By Dr Reuben Abati
So much has happened locally and globally recently – the nerve-wracking fuel scarcity in Nigeria, the war in Ukraine, the signing of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill and the attendant controversies, the amendment of 68 clauses in the 1999 Constitution also, so much really that the Nigerian commentariat has more or less overlooked some of the quiet significant issues within the Nigerian polity.
While this may be understandable given the relative weight and urgency of news, it seems to me that one issue that should be highlighted is the political crisis in Zamfara State, and how this speaks to the character of Nigerian politicians, the politics of opportunism and the fault lines of Nigerian politics. For the benefit of those who may have forgotten, after the 2019 general elections, the All Progressives Congress in Zamfara State was declared winner of the Gubernatorial election, having won the majority of the votes. But some members of the party challenged this outcome, on the grounds that the party did not conduct a lawful primary to select the gubernatorial candidate as required by the Electoral Act. Ahead of the 2019 general election, the APC in Zamfara state was in fact, divided right down the middle.
It eventually ended up as one of the three states whose Gubernatorial elections were altered through court cases. In May 2019, the Supreme Court voided the victory of the APC, and awarded victory to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which was a very distant second to the APC. In the election, the APC Governorship candidate, Muktar Idris, was declared winner with 534, 541 votes to defeat Bello Muhammad Matawalle of the PDP who had 189, 452 votes. In the State House of Assembly, the APC won all the available 24 seats. The main ground for the ruling was that the primary conducted by the APC was unlawful. The injury to the APC was thus self-inflicted. The party’s plight was in other words, akin to an own goal in a football match. The PDP that benefitted from this did not even score up to two-thirds of the votes. Every effort to get the Supreme Court to set aside its ruling in the Zamfara case and the Imo case in which there was some strange arithmetic that threw up the fourth person in the in the election race, did not succeed, raising further concerns about the importance of pre-election matters and how political parties conduct their affairs.
In Zamfara, the obvious beneficiary of the crisis was Bello Matawalle and 24 members of the State House of Assembly who got into office by sheer default. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a Professor of Law drew attention to this recently when he argued that the courts should probably pay more attention to the expressed will of the people rather than technicalities. My response to that was that it was strange to hear the Law Professor questioning what looked like a straightforward application of the law on the basis of his own partisan commitments. The Vice President was speaking at the 53rd Conference of the National Association of Law Teachers in Kano on the theme: “Law, Democracy and the Electoral Process”. Recent developments in Zamfara State have now raised fresh questions, beyond the judgment itself.
Matawalle, who became Governor by default, was a member of the All Progressives Congress in Zamfara State in the lead up to the 2019 Gubernatorial election. He had been in the ANPP, then he later joined the PDP. He wanted to get power by all means. He tried the Gubernatorial race in 2015 against then Governor Abdulaziz Yari and failed. He would later become the face of the PDP in the state. But to consolidate his position and to strengthen himself against speculations that disgruntled elements in the APC who had disagreed with then Governor Abdulaziz Yari and were on their way to the PDP led by Senator Kabir Marafa, Abu Magaji, and Dauda Lawal, Matawalle felt a need to strengthen his hold on the PDP. He simply linked up with General Aliyu Gusau, the de facto leader of the PDP in Zamfara state and a man of great influence in Nigerian affairs, both political and administrative. This was how General Aliyu Gusau’s son, Mahdi Ali Gusau, a lawyer, became Matawalle’s running mate. As providence would have it, he became a Supreme Court Governor, with Mahdi Gusau as his Deputy.
It was obvious that the APC was not happy with their loss of the Governorship seat in Zamfara state, just as they were determined to mount pressure on other PDP Governors in the country to join the APC, or return to it. It is on record that apart from wooing the PDP governors, the APC, being the ruling party in the country also used the coercive instruments of state to intimidate the opposition members that they thought could swell their ranks. It was therefore not surprising when Bello Matawalle, began to trace his roots back to the ANPP wing of the APC. It did not matter to him that under the relevant laws, it is a political party that wins an election, not the candidate. He practically took the victory awarded by the Courts to the PDP back to the APC. This is the height of opportunism. What point is Matawalle trying to prove? Is he telling his opponents in the APC, the likes of Abdulaziz Yari, Marafa, Magaji and Lawal that he is originally an APC member, having started his political career with the ANPP and that no one can push him out of his old political constituency? So, has Professor Yemi Osinbajo been vindicated when he asked that the courts should pay more attention to the people’s political preferences and behaviour?
