By Ike Okonta
The management of Arise Television had extended an ordinary and straightforward invitation to Bola Tinubu, presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to participate in a town hall debate with the other main candidates for the 2023 presidential election. This is standard practice all over the world. Presidential candidates debate each other and are in turn grilled by the public usually live on television. This is to enable voters make up their minds as to the suitability and capability of the various candidates.
In a country like Nigeria where emotion and ethnic and religious sentiments usually occupy the foreground during elections, the Arise Television initiative was a welcome attempt to focus on issues and compel the candidates to give serious thought to their policies and programmes before presenting themselves to the public to be elected into public office. One would have therefore expected Bola Tinubu of the APC to grasp the opportunity with both hands. But he did not do this. Instead, Tinubu’s handlers alleged that Arise was a biased platform and that their candidate would not receive fair treatment during the television debate. Significantly, they did not present tangible evidence of Arise Television’s alleged bias.
What Bola Tinubu did next was to travel to London to honour the invitation of Chatham House, the British think tank, to give a talk on Nigerian public affairs. It was at Chatham House that Bola Tinubu really revealed the reason why he had shunned the Arise Television debate invitation a week earlier. Having read out his paper in Chatham House, it was now time for the crucial question and answer session. It was at this time that Tinubu announced that he would not answer the questions personally but would farm them out to such companions as Dele Alake, Kayode Fayemi, and Nasir El Rufai, among others.
Bola Tinubu’s candidature has always been enveloped in a cloud of controversy. Nigerians have questioned his real age, family origin, his state of origin and the source of his humongous wealth. It has been alleged that while he was living in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s he was involved in drug running and that the US authorities confiscated money in his bank accounts because they were proceeds from drugs. It has also been alleged that he is the secret owner of Alpha Beta, a tax-collecting company that has been milking the Lagos State treasury for decades.
These charges are very grave and Bola Tinubu has not come up with clear answers to rebut them. But what is even more worrying is that Tinubu is intellectually incapable of articulating his policies and programmes in person and that was why he brazenly ducked the ‘question and answer’ session in Chatham House. It is now public knowledge that President Muhammadu Buhari who Tinubu wants to succeed is intellectually challenged, and that is why his administration has been an unmitigated disaster. Do Nigerians really want another Buhari look-alike for yet another eight years?
Bola Tinubu’s Chatham House debacle reveals deeper issues concerning the character of Nigeria’s present ruling class. It is a neo-colonial bourgeoisie that is not only corrupt but also incompetent. It is entirely without national pride and patriotism and is content with being the errand boy of their real bourgeois masters in Europe and North America. This neo-colonial bourgeoisie does not concern itself with economic production but prefers to import everything from toothpicks to cars. The only reason why Nigerians do not have access to regular and affordable electricity is that this neo-colonial ruling class does not bother to establish factories here in Nigeria but prefer to power their homes with imported generators. They do not go to Nigerian hospitals because they know that they have criminally underfunded these institutions for decades. They fly to Europe and the United States with looted money and are attended to by doctors and nurses there.
The first things Nigeria’s ruling class attend to when they attain public office and loot the treasury is to buy a house in the United Kingdom or the United States and open a bank account there. They do this because they know that Nigeria is politically unstable and that a major crisis could see them losing their stashed loot in the country. They are being cautious. They know that any country that has gone through what has been done to Nigeria by her ruling class since Independence in 1960 cannot but be politically restive. Indeed, the miracle is that the Nigerian rich, the majority of whom came by their wealth through criminal plundering of the national treasury, can still walk down the street unmolested.
It may not be obvious to some Nigerians, but the February 2023 presidential election is shaping up to be a referendum on the performance of the country’s ruling class since the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999. None of the major candidates is running on the platform of the Nigerian Left but if you listen to some of them as they traverse the country campaigning for votes, it becomes clear that they know instinctively that the country is not working for the poor, that something has to be done about the country’s wrong-headed social and economic policies and that at long last the youth are stirring and demanding answers for why they graduate from higher institutions and go into a job market that has no jobs for them.
Bola Tinubu’s evasive action ducking the Arise Television town hall debate and jetting off to Chatham House in London can only delay the day of reckoning for a while. Anger is building up among ordinary Nigerians. They are demanding for urgent answers. They are already asking why members of the ruling class can causally hop into a plane and travel to London when the air fare can feed a poor family of four for one year. They are already asking why President Buhari can travel to London to be attended to by doctors privately while here in Nigeria poor Nigerians are dying of easily-curable typhoid and cholera.
These are questions that are shaping the 2023 presidential election, and how they will be answered – whether through a fair and transparent process or through vote-buying and intimidation – will determine Nigeria’s political fate as we brace up for another transition come May 2023.
Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.