Buhari, Federal Character And The Illusions Of A Northern Agenda

President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. Photo Credit: Chatham House.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent political appointments sparked a huge outrage from members of his own political party, All Progressives Congress (APC); from his supporters of Southern extraction, and from his hardline critics who have transformed into watchdogs of his administration. The question of a Northern Agenda or favoritism or ethnic bias stems from the pattern his appointments in 100 days of office has taken— knowingly or unknowingly, planned or accidental?

Is President Buhari a tribalist? Does he harbor hatred towards other ethnic groups? Imagining this toes the lines of absurdity, and searching for substance where none exists.

Buhari famously quipped at his inauguration on May 29th, 2015: “Having just a few minutes ago sworn on the Holy Book, I intend to keep my oath and serve as President to all Nigerians. I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody. It will then be a break of oath and trust millions of Nigerians have vested on his shoulders for him to renege on his promises. He promises to be a president to all Nigerians; not only Nigerians who voted for him, not Nigerians whose origin he shares, not Nigerians of his party.


What’s with the fuss and public outrage?

This is not the first time Buhari is being called out for favoritism, nepotism and perhaps the infamous tribalism.

Walk with me a little while to the early ‘90s when the Abacha regime appointed Muhammadu Buhari, a former military head of state and Abacha’s army superior, to head the newly created Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). There were claims of marginalization, lopsidedness of projects carried out by his leadership. Were the claims false? Were the aggrieved parties merely crying wolf? Were they out to seek relevance?

According to figures from the PTF Situation Reports (Vol. 2 Dec. 98), of all the roads rehabilitated by the PTF, only 1984.5 kilometres of roads representing 10.84 percent were carried out in the South-West; all the southern states had 4,440.43km or 24 percent of roads rehabilitated as against 13,870.47km or 76 percent in the northern states, where Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara received the bulk share of 5,020km representing 27.42 percent of total road projects.

Further statistics show that under the National Health and Educational Rehabilitation Programme (NHERP), the South-West received zero allocation in tertiary programme, while the North had a 100 percent share. In the vocational programme, the South-West had zero share while the north received the lion share of 97 percent. In the primary programme, the South-West, for instance, had zero share against the 88 percent share from the North.

From the figures stated in the document one could quickly point out a skewed pattern that favoured the northern region. With critics pointing to this antecedent, worsened by the fact that both Abacha and Buhari were northerners, their claims could be swallowed without much thought. History also plays a role as the region has been accused of political domination following over 32 years of rule and the lingering hangover.

Going back to Buhari’s PTF days: were the projects a result of a northern domination agenda or offshoot of the then NEEDS Assessment, which found the north to be deficient in basic infrastructure? Not one to sink into naivety and conspiracy theories, the latter seems plausible.

But it will be wishful thinking to assume these criticisms will die a sudden death and be forgotten in the annals of history. The mistrust that has accumulated over time between the north and south, Hausa-Fulani and other ethnic groups has added truth to these suspicions.

A look at the Buhari appointments so far reveals that of the 35 positions only 25 percent where from the south while an overwhelming 75 percent were filled by northerners. It wasn’t surprising that these figures caused an outrage from within the APC camp and political opponents.

I dare say, Buhari’s problem isn’t a case of tribalism, but one of perception. The optics of his administration have told a different story from what he promised to uphold- belonging to everybody and belonging to nobody. The Buhari-administration has a perception problem it must fix before the oil spills into the fire. And the Federal Character will not be blamed, though it bears responsibility for all these.

The Federal Character principle which has been enshrined in the Nigerian constitution since 1979 seeks to ensure equity in appointments to public office to reflect linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographical diversity. In other words, appointments into public service must have representation from people of different cultures, religious leanings and geographical origins.

This is a necessary evil to avoid the marginalization talks and complaints. But in nation where ‘change’ is being preached, and this same ‘change’ slogan brought the APC and Buhari into power, shouldn’t there be less reference to federal character? Federal character in Nigeria has only worked to relegate meritocracy and competence to the back seat; the geographical spread of past political appointments merely sought to fill vacant positions to reflect a diversity quota, and not tick the competence box. So, because a position ‘requires’ one from a particular ethnic group, the most qualified candidate is rejected, to ensure balance?

This is definitely not the change that we were sold; a change that keeps the status quo alive is no change at all.

Like I previously stated, the Buhari-led government has a perception problem and not one of ethnic hue. Nigerians have ‘suffered’ for years under northern-led governments and this has affected trust between the north and south. The ‘Born to Rule’ mantra still sends cold shivers down the spines of many of southern extraction. This will take a while to fade away.

But before that time comes (one doubts it coming before the expiration of Buhari’s tenure), the present administration has to do more with communications. When communications between the government and the governed retains status quo, tending towards non-inclusive government and finality, there will be an ‘optics’ problem. The military toga and hardness of Muhammadu Buhari’s first coming tends to affect perception, too.

The recent appointments may be skewed, unbalanced, unfair (?), but that’s as a result of the past telling a story in the present. Federal Character adds to these skepticisms and criticisms; they have their points considering some regions have been marginalized by past administrations, and to have an inclusive government equity is paramount.

The Buhari-led administration, from recent activities, doesn’t have a northern agenda as propagated in some quarters, but a perception problem which it must address. If the office of the citizen is more than a fictitious phrase, the present administration has to show itself to understand these concerns and react appropriately through well-oiled communication channels so as to avoid the failures of the past administration.

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