The Men Who Want To Lead Nigeria [2010]

[Originally published in YNAIJA Magazine, Q4 2010]

By Tolu Ogunlesi

1984 was a momentous year in the life of Kris (now Chris) Okotie: he graduated with a degree in law from the University of Nigeria, and got married to Tina, who would be his wife for the next 17 years. At that time he was already a household name, at the peak of a successful music career that kicked off half a decade earlier with the hit single, “I Need Someone.”

Also that year, twenty-four year old Nuhu Ribadu graduated from the Nigerian Law School, and was called to the Bar, kicking off a remarkable career in the Nigeria Police Force.

For Mohammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, 1984 was also a milestone year. Buhari started the new year as the most powerful man in Nigeria, after successfully overthrowing, in a bloodless coup on the last day of 1983, the four year old civilian government of President Shehu Shagari.

Babangida was also a principal participant in that coup, and was rewarded with the position of Chief of Army Staff; making him one of the most powerful members of the Supreme Military Council, the highest policy-making body in the junta.

The December 31, 1983 coup that brought Buhari and Babangida new jobs made Pat Utomi a jobless man. The twenty-seven year old, who returned to Nigeria in 1982 with a doctorate degree in Political Economy from Indiana University had recently taken up a position as a Special Assistant to the President on Political Affairs. Late in the morning of New Year’s eve, he woke up to find out that the government he worked for no longer existed.

Dele Momodu, like Pat Utomi, got his first feel of life in the corridors of power as a twenty-something year old. Between 1983 and 1985 he worked as Private Secretary to Akin Omoboriowo, who served as Deputy Governor of Ondo State (1979 – 1983), and then had his 1983 election as Governor annulled by a court before he was sworn in.

Momodu and Utomi gained some prominence in the 1980s on the strength of their journalism. The Concord newspapers, owned by one of Nigeria’s richest men, M.K.O. Abiola provided a platform for both men. Momodu’s full-time journalism career commenced in 1988 with The African Concord.

At the time that Okotie and Ribadu completed their law degrees, and Utomi made a return to his private businesses (a public policy consultancy and a communications firm) and Buhari unleashed a reign of terror on citizens, journalists and foreigners (close to a million Ghanaians were deported by the government in 1985), and Babangida settled into his new position as the chief of the Nigerian Army, Abubakar Atiku found himself in the eye of a storm.

In 1984 the thirty-eight year old was the Area Comptroller of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport Command of the Nigeria Customs Service when it was alleged, by the media, that an influential Northern Emir had smuggled into the country, dozens of suitcases laden with foreign currency, in a scandal has come to stand as one of the defining features of the Buhari regime.

On your marks…

Today, these men are lined up at the starting blocks, warming up for the race to Aso Rock, the command center of Africa’s most populated country. Whoever emerges President will preside over the spending of more than a hundred billion dollars over the course of a four-year tenure (2011 – 2015).

Two generations are immediately discernible from the assemblage of the man who want to rule Nigeria in 2011. One comprises the warhorses: Buhari, Babangida and Atiku, all born in the 1940s, and now in their sixties.

The other is the clan of the new breed – Utomi, Momodu, Ribadu and Okotie; ‘Independence Children’ – born in and around 1960, and now in their early fifties, or on the cusp of fifty (Momodu was fifty in May, Ribadu the youngest of the lot, will be fifty in November).

Utomi, in Keeping Faith, his “authorized” biography, recalls how, on October 1, 1960, his father dressed him up (he was four years old) in a Fulani robe outside their house on Aba Road, Kano, and put him atop a horse, in celebration of Nigeria’s emergence as Africa’s newest independent state.

All have been busy in the two-and-half decades since 1984. In August 1985 Babangida seized power from Buhari, a betrayal for which Buhari has reportedly never forgiven him, and went on to rule Nigeria for eight years, before being forced out of office not long after he annulled the 1993 Presidential elections. He largely disappeared from public view until 1998 when he played a prominent role in installing Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria’s first democratic leader in sixteen years.

Babangida first indicated his interest in returning to power during the run-up to the 2007 elections. But he soon announced that he was stepping down for Umar Yar’Adua, the PDP candidate. Four years later, Babangida is back, this time more determined than ever.

A Time Magazine profile published shortly after he became Nigeria’s military ruler in August 1985 described him as “a man who always seems to be at the center of the action.” Nothing has changed in the twenty-five years since the Time description. Today he remains the most talked about Presidential candidate, for good or for ill.

Buhari, active during the Abacha era as the head of the enormously influential Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) contested in the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections, on the platform of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). On both occasions he placed second, defeated by the candidates of the ruling PDP.

