Minabere Ibelema

When in 2017 Zimbabweans were preparing for a forthcoming presidential election, incumbent Robert Mugabe was ailing and the buzz was that he might be dead before the election. In response, Mrs. Grace Mugabe vowed that her husband would campaign and win even in death.

The Zimbabwean first lady wasn’t being facetious; she meant what she said. After all, her husband was positioning her to succeed him. So, whatever happened, a Mugabe would be in office. As it turned out, the Zimbabwean military chose not to wait. They eased Mr. Mugabe out of office and dashed the first lady’s ambition.

A potentially similar scenario may be developing in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari is running for re-election despite ill health and obviously diminished mental capacity. During an interview programme on NTA, The Candidates, for example, he couldn’t comprehend simple questions on whether his anti-corruption campaign was targeting APC opponents and why he had not signed the disability bill.  He had to turn to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to break it down for him or answer some of the questions.

A person who couldn’t handle such simple questions would probably find too abstract the requisites of national character and fiscal policy. It is not at all surprising then that Buhari opted out of the presidential debate, prompting his major challenger, Atiku Abubakar, to back out as well. An increasingly plausible view now is that APC chieftains are propping up Buhari’s candidacy for selfish reasons. The argument is that they know too well that he is too frail to continue in office, but his name is their best bet to retain the presidency. Their hope, it is said, is that Buhari could maintain the facade of viability long enough to be re-elected and thereafter, they would go for the spoils.

Here’s where first lady Aisha comes in. No, Buhari is not going to unilaterally position her to succeed him. Nigeria is not Zimbabwe. And Buhari is too much of a traditionalist to consider having his wife succeed him. Recall that when Aisha spoke out against his leadership style, he publicly admonished her to mind the home and leave politics to him.

Still, let’s consider a scenario in which Buhari hangs on to life, like Mugabe, and manages to convince enough Nigerian voters that he is fit to continue to be president. As the Euroasia Group predicted, there would be an immediate power vacuum and APC chieftains would start wrangling. In that scenario, Aisha could emerge as the powerbroker. She would be the one person the feeble and mostly homebound president trusts and the one who regularly has his ears. In effect, Aisha would become the de facto president.

In any case, whatever the intentions of APC chieftains, it would be dereliction of duty if they fail to draft a contingency plan in event of Buhari’s inability to function in office if he is re-elected. The constitution has provisions for outright incapacitation or death. But there is that gray area where the person can be propped up as functional when the actual decision-making is by others. That’s the matter for contingency planning.

Furthermore, the APC is risking a reprise of the problem that arose in 2009/2010 when President Umaru Yar’Adua lay dying in a Saudi hospital. There was much scheming then to keep then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from ascending to the presidency. The South had held the presidency for eight years and it was the North’s turn. Yet, Yar’Adua was hardly in office for two years before he became gravely ill and left the country for treatment.

This engendered much jockeying for control of the instruments of power. For quite some time, Yar’Adua was virtually in comatose state. And then there were reports that he had actually died and was being kept in Saudi Arabia just so his aides would reap the rewards of his presidency as long as possible. It was in this context that a civic-minded NASS invoked the Doctrine of Necessity on February 7, 2010, and declared Jonathan the acting president.

If then the APC’s goal is to retain the Buhari name on the ballot, the party might want to invoke the political equivalent of force majeure and declare Aisha Buhari the party’s presidential candidate. After all, Aisha is readily the most politically astute first lady in Nigeria since Maryam Babangida. Even in the conservative North, loyalty to her husband might transfer to her. And at 47, she is young enough to be seen as a voice of the youth. But then in the politics of gerontocrats, that may count against her.

Another contingency

While a contingency plan for Buhari’s inability to govern if re-elected is for now a matter for the APC to ponder, INEC has to plan for another contingency: an inconclusive election. That is, an election in which the votes are so close that neither major candidate would have received a mandate to govern. There is a high probably for this given that the projections and polls point to a close race.

As the Euroasia Group warns in its Top Risks 2019 report: “If the vote is close enough to trigger a runoff, Nigeria’s constitution requires a second round of voting to occur within seven days of the first, a tough timeline to meet given the complexity of organising national elections in the country. This could be a recipe for severe uncertainty in Africa’s most important market.” Needless to say, “severe uncertainty” is an understatement.

The question then is, is INEC preparing for this contingency? The infrastructure and process of voting would still be there, but how about printing and transporting new ballots? And, for that matter, prepping the staff and ad hoc personnel on the likelihood of being deployed again within a week.

One hopes that it never comes to that. Nigeria can hardly handle one presidential election every four years. Two in a week may prove to be too much. Still, the best outcome would come from contingency planning.

Copyright PUNCH.