“Ordinarily, elections should be the celebration of liberty and democracy. Unfortunately, they have become( in Nigeria) periods of trepidation, speculation and uncertainty”
–A former Minister for Education, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, The PUNCH, February 10, 2019.
Elections, and by extension, the political game can be fun, as Prof. Tunde Adeniran, a former education minister, suggests in the opening quote, but in our neck of the wood, the politicians make every election look like the coming of Armageddon, the outbreak of an apocalyptic war. So, as polling day, Saturday, February 16, beckons in less than 24 hours from now, concerned citizens are holding peace rallies, and walks around the country to emphasise to the political class that peace is indivisible, that they owe the nation the duty to comport themselves in a civil and orderly manner.
Why is there so much apprehension and foreboding when the presidential race is mainly between two politicians of northern extraction, who belong to the same religion? Partly because the politicians keep talking tough, carrying on with a do-or-die attitude, warning the international community not to interfere in our domestic affairs (recall the ‘body-bags’ metaphor) showing a readiness to rearrange the structure and personnel of government, right on the eve of the election. Even the usually reticent and cerebral Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Mahmud Yakubu, caused a stir recently when he reminded international observers that they were invited only to observe and not to monitor the elections. Is this not splitting hairs and raising a tenuous distinction to the level of diplomatic unfriendliness? Are not the protocols of election observation globally recognised and well-known?
The major parties have not helped matters by their dog fights, mutual recrimination and raising the alarm, so often about alleged plans to rig the election. If the political class has lost its balance, the civil society should stand guard over the nation’s enduring interests by rooting for and working for a peaceful election, buoyed on by the assurances of the international community that it would sanction those who instigate or perpetrate violence. Given this context, it is necessary to maintain that nothing is so provocative or productive of violence in an election than attempts to manipulate the outcome, in particular, results of polling. Every effort should be made, therefore, to make voting easy, genuinely credible and transparent. The last time that riots broke out, following the outcome of an election in Nigeria, was 2011, when over 1,000 Nigerians, including youth corps members, were killed in the northern part of the country. It would appear that the immediate trigger of violence was the allegation that the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party had manipulated the results in the northern part of the country and elsewhere, causing the supporters of then opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, to go on the rampage and a killing spree.
Our history therefore, counsels sensitivity, tact and a level playing field, rather than obduracy, recklessness and defiance. Some years ago, in the course of conversation with an expatriate senior colleague, I had asked the question, with an eye on Nigeria’s perennial election palavers, why most politicians in the advanced democracies will not consider the rigging of election as an option. Looking at me in the face, he said, “I think it is their sense of history, the fear that when the history books are written, it will be mentioned that it is so and so that brought an end to the British, French or American democracy as the case may be”. Of course, there are other reasons, such as the presence of a vigilant civil society that keeps watch over the state, the role of institutions including electoral bodies, which over time, have built a culture of rectitude, and the widespread diffusion of the spirit as well as the letter of constitutional democracy.
By contrast, our democracy is tentative and is plagued by a persistent refusal of leaders to face up to the national question, which refuses to be wished away. It is important therefore, as I urged last week, for all stakeholders to carry on, as polling begins, with an awareness of what is at stake, not just for the politicians but more importantly for the nation. Another point worth considering as voting begins, is that political rhetoric aside, there is no dramatic difference in policy orientation and ideological disposition of the major combatants. For example, a considerable proportion of the politicians in the APC had been members of the PDP.
There is probably more continuity than change in the advent of both parties in power, no matter what the campaign slogans are. The point therefore, is that there is no reason why anybody’s blood should be shed or the nation thrown into jeopardy, because of an electoral competition which many do not see as a game changer. As an editorial in The Guardian (London) published earlier this week, lamented, “Most cynical voters, however, continue to yawn at the sight of two established candidates resembling Tweedledee and Tweedledum”.
Given that circumstance, Nigerians should be smarter than those party hawks shouting themselves hoarse, creating sensational ripples, threatening our peace and telling us that the election is an all time contest between good and evil, between hell and heaven. Knowing that the elections, whichever way they go, will not determine much should create a sober mood and a reflective one concerning how a country so blessed got into this downswing of leadership dimunition. It will be a tragedy, if on top of the alley we find ourselves, the country is thrown into another round of confusion, mayhem and hard labour. There is life after the elections, and the earlier we began to confront that reality, the better; even as we go to the polls, the hard facts of Nigerian political and economic life, the insecurity, the laggard infrastructure, the rundown schools and health care institutions, are very much with us. Those who win the election have their jobs cut out for them, and they will need to hit the ground running.
For the future, we will need to drive in the direction of creating institutions with a life of their own, which do not pander to the electoral cycle or to the whims and caprices of the temporary custodians of power. Too often, policy is made on the hoof, among the secret cabals that sit in the corridors of power.
One of the black boxes of governance in our situation is about who and who makes what decisions. A related concern is how much of insights from policy institutions, think tanks and evidence based analysis, go into decision-making. Unless these issues are sorted, we may continue to wander aimlessly, lurching from one guessing game to another, with horrendous implications. In other words, the elections should come and go in peace, so that the real work of salvaging a crestfallen country can properly begin. I am not suggesting that it doesn’t matter who wins, oh! It does. The message is that the election should not be allowed to rupture the country any further, slide into violence, or obscure the huge assignment of renewing and reinventing Nigeria.
Finally, it should be emphasised that those who lose now have not necessarily lost out in the sense that they can bounce back, restrategise in order to make a determined effort, the next time round.