In the Nigerian political discourse, one saying that is thrown around regularly is: “Nobody gives you power; you have to grab it.” It has been repeated for too long that it has acquired the aura of truth in the psyche of many Nigerians. Those who say it do so matter-of-factly to underscore their presumed deep understanding of power dynamics and condescension for those who assume that power will be dropped into their lap.
However, upon little examination, this saying is found to be hollow, shallow and spurious. The fact is that there are two broad ways to acquire all forms of power: by taking it or by receiving it. When broken down, there are three ways of acquiring power: by receiving it (inheritance/gift); by winning it (through merit/hard work); and by forcefully taking it (through coup or subterfuge). Therefore, across the world and in all areas of human endeavour, power has been given to people since time immemorial.
Let us look at some celebrated cases in Nigeria and other parts of the world. In 1998 when Nigeria started the transition to civil rule, the politician who was most prominent in the political terrain was Dr Alex Ekwueme. His position as a former vice president in addition to his position as the leader of the G34 that opposed the draconian rule of General Sani Abacha worked in his favour. Ekwueme was also well educated and filled with ideas, a calmness of spirit, and leadership qualities.
However, there was a general feeling that the South-West needed to be placated for the injustice done to Chief MKO Abiola, who was denied his presidential victory in 1993 by General Ibrahim Babangida, which was sustained by Abacha. Abacha had arrested and detained Abiola in 1994 for declaring himself the winner of the 1993 election and therefore the president of Nigeria. Abiola died mysteriously in detention in 1998 after the death of Abacha, at a time there were hopes that he would soon be released and possibly given back his mandate.
The military hierarchy, especially serving and retired generals of Northern extraction, narrowed the choice of president down to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. They saw him as the only person from the South-West that they could trust to lead Nigeria, because of their belief that he would not work against their interest and the interest of the North. They had worked with him between 1976 and 1979 when he was the military head of state.
Obasanjo had no ambition to be president. He was happy to be released from prison and to be alive. He was given a state pardon with other political prisoners. When the issue of being the president was raised, he asked how many presidents those behind it wanted to make out of him, having led Nigeria before. However, those who were behind the plan were unrelenting. They registered him in the Peoples Democratic Party, bought the presidential form of the party and bankrolled his campaign. Obasanjo beat Ekwueme by a wide margin to become PDP’s presidential candidate at the party’s primary in Jos, Plateau State.
In the All People’s Party (which later became All Nigeria People’s Party), Dr Ogbonnaya Onu from the South-East emerged the presidential candidate. There was a third party, the Alliance for Democracy. It was formed by some South-West members of the PDP, who pulled out in protest and joined the APP, and eventually pulled out of the APP. The AD did not meet some of the criteria stipulated by the Independent National Electoral Commission, top of which was having a presence in the six geographical zones of Nigeria. But it was registered by the INEC to ensure that the South-West did not feel left out. Chief Olu Falae emerged the candidate of the AD.
To ensure that the election was an all South-West affair, Onu resigned as the candidate of the APP for Falae to take his position. Obasanjo eventually won the election and was declared the president-elect.
Right from when Obasanjo was approached to contest the election, one could see that his emergence as the president in 1999 was a fait accompli. General Theophilus Danjuma said that much when he threatened to go on exile if Obasanjo did not become the president in 1999. Therefore, power was handed over to Obasanjo on a silver platter. He did not grab it.
Obasanjo confessed that much in August 2017 when he spoke at the opening ceremony of the Niger State Investment and Economic Summit in Minna: “I was going on with my life ‘jeje’ (easily) in the prison when General Abdulsalami Abubakar decided to get me out. He did not stop at that but also decided to grant me pardon and conspired with others to send me to the presidency.”
Similarly, when Obasanjo emerged the candidate of the PDP, he changed the political fortune of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who had already been elected governor of Adamawa State but had not been sworn in. Obasanjo chose him as his running mate, and he became the vice president of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007.
After the third-term ambition of Obasanjo was quashed in May 2006 by the Senate led by Senator Ken Nnamani, Obasanjo decided to choose his successors. Atiku Abubakar, Dr Peter Odili, Mr Donald Duke and others were vigorously campaigning to succeed him. But Obasanjo single-handed chose Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua and Dr Goodluck Jonathan as the candidate and running-mate respectively. Before then, Yar’Adua never showed any interest in the presidency. Obasanjo picked him and made him the president of Nigeria.
In 2010, Yar’Adua died in office and Jonathan succeeded him. Politically, Jonathan was virtually an obscure figure until the impeachment of his principal, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, in December 2005. Jonathan became the governor of Bayelsa State. While he was savouring that, Obasanjo made him the running-mate to Yar’Adua, and he subsequently emerged the vice president of Nigeria on May 29, 2007 without lifting a finger. On May 5, 2010, Yar’Adua died in office and Jonathan became the president of Nigeria without grabbing any power. It simply fell into his lap with the help of Obasanjo who had made him Yar’Adua’s running-mate, even when there were more influential and battle-ready candidates from the South-South.
Earlier in 1976, Obasanjo did not lift a finger to become the head of state of Nigeria. It just needed a Lt Col Buka Suka Dimka to assassinate General Murtala Mohammed. Reports have it that Obasanjo was not eager to “grab power” after the death of Mohammed. But his top Northern military colleagues backed him to become head of state.
Similarly, many Nigerians were not on the political terrain when someone chose them and handed power over to them as governors, ministers, etc. They did not grab nor take power.
The same thing applies to monarchies. For example, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom did not get into her position because she was the smartest or strongest British person when her father died. She simply became the Queen because her father had no son and she was the first daughter. One day, Prince Charles or his son, Prince William, will become the King simply because they are heirs to the throne. They will not have to grab power or scheme for it.
That was why William Shakespeare said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” People from royal families like Queen Elizabeth were born great. People like Mr Barack Obama achieved greatness. Then, people like Dr Goodluck Jonathan had greatness thrust upon them.
This buttresses the fact that it is false that power is not given. It is an empty saying that is passed around without interrogation simply because it sounds good in the mouth. We need to learn to X-ray expressions and ideas before we adopt them.