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    Nigeria 2023: President Bola Tinubu or President Nasir El-Rufai?

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    He may not be that different from the incumbent in terms of economic ideology (he is also a statist at heart), but what we do know about a Tinubu presidency is that it will be inclusive. A mercantile, monetised, morally bankrupt inclusivity maybe, but still inclusive nonetheless”.

    On Sunday March 28, 2021, a former Lagos State governor jetted into the northwestern city of Kano and emerged to meet a cheering crowd chanting ‘Shugaban Kasar Gobe’ (‘the next president’). Or at least that was what was reported anyway. Bola Tinubu was in town for his 12th eponymous annual colloquium and he wanted to make sure that everybody knew it. What was actually said at the event was not so important. What mattered was that he was in the northern political heartland – the biggest of the so-called Kardashian states.

    Alongside the Who’s Who of Nigerian politics alongside important speakers from across the continent, Tinubu proceeded to spread his tail feathers for the next 24 hours as the news cameras of Nigeria focused on his giant coming out party. It was a full 24 months before the 2023 election, but what everyone was witnessing was the distinct and unmistakable start of a presidential campaign.

    The 2023 presidential election is after all, unlike any other before it. Without fear of exaggeration, it promises to be a defining point in Nigeria’s history on a scale to dwarf even the 2015 election. Under these circumstances, it is extremely important to know the candidates, have an idea of what they are about, and thus make an informed choice at the polling booths in 21 months’ time. Who are the viable candidates and what does each of them represent in terms of politics and policy? In the first of this 2-part series, I attempt to unravel the mysteries around Bola Tinubu and Nasir El-Rufai, and look ahead to what Nigeria can expect from each of them.

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    What Would a Tinubu Presidency Look Like?

    Bola Ahmed Tinubu is very much a known quantity. In that sense, he is perhaps the most straightforward and uncomplicated candidate in this series. Tinubu knows exactly what he is about and so does anyone who has followed his political career from his pre-NADECO days through his 8-year stint as Lagos State governor, to his current iteration as de-facto godfather of Nigeria’s southwest region. His political methods are as simple as they are effective – wheel and deal; trade horses; buy loyalties; make deals.

    His journey to the frontline of Nigerian politics is the story of a politician who is not ashamed to buy his love by the hour. In the world of Jagaban Borgu, the famous truism “In politics, there is no permanent friend or foe” is the closest thing that exists to a manifesto. When the June 12, 1993 election was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, he tried to cut a deal with Sani Abacha. When that didn’t work out, he became a founding member of the anti-Abacha National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).

    During this period, he famously declared that he did not believe in “One Nigeria.”

    After Abacha died, he then successfully ran for governor of Lagos State in the said One Nigeria. During this period in 2003, he remarked in a private conversation with a U.S. diplomat, that he believed that Muhammadu Buhari is an ethnocentrist whose election would jeopardise national unity.

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    Fast forward a couple of decades and in 2021, his position is that Nigeria’s unity is “not negotiable” and that Aisha Buhari is a “voice of conscience” and “a worthy partner” for his erstwhile adversary. Even his 8-year long fight with former president Olusegun Obasanjo came to an abrupt end in 2014 when a new political adversary came into the picture. Alignment, realignment, carpet-crossing – it’s all in a day’s work for Nigeria’s most quintessentially Nigerian politician.

    His governance ideology is not much different. Under his administration, Lagos State dealt with its thuggery and hooliganism problem not by offering a systemic solution or using a security crackdown, but simply by incorporating said thugs unofficially into the operations of the state government. In Tinubu’s world, there is never such a thing as an objective, unchanging fact or a fixed entity. People are just characters that can be moved around a chess board using their own self-interest.

    As president, it is safe to say that we can expect more of the same. Anyone who is looking forward to a presidency that will launch a dramatic and emotionally satisfying nationwide security onslaught against violent non-state actors should probably not look forward to a Tinubu presidency. It is not that he is especially a pacifist – it is that he does not see the point of wasting effort on coercion when it is much easier to incentivise people to work for you.

    Expect to see negotiations at all levels with every kind of armed adversary, likely ending with some sort of compromise that involves using state money to incentivise their peace. A fragile, unsustainable peace it may be, but it will be a peace nonetheless, which Tinubu’s hefty media machine will sell as victory. Also do not expect to see any dramatic political battles with the opposition. Just like during his tenure in Lagos, potential and existing enemies will be brought in officially and unofficially to become part of the system.

    Ultimately, that very law of an ethical spine and a predilection for complete amorality is Tinubu’s biggest strength as a politician, and even as an administrator. He may not be that different from the incumbent in terms of economic ideology (he is also a statist at heart), but what we do know about a Tinubu presidency is that it will be inclusive. A mercantile, monetised, morally bankrupt inclusivity maybe, but still inclusive nonetheless.

    Only time can tell us whether Buhari will let it happen.

    An Accidental Number One Public Servant?

    Nasir El-Rufai is another candidate who offers no surprises. In fact, there is so little to say about him that has not already been belaboured to death, his analysis will probably be the shortest of this series. He is what some refer to as a single-issue politician. His single issue is ethno religious identitarianism. Mr El-Rufai’s entire world is divided into a binary paradigm that groups people into “Muslim vs Non-Muslim” and “Fulani vs non-Fulani.” To get into El-Rufai’s head and understand his thoughts, it is always best to read him in his own words.

    Under El-Rufai’s administration, Kaduna State – specifically the southern half of the state – has become one of the deadliest places in West Africa. Several massacres of entire villages and towns in southern Kaduna are no longer headline news and have become par for the course since 2015. Among the many horrors that have taken place in Kaduna during this period, the murder of the Adara commuity’s traditional leaders and the massacre of members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Zaria are the most disturbing.

    An El-Rufai presidency will almost certainly offer more of the same and likely much worse. Unlike Tinubu who employs a crude but effective mercantilism in building alliances and getting people onside, Nasir El-Rufai’s political and administrative style is all about picking fights and starting fires. If there is a teacher quality problem, he fires off a letter sacking thousands of teachers in one fell swoop. If he disagrees with a trade union’s decision to call a strike, he fires off a bombastic tweet putting a bounty on an individual’s head.

    Making this man president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria would likely have the same effect as Samuel Doe’s Liberian coup of 1980 – striking a match and tossing it on a pile of dry leaves soaked in petrol. Just as his tenure in Kaduna has made southern Kaduna’s proposed breakaway Gurara State suddenly seem viable and preferable to the extant carnage, a “President Nasir El-Rufai” might very well be the last president of Nigeria as we know it.

    If Nnamdi Kanu could vote in 2023, he would vote for Nasir El-Rufai.

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