Home COLUMNISTS Of National Conversations, Presidential Debates And Big Ideas, By Sufuyan Ojeifo

Of National Conversations, Presidential Debates And Big Ideas, By Sufuyan Ojeifo

The late business mogul, philanthropist and winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, put his nose to the grindstone to be president of Nigeria. Abiola was almost stepping in the saddle, but the military junta of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida annulled the election and invalidated the mandate that Nigerians freely gave to him.

Abiola was not a neophyte in the presidential enterprise.  His desire to be president dates back to the second republic.  He planned to succeed second republic president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, at the expiration of his constitutionally-guaranteed two terms of office in 1987. The schema was on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN). However, the military coup of 1983 truncated the desire and reset the consummation of his presidential aspiration.

The military unconscionably rendered the June 12 election inchoate and the consummation became fatally illusory. But one thing was self-evident about Abiola’s ill-fated voyage to the presidency: it was not a happenstance; he steadfastly worked for it, investing his time and energy, deploying the instrumentalities of his vast connections and contacts; his philanthropy, his awesome financial war chest as well as the magnitude of his cosmopolitan, assertive and fecund intellectual prowess.

Having strategically warmed to Nigerians by his acts of monumental charity, he set out to externalize his essential persona and capacity to epitomize the African spirit in the articulation of what was turning out to be a continental fixation on the subject of reparations.  Remarkably, Abiola explored and exploited his intellectual capital to interrogate the ramifications of the damages done to the African continent by the West through the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism.

Abiola would go on to engage the world on those platforms through advocacy and campaign for payment of reparations to the continent. His campaign for reparations started with a two-day international conference on reparations to Africa and Africans in the Diaspora hosted by the Concord Press in December 1990.  The conference had demanded that Africa’s external debts to western nations and banks be cancelled as reparations for the violence those nations had unleashed on Africa.

Reparations to Africa approximated Abiola’s philosophy.  He owned and espoused the idea. The annulment of his victory, his detention following his Epetedo declaration and his eventual demise in the custody of the Nigerian government constituted a major setback to the reparations campaign. But significantly, the issue received national and international attention.  A robust national conversation was developed around it.

The issue formed, substantially, one of the fulcra of Abiola’s presidential electioneering. He passionately elucidated it during the presidential debate in which he, as the presidential candidate of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), took on his opposition, Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC). Abiola was single-minded to provide a bulwark of support for reparations campaign and make it a big idea in the focus of government and governance on the African continent.

This is how ideas, big ideas, emerge to rule and transform the world: it took Abiola the ingenuity and clear-headedness to push the issue to the front burner of national and global discourse. Interestingly, and this bears recalling, in 1992, about the same period that the highly fecund Abiola was having his eyes on the presidency of Nigeria as a trajectory to a social contract to eradicate pervasive poverty (one of his campaign catchphrases was goodbye to poverty), another prolific mind, Chester James Carville Junior, was deploying his intellectual, creative powers in the United States of America to plot the emergence of Bill Clinton as president.  He successfully led Democrats’ Clinton to a win against Republicans’ George Bush.

The major issue in America, at the time, was the economy. There were job cuts and the economy was sliding into recession. That became the national concern: the survival of America through the revitalization of the economy. Anybody who wanted the votes of Americans must leverage on the economy as the linchpin. For Carville, it was the economy, stupid.  It was one of the formulations he deployed in the campaign. He reportedly posted a list, in the war room to help focus himself and his staff members, with three points that were critical, to wit: change vs. more of the same; the economy, stupid; and, don’t forget health care. Those were the issues the campaign espoused that bore significant connect with Americans and won the election for Clinton.

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Since 1999, contestations for the position of president of Nigeria have been shorn of the ingredient of robust and engaging national conversations.  Whereas, this meeting of minds should have served to guide the Nigerian electorate in their voting decisions; resorts to shared prejudices and primordial sentiments of ethnicity and religion have, unfortunately, always dominated and determined the presidency. Ahead 2019 general elections, there is the imperativeness to appraise presidential candidates on the bases of the philosophies that they espouse. Unlike the frivolities that had attended presidential debates previously, the platform should, this time round, provide opportunities to interrogate the specifics of candidates’ philosophies, clear understandings and commitments to show fidelity to them in the context of an abiding social contract.

However, it is worrisome that while the list of the presidential aspirants for 2019 presidential poll is growing, there is conversely a reduction in the number of those who have been able to chart philosophical trajectories through which they will get the buy-in of Nigerians. President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade is the essential philosophical underpinning of his administration for which he enjoys national and continental approbation.  He is the African Union’s anti-corruption champion. He has just left for the AU summit in Mauritania where he would speak to the issue of anti-corruption war as a pathway to Africa’s transformation. His 2019 electioneering will centre on the progress of the anti-graft war.

Former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who is one of the leading presidential aspirants on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is driving his presidential enterprise on the fulcrum of restructuring of the Nigerian federation.  His emphasis is on power devolution from Abuja to the component states that make up the six geo-political zones. Restructuring will be salutary to true federalism and resource control. It will address all the structural imbalances and cure the mischiefs of federal character, zoning arrangements for the presidency and allegations of marginalization. The southern region of the country is enamoured of the idea.  It is also in the contemplation of the middle belt region, comprising states in the north central and north east zones.

It is necessary to have more agenda issues for interrogation. Former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Professor Kingsley Moghalu; former Kano state governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso; outgoing governor of Gombe state, Ibrahim Hassanh Dankwambo; former minister of special duties under the Jonathan administration, Kabir Tanimu Turaki (SAN); former Jigawa state governor, Sule Lamido; former governor of Cross Rivers state, Donald Duke; Sahara reporters’ publisher, Omoyele Sowore; motivational speaker and life coach, Fela Durotoye, et al., are expected to refocus their campaigns on issues and ideas. They should be clearer in the articulation of the philosophical underpinnings of their presidential aspirations.

There should be some big, transforming ideas and issues that they espouse. They should define specific ideological directions and not befuddle the political space and the presidential enterprise with nebulous agendas. We need national conversations on and about contemporary issues of national development; ideas and agendas that conduce to growth in pragmatic terms.  The aspirants must bring on these ideas now to enable Nigerians appraise the workability and ramifications of their promised offerings.

· Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes via ojwonderngr@yahoo.com