The power cabals and their operational manual in the Fourth Republic

The word ‘cabal’ became more pronounced in political discourse in the twilight of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration, when a handful of power brokers seized the reins of power owing to the prolonged sickness of the president. How have cabals operated in the democratic era thus far? Group Politics Editor, Taiwo Adisa, provides some insights.

CALL it a cabal, the caucus or the inner core of government, those who make things happen in every government, be it democratic or civilian are usually a handful. This is especially true of third world and developing nations. Thus far, the experience of Nigeria this Fourth Republic has not been an exception. The only exception to the rule is that the cabal, sometimes, finds itself out of the power circle and it then devotes all its energy that were back the most coveted seat of power.

In 1998, when the struggle for power was almost obvious between those that can be branded as the conservative caucus and the progressive class, the power brokers quickly reconstituted themselves and ensured they dictated the pace of the democratic elections that were held in 1999. The struggle for power was deafening after years of military rule which landed the country in the June 12, 1993 election fiasco. Following the tension generated by the annulment of that election, the civil society pro-democracy activists gained a loud voice. If elections were called at an instance, it was almost certain that one of the pro-democracy activists would have won the presidency.

But the usually conservative power brokers dug deep and invented the release of General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military Head of State, who had been incarcerated by the regime of the late General Sani Abacha for alleged coup plot. Obasanjo was packaged and dressed as a democrat even against his will. His party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), won a majority of parliamentary seats, the governorship seats and the Presidency.

Unlike the usual situation where cabals are rooted right at the seat of power, the situation that played out under the Obasanjo administration was quite modified. The power brokers who midwifed the administration remained outside the Government House and Obasanjo himself assumed the leadership of that government. He presented the face of a statesman and junketed all over the world. He left the practical administration of the government to his deputy, Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. Thus, under Atiku, who was chairman of the National Council of Privatisation (NCP) and headed the National Economic Council (NEC) where he interacted regularly with the elected governors, a new power cabal emerged. That was besides the cabal that believed it midwived Obasanjo’s ascension to power, which, incidentally was largely domiciled in the North.

As things unfolded under the leadership of Obasanjo, it appeared that the emerging power group was impatient and wanted power in 2003. One caucus was pulling from the Atiku end, leading to the push for Obasanjo’s impeachment by the National Assembly, while another caucus was pulling from the Northern Elders’ Caucus’ end, which insisted that Obasanjo signed a single term agreement with them ahead of the election in 1999.

The two caucuses were pulling at different edges against Obasanjo’s hold on power with ferocious force, leaving the Ota farmer with no other option but to engage his native intelligence. First, his camp called a cream of top political writers whom they showed the document he (Obasanjo) was said to have signed at the behest of the Northern leaders. As the media went to town with details of the document, the persistent calls that the man should not seek a second term based on the secret deal got busted.  But Obasanjo still had two more hurdles to cross to break the the will of the emerging cabals. The National Assembly was on his neck for alleged impeachable offences. He initially described the move as a “joke taken too far” but got shaken as the House of Representatives appeared determined to make the “joke” a reality. Week after week, the Rep members released Obasanjo’s alleged impeachable offences and as the mountains of sins grew, the former President had to look for diplomatic and ‘settled’ alternative to mow down the mountains.

He directly reached out to the House and the Senate, which was only waiting on the House to complete its assignment. After he had received assurances from the House on a peace deal, the former president had to face the hurdle of the new cabal, as constituted by the Governors’ Forum. The forum, whose members had got used to Atiku’s style, called Obasanjo “unelectable” and urged the vice-president to step in. But close to the primaries of the PDP in 2003, Obasanjo managed to triumph and secured the nomination for a second term.

During his second term, however, Obasanjo took hold of the entire structure of power and became the leader of the power cabal himself and everyone who wanted to be relevant in the system had to defer to him. Though Atiku was still number two, he ensured he stripped him entirely from power and even attempted to remove him from office through a technical process. The then vice-president sustained himself in office only through a plethora of court cases. Obasanjo became Baba by the young and old and he was able to singlehandedly handpick a successor in the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

The operational mode of the cabal under Obasanjo nearly repeated itself under the late Umaru Yar’Adua.  The power cabal in the North wanted power back but they could not get one of their own. Umaru Yar’Adua was not a member of the Kaduna Mafia or the Northern Elders’ Caucus that had longed for return of power. He was at a time a leftist ideologue though his late brother, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua was a caucus member of the famed Kaduna Mafia. His death at the Abakalilki Prisons, following his incarceration by the late General Sani Abacha, had dealt a big blow to the influence and power of the mafia. Abacha’s regime had decimated the mafia largely because of his conflict with Shehu Yar’Adua. Thus when Umaru Yar’Adua took over, there was only a little potency to its influence.

