The Politics Of Personality


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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The Politics Of Personality



Reuben Abati



culled from GUARDIAN, April 14, 2006



The reduction of Nigerian politics to the whims and caprices of individuals as well as personality differences at various moments in history, has proven to be one of the major stumbling blocks to the progress and development of Nigeria. It is the reason why personality clashes in the public arena ought to be carefully managed and contained with a sense of responsibility by those who are committed to the common good and by all persons who believe in the idea of Nigeria. The substance of personality clashes in Nigerian politics is linked to the desperation for power, greed, ego and an unconscionable discounting of moral values. Those who get involved in such fights are driven by a sense of superiority - of their own position, logic and worldview.


We have had since 1960, quite a few of such conflicts which could have produced different results, if the right emphasis had been placed on reason rather than passion, and if the supporters of the principal gladiators had demonstrated less opportunism. The role of partisan cheer-leaders, occupying the ringside and fuelling the fire of political differences has proven critical, for in due course, a minor disagreement is blown out of proportion, myths are circulated across the battle line, the principal persons are held hostage to passion by their so-called supporters and so much damage is done.


These supporters who are never in short supply in our environment are almost always agents and defenders of their own ambitions, with a sharp eye on possible gains. The more refined supporters who are usually in the minority, enter the battle for reasons of principle and idealism. But in Nigerian politics, the complex factors of ethnicity and religion have also further complicated the crisis of leadership competition. Whatever may be the complexion of the confrontation, what is projected is not the inevitability of conflict as a given fact of human existence, but the failure of Nigerian politicians to manage and resolve conflicts and their "fight-to-finish" mentality. What is seen is not the place of conflict in a democracy but the violent temper of Nigerian affairs.


It should perhaps not be surprising therefore, that the politics of the coming elections of 2007 has been reduced to that of leadership competition. The struggle for power is the strongest, and meanest impulse for human action. It can result in growth; it can produce tension and stasis as well. The fear that gnaws at the heart of the nation at the moment is the long-term effect of the polarisation of political groups along private lines, with the personal factor dominating and alienating larger ideological interests, with the result that the political landscape is now being dominated by persons who are beginning to look and sound like warlords. The language of political figures has become shrill, if not yet completely violent; what we see is the politics of personality.


Differences between General Yakubu Gowon and Lt. Col Odimegwu Ojukwu (as he then was) helped to accelerate the disembowelling of the Nigerian state in the 1967-70 civil war. Both men had tried the option of dialogue; an agreement was reached in Aburi, which was peremptorily abandoned by the Nigerian Government but throughout individual egos blocked the communication line across the battle lines that had been drawn. Ojukwu treated Gowon condescendingly. He never hid the fact that he considered him socially and intellectually inferior. Could Gowon and Ojukwu have saved the situation? Before then, the now legendary carpet crossing incident in the Western House of Assembly in 1952, is yet another instructive example of how two persons unable to resolve their differences can throw a large community into difficult circumstances. This incident deepened the existing rivalry between the leader of the Yoruba, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, differences that were easily absorbed by their followers, and which till date remain part of the sub-text of the subtle intricacies of Igbo-Yoruba relations in Nigerian politics. The rivalry between Awo and Zik could be traced even farther back to the factional and ethnic wrangling in the Nigerian Youth Movement between 1937 and 1941.


For the rest of their lives, Awo and Zik treated each other with great courtesy but they were never friends. Awo's followers treated Zik and his supporters with suspicion, and for the opposite group, the contempt was mutual. The educated Yoruba elite who felt uncomfortable with Awo's politics found an easy way of asserting themselves and advertised their difference by joining Zik's political group. It is safe to conclude that if Awo and Zik had worked together, the course of Nigerian history could have been different. The same can be said of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief S.L.A. Akintola. For more than 40 years, the feud between these two great Yoruba sons determined the colour of Yoruba politics. And yet both men had extra-ordinary talents. While they worked together, Western Nigeria reaped enormous benefits.


The quarrel between them not only marred Yoruba politics, it facilitated the crisis that brought the First Republic to a sad end. At the personal level, it divided their individual families and associates into camps of passion. The two families may have moved on with their individual lives but two key issues inherited from the Awo/Akintola crisis remain eternally relevant in Nigerian politics: should a Yoruba party insist on ethnic and ideological homogeneity as a basis for political affiliation or should Yoruba politics be determined by expediency, and the need to share power at the centre by all means? In the Second Republic, the feud between Chief Adekunle Ajasin and his Deputy and later political opponent, Akin Omoboriowo resulted in such conflagration that brought the Second Republic to a sudden halt. Dare Babarinsa has already described how that singular event turned not just Ondo State but the entire country into a House of War, with fatal consequences. In 1993, one of the reasons proffered for the annulment of the Presidential election won by the late Chief MKO Abiola, was that certain military officers, apart from General Ibrahim Babangida, did not like MKO's face. Because some officers did not want Abiola as President, the entire country was in turmoil for close to seven years. If Abiola had been allowed to claim his mandate, the course of recent Nigerian history will certainly have been different.

Today, in Anambra and Oyo States, this politics of personality has also proven to be costly. Nigerian leaders owe themselves a duty to learn from history. The history of Nigerian politics and its pitfalls is fairly recent. No man who is without a sense of history should be allowed to hold a position of authority in the public space. Such men are dangerous both to history and to society. They will provide the wrong example for their followers; they will inspire a devaluation of politics. Nigerian politics ought to be driven by higher moral codes, the absence of which is responsible for the elevation of the politics of personality into the central ingredient of the public policy process.


These thoughts bear special resonance in the light of the present feud between President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Deputy, Atiku Abubakar. The President has not uttered a word, in response to the public attack on his person, and his government by his own Vice-President. But his associates have more than spoken for him. And they are doing so, with so much venom and spite. When the Vice President visited Lagos last weekend, a rented crowd of party supporters laid siege on his Ikoyi house. They booed him, called him names and asked him to resign his position as Vice President. They also accosted him at the Presidential wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport where they repeated the offensive.

The protesters breached national security, violated airport regulations and generally conducted themselves in a riotous manner in the open. Neither the SSS nor the Police deemed it necessary to disperse them for posing a threat to public order. Their leader and spokesman, Muyiwa Collins has been boasting that whenever Atiku shows up in Lagos again, he will receive the same treatment. He has not been invited by the SSS for issuing such a threat, and for leading an illegal march on the airport. The security agents who a week earlier, had stopped a meeting of anti-Third Term politicians in Abuja on the ground that no police permit had been given for the meeting found no cause to ask the pro-Obasanjo group that abused Atiku, and took over the airport, for a police permit. Should a pro-Atiku group decide to treat the President in a similar fashion now, or in the future, where would that leave us? Already, a pro-Atiku group has described the incident as "an attack on the North". It has given hints of "possible retaliation."


The President and his Deputy owe us the responsibility of managing their personal differences as statesmen. We recommend to them, these immortal words penned by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution (1966):


"...good leadership involves self-conquest, and self-conquest is attainable only by cultivating as a first step, what some applied psychologists have termed the regime of mental magnitude."


Obasanjo/Atiku rivalry should not become the main issue in Nigerian politics. Both men are distracting our attention with endless noise emanating from the Presidency and the PDP, conveying the impression of a breakdown of order at the top. Atiku may not realise his ambition of succeeding his boss. And his boss may not get the Third Term that is causing so much tension. But whatever the future holds for both men, they owe Nigerians a debt of gratitude for the opportunities that they have enjoyed in the past seven years. With both parties having made their positions clear, can we now have some decorum on all sides, please?



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