Beyond Jonathan-Buhari: The Other Important Elections, By Moses E. Ochonu

Nasir el-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna state

By Moses E. Ochonu


The forthcoming presidential election is not the only consequential electoral contest slated for next month. There are several gubernatorial and parliamentary elections occurring in the same election timetable, but for me two gubernatorial elections in particular stand out as emblematic tests of two contending visions of politics in Nigeria. Additionally, these two electoral contests feature two of Nigeria’s most visible and controversial figures, whose election to the governorships of their respective states would have the capacity to answer many questions and criticisms posed about our recent political history.

I am talking about the gubernatorial contests in Adamawa and Kaduna States. The two contests interest me personally because, in the spirit of fair disclosure, although my home state is Benue, I spent a considerable amount of time in both states, completed my secondary education in Adamawa State (Gongola at the time), and have family and friends in both states. My last visit to Adamawa State was in 1999 but I visit Kaduna regularly to see family and to conduct academic research, as the city of Kaduna is the epicenter of some of my research topics. For these reasons, feel like I have a stake in the electoral outcomes in both states, perhaps a bigger stake than I have in the gubernatorial election in my home state of Benue.

But this is not a personal reflection however. Rather, I want to assess the diverging and converging trajectories of two of the candidates in those two contests, Nuhu Ribadu and Nasir el-Rufai, and use them to analyze two issues: the transition from appointive technocratic responsibility at the national level to executive responsibilities at the state level; and the symbolism of the two candidacies for two different orientations of contemporary Nigerian politics.

The two candidates, again in the interest of fair disclosure, have been targets of my criticisms in previous essays. Ribadu I criticized for his selectively political approach to the fight against corruption, his malleability in the manipulative hands of his political benefactors, and his chameleonic repudiation of past pronouncements about the corruption and culpability of certain politicians; el-Rufai for ethical lapses, political opportunism, hypocrisy, a petty knack for seeking attention and needless provocation, and a dogmatic obsession with elite-focused neoliberal developmental paradigms.

However, I’m not writing this to rehash those criticisms, valid as they remain. I will instead rely on some of these character portraits to make my points. But first, let me flesh out what I think the candidacies of the two men signify for our politics.

Why We Should Care

There is something undeniably positive about these two men running for the governorships of their states. For one thing, although Ribadu had staged a timid, half-hearted run for the presidency in 2011, everyone agrees that he was not ready and is still not ready for the rigors and demands of that office. El-Rufai was at various times mentioned among possible presidential candidates of both the PDP and the APC. He, too, it should be clear, lacks the temperament and aptitude for the presidency. The two men are however eminently qualified for and have the capacity to be chief executives of their states. Their overall skill set is more suited to the office of governor than it is for the office of president at this time.

There are additional reasons for why we should welcome the two men’s decision to run in these governorship elections. It used to be said in defense of both men and as a counterpoint to criticisms of their stewardships at the EFCC, BPE, and FCT that, as political appointees, the two men had no independent mandate or political existence and could not but be beholden to those who engineered their political rise — that they could only work within the parameters determined by their principals. Regardless of what one thinks of the two men’s service in their respective federal appointed positions, this is a somewhat legitimate argument in that the two men had no self-contained bureaucracies and budgets to run, and had no latitude to construct and implement their own programs. As long as they served at the behest of their elected political patron, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, they were largely condemned to implementing the latter’s programs and could not step outside the orbit of those programs or violate them in a way that might rupture the elite consensus of the government in which they served.

To the extent that this is an extenuating argument against criticisms of the duo’s missteps while serving at the federal level, there is something important about them becoming governors, positions that, unlike their federal appointments, would be products of popular electoral mandates and would afford them the freedoms and wiggle room to visualize, craft, and implement whatever social and economic programs they want. In this sense, their running for the governorships of their states is a test for how one might transition from a federal appointive position, with all its strictures, to executive office at the state level and take ownership of policies whose impacts are measurable, confined as they are to a specific, bounded area of the country.