Okotie is perhaps the candidate with the most intriguing capacity for self-reinvention. As the 1980s rolled to an end he transformed from pop star to cleric, founding the Household of God Church. And then he surprised Nigerians again with his political ambition. Like Buhari he’s also contested in the last two Presidential elections, in 2003 on the platform of the Justice Party, and four years later as a Fresh Democratic Party candidate. His colourful personal life – a penchant for flamboyance in speech and in deed, and his divorce from Tina and subsequent remarriage – however appears to interest the public a lot more than his Presidential ambitions.

Atiku was a prominent contender for the Presidential ticket of the Social Democratic Party in 1992/3, and was elected Governor of Adamawa State in 1999, before relinquishing that position to become Vice President. In 2007, Atiku contested the presidential elections as the candidate of the Action Congress candidate, placing third.

Utomi, since his days as Presidential aide, has become one of Nigeria’s most recognisable faces: boardroom guru, TV personality, entrepreneur and philanthropist. His first shot at the Presidency was in 2007, under the banner of the African Democratic Congress.

Ribadu and Momodu, apart from being the youngest of the lot, are first-time aspirants. They also appear to be the ones most committed to having a youth-driven campaign.

“[Ribadu] is working on a project that will bring millions of young people into the mainstream,” Dapo Olorunyomi, an senior member of the Ribadu campaign team told me recently in Lagos.

The idea, he says, is to build a “volunteer corps” to serve as the “fulcrum” of a mobilisation programme that will target young Nigerians, Obama-style. Even the funding mechanisms will be patterned after the Obama model – Olorunyomi says a “technologically-driven funding arrangement” is being set up.

Ribadu came to national prominence as the pioneer head of what is arguably Nigeria’s most successful law enforcement agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. He was also a member of the team that managed the Nigerian economy and introduced a string of unprecedented reforms during the Obasanjo years. This, says Olorunyomi, places him in good stead to offer value to Nigerians as President.

Momodu, on the other hand is depending on his ‘outsider’ status as a major selling point. “I’m the only aspirant today who has never worked in Government,” he tells me, by phone from the United Kingdom. When I ask about his “experience”, he fires a series of rhetorical questions at me: “What experience has Nick Clegg got in Britain? What experience did Atiku Abubakar have when he became Vice President of Nigeria? What experience has David Cameron got? What experience did Arnold Schwarzenegger have to become Governor of California, one of the largest economies in the world?”

Momodu’s view is that experience is over-rated (“people just talk about experience; experience to do what? To achieve or to fail?”). He believes that leadership is about “management of people and resources, not about politicking.”

He points to his record – twenty-five years of journalism, pro-democracy activism, public relations, entrepreneurship and publishing – as the testament to a capability for success. “There is nothing I’ve managed in my life that I did not manage successfully,” he says.

And he says that in terms of campaign funding possibilities, he is the man to beat. “I don’t know anybody in Nigeria who can get better funding than me, apart from [President] Jonathan. There’s nobody Babangida knows that I don’t know. And I’m credible. Most of these guys are not credible.” He adds that the only edge Mr. Jonathan has is “access to our money – public funds.”

The man to beat

It is this man, Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent President – variously described as a “reluctant” and “accidental” President – who stands as arguably the greatest obstacle to the ambitions of Atiku, Babangida, Okotie, Momodu, Ribadu and Utomi.

Twelve years ago Jonathan was a civil servant, a doctorate-wielding bureaucrat in the Oil Minerals Producing and Development Commission (OMPADEC). In the time since then he has been deputy governor, Governor, Vice President and now President – arguably the most remarkable political career in recent Nigerian history.

Tied to any mention of the name ‘Goodluck Jonathan’ is an awareness of a sense of ‘destiny’, a feeling that “Goodluck” is more than just a name. In a country so enamoured with the supernatural, there are many who would look at the trajectory that Jonathan’s life has taken over the last decade and conclude that it would be futile trying to challenge the invisible hands of a Higher Power(s) that seem to be all out in Jonathan’s favour.

Add to this the fact that he is the incumbent President – no civilian president has ever lost a re-election bid in Nigeria – and it seems more and more evident that Jonathan is indeed the man to beat in 2011. With the oil wealth of Africa’s largest producer of oil firmly in his grip, and his control over Nigeria’s most prominent political party, it appears that it would take several extra spells of bad luck to derail Goodluck Jonathan’s record-books good fortune.

But none of the other candidates is fazed. An Atiku aide recently declared that the Jonathan camp was “afraid” of the former Vice President. Nothing however matches the confidence of the IBB campaign team.

“IBB cannot lose,” Babangida spokesperson, Kassim Afegbua, was quoted as saying in August.

That, surely, is one assertion that Nigerians are more than eager to put to the test.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014 

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