There are three politicians of tremendous clout from the South-West many people had expected to do well at the All Progressives Congress presidential primary last week, June 8, 2022: Asiago Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State. Given that this column correctly predicted the outcome of the contest in respect of the first two, it is only fair that the focus is shifted to the third this week. In last week’s write-up, following Abubakar Atiku’s emergence as the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party for the 2023 presidential election, it was stated, “….barring an unforeseen calamity for him, Asiago Bola Ahmed Tinubu should also emerge as the winner of his party’s primary contest.” And in respect of Osinbajo, it was added, “Osinbajo is in the race not because he had an original design for the presidency. He is running for president because he succumbed to the hype built up around his holier-than-thou image. He would lose in a general election against even the weakest PDP candidate from the North because, ironically, in the eyes of the northern intelligentsia, he has shown himself to be an ‘unreliable’ quantity. It is precisely for the same reason that he stands to lose at the conclusion of the APC primary as you read” (See 2023: Why a Northern President is desirable, PUNCH June 7 2023). Fayemi was not expected to win but he was the dark horse in the race, with an outside chance of emerging as a compromise choice in the event of a major slip-up by the eventual winner.
Prior to the APC primary, as a two-term governor of Ekiti State, Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and a minister in the first cabinet of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), Fayemi had established a political pedigree of note. He is also known to have played a prominent role during the formation of the APC and the eventual emergence of Buhari as the party’s candidate in the 2015 general elections. Even before then, he had made a name for himself as a pro-democracy warrior and a major figure in the formidable London’s pro-democracy campaign group—the New Nigeria Forum. He was the group’s highly effective and tireless Publicity Secretary from its inception. To cap it all, he is a renowned scholar in the field of political science and conflict resolution. That is why his name is prefixed with the academic title, Rd. It would come as a surprise to the reader, therefore, that, given all the feathers in his cap, Fayemi remains ‘unknown’ in the crowd-pulling, crowd-pleasing Nigerian political terrain where it really matters for his lofty ambition. He is a studious, serious political operator, who has decided to set himself above the fray ab initio. A no-frills, no frivolities; you go low, I go high variety. He would dialogue with even the peskiest interlocutor as if in an Oxford Union debate. Perhaps his most fatal undoing is in not realising that what brought you so far in life is not what is going to take you further ahead. What makes someone governor is not what makes him president.
Unfortunately, for all the good things running in his favour, Fayemi cuts the image of ‘arrogance’, ‘haughtiness’ and ‘aloofness’ all of which are completely untrue and unfair, as those closest to him would attest. Why on earth his campaign managers did not set up a special focus group of voters to road-test, rebrand and improve his likeability with the public is beyond comprehension. This ought to have been a priority a couple of years back at the very least. Fayemi is not the most difficult politician in the world to market for that matter. He has virtually cut loose from his civil society and activist roots. How many of such organisations, or personalities from within them would stick their neck out for him in his quest to become president? None in sight. Fayemi had a wider political canvas on which to design his mission, he chose the narrower path. Throughout his career in public life, he has been projected as a nerdy ‘technocrat’ and policy wonk, which, for all practical purposes, has little resonance with the electorate at large. He could easily have been branded as the humble, compassionate, bridge-builder that he really is in private, not some bookish, too-know upstart strutting his stuff on the political stage.
Moreover, his campaign strategists ought to have borrowed a leaf from the Barrack Obama playbook in the USA. US President, Obama (2008-2016), gate-crashed his way into the Democrats and snatched the party’s nomination from the hitherto overwhelming favourite, Hillary Clinton, in 2008. Having armed himself with qualifications, first from Columbia University, then, finishing top of the class at Harvard, served as a state senator in Chicago-Illinois, with two best-selling books to his name, Obama set out to conquer America. His wife too was a high-flying feminist, Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer and executive in a private firm. Obama quickly set about branding himself a ‘Community Organiser’ strenuously de-emphasising his Ivy League background. He made every effort to define himself to the public even as his enemies kept throwing the familiar jabs—arrogance, cockiness and aloofness—at him. “My mother brought me up as a single parent,” he would repeat like a broken record. “My father came from a goat-herding clan in Kenya,” you would also hear him reference without being prompted. He talked openly about his dalliance with marijuana as a student, his prolonged struggle to quit smoking, his love of basketball and his even-tempered nature. That was the ‘next door neighbour’ Obama wanted the electorate to imagine, contrary to the Fayemi philosopher-king personae people see on display here in Nigeria.
To beat the party’s favourite, Obama knew it would not be enough to simply tout his CV and his array of personal accomplishments, impressive though they were. He needed a message that resonated with mainstream America. That opportunity presented itself when he was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Democrats’ Party Convention in 2004, three years before announcing his own run for office. “There is not a liberal America, or Conservative America, Black America, White America or Latino America; there is the United States of America” he exclaimed to thunderous applause from the huge audience. In other words, ‘I am the one to unite, not divide’. ‘I am on a mission to heal America’; the ‘new kid on the block’.
Many people would imagine that Nigeria was ripe for a similar unifier in the grand scheme of things; a Nigerian version of Obama. A bridge between democracy activists and active politicians; between civil society and survival society; between academy and good governance; between Muslim North and Christian South; energy of the teaming youth and the wisdom of the old. Time to heal, time to bury hatchets, time to weave together a New Nigeria with Fayemi; the bridge-builder. How hard is that to calibrate? Granted there is a place for financial inducement to delegates, and others, but that is not the preamble. Pieces of the jigsaw must align and the structure erected on a solid foundation first! Fayemi neglected that and, as it turned out, to his cost. He was firmly ensconced in the upper reaches of the APC, his comfort zone, preaching mainly to the converted. Perhaps that is not unexpected from a well-connected individual at the high-end of political life. His admirers must hope that he, and other political (wannabe) leaders in his orbit, learn some valuable lessons from his doomed campaign. Being a darling of the metropolitan elites is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be president in Nigeria.