minous clouds appeared over the general elections last week as chaos spread across the country over a lingering scarcity of fuel and naira notes. The fuel supply crisis has been going on for several months but the currency crisis worsened as the January 31 deadline set by the central bank for use of old naira notes approached.
Speaking at a rally in Ado-Ekiti, on Friday, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, alleged that the scarcity, which has caused frustration and hardship for people across the country, was contrived to precipitate a national crisis and force the general elections to be shifted from 28 February.
“They are hoarding Naira so that you can be angry and fight. They want confusion so that the election can be postponed. What they want is an interim government. But we are wiser than them. We will not fight. Any rat that eats the rat poison will end up killing itself.”
Barely 26 hours after Mr Tinubu’s remarks, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike echoed the allegation at a rally in Opobo/Nkoro Local Government Area of the state, warning those allegedly trying to scuttle the elections and foist an “interim government” to desist from the plot.
“This policy (naira redesign) is targeted at making people angry so that they will demonstrate and riot and then the election would be postponed. Then, they will introduce an interim government. No matter the provocation, don’t protest. This election will hold. This election is by the PVCs. This election is not an election of cabals; it is an election of Nigerians.”
Of course, Mr Wike has become an ally of Mr Tinubu as PDP officials in the state have written to the party’s national headquarters that the governor had informed his loyalists of his endorsement of the APC candidate. But their allegation should spur Nigerians into vigilance as it is a scary flashback to the country’s political impasse of almost 30 years ago.
That crisis in 1993 resulted from the annulment of a presidential election by General Ibrahim Babangida’s junta. Mr Babangida inaugurated an interim government after he was forced to retreat by a public uprising but it lasted less than three months before it was overthrown in a military coup by Sani Abacha, another army general who was left behind ostensibly to protect the contraption. Mr Abacha went on to run a brutal and corrupt regime for five years and was on the verge of transmuting himself to a civilian president when he suddenly died on the night of 8 June 1998.
However, Mr Tinubu’s allegation is also a dangerous expansion of the scope of an internal crisis that seemed to have intensified in the APC as the general elections got closer. In earlier remarks at various campaign rallies, beginning from Abeokuta, Ogun State on 25 January, he had criticised the Buhari government’s handling of the fuel crisis and naira redesigning. But until Ado-Ekiti on Friday, he had merely suggested that the two issues were acts of mischief targeted by his enemies in power at destroying his chances at the poll.
On Wednesday, Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai jumped into the fray when he said on a Channels Television programme that some elements at the Presidential Villa in Abuja were colluding with the opposition to deny Mr Tinubu and the APC victory at the elections. The governor did not directly accuse President Muhammadu Buhari of involvement in the anti-party scheme. But he implied that the president was culpable through his approval of currency redesign so close to the elections and through some of his utterances on the elections. The president had repeatedly vowed to leave behind a legacy of clean elections and had signed the 2022 Electoral Act that introduces reforms that have been hailed for their potential to secure the integrity of elections run by the national electoral body, INEC.
But it is noteworthy that the president had refused to sign similar amendments proposed to the electoral law in 2018 when he was seeking reelection. The administration’s argument then was that the amendments were proposed too close to the elections, although critics said the president simply did not want to remove some of the advantages enjoyed by incumbents under the old law.
And when State House correspondents asked him about the government’s reaction to Mr El-Rufai’s allegation, after a meeting of the Federal Executive Council the same Wednesday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, seemed to confirm all the speculations. He reiterated the president’s repeated assertion of neutrality, saying Mr Buhari has no favourite among the candidates. However, the presidency later issued another statement denying that aides of the president were supporting an opposition candidate, rather than Mr Tinubu.
Shortly after Mr El-Rufai’s appearance on television, APC state governors converged on the State House for a meeting with the president. They said the agenda was to persuade him to allow the old bank notes to remain as legal tender and to be gradually withdrawn from circulation over a longer period.
But the president was rather ambivalent in his response. Conceding that the governors are closer than him to the people and are thus better placed than him to gauge the feelings of the people and assess their conditions, the president sounded very much like Pharaoh when he asked to be allowed seven days to consider his options on the naira redesign saga.
According to an account in the Biblical book of Exodus, God had inflicted a series of plagues on Egyptians at the urging of Moses to force their king to allow the Jews to leave Egypt to worship Him. At a point, Pharaoh begged Moses to pray to God to lift the current plague of frogs that had contaminated water sources and killed people with thirst across his land. The Jewish leader responded:
“I leave to you the honour of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.”
