By Reuben Abati
Mama Taraba is Senator Aisha Alhassan, the current Minister of Women Affairs in the Muhammadu Buhari cabinet, and arguably the most influential female politician in Taraba state today. She did something shocking and unusual in Nigerian politics during the last Eid-el-Kabir holidays. While paying homage to former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, she addressed him as follows: “Your Excellency, our father and our President by the grace of God, come 2019…” Members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) have been on a warpath with her since then.
They have labeled Mama Taraba a traitor, and an ingrate and have even called for her immediate sack, disgrace, humiliation and outright dismissal for “anti-party activities”. What is not clear is how a serving Minister expressing an opinion amounts to “an anti-party activity.” Alhaji Atiku Abubakar whom she visited is a member and one of the leaders of the APC, and she has since made it clear, not only in private but through the BBC, that she regards Atiku as her political godfather and mentor, and should he decide to run for President in 2019, she will support him, not Buhari.
She does not deserve the hate speeches she is getting from the Buhari apologists. If Kaduna Governor Nasir el-Rufai is to be believed, Mama Taraba has never regarded President Buhari as her political mentor. He was not even her choice as a presidential candidate in the 2015 APC primaries. She voted for her mentor, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who contested against the incumbent President at the time.
She deserves high marks for her consistency, honesty, and courage. Any close watcher of Nigerian politics can easily appreciate the gravity of the risk that she has taken. It is that kind of risk that could attract a punishment worse than dismissal from the Cabinet. In the estimation of those who are asking for her to be punished by both the ruling party and the President, Mama Taraba has crossed certain “red lines”.
In the first place, she did not go to Daura to pay homage to the President, instead, she went to Adamawa to visit former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a man who has declared interest in sending President Buhari out of Aso Villa. In Nigeria’s unwritten manual of politics and governance, political appointees are not to be seen with those who are considered enemies or rivals of the ruler. Mama Taraba not only crossed that line, she went many steps further.
It is also the rule in Nigerian politics that political appointees are expected to sing the praise of their bosses in public all the time, and should they have any misgivings they can only express those misgivings privately. The problem this has created is that most political appointees are as subservient as civil servants. They don’t express independent opinions as they should, not to talk of misgivings. They just act as directed. The President or the Governor is considered the wisest man exercising a divine mandate that no man should question. The corridor of power in Nigeria is littered with sycophants. In one state for example, the new Speaker of the State House of Assembly was asked if the legislature under his watch would avoid the temptation of becoming the Governor’s rubber stamp. The fellow reportedly responded: “I tell you, this House of Assembly will not only be the Governor’s rubber stamp, we will be his Seal!”
Mama Taraba has chosen to be different. Those who are criticising her are not stupid either, but it is just so convenient for them to play the role of sycophants and court jesters. They know when Mama Taraba says President Buhari should not run in 2019, what she is really saying is that she does not consider him fit enough for that office. She is more or less passing a vote of no confidence in the President. She is by the same token advertising Atiku Abubakar as a better person. The crabs in the corridor of power have amplified these suggestions to the level of blasphemy. But the truth is that there are many of them who probably hold the same opinion, who are secretly working against the Buhari Presidency, but they would never admit doing so publicly. These green snakes under the green grass, are the hidden saboteurs, the Judases President Buhari must beware of.
They are like the members of the Akintola group in the First Republic in the then Western Region. In the fight for political supremacy between Samuel Ladoke Akintola, who would later cross to the NNDP (or Der-mor as the people called it) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group, many supporters of the former openly supported Awolowo, but they were loyal to Akintola and the NNDP. There was even a famous song on this: “Bi o ri owo mi, o o ri inu mi, Demo ni mo wa.” The elevation of perfidy into a strategy started long ago in Nigerian politics. In this instance, Mama Taraba has boldly called the bluff of her adversaries: she says she is ready to quit the Cabinet if she is asked to leave. How many of her colleagues feel the same way but too scared to say so?
With Aisha Alhassan, President Buhari knows where he stands. It is better for him that this is so. Ordinarily, Mama Taraba should support him. In 2015, she contested for the Gubernatorial position in Taraba state on the platform of the All Progressives Congress and lost. She petitioned the State Election Tribunal and won, but this victory at the Tribunal which would have made her the first elected female Governor in Nigeria was later upturned by the Appeal and Supreme Courts.
