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Reflecting on Nigeria's Upcoming 2019 Elections

Chikere A Agbo SJ

The 2019 general elections in Nigeria are a few days away and the country is already awash with all kinds of political activities and permutations. Political parties intensify their campaigns and galvanise their supporters in an attempt to woo more voters. At one time, candidates attack opponents on the media in order to outdo them. At other times, they are seen smiling to the cameras to express their friendliness. Politics certainly requires a great deal of energy. Election campaign jingles, rhetoric, and manifesto rehash pervade the airwaves. Some candidates even take the battle to social media using paid ads and messages.

After the 2019 elections, the street sweepers will have a great deal of work in their hands dismantling all the posters littering the cities. Some of these posters bear serious messages while others contain downright funny messages. Citizens frequently come upon printed words such as “Be bright! Vote for the right thing, vote for…” “Do not be dumb! Vote for me for the sake of posterity.” Still, some posters read, “Vote for me! My victory is your victory. My salary is your salary, my allowances are your allowances.” Knowing the selfishness of some Nigerian politicians, one could hardly hold back laughter at this cajoling message. Additionally, parties proliferate their slogans and hoist the symbols of their organisation in strategic places. While “Next Level” (Buhari and Osibanjo/APC) and “Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again” (Atiku and Obi/PDP) are the two most pervasive party slogans, the APC’s broom and PDP’s umbrella remain the two most widespread party symbols. This is partly due to the candidates’ popularity and financial endowments.

An election is like a gamble. It is easily addictive with its promise of power and money. Little wonder few individuals have traded their lucrative professions for politics. Even though they lose, they keep throwing their hats in the ring with the hope of victory. After making several attempts without success, they resort to studying the political history of men like Abraham Lincoln who is said to have endured electoral losses many times before clinching the presidency of the United States of America. Enamoured by this extraordinary story of resilience, many Nigerian politicians strive to have their names featured on the ballot paper every four years. A little adulation from a few fans gives them an illusion of popularity and relevance, which, in turn, makes them continuously invest private and public resources in this important yet elusive venture. The fact is that most times they only earn for their CVs titles such as former gubernatorial candidate, former senatorial candidate, former presidential candidate, or even former ward councilor candidate at the end of each election.

No doubt, Nigeria is a unique country. Every four years Nigerians are treated to good comedies emanating from grammatical blunders and an outright slip of tongues by politicians. A live debate on AIT TV last night (Feb. 11, 2019) between supporters of two parties proved the height of them. As a parting shot, the supporter of one party exclaimed, “This election is for us to lose,” in an apparent gaffe. The moderator, who seemed bemused, simply said, “Thank you” in tongue-in-cheek. Little wonder, Professor Osibanjo disappointed all the “bad belles” during his party’s recent rally in Lagos. He simply spoke in Yoruba in order to connect with the grassroots and possibly stun opponents masquerading as unbiased political commenters ever ready to pick holes in candidates’ speeches. Some of his detractors would first seek the help of a translator, which they may not come easily. By then, more friendly reporters proficient in the language would have done some damage control. But, like all the other politicians jostling for this exalted office, it was not difficult to deduce what he might have said to his listeners in this context as his speech ended with the showing of four fingers of both hands and swinging of brooms.

Speaking of brooms, the election season has been good to a certain category of Nigerians. The broom sellers, the umbrella manufacturers, traditional attire designers, and publishers have politicians and their supporters to thank for a boom in their business. In fact, one trader even thought of producing golden brooms and umbrellas for VIPs. One can only imagine how a golden broom or umbrella would look like.

Besides, the election has been characterised by endorsements from various interest groups, prophetic pronouncements by religious leaders, predictions by pollsters, and wagering by betting groups. Even civil societies that ought to play the role of a pressure group and maintain political neutrality for the common good somehow find themselves embarrassingly entangled in partisan politics. The men of God are not indifferent, though they proceed with caution. Just the other day, a very popular man of God attracted the ire of the public for openly soliciting for donations from a famous candidate of a party in exchange for divine favour. The candidate’s supporters from all corners verbally pounced on the man of God.

After many months of speculation by the public, the revered Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka has endorsed Professor Kingsley Muoghalu, the presidential candidate of Young Progressive Party (YPP). In a society where an endorsement from a highly respected statesman brings electoral fortune, Professor Muoghalu will be swimming in thousands if not millions of votes come February 16. The literary giant takes elections seriously and seems to have soft spot for candidates from strong and tested academic backgrounds. A few years ago, he threw his weight behind another academic, Professor Pat Utomi, who gave the presidency a shot. Professors Muoghalu and Utomi are not only well-read but also possess impeccable public service records, having served as deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria and special adviser to a president, respectively. The endorsement will certainly boost Muoghalu’s chances at the polls, but it remains to be seen how far this clear-headed and consummate technocrat, but financially modest politician will go in arguably Africa’s most expensive election.

Apart from comic contents, the election provides materials for sermons and even classroom instruction and the country will lack nothing to talk about in the coming days. In the heat of elections with emotions rising, people can easily forget that life continues after elections. Children will go to school and some will still be in the school during the period. Parents will go to work. As a punctuation mark in a society’s life, elections are only a comma and not a period. In a few days, all this commotion would be forgotten. This is why politics is viewed in advanced democracies as civic exercises rather than a war. It should not bear a uniquely African election imprint, namely, violence. The exercises in propaganda and gamesmanship that the country has seen in the last few months should end with the campaigns. People should not treat the election as a do or die affair, but as a very important exercise deserving of everyone’s civil participation in form of vote. And vote cast in the atmosphere devoid of fear and intimidation legitimises election as a political process.

There is no doubt that in democracy vote matters. Nigerians should go out and cast their votes. It is their fundamental right and civic responsibility. It makes it easy for them to demand accountability from elected officers. This is not the time to whine and grieve about the past actions or no actions of politicians. Nigerians need to eschew cynicism and banish the spirit of apathy in all ramifications at this time and use their votes. Their power cannot be overemphasized. The Jesuits, through the director of the Social Apostolate, have distributed flyers which contents encourage every Nigerian to participate in the electoral exercise and not be dissuaded by a false notion that one’s vote does not count at the end. For them “even if one thinks it doesn’t count, the very act of going out to vote is in itself an act of freedom.” One dare adds that such freedom cannot be traded off. It follows that votes count after all. If they do not count, Sanwo Olu and Jimi Agbaje, the two main contenders in Lagos gubernatorial election of March 2, 2019, would not have spent so much on campaign ads on the streets of Lagos, trying to convince the electorate about their plans for the state. It was Plato who once warned the Athenians in these words, “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”

Finally, the election will come and go, but whoever emerges the winner will have a great task ahead. The moment portends a difficult time to be the president of Nigeria, with a waning sense of patriotism, increasing despondency, and a resurgence of sectarian sentiments that divide the country along fault lines of religion, tribe, and region. The task will include uniting the people and inspiring the can-do spirit of Nigerian in the youth. Above all, one will need to continuously improve on the economy, security, and job creation. May God bless Nigeria.