Should the two men win their respective elections, we will have a less controversial, less debatable set of indices by which to judge their aptitude for governance and their performance. Unlike when they were federal appointees, their defenders would not have the alibi of the men not possessing the operational freedom to make a difference or to actualize their governing visions. We would be spared of the excuses. For the two men, gone would be the defensiveness of alternately deflecting every criticism to their principal or claiming autonomy — an untenable contradiction. More crucially, as governors, the two men would not have the buffer of principals. They would know that as far as their states’ matters are concerned, the proverbial buck stops with them. This should be an incentive or pressure to do right by the people of their states, knowing full well that, as visible, controversial, much hyped, and prideful former federal technocratic actors, all eyes would be on them and that critics, myself included, would be waiting to assess their performance in an executive position.

These men are test cases for how technocrats from a federal bureaucratic terrain would fare as chief executives of states, as leaders and originators of policies and programs as opposed to privileged subordinate implementers of already existing policies, master plans, and visions. Other federal officials had made the transition and had not fared very well, but these two men are different and deserve to be held to a different standard. They are for the most part younger and more exposed than those who have made the transition. Moreover, they claim to possess a reformist instinct, and are fond of advancing their lack of executive authority as defense of their deficits and failures in federal appointments. Unlike others before them, they have set the expectations for their putative governorships and we will be holding them to those expectations if they win.

The last reason we should welcome these men’s decision to run in the governorship elections of their states is that both of them have a reputation, deserved or not, for being self-absorbed, arrogant, and self-righteous — younger technocrats who, after being given power, visibility, and access at the federal level would not settle for anything other than the presidency or at least the vice presidency. By getting their hands dirty in the rough terrain of elective politics to seek the governorships of their states they have displayed a humility and sense of sober realism that many critics would not have ascribed to them.

They realized, even if belatedly, that one has to prove one’s governing mettle at the local level, at home, before one should eye one of the top two offices in the country. This is a lesson for some people, who want to start their political careers by seeking the highest office and would not be bothered by questions of building a constituency and a political record of performance in a lesser executive office as a prelude to higher ambitions. It would be a net plus for our politics if other young technocratic politicians desiring to make the transition to full-fledged politics emulated the example of these two men.

The Ribadu-El-Rufai Contrast

Both of these men served in the same government, were close to former President Obasanjo, and were friends until recently when Ribadu was compelled to respond to unflattering claims about him in el-Rufai’s controversial memoir. The confusing, unpredictable vagaries of the Nigerian political landscape has seen the two men swap political parties, with el-Rufai joining the CPC and then the APC and Ribadu crossing over to the PDP from the APC.

I have always thought that the two men epitomize two distinct tendencies in the recent politics of Nigeria, and considered their friendship contrived and odd, given their different temperaments.

Should they win their respective contests, there is no telling how they might govern, and each man might have to contend with different variables such as the party identity of the house of assembly, the meddling of political godfathers, and budgetary constraints. However, from where I stand, I think the two men lack each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses and that, precisely because of this, each man needs to become like the other man in certain respects in other to be effective as governor. Let me elaborate.

Ribadu has always come across as genuinely compassionate, a man with a heart for service, with a desire to serve and protect the interests of the downtrodden in society. He exudes a certain capacity for empathy and emotional connection to suffering and marginality. His political temperament is one of populism and of being guided by the needs and interests of the most marginal segments of society. Although he has moved in elite and even elitist circles, he has never displayed the effete, unfeeling distance from the experiences and troubles of the poorest members of society that is common among Nigerian politicians. Although neither he nor his handlers have articulated this aspect of his political persona into a coherent programmatic or ideological principle, he effortlessly and genuinely projects himself as a man of the talakawa.

On the other hand, Ribadu is, and has always been something of a scatterbrain, an awkward public figure without the sleek articulateness of more rehearsed political actors. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to be a man of organization, institution-building, and technocratic competence. He seems to have no patience for the slow grinds of process and bureaucracy. In his media interviews, he always came across as off-the-cuff and unprepared, a man who couldn’t be bordered about details. He would say things as they occurred to him, unvarnished and unprocessed.