By bringing her into his Cabinet, President Buhari rehabilitated her. He was advised against offering her the position then because she was a known Atiku person. President Buhari needs not regret the choice he has made. His appointment of non-Buhari persons into his Cabinet, including persons who refused to leave the PDP and join the APC, and are still in the PDP or other parties, is an indication of his own largeness of heart and statesmanship.
He should be glad that this particular Minister has spoken honestly. At least, he now knows that he cannot rely on her political structures in Taraba state and wherever else she wields influence. In case he plans to run in 2019, Mama Taraba has already served him an early notice – he would have to build his political machinery in that state around someone else. Her critics insist that she should on her own resign and go back to her Atiku.
This raises the question of the nature of loyalty in politics. What determines loyalty? There is a lot of obsession with loyalty or disloyalty in Nigerian politics. Did Aisha Alhassan take an oath of office to serve Buhari or the Federal Republic of Nigeria? What we know is that political leaders in Africa place loyalty to themselves above loyalty to the state. Which is why our security and law enforcement agencies are so mercurial; they are ever so busy protecting the political interests of the incumbent, and will change should the incumbent change, rather than focusing on their core mandates. If Mama Taraba is efficient in the discharge of her duties as Minister, President Buhari should ignore those who are asking him to sack her.
What cannot be ignored though, is that the ruling APC is truly and terribly in crisis. The subsequent attacks on Alhaji Atiku Abubakar by the pro-Buhari wing of the APC, following his declaration that he was used and dumped by the President further confirms the depth of this internal turmoil. But was Atiku really used and dumped, or to use his word, “sidelined?” He says: “I was sidelined, I have no relationship with the government. I’ve not been contacted even once to comment on anything and in turn, I maintained my distance. They used our money and influence to get to where they are but three years down the lane, this is where we are.” These are strong words.
The bitterness in Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s tone touches the heart. But can he really claim that he has been sidelined when Mama Taraba, his loyalist and at least one or two others from his political camp are playing key roles in the Buhari government? Could they have gone to work for Buhari without his “permission” or knowledge? The side-talk that they got the job on their own merit is opaque given the clientelist character of political proximity in African democracies.
With Mama Taraba’s statement, Atiku’s protest, and the epigrammatic statement by Senator Shehu Sani about Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, that was thrown in, the support base for President Buhari’s likely shot at a second term in office appears shaky. Senator Sani confirms this when he says: “The Lion Monarch should reach out to the aggrieved but silent Lagoon Lion so that he doesn’t explode like the Hippo. The Lagoon Lion controls waters that can drown… The disloyal Cobra who spat venom before you and the friendly Viper who sprayed venom behind you are all snakes. In comparison, the former is of lesser evil than the latter.” In straightforward English, Shehu Sani is saying President Buhari is likely to drown politically if he does not pay homage to “the silent Lagoon Lion.”
The tragedy of the APC is that a party that came to power as a party of change-agents has in all of two years and four months become a party of lions, hyenas, jackals, snakes and rats. Those who have been using these animal kingdom references so freely are party insiders who obviously know the circumstances of their own party. What is seen is an increasingly atomistic political party, looking hubristically, like the dominant party it displaced. It is worse that the party leaders are now speaking in tongues.
In a statement issued on September 25, 2016, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu sounded a note of warning asking for an urgent reform of the party. He was ignored. As at this moment, the APC is yet to hold a national convention; it has no Board of Trustees. Internal party processes have broken down. It should also be recalled that when Senator Bukola Saraki made the moves that saw him emerge as Senate President of the 8th National Assembly in 2015, the first and the only prominent party leader he visited was Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
It was a very sensitive move in the APC chess game – the anti-Saraki and anti-Atiku groups within the party are still fuming two years later! In the 2015 election, President Buhari got close to 2 million votes from Kano state. Today, Kano is divided against his Presidency. During the last Sallah, supporters of the incumbent Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, and loyalists of the former Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso turned the prayer ground into a battle-field, using machetes freely on a Holy day! Ganduje is pro-Buhari. Kwankwaso nurses a Presidential ambition.
The big threat to the Buhari Presidency is not the likes of Aisha Alhassan, who speak their minds, but the possible union of the lions, snakes, the hyenas and the rats, hiding in dark corners, waiting to take their pounds of flesh from the party and the Buhari Presidency.