2023: Oligarchs and the electorate

For the avoidance of doubt, the political economy of Nigeria cannot be understood outside the purview of the oligarchs from North and South. They are shadowy figures who do not, themselves, contest political offices but have a decisive say in who wins and who loses. They do not run government administration, in person, yet maintain a stranglehold on who gets what, where and when. They are neither learned nor particularly talented but are regularly able to bend the arc of justice towards parochial ends.  Nigeria is what it is today because that is exactly how they want it to be. By definition, oligarchs are an unrepresentative minority, who do not even seek or pretend to speak for the people. From time to time, they make their immediate interest public interest; they know how to make the people vote against their own fundamental economic interest. Often heard in whispers, the oligarchs are rarely seen; they are the enfant terrible in a fledgling democracy.  Over the years, in Nigeria, a couple of myths and misconceptions have overshadowed public discourse. First, it is that the northern oligarchs are bent on ‘dominating’, ‘marginalising’, ‘Islamising’ or, worst, ‘enslaving’ the South. Not true. Oligarchs, North and South, are interested in only one thing: power. Second, it’s that the North relies on its ‘numerical advantage’ to override the South. Also not, strictly speaking, true. Numerical advantage, such as there is, is a bargaining chip on a chessboard. Like them or loathe them, the northern oligarchs are master political tacticians unrivalled by any of the braggadocios from the South.

The next presidential election takes place next year, 2023, but already the airwaves are filled with conjectures and permutations, runners and riders, contestants and non-contestants, winners and losers. To understand what is at stake, we need to cast our minds back to the events leading up to 1999, when the military handed political power back to the civilians under a new democratic dispensation. Up until then, the ‘pro-democracy’ activism of the period was about to morph into some type of ethnic skirmish leading to armed insurrections by a section or sections of the ethnic groups. The survival of Nigeria as one unified entity was indeed under serious threat more than at any time since the civil war in 1966. At the heart of the discord was the inordinate use of the coercive apparatus of the state in favour of one particular ethnic group, especially since the democratic election of 1993 was clearly won by Moshood Abiola, (a southerner) before the self-appointed Military-President, General Ibrahim Babangida (a northerner), brazenly annulled the result. The battle line between North and South appeared to have been drawn there and then. The oligarchs, though, thought otherwise. When the military finally decided to vacate the seat of power overnight, in 1999, the northern oligarchs’ main priority was to quickly douse the fire of ethnic resentment and grievance in civil society exemplified by the clamour for a “Sovereign National Conference.”

The above was what made the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd.) — a southerner — and an avowed “friend” of the North, possible as a civilian president. Since then, every non-northern candidate for president must, at the very least, attest to their ‘friendship’ of the North. ‘Friendship’ in this context is, of course, code for being amenable to the interests of the northern oligarchs for there is no such thing as a monolithic North to bargain with as a bloc. The oligarchs (of all hues) know how to play the ethnic card. It is their stock in trade. They seek out and extend their grubby hands of friendship to each other as they criss-cross the labyrinths of power. Together, they mandated the election of Obasanjo in 1999 for two terms in office.  And, when he overstayed his welcome with his ill-conceived “third term” manoeuvre, they promptly withdrew their support. The main casualty of the 1999 deal, however, was the idea of a Sovereign National Conference, which subsequently gave way to “restructuring,” meaning… well, different things to different people. When the power went back to another northern candidate in the person of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) in 2015, his unabashed clannishness in political preferment made it possible for the restructuring bogeyman to resurface. The smart oligarchs in the South saw an opportunity for ‘power shift’ by hammering on ‘restructuring’ and ‘devolution’ come hell or high water. Their smart brethren in the North were also equal to the task since they hold the aces. They would concede the presidency to the South, after Buhari, but not the power that underpins it. In other words, northern oligarchs would endorse an apolitical, malleable (if cerebral) southern candidate for president in 2023, who would be in office but not in power. They are implacably opposed to a calculated political beast in the manner of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, aka “Asiwaju”, aka “Jagaban”.


Northern oligarchs look at the Federal Government as a sacred cow. And, contrary to their brethren in the South seeking to trim or unbundle it, their belief in the power of the presidency as a force for good is almost fanatical. They would cast any dice, spill any blood to preserve it. Anyone, any candidate for office even with the slimmest capability of upsetting the applecart is to be disavowed, chased and frozen out. For them, Tinubu is that candidate. He was the revered benefactor, who now represents their worst nightmare coming true. The man himself has inadvertently stoked this tension by revealing the presidency to be his “lifelong ambition.” He should have known not to embolden his enemies by throwing such red meat at them. It was the moment his political nous left him. It was the football equivalent of an own goal, which many fear may have fatally damaged his chances of grabbing the crown that was his for the taking all along. There is now a mad scramble to draft in his erstwhile protégé, and confidant, Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, over his own initial objection. He is the archetypal, affable ‘reluctant’ candidate; a blank slate upon which everyone can write their own script. The pressure on him to allow his name to go forward has been relentless in the last couple of months. It is one of the factors that forced Tinubu’s hand in announcing his intention as early as he did. Jagaban surprisingly now has a mountain to climb for the APC nomination but who would bet against him?

Whatever happens, Tinubu will remain colossal in the shifting quicksand of the Nigerian political power play. Despite his shortcomings – and he has plenty, he is rightly credited for masterminding the defeat of the previously all-conquering and ‘unbeatable’ Peoples’ Democratic Party, shutting down its agenda for a one-party dictatorship and opening up the democratic space to the Toms, Dicks and Harrys of this world. Nigerian democracy would not be as plural as it is on the surface without Tinubu’s guile and guts. Many people in the APC, especially in the South-West, may not have been ‘made’ by him but they owe their political heft to him. They cut their high-wire political teeth in his inner sanctum, all expenses paid, for a decade.  He taught them boldness and calculated political risk-taking. Aside from cutting the PDP to size, they also witnessed him slaying Afenifere’s dragon. He burst the bubble of the organisation’s inertia to clear a bigger path for himself and his accolades. They have all benefited, indeed, profited immensely from this coup de grace. The supreme irony is that the same disciples, who sat in awe of Tinubu’s bravura; who knelt and drank at his feet, are now determined to turn the table on him. The northern oligarchs are wringing their hands with glee.

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