Yar’Adua took charge without visible reference to the mafia and constituted his cabinet without the usual pressure from that group. As fate would have it, however, he took ill midway into his tenure and had to be treated abroad in 2009. A new power configuration said to be under the control of the late president’s wife, Hajia Turai and peopled by some ministers and officials of the administration immediately seized the levers of power and neutralised the existing democratic structure.

Prior to the disappearance of Yar’Adua from the political scene on account of ill health, the president was largely in control. He was the leader who appeared to know where he was headed. While he did not attain the level of control exercised by Obasanjo, he still appeared to be in charge.  But his departure to Saudi Arabia on health grounds paved the way for the rise of the cabal. And as it happened during Obasanjo’s tenure, the original power bloc began operating outside of Yar’Adua’s government. Because of the crack in the operation of the Kaduna Mafia owing to the battle between the Yar’Aduas and the late General Abacha, the aafia could not immediately pull itself together as Umaru Yar’Adua assumed office. Perhaps, it was still studying the grounds as Yar’Adua’s government grew in years.

From 2009, the power bloc inside Yar’Adua’s government took off in full force, with elements of that cabal reportedly including the former Minister of Agriculture, Sayyadi Abbah Ruma; the Chief Economic Adviser, Tanimu Yakubu and to some extent the current Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahaman Dambazzau (retd), who served as Chief of Army Staff at the time. The cabal became so strong that the then Vice-President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, was totally in the dark. He was unaware of the state of his boss’s health or his exact location for months. Insiders in the government confirmed that the former vice-president relied on briefings of foreign favourable governments who were monitoring the situation. In fact, Jonathan was unaware that Yar’Adua was being smuggled back to the country in early 2010, even though a full complement of the military was deployed for that midnight homecoming.

Just as it was with the cabals that operated under Obasanjo, that of the Yar’Adua era was also interested in retention and control of power. The fear was that if power was allowed to get out of their circle, they could lose all benefits that come with it. Thus, despite reports that indicated that Yar’Adua was medically unfit to continue in office, the cabal nearly swept off the whole nation with contrary propaganda.

Whereas the constitution expects that president to transmit power to the vice-president whenever he was medically unfit or going on vacation through a letter to the National Assembly, Yar’Adua did not

transmit such letter and it became the talk of the entire country. The civil society groups led by the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) led series of street protests, while another National Assembly Group, the National Interest Group (NIG), also led the battle to secure signatures in the parliament for the invocation of Doctrine of Necessity, which eventually transferred power to Jonathan in acting capacity.

The coming of Dr. Jonathan as president, therefore, signalled a reversal of roles at the helm of power. It marked the arrival of power in the oil-rich South-South for the first time and another backseat role for the Northern political hierarchy, which only regained power after eight years of a Southerner’s rule. The North was, therefore, unhappy that power slipped off its hands through the death of Yar’Adua and would have loved a quick return. With the constitution taking its course, no one had an answer to Jonathan’s ascension of office as president in May 2010, following the death of Yar’Adua.

What followed was the regrouping of the power blocs outside of government. A number of theories were pushed out ahead of the 2011 election. The forces started with the indications that Jonathan should only complete Yar’Adua’s tenure in 2011 and leave the stage, since “age” was still on his side or allow the nomination of a Northern candidate who will pick him as vice-president. The theories went back and forth and eventually, Jonathan came to the conclusion that he would run for office. He won the election with massive votes but the power cabal never slept.

Immediately, the power caucuses in the North went to work just as the South-South was jubilating over its capture of power at the centre for the first time. The caucuses fixed meetings for outside the country where deep reviews were undertaken.  The meetings as far back as early 2012 concluded on the need to get power back to the North in 2015. It also concluded on how to hijack the House of Representatives through the defection of then Speaker, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal and a possible takeover of the Senate through massive defections to the new mega party to be midwifed alongside parties in other geopolitical zones.

At the end of the day, it appeared that the PDP kept its eyes off the ball by allowing most of the predictions made at the Saudi Arabia strategic meeting of the Northern leaders come to pass. The All Progressives Congress (APC) came alive in 2013, with five governors of the PDP defecting to the party alongside a number of members of the House of Representatives as well as 12 members of the Senate. Speaker Tambuwal also defected to the APC along the line.

Though another insider cabal was emerging in the Jonathan government, as many believed that Chief Edwin Clark assumed the post of father of the nation, all focus remained on the power bloc outside of power. Perhaps as a result of its determination and strategy, the cabal outside of Jonathan’s government succeeded in supplanting his government and giving victory to President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 polls.