“Tomorrow,” Pharaoh said.
The CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, who was in Lagos at the time, later doubled down on the 10 February deadline, telling Nigerians to be patient in their queues at banks and other cash points.
Aside from Mr Wike, the opposition has stood on the side of Messrs Buhari and Emefiele in this saga. The presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, and Labour Party, Peter Obi commended its objective of driving Nigeria towards a cashless economy. However, the opposition also mocked Mr Tinubu’s crusade against the policy, saying he was only angry that he and the APC have been denied access to alleged cash stashes with which they planned to buy votes during the elections.
Vote buying has become the most intractable problem in the electoral process as the reforms and increasing use of technology has blocked old ways of rigging elections in Nigeria. Parties and candidates with access to public funds are perceived as the main perpetrators of the malfeasance. But the four major presidential candidates all have deep pockets. They had been vice presidents or state governors and had also been accused of inducing party delegates with money to win their primaries or entirely buying up their parties.
However, although the PDP also controls the governments in 13 states and has the second-largest body of lawmakers at the state and federal levels, the light of scrutiny will always fall directly on the ruling APC which also runs 22 state governments.
So is the suspicion of political motivation in the naira redesign policy reasonable? That the CBN conceived and was allowed to introduce new currencies at this time on the watch of President Buhari has been widely taken to buttress the view that the APC government is out to checkmate the APC candidate. People have also referred to Mr Emefiele’s failed clandestine bid to grab the APC ticket. He even went to court, albeit by proxy, to assert his right to participate in partisan politics from his chair at the CBN. The policy being introduced after his bid failed has also been adduced in suspecting his motive as vindictive.
The next five days will reveal what President Buhari will do on the issue and whether he can sustain the policy within the current timeline without igniting a conflagration in Nigeria. Last week, protests had begun to break out in some parts of the country as video clips emerged on social media of people getting very desperate, including some stripping themselves, to lay their hands on cash from their bank deposits. In many parts of the country where they are still being accepted, even the old notes have gone scarce. According to Mr El-Rufai, this is because the CBN mopped up close to two trillion naira in old bank notes from circulation but released only N300 billion back.
Meanwhile, on the APC front, it appears the outbursts by Messrs Tinubu and El-Rufai have pushed the party towards reconciliation. But some of the steps that he has taken tend to underscore why the president is so difficult to assess. After the engagement with the APC governors, he met with a group of northern leaders. The fact that it was the APC that issued a statement on the meeting appears to communicate a message that the meeting was called to canvass support for the party.
On Saturday, the president also flew the short distance between Abuja and Lafia, Nasarawa State in a chopper to attend a campaign rally of Mr Tinubu. It was the third rally that he attended since the campaigns began in the last week of September.
Even more significantly, his speech at the rally was the most enthusiastic he has made from the podium since before the 2019 elections.
Speaking in English and then in Hausa, the president declared that Mr Tinubu will be the next President of Nigeria, the tone and words contrasting with his usual call on Nigerians to vote for whoever they like.
He also confirmed a claim by Mr Tinubu of both men sharing a friendship of over 20 years and assured that he would make a good president and make Nigeria better after him.
“We will win through and through. I trust Tinubu’s dedication and service. I have known Bola Tinubu for more than 20 years. I will continue to campaign for him. He is a committed Nigerian and I believe he will give everything to make Nigeria better.
“He loves this country. He is a believer in Nigeria and I am sure he will do everything possible to advance the well-being of all of us as citizens. He will hold this country with trust. You should cherish him.
“Those of you who are here I urge you to go back to your friends and family to tell them to vote for him. We will all vote for Bola Ahmed Tinubu as president.”
And the remarks seemed to have considerably mollified Mr Tinubu as he returned the goodwill by comparing President Buhari to former United States President Abraham Lincoln who led his country in a time of crisis and still recorded huge achievements in infrastructural development.
“Those who think there are cracks in our friendship and relationship will continue to be disappointed and have their short-time joy dashed. Ours is not about individuals. It is about integrity and nation-building,” he said.
But it is yet three weeks before the presidential poll. Since it is said that much can happen in politics in 24 hours, we cannot foreclose the possibility of more drama in the Nigerian ruling party’s house of intrigues before 25 February.
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