Postscript by Waziri Adio
By tomorrow, we will be two months into the official segment of the campaigns for the landmark 2023 presidential poll. The current campaign season is unusually long and will, expectedly, go through undulating phases. The Electoral Act 2022 not only extended the campaign period from 90 days to 150 days but also created a hiatus, no-campaign period of three months. The mandated pause was difficult to police and was largely observed in the breach. So, it could as well be the unofficial campaign period.
So far, it seems the promise foreshadowed by the period before the official kick-off of the campaigns on September 28 has not been delivered by the two months of the campaign itself. To be sure, there have been increased and more evenly-spread political activities and sparks post-September 28. But we are yet to see the full colours of the campaigns expected in an election widely characterised as open and potentially the most competitive in the current republic.
Perhaps this should be expected given the tasking longevity of the current campaign period. Presidential campaigns cost a lot of money and effort, and candidates and their parties (including those with the most resources and spread) will need to pace themselves for what has now become a marathon. My sense is that the candidates and the parties are conserving their energies and resources for the last mile, possibly the last six weeks before the election.
I fully support the need to give the electoral management body enough time to organise credible elections. But too much time can also be a problem to the other stakeholders, especially those who do not have the luxury of time and resources. Part of the unintended consequences is that long electioneering may end up raising the entry barrier, thereby further advantaging the advantaged.
There is also huge cost to the country at large in terms of the distractions and the opportunity costs. I think that provision of the electoral law is worth reviewing in a way that optimally balances the needs of INEC with the unnecessary cost to others, including the country. I think we can easily dispense with three to four of the nine months between the emergence of candidates and the general election. We can return to this after the 2023 elections.
For now, we have less than three months to the elections and it is important to pay close attention to some observable patterns especially those with implications for peace before, during and after the elections, and for democratic and economic development in our country. Some of these patterns are likely to be maintained and even intensified in the next three months. If unchecked, these patterns may be to the detriment of the country.
I will touch on three of such patterns today.
The first and the most troubling is the increasingly violent nature of the campaigns. On October 28th, the National Security Adviser, Maj-Gen. Babagana Monguno, warned about how the growth in campaign-related violence is a threat to the successful conduct of the elections. Speaking through a representative at the quarterly meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES), the NSA highlighted instances and danger of physical and verbal violence across the country. On 9th November, the convoy of the Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, was attacked in Maiduguri, Borno State. This is reprehensible and all those involved should be fished out and made to face the music.
Apart from the fine points about the need for all the political actors to play by the rules of the game and the need for our political culture to grow and mature with the age of our democracy, there are practical reasons to shun political violence. One is that violence breeds more violence, leading to a spiral of reprisals and counter-attacks, and needless loss of life and property. We are seeing this already. A few days ago, INEC stated that 24 people have been killed so far in the current campaign cycle.
It could get worse, given how Nigeria’s religious and regional fault-lines have been dragged into this particular election. For a country battling insecurity on almost all fronts, allowing political or election-related violence to enter the mix will be akin to tempting fate. The peace accord brokered by the National Peace Committee should not be just a symbolic gesture. There is need to get a new set of commitments from the principal actors and to call out and sanction politicians and their supporters that do or say things that cause or could cause a breach of peace. The electoral management body and the security agencies also need to be fair, firm and proactive.
The second worrying pattern is the growing intolerance for political difference. Democracy at its core is about freedoms. This includes the freedom to see the world differently and to have a different preference or choice. While some ways of seeing or choosing may be suboptimal than or inferior to others, no one’s right to choose is superior to another’s. Abusing, insulting, shouting down, labelling, dragging and cancelling those who hold a different view or have a different preference is against the spirit of democracy, and does not necessarily win over those on the other side or who are yet to decide.
Politicians and their supporters should disagree strongly, but with civility. Electoral politics can be a passionate argument about the vision and the direction of society. And with where Nigeria is at the moment, the passion is understandable. But democracy is an exercise in persuasion, about making compelling arguments that will win over the required number, and not about shouting down or bullying others. We are near a place where people are afraid to express their views or to show their hands. This growing anti-difference temper is anti-democratic. There is also a danger of it spilling from the verbal to the physical.
But there is an even more insidious dimension. There is this growing insinuation that if the election does not produce a particular outcome, then it must have been manipulated. This is dangerous, not just because this may be an attempt to lay the ground for discrediting the polls but because it could create the spark for post-election violence, especially given the combustible ethno-religious subtexts of the presidential poll. This should give all of us a good reason for pause, especially with the memory of the electoral violence of 1964/1965, 1983 and 2011.
At a time like this, it is important to always recall the immortal words of late Claude Ake: we cannot have democracy without having democrats. The democratic enterprise can be a tricky and frustrating business. Democracy is not only desirable when it produces the outcome we desire. Political actors must always play by and within the rules, not try to bring down the house because they can’t get their way or conveniently look away when their supporters try to seek self-help and put all at risk.
INEC should be given all the necessary support to organise free, fair and credible elections. It should be held accountable, without being distracted or being discredited without basis. But even when it is universally acknowledged that INEC has discharged itself creditably, there is room for candidates, their parties and supporters to disagree. The room for disagreement is not in whispering campaigns or in instigation to violence. It is in the courts, at different levels, all the way to the court of last instance. Those who submit to the democratic process must be vigilant to ensure a free and fair process but they must also retain faith in the process and the system. Those who have responsibility for law and order also need to proactively undertake rigorous risk analysis and put in place robust risk-mitigation strategies.
The third worrying pattern I see is the prioritisation of show over substance in what could pass for the actual campaigns. I have followed the ongoing campaigns very closely. I have taken time to go through the manifestos (for those who have them), interviews (for those who have conducted them), footages of some rallies, media reports/coverages of townhall meetings and policy dialogues, and social media postings. As a commentator on Arise News and as a member of the editorial board of THISDAY, I have also had the opportunity of asking the candidates some questions. Save for a few flashes here and there, the campaigns, for me, have been very superficial so far. They are mostly about who can pull the biggest crowd in rallies and marches where little get said. And the pronouncements have been more about applause-eliciting and base-nodding soundbites than solid and pragmatic ideas.
I must admit here that I am not the typical voter. I am interested in the candidates’ understanding of the current challenges, in their policy prescriptions, in how practical and appropriate those prescriptions are to the context, in the details, phasing, and funding of their proposals and in the trade-offs. I am not impressed with candidates sounding like public affairs commentators or telling us we need to fix x, y and z without saying the specific things he will do, and how he will go about them and where he will find the money and what needs to give.
This may sound like nitpicking, but it is not. Whoever wins the presidency in February will face tough challenges, will need to make difficult calls, and should be ready take decisive actions from the first day. The reason is simple: Nigeria is at an unusual pass. We cannot afford to approach this election cycle the way we went into the previous ones.
Yes, emotions and partisanship cannot be taken away from politics. But more than at any other time in our history, we need to also focus on and critically interrogate the ideas of the candidates, even when they don’t want us to. We need to make them sweat for the topmost job in the land which they applied for out of their own volition. And courtesy of the current electoral law, we still have about three months to put their feet to the fire and, in the process, harvest good ideas for tackling our urgent national challenges. We have no excuse to engage in work-avoidance.