He would talk excitedly, out of raw passion and emotion, not from sophisticated grasp of policy or protocols. He would even say things that he had not verified and in generalities advanced more for populist appeal than as reflections actual happenings in the EFCC. That is why he had to retract his recorded public corruption indictments against Bola Tinubu and Mrs. Patience Jonathan. As EFCC chairman, he was neither articulate nor composed. At times he seemed oblivious of the status of certain investigations and cases under his watch. He approached his work rather haphazardly, going public even before investigations had been concluded and key evidence assembled, only to have many cases that his EFCC filed hurriedly for public relations purposes thrown out on simple legal technicalities. Obviously you cannot run a state like that and be a successful governor.

Nasir el-Rufai, on the other hand, is an articulate, composed, rehearsed political operative and technocrat. He knows what to say and when to say it and for what purpose. He is an institution man, a smooth bureaucratic operative capable of articulating in detail and with statistical gravitas policies and programs that he is associated with. He is never caught off-guard. He is the opposite of Ribadu in this respect, as he speaks without passion or emotion but always in the technocratic vocabulary that he has mastered. He is neither a populist nor a defender of the common man. He is unapologetically aligned to the interests of people like himself — privileged, rich, and contemptuous of hustling commoners. His entire project of restoring the Abuja masterplan through demolitions and other interventions was designed to make Abuja habitable for people of his class and taste. He makes no pretences about identifying with the interests, needs, and anxieties of suffering people.

Unlike Ribadu, el-Rufai lacks empathy and compassion, wedded as he is to the Social Darwinist principles of survival of the fittest, smartest, or luckiest, and to the impoverishing principles of neoliberal economic reforms such as deregulation and privatization. He remains committed to the problematic and largely discredited belief that the free market and private enterprise can solve all social problems. As a member of Obasanjo’s economic team, he was the most eager evangelist of the World Bank-directed economic reforms of the era, which hurt the poor and further enriched the wealthy and privileged. Because of these commitments, el-Rufai comes across as an uncaring, unfeeling, mean-spirited preserver of elite privilege, and a punisher of those without privilege or opportunity.

Ribadu represents the populist strain of Nigerian politics and el-Rufai stands for the aristocratic, aloof but technocratic strain.

To be an effective governor in Nigeria or anywhere, one needs to be a good technocrat and a competent manager. El-Rufai, for all his deficits, is a savvy, knowledgeable technocrat. Ribadu is not. But Ribadu is an empathetic, compassionate leader with a capacity to feel the pains and sufferings of the people, a capacity to be moved to do something about their predicament. Conversely, el-Rufai, stuck up, cocky, and comfortable in his elitist, neoliberal, urban, and cosmetic conception of development, lacks this essential quality of good leadership.

What needs to happen then is for Ribadu to acknowledge this weakness on his part and borrow a leaf from el-Rufai in the area of governing with your head and from a position of knowledge, composure, and technocratic confidence, to go with his compassion and passion for doing good, instilling ethics, and solving the problems of commoners. El-Rufai, for his part, needs to complement his technocratic competence with a sober moderation of his neoliberal ideological rigidity. Additionally, he needs to emulate Ribadu’s compassion, passion, and emotional connections to the suffering masses. He needs, in essence, a little bit of populism and a little less of meaningless IMF reformist economic nonsense. This would make him a more balanced leader. In short, Ribadu needs to become more like el-Rufai and el-Rufai needs to become more like Ribadu.

The only characteristic the two candidates seem to share is a knack for seeking power at the expense of principle. El-Rufai is now riding the immense integrity of Muhammadu Buhari, a man he had criticized in strident terms a few years ago, to try to get to power in Kaduna. Ribadu for his part inexplicably exonerated Tinubu of all the corruption charges he had earlier ascribed to him in order to secure the presidential ticket of the defunct ACN in 2011 and is now riding with President Jonathan, a man whose wife he had described as corrupt but who he has since exonerated.

I don’t know if both men will win their respective contests, but if they win, they will do well to correct the deficits I have pointed out by copying the strengths of each other in order to formulate a more balanced approach to governance in their states. For the rest of us, their governorship would be a test case for two visions of governance and demonstrate whether prior technocratic service at the federal level can transfer to effectiveness at the state executive level.

By Moses E. Ochonu, [email protected]