Unless the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the relevant security agencies stand firm in working towards credible elections next year, the exercise may be compromised even before the ballots. Last month, on this column, we had alerted on the discouraging signs heralding the elections. The signals are becoming more potent.
Part of our fear was that mudslinging and ethnic recriminations may dominate public engagements, in place of issue-based campaigns. A few days into the official flag-off of the campaigns, incidents of intimidation and violence in some parts of the country against perceived opponents have confirmed our fears.
The assault on the supporters of the Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi, in Lagos, last weekend, points to the dangers ahead. Reports had it that two supporters (flag boys) of the Labour Party candidate were attacked in the Oshodi axis of the state.
The flag boys were allegedly seized by some touts operating in the Oshodi Motor Park, who beat them to a pulp and were about setting them ablaze before they were rescued by a courageous soldier. The assaulted flag boys claimed that they were going about their normal duty with the Labour Party flag and insignia when they were accosted by the touts who received orders from their superiors to beat and torch them.
One of the victims was quoted to have said, “When the touts who were ordered by their superior seized my friend, I took to my heels to the motor park and boarded a cab. While the cab was loading, the touts traced me to the cab, forced me out of it, and took me to where my friend was also kept.
“Their superior ordered that we should be beaten, killed and set ablaze. We were beaten like common criminals. They flogged us and were about to set us on fire before a soldier came to our rescue. We are having internal bleeding and pains all over our bodies. Our crime is that we are not supporting their candidate.”
Incidentally, the Lagos State Police Command’s spokesperson, SP Benjamin Hundeyin, reportedly knew about the incident, even when it was not officially reported to the command.
Hoodlums had unleashed similar attacks on citizens queueing to register for the permanent voters’ cards (PVC), at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ijeshatedo, Lagos, on the suspicion that they had sympathy for Obi.
Now, from whatever angle it is looked at and for whatever reasons, this is bad. Attacking any Nigerian or anybody for that matter because of differences in religious belief, political persuasion or any divergence of opinions stands strongly condemned. Peaceful assembly, free association, unfettered election campaigns as well as choice of place of residence are constitutionally guaranteed rights in the country.
If this level of intolerance could be manifested at this early stage of the campaigns, it tells much on what lies ahead. The elementary definition of democracy as a government of the people, for the people and by the people, has as its fulcrum the people content. It concedes to the people the rights and responsibilities of choosing and determining who governs or represents them in an atmosphere devoid of coercion and intimidation. Elections cannot be deemed free and fair when a certain group employs the tool of intimidation to ensure that the opposition is silenced, both at the campaigns and at the polls.
Over time, Nigeria’s politics has been tainted by such untoward activities as ballot-snatching, falsification of results, alteration of voters’ register and outright violence. These ugly factors contributed extensively to the collapse of the first and second republics. As preparations for 2023 general election gather steam, they are rearing their ugly heads.
INEC has in fact highlighted areas of concern in the conduct of free and fair polls as the elections draw nearer. Among the areas of concern are threats specific to geographical locations, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the issue of hard drugs, presence of insurgents and armed groups, intra and inter-party conflicts, violence and hate speech.
The attack on Obi’s supporters in Lagos falls into the fears by the commission. The relevant security agencies should not gloss over such infractions or allow them go unchallenged. There is no how a credible election can be attained next year without respecting one another’s viewpoints. That was the point by Harvard University political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book, “How Democracies Die”, while arguing on mutual tolerance as a vital ingredient in safeguarding democracy. Mutual toleration, they say, refers to the idea that as long as “our rivals play by the constitutional rule, we accept that they have equal right to exist, compete for power and govern. We may disagree with, and even strongly dislike our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate. This means recognizing that our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens – that they love our country and respect the constitution just as we do…Put another way, mutual toleration is politicians’ collective willingness to agree to disagree.”
More than any other time in the present dispensation, Nigerians need tolerance and respect for contrary opinions for the 2023 political transition to succeed. The authorities must ensure that everyone is given a level playing field in the forthcoming elections and that no eligible Nigerian, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, is disenfranchised, more so through violence and intimidation.
We had recently submitted that the 2023 election is not about Peter Obi or any particular individual for that matter. It is not Igbo/Yoruba affair, Hausa/Idoma contest, Fulani/Urhobo clash, Efik/Tiv encounter or between any other group and another. It is rather a defining moment for Nigeria, an exercise that will go a long way in determining how far Nigeria goes as a nation. This is why many say that the election is a watershed.
Hunger in the country does not have ethnic colouration. The hardship is nationwide and the leadership failure pervasive. Whether from the East, West, North or South, Nigerians are confronted by the common challenge of want amid plenty. Ordinary Nigerians are plagued by the burden of a rapacious leadership class that has been feeding fat on them. It is left for them to rise with one accord and take back the country from the callous political elite or continue to serve its selfish interest.
Assaulting Peter Obi’s supporters is a no-brainer. There is even no marked difference between the lots of the victims of the Oshodi assault and their attackers. They are all victims of a mismanaged entity.