President, Governor and gutter
Last week should have been devoted to national grief and reflection for the Nyanya bomb blast victims and the abducted Chibok school girls. Instead, two of this country’s biggest political office holders, namely the President and the governor of the second biggest state, chose it for an exchange of political vitriol that left many Nigerians with the feeling of bile in their mouths.
From the look of things, Governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso started it. Speaking at an APC elders’ meeting in Kano on Sunday last week, Kwankwaso said the people of Kano will not welcome President Goodluck Jonathan to the state on Tuesday since he has done nothing to better their lives. Kwankwaso said he regretted voting for Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Under Jonathan’s watch, Kwankwaso also said, corruption, insecurity and embezzlement of the public treasury have become the order of the day. He said Nigerians are still waiting to hear the truth about the missing $20 billion oil revenue.
Two days later, President Jonathan arrived in Kano for a rally to formally welcome former Kano State Governor Malam Ibrahim Shekarau into PDP. Many PDP bigwigs spoke at the rally at Polo Ground but it was Jonathan’s very controversial remarks that grabbed the headlines. He devoted most of his speech to attacking Kwankwaso’s person; I cannot recall an occasion in Nigeria’s political history when a president descended into the gutter as this president did in Kano.
Jonathan said, “If you wear red cap or whatever, we will recover our stolen mandate by 2015.” This would have passed for a small dig at the Kwankwasiyya red cap, but he graduated to much harsher language. He said Kwankwaso was lying when he said he voted for him in the 2011 elections. He said Kwankwaso embezzled allowances meant for Kano State delegates during the PDP presidential primaries. He said Kwankwaso walked out of the convention venue when he saw that Jonathan was winning, and that he did not celebrate with him when he won any election.
Jonathan said, “Kwankwaso did not vote for me during the primary and secondary elections in 2011. He was part of those who worked against me during that period and did not celebrate with me after the victory. The allowances sent by my party campaign office for election purposes were taken away by Kwankwaso without giving anybody a kobo. How can he say he voted for me?” He also said, “Kwankwaso collected N255 billion local government federal allocation from June 2011 to date but nothing was done in the local government areas in the state. He should explain the whereabouts of N250 billion since there is no development at all in the state’s 44 local government areas.”
Pointing to his normal wear, Jonathan also said, “Some of you would be asking questions why the President did not wear PDP dress in the rally. I decided to appear this way because there is somebody here in Kano that said anybody that wears hat is a devil and I would explain in detail the federal government projects here in Kano. I will then leave Kano people to judge me.” Governor Kwankwaso immediately fired back, accusing the president of being insensitive to the mood of Nigerians by embarking on ‘merry-making trips’ when the nation is mourning victims of the Abuja bomb blast. Soon after the PDP rally ended, Kwankwaso also went to the venue with his top aides and swept it, saying they removed the epidemic that befell Kano.
Now. Let’s begin from the beginning. For the governor to refuse to go to the airport to welcome the president to his state was not a small breach of state protocol. I cannot remember an occasion when such a thing happened in Nigeria in the last 30 years. Probably the nearest thing to it that happened was in 1980, when President Shehu Shagari began his nation-wide tour with a visit to old Bendel State. The state was controlled by the opposition UPN. Supporters of Shagari’s NPN, which was only narrowly defeated in the state, tried to capitalize on his visit to make a big show and Governor Ambrose Alli was determined to thwart it. Two days before Shagari arrived, Alli announced a ban on rallies and processions in the state. Though dancing troupes mobilized by NPN went to Benin airport to welcome Shagari, policemen stopped them at the gate.
What happened next soon became the stuff of Nigerian legend. When Shagari’s plane landed, Minister of Police Affairs Prof Emmanuel Sunday Osamor, himself a Bendelite, whispered something into the ears of the state Police Commissioner. The Compol then ordered his men to open the gates and the NPN dancing troupes flooded the tarmac. At a state dinner in the president’s honour that evening, Governor Alli publicly complained that Osamor overruled an order he issued as chief security officer of Bendel State. When Shagari stood up to reply, he advised Alli that as elected officials, the governor and himself should concentrate on state duties and leave politics to the politicians. A much better altercation, I think, than what happened in Kano.
I did not see the story where Kwankwaso said it is devils that wear Jonathan’s type of hat. It would be a miscalculation to say that since the hat has become something of a cultural symbol for the Niger Delta elite. It is normal in politics to caricature a politician using a certain prominent aspect of his body, his dress or his habits. For example, newspaper cartoonists always exaggerated the size of Winston Churchill’s cigar. American political cartoonists often exaggerated the size of President Jimmy Carter’s front teeth and the broadness of his grin. Yet, traits that have to do with religion, national culture or personal ill-health are too sensitive to be toyed with in a caricature or to be mocked at a political event.
At the beginning of the Second Republic, cartoonists took swipes at President Shehu Shagari’s long kubbe cap. Even though it tended to be rather long, many people in the North didn’t take kindly to the caricature, seeing in it an assault on Northern mode of dressing. While Chief Ojukwu’s bushy beard could be fair game in politics, it will be insensitive for example to lampoon Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s neck beads, symbolising his high traditional title as Owelle of Onitsha, or even the long tasbih that Governor Ahmad Sani once tucked in his fingers.
Maybe it is because Nigerian politicians are lacking in political artistry these days. Hurling insults at each other is not the only thing you can do at rallies. In 1992, when US President George Bush Senior refused to attend a debate against challenger Bill Clinton in a squabble over debate rules, a Democratic Party member turned up at Bush’s rally holding aloft a large symbol of the fast-food chain Chicken George. The meaning: George had chickened out of the debate!
In Nigeria too, we once had examples of better political artistry. In 1979 when Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa won the governorship elections in old Kaduna State, PRP men filled a tipper truck with maize cobs [the motto of NPN] and spread it all along Kaduna streets. Two weeks later when Shagari won the presidential election, NPN men fabricated a huge key [PRP’s symbol], which they attached to the back of a truck and dragged it through Kaduna streets. In old Sokoto State too, when GNPP’s candidate lost the governorship election, NPN men brought several sacks full of coconut [GNPP’s symbol] and smashed them on the highway.
The president and the governor did not have to say some things themselves. They could have left that to eloquent party men or even to poets and musicians. That way, when it later turns out that a statement was a big gaffe, you can simply disown it. How can their respective parties and campaign teams now disown the gaffes that Jonathan and Kwankwaso each personally made last week?