My late father was once the Honorary Secretary-General of the Nigerian Boxing Board of Control, a position he held for many years. Some of the boxers the board was set up to regulate used to come to our house, and it was rather amusing to listen to their boasts about how they would beat this opponent or that to a pulp. When the much-anticipated boxing tournaments took place, and the boxing champions failed to make good on their promises or threats, when I asked my father what happened, he would grin and say, “Boasting is part of the contest. Even if you are going to lose, at least you will go in swinging and give it your best. Every boxer enters the ring hoping to win. After the match you will think about what you learnt from your opponent.” Years later, I would experience a sense of de ja vu with politicians trooping in and out of our house, claiming to own the votes of XYZ community and swearing that not one vote would go to another party. Some would claim, “There is no one from ABC party left in our ward. They have all run away,” or “If we record a vote from the other party, call me a bastard.” In the early days, I was naïve enough to believe the boasts. Then my father’s words would come back to me, “Boasting is part of the contest.” I suppose there is something about political contests that encourages inoculation against modesty and restraint.
Over the years, my experience in politics brought reflection, caution and learning. I learnt not to believe the claims of political associates. I learnt not to place any faith in electoral polls. I learnt that in politics 2+2 is not 4. I learnt that when you experience political failure, you lick your wounds, allow them to heal and live to fight another day. I learnt that loyalty is rewarded and treachery has dire consequences. I learnt that an electoral victory has nothing to do with how many boasts have been made or how many big fish have decamped to or from your corner, it is about people deciding whether it is your time or not. I learnt that brilliant people full of great ideas for how the country can move forward will never get a chance if they lack the capacity to build political capital. I learnt that, as alluring and exciting as the space might be, there are no votes on social media. I have also learnt that black and white are luxuries only the delusional can afford, although I struggle with how much grey I am comfortable with.
In the run-up to the presidential election of February 23, there were all kinds of shenanigans. As usual, there was plenty of boasting and sabre-rattling. Then the results started coming in. Political empires crumbled. Acclaimed political lions turned out to be mere kittens. Voters exercised their right to reward or teach a lesson. Some of the voting choices were bewildering (voting for those who roll out of police vehicles and scamper up trees) but the operative word here is choice. If political contests in our country was all about harmless boasting, then it would just be fun and games to observe. Sadly, it is not. Elections can also mean war, destruction and death. The presidential election that has just taken place and the gubernatorial elections that are forthcoming have taken us to new lows. Rather than focus on selling candidates and their plans for the country, we keep wallowing in the dirty waters of ethnic politics and unbridled bigotry, creating our own unique brand of xenophobia. No one wins when these cards are played, we all lose. It did not help matters that, somewhere along the line, religion got thrown into the mix.
Men and women of God who ought to know better took to their pulpits to bully, curse and prophesy winners and losers. God must be extremely patient, spending his time checking his diary to recall when he met Pastor this or Prophet that to ‘give him a vision’. It seemed it was not enough that voters should be persuaded on the strength of their choice of candidate. They needed to be instructed by their mortal religious leaders and anyone who disobeys them is ‘disobeying God’. This is no way to build a society grounded on democratic values. It is manipulative and retrogressive.
Another thing I learnt from this election cycle is that we are going to continue to be the worse for it if we keep ignoring the critical importance of history. We now live in times when people of a certain age act as if they are oblivious of our history as a country. And we have people of a certain age who were not born when some ground-breaking events took place, and now with the freedom that a phone with data provides, they rule cyberspace with their ignorance and bile. So many great men and women have lived and died serving this country, leaving powerful legacies behind. Their accomplishments cut across ethnic or religious divides. While some of them, like the great Azikiwe, Awolowo, Sardauna, Murtala Muhammed, Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, MKO Abiola, Kudirat Abiola and others too many to mention might have had a primary geographical constituency, ultimately, they were true patriots who contributed in no small measure to the building of this nation.
Due to our collective negligence, as each year rolls by, the achievements of these great people are known by fewer and fewer Nigerians. Those who are well known are miscellaneous celebrities promoted via social media by a generation who do not know any better because they simply do not know. Also of concern is the further marginalisation of women in the political space. By the time this electoral cycle is over, it would be interesting to see how many women eventually emerge in the national and state assemblies. Judging from the results we have seen so far, the figures are not likely to be encouraging. Having governance and decision-making solely determined and populated by men is anti-democratic and inimical to national development. I hope that this can be redressed when political appointments are being made.
During the unbearably long hours it took to collate and read out the results, many Nigerians asked the same questions over and over. Why on earth are there so many political parties on the ballot? How come INEC, our electoral management body, cannot make better use of technology? Surely, by now, INEC should have collation software it can use instead of embarrassing squinty-eyed university professors on national television? What are we prepared to change in preparation for the next election?
Lastly, this election has thrown up a disturbing narrative about the voting patterns of the rich and the middle class versus the poor masses. Allegedly, the well-heeled living in the more affluent parts of the country are impatient with tortuous economic reforms, which in their view are not working. They are also concerned about recurrent community crisis that continues to claim lives, scaring away investors and their resources. The masses (very broadly defined) were more concerned with sustainable solutions to ending poverty. The programmes and language of the incumbent administration seemed to resonate with people in poor communities who were the direct beneficiaries of a range of interventions. I campaigned for the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Ekiti State, and everywhere I went, I was told by people that they would vote for APC because of the many ways in which they thought of poor people. Through programmes such as N-Power, Trader Moni, Market Moni and the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme, hundreds of thousands were reached. I have taken two lessons from this. First, regardless of the merits or demerits of either side of the debate, the masses have the numbers to decide. Second, where we have undecided voters who are not mired in ethno-religious agendas, people will vote for a compelling and verifiable narrative.
Last week, the winner of the election, President Muhammadu Buhari, appealed to his supporters to be magnanimous in victory and not gloat. That was a hard one! Before the final results were announced, when it was clear that the election had gone to APC, the gloat fest was in full mode with AtiQuiet, AtiWin, AtiConquer, AtiDeliver. Perhaps the focus going forward should be about what all the contending forces and their respective armies take away from this in moments of sober reflection. How about AtiLearn? Have a great week.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is currently the First Lady of Ekiti State. She can be reached at [email protected]