that he is going to re-contest, we will take that on board.

“But like we have repeatedly maintained, we will still hold a convention because there may be other members of the party who may be interested. So, for us as a party, the most important thing is to continue to prepare for all possibilities as far as the issue of 2019 is concerned.”

The National Chairman of the PDP, Uche Secondus, said the delay of Buhari making known his decision on the 2019 presidential poll, did not pose any threat to his party.

Secondus stated, “If he (Buhari) likes, let him declare today or if he likes, let him not declare at all. Whatever he does does not concern us. But one thing is certain; President Buhari is at the tail end of his stay at the villa.

“We are not stopping any of our aspirants from unfolding their programmes or agenda for the country. It is their constitutional rights. Buhari or his party cannot stop us. We just had a programme that had shaken the foundation of the APC.

“By the time we fully role out our programmes, the whole world will know. So, tell the President, the APC and the nation that the eagle is coming. When it lands, all other birds will take cover.”