We left year 2021 a few days ago, gnashing our teeth over many problems that confronted us, problems that we have carried into the new year. As the year was running to a close, a new variant of the COVID-19 pandemic called omicron was scything through our towns and villages, leaving many dead bodies behind and many other persons partially alive. We went through a debilitating strike by medical doctors, which took the lives of two of my loved ones. Our economy was walking on crutches as we piled up debts and debt servicing wahala.
The prices of food items went through the roof and hunger became the staple food of many Nigerians. Poverty now walks on four legs with an accompanying crime spiral. Insecurity, which had been our constant companion for more than a decade, threatened to become a permanent feature of our urban and rural life. As a result of this, several governors and other community leaders have been giving their citizens what seems to be the only reasonable but dangerous option: “defend yourself.”
When a society gets to a level where those who should protect their citizens order them to indulge in self-help, which in normal times would be treated as criminal, that society is at the bottom of the survival ladder. Its civilisation has been mortgaged and those who run their affairs should be ashamed of their crass incompetence. These acts of insecurity that have taken the lives of many of our citizens in various parts of the country have thrown many families into the abyss of grief and our nation into the circle of a close-to Banana Republic.
In 1999, when the drums of democracy were beating, we were happy to dance to the drumbeat, happy that we had fought our way out of the clutches of military dictatorship and that we had arrived at a new era where democracy would thrive. Today, our democracy is under serious and potentially fatal threat as even peaceful demonstrations by unarmed persons are now viciously denounced and viciously disbanded. Any democracy where peaceful demonstrations are forbidden is a hollow democracy, unfit to be called by that name, no matter how you want to define it.
Now pro-democracy forces have a task to perform by wagging a fierce finger at anti-democracy forces. As we drown ourselves in the pool of reflection about these existential problems and look for answers, we find none in the sky. We may try to put gloss over these rough edges; we may console ourselves by saying that it could have been worse; we may lie to those who are gullible that the present is better than the past; we may paint a rosy canvass of future possibilities; we may make endless promises of what may be accomplished in the days to come, but the reality on the ground is grim, very, very grim. I say so because we are just 16 months away from May 2023 when the President Muhammadu Buhari government is expected to hand over to a new set of rulers.
Right now, there is ample politics in the air. The two major parties, APC and PDP, are in the process of selecting their presidential candidates. Some of the potential candidates are criss-crossing the country paying homage to influential citizens in various parts of the country. They call it consultation. Virtually all the minor parties that contested the election in 2019 have faded out of the scene. A third force made up of well known pro-democracy activists, some neophyte politicians and some EndSARS revolt strategists has emerged. They have listed a number of credible persons they would like to see throw their hats into the ring.
Nigerian politics is a money guzzler and I have no idea how deep their pocket is. Secondly, they seem to be running a race against time and running a campaign against the two muscular parties who have been on the ground for many years is not a joke. The strength of the Third Force is its new-ness. That is also its weakness. If Nigerian voters vote on rational grounds, the Third Force would become a force to reckon with. In 2023, the election will still be an affair of godfathers.
The youths who are the majority voters have never voted for themselves or for those who may cater for their interests because they are largely, often told who to vote for. Who to vote for is often accompanied by stomach infrastructure. I cannot say at this point whether or not the story will change in 2023. But in the next few months the picture will be clearer when politics starts with a bang and government goes into a lame duck phase. Several issues will have to be decided soon. One of them is the question of zoning between North and South, a phenomenon that started in 1999 and has proved to be a rallying force for those who believe in fairness, inclusivity and equity.
By this philosophy, the presidency should go to the South when Buhari ends his tenure in 2023. But some politicians from the North are repudiating the policy, saying that democracy is a game of numbers. In other words, they are canvassing a winner-takes-all approach. That is a dangerous philosophy in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation with wide disparities in revenue generation, natural resources, education, infrastructural facilities and manpower. If that kind of philosophy is implemented everybody will lose to a lesser or greater degree. But the biggest loser will be Nigeria as an entity because its unity will be severely affected.
Of course, since the zoning philosophy is not in our constitution, nothing stops anyone from any part of the country from exercising his right to run. It has happened in the past and it may happen again. The question is: what method will be used for the primaries? That is a ticklish question.
In the Electoral Amendment Bill rejected by Buhari recently, there was a provision for direct primaries. The National Assembly will not have the nerve or the numbers to overturn Buhari’s veto when they resume this month. It is likely, therefore, that the indirect primary, that is, selection by delegates, will be the approved procedure for primaries, if the National Assembly wants to get the bill past the roadblock at Aso Rock. The state governors are said to have lobbied vigorously for the deletion of direct primary from the bill. The reason is that the indirect primary, rather than the direct, puts the governor in charge of the chosen delegates. That makes it easy for the governor to cherry-pick whoever he wants as his successor or in fact for all other posts in the state.
Also, the issue of electronic transmission of results is hanging fire. Many politicians seem opposed to it because it will deprive them of the opportunity for mago mago. Instead, they are saying that Nigeria is not yet ripe for it because there is no Internet coverage in many rural communities. However, INEC thinks that it is implementable. Nigerians who want free, fair and credible elections want it too. Whether it will go through from bill to act is uncertain.
It is also uncertain how Nigeria will be able to airbrush away some of the warts and wrinkles in the electoral system. One of them is the dominance of money in the campaign and election. Even though there is a pegged financial limit of expenditure for each of the political offices, these limits are obeyed more in the breach than in the observance. In fact, no one seems to take any serious note or accounting of how much money is being spent by each of the candidates and their agents. Even on election days, at polling venues, votes are openly bought and sold by candidates and their agents. To my knowledge, so far, no candidate has been sanctioned for going above the approved spending limit at any of the elections, apparently because almost every candidate is guilty.
The other problem of our elections is the widespread use of violence at campaigns and at elections despite the large army of security personnel at these venues. Ballot boxes are snatched at gun. Election officials are forced at gunpoint to write or call the wrong figures. Ballot boxes and materials are taken away forcibly from polling stations and stuffed with already printed ballot papers. These incidents have made our elections bloody and the figures published doubtful. If it is a fusillade of bullets that determines the outcome of our elections, is that democracy?
Right now there are various groups, named supporters clubs, for the potential candidates. They are busy building followership for their patrons as well as knocking at the doors of influential decision-makers asking for support for their bosses. The ambition of these groups is to shoehorn their candidate into office when the time comes. As we all know, Nigerian politics is an algorithm of complex calculations but in the next few months things will become clearer than they are now.
Of course, the success of the elections will depend not only on INEC but also on the politicians and their parties. But overall, the general state of insecurity will contribute robustly to the success or failure of the elections. To tame this monster, the ruling elite must do much more than dishing out lame instructions that are not reflected in the performance of the security personnel.