The major comma in Matawalle’s opportunism is that his deputy, Mahdi Ali Gusau refused to defect to the APC with him. Ali Gusau stood by his decision to stay in the PDP. He argued that the party’s electoral victory in 2019 belonged to the party not its candidates. For this, Gusau has been heavily victimized. He was accused of having dismissed members of the House of Assembly as “illiterates.” Ali Gusau may have acted out of loyalty to his father, but his conduct also shows loyalty to the platform, that is, the party, that brought him to power and a commitment to principles. He has projected a different attitude to politics, a moral high ground that is unusual. Beyond this is the vulnerability of Deputy Governors under the Constitution. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, Governors have treated their Deputies with disdain, like spare tyres. On February 23, the State House of Assembly, the same lawmakers of Zamfara who also got to the House by default, responded to a report by a certain judicial panel which considered “allegations of abuse of office, criminal self-enrichment and failure to discharge official duties” against the Deputy Governor. Twenty two of them were in attendance. One lawmaker had refused to jump ship. The entire process was concluded within a matter of hours. Governor Matawalle had already stationed a replacement nearby – Hassan Nasiha Gusau, a serving Senator representing Zamfara Central, who was immediately sworn in as a replacement. Note the cynicism. A Gusau is removed. Another Gusau is appointed in his place!
The process for the removal of a Deputy Governor from office is outlined in Section 188 (1-11) of the 1999 Constitution. It is clear that Mahdi Gusau was subjected to a kangaroo process and a victimization trial. He being a lawyer, and the PDP have since gone to court, but of note is – Section 188 (10) of the Constitution which is clear in stating that “no proceedings or determination of the Panel or of the House of Assembly or any matter relating to such proceedings or determination shall be entertained or questioned in any court.” Mahdi Gusau’s and PDP lawyers are likely to argue however that the House of Assembly that removed him is illegal and unconstitutional, the whole House having defected to the APC, without any division within the PDP, as the Constitution stipulates, and therefore, if anything, they, along with the Governor, are the ones to lose their seats.
While it may be difficult to predict the outcome of the case in court, it is important to state that the Zamfara story is a bad omen for the polity. The fact that this has been followed up by the failure of the APC, Nigeria’s ruling party, to put its House in order is even a worse demonstration in this regard. Yesterday, for example, security personnel had to cordon off the APC Secretariat in Abuja. After initial reports that there was no division in the APC, but only disagreements, we all saw yesterday that the party is in fact divided. Nigerians politicians have a character flaw. They cannot be trusted either as individuals or as a class. They keep jumping from one part of the fence to the other for strange and selfish reasons. Is there anything that could be done by the people, or by the authorities, if not now, may be in the future, to strengthen Nigeria’s political party process, and to check the impunity of the ruling elite? In other jurisdictions, despite the quarrels within parties, politicians do not jump ship the way ours do in Nigeria, moving around like a yo-yo. We must find a way of making integrity the pillar of political participation in Nigeria. The crisis in Zamfara is all about the behaviour of the professional political class. Mattawale gets to power with the PDP and the Gusau connection. As soon as he settles down, and he thinks he has enough muscle of his own to call the shots, he dumps his benefactors, and begins to offer an unsolicited lecture on loyalty while betraying the same code. The same drama is being played out within the APC at the centre. By the time the dust settles, no one should be surprised if the APC alliance crumbles and the component parts go their separate ways, for selfish reasons.
The lesson of this is that we should begin to subject candidates seeking public office to more rigorous enquiry. All kinds of persons present themselves for public office, but by the time we realize who exactly they are, it is often too late. But think about this: when and if we manage to unmask them, can we get them removed? That is near-impossible considering the complexities of the Nigerian arrangement. Also, what is the temperament of the Nigerian politician? Would he ever stand on the side of the rule of law and resist the temptation to bend the rules in his own interest? These are issues that are germane to the democratic process but are not covered in strict terms by the enabling laws. As for the drama in Zamfara: I do not think it is over politically for Mahdi Ali Gusau. By removing him, Matawalle may have unwittingly, with his own hands, laid the red carpet for his ascendancy in politics.
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