2019: Benue Catholic martyrs & Buhari’s last huddle, By Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey

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I subscribe to a civil society coalition whose membership is drawn mostly from the North East. When UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in Nigeria invited me and Ambassador Ahmed to a meeting in preparation for the Oslo Humanitarian Conference for Nigeria and Lake Chad region, to organize the CSOs, I suggested the creation of a Watsapp group which Ambassador Ahmed did so efficiently, tagging along most of the CSOs in Borno, including some from Adamawa and Yobe. It is supposed to be a neutral platform for the expression of ideas concerning the humanitarian situation in the North East, including peer learning, future opportunities and so on. As it is with every platform, the administrators have to keep issuing warnings concerning the terms of engagement. Unfortunately, no matter the number of warnings on politics, it keeps surfacing.

As a member of this forum, I began to understand the perspective of those who actually live in these regions. One point of departure was the recent statement credited to President Buhari concerning Nigerian youths. While social media were busy making a caricature of the president, the consensus I got from this forum was that the president did no wrong at all, and because the president did not exactly use the word “Lazy”, those who accused him of saying that Nigerian youths are lazy were misrepresenting reality.

The point I want to make is that those who think that it is a general consensus that Buhari is not doing well, are wasting their time. Curtailing Boko Haram may not mean much to those in the South, much as the civil war did not mean much to those living in the North but it struck a deep chord in me when Ambassador Ahmed sounded so grateful that now they in Borno and many parts of the North East could go to sleep in their homes and be at rest. These were things we took for granted in other parts of the country but which many had to struggle with in the North East; and now with the returnee stage, where many IDPs are being facilitated to go back home – although it is wrong to force those who do not want to go – it is a great relief, even though terrorists still carry out devastating attacks.

Similarly with the establishment of the North East Development Commission, and the Presidential Initiative for the North East, where funds are budgeted for the reconstruction of the North East, the federal and state governments are doing a lot in those regions, as well as the activities of UN agencies and civil society organizations working to ameliorate the situation in the North East.

There is therefore a reverential perception of Mr. Buhari in the North East. Can we then imagine how he is perceived in the North West where he comes from? Down South, people can make the separation of state and church and live quite comfortably with it. Up North, cultural factors influenced by religion make that separation quite difficult. Down South affinities are transient. South would be excited about a Goodluck Jonathan that had no shoes but when he is perceived as weak, especially with the ascendancy of Boko Haram, Southerners spare no thought to dump him and go for a Buhari whom they see as strong willed. Even now with the herdsmen crises all over the place, culminating in the killing of two priests and fourteen worshippers in cold blood and many muslim worshippers in Mubi, let no one think that the North would interpret the security situation under Buhari the way Southerners interpreted it under Jonathan. The deep belief in destiny entrenched in the culture would only enable people see things as God’s will. Let no one therefore think that the competence of President Buhari is being called to question among the majority of Northerners. Like Bishop Kukah said, majority of Northerners see Buhari as someone who is strong enough to defend them against the interests of their own vampire elites.

Now that Buhari has reconciled with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, even attending his birthday symposium in Lagos under the auspices of a state visit, that huddle has been overcome. Politics is a matter of interests. For a long while, Tinubu was kept at arms’ length so he wouldn’t hijack the government; now that he has been brought so close, my personal suspicion is that in 2023, the presidency will go back to the South West, that is if Buhari wins the 2019 elections. South Westerners are quite independent minded; unless there was special magic Tinubu would perform, the Tinubu reconciliation alone may not suffice to move the South West en bloc to Buhari’s side as was in 2015, so perhaps the prospects of the presidency returning to the South West in 2023 may be a strong enough persuasive factor.

When I prayed and wrote about Buhari and 2019 sometime ago, the two main huddles why he wouldn’t win were Tinubu and herdsmen militia. While the Tinubu factor has been resolved, the recent killings of worshippers has indeed stretched the herdsmen matter to its limit. Judging by social media reactions, Buhari might as well forget the votes of the North Central, South South and South East. But then Southerners are not as politically stable as the North. Money will move minds and APC will have lots of it to spend. Come election day many may not even go out to vote, and even if they do, the statistics of PVC collection, along with under age voters clearly puts the North in the lead. If government is serious about enforcing the recent declaration by the National Economic Council(NEC) banning open grazing all over the country, the perception of Buhari as president of all Nigerians may gain ascendancy. What increasingly gets me concerned though is whether there is a third force that uses terrorism to influence public perception thereby ousting a government that is against its interests – because it makes no sense how a government seeking votes from the people would be so helpless defending them.

The North already is for Buhari. The assurance that beginning now, the herdsmen militia would be tackled with the seriousness Boko Haram has been tackled, is the last huddle, because even if PDP and SDP field popular Northerners, northern votes would hardly be divided because anyone else risks being seen as a stooge of the South.

Bassey, Abuja-based Catholic Priest, is Director of Caritas Nigeria and Executi­ve Secretary, Justice Development and Peace Commission, two agencies of the Catholic Church

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