After a lethargic start, the campaigns for the 2023 elections have finally taken off and the political atmosphere is heating up. My point today is that we must not allow it heat up to the boiling point when it might explode. The campaign started rather late because the ambient reality, the unhealthy elderly men that are the leading candidates needed to take time off, visit their doctors in Europe to get doped with performance enhancing drugs – to be pumped up with anabolic steroids and other stimulant drugs so that their old, sick and tired bodies can stand the strain of almost four months of arduous campaign. So, our first duty as citizens is to watch them carefully, how many weeks will the fix they received last forcing them back to Europe for more.
Maybe for the first time in our electoral history, the major parties have had great difficulties in establishing their campaign councils. There has been a lot of bitter quarrels amongst different factions within the parties. Trust is lacking within the parties and each faction and its leaders are seeing the others as possible saboteurs and enemies rather than allies in the same political formation. Of course, the other factor is based on the knowledge that money would flow in the campaigns much more than in previous elections and partisans are seeking to place themselves and exclude others from controlling positions for spending the campaign funds. It is a statement about the underdevelopment of our political parties where political engagement is in fact political entrepreneurship in which politicians are engaged in bitter struggles for power so as to make money rather than serve the people.
The other dimension that is causing havoc within the parties is the suspicion many have that what is being said and acted in public will not be what would be done in practice. That is to say, people would climb the rostrum and say they support the candidate of their party but get their entourage to mobilise their supporters to support the candidate of another party. In other words, there are suspicions of impending betrayals and the atmosphere within many of the political parties today is very toxic. In fact, in some of the parties, we are witnessing open warfare.
Another disturbing trend with the on-going campaigns is the activities of some governors who are denying opponents permission to use venues for rallies and political meetings. There have also been incidents of denial of access to media, particularly at the state level. One of the threats to democracy sustenance is the absence of a level playing ground for competition. That is why the Electoral Act and the Broadcasting Code have made it clear that the right of candidates to campaign and have access to the media is sacrosanct and must be protected. The Electoral Commission and the National Broadcasting Commission must protect these rights to ensure Nigerians vote on the basis of full access to political messaging and choices made on the basis of their assessments of these messages.
One of the most distressing trends is the rise of attacks against personalities with mudslinging, insults, innuendoes and very intemperate language. Highly placed individuals including state governors and legislators are involved in the use of vile language. Issues are being buried under tons of bad language. As we all know, the ideology question and the left/right divide have largely disappeared from Nigerian political parties so campaigns are becoming focused on issues of personalities, ethnic groups, religion and geopolitical zones. Essentially, these have become the issues defining the campaign. Religious and ethnic mobilisation have the negative force to drag Nigerian politics down the dangerous slope to self-destruction. The political class has a responsibility to return political campaigns back to the key issues of concern to citizens – security, jobs, education, health and so on.
The Constitution requires that all political parties draw their programmes and manifestoes from Chapter Two of the Constitution – Directive Principles of State Policy. That section of the Constitution places a lot of obligations on the state to provide for the welfare of citizens. It is virtually a social democratic manifesto. Party manifestos tend to reflect the issues cited in the Constitution. Rather than speak to the contents of their manifestoes however, many leading politicians divert into attacks on personalities and ethnic and religious politics, maybe because they think they can get more voter mileage by raising emotive issues. It is in this context that citizens need to rise to the occasion and sanction politicians who deviate from issue-based campaigning by refusing to vote for them. Citizens must become fact-checkers of correct and civil discourse and show their displeasure when they see deviation away from it.
Civil and refined manners and language are a very important part of maintaining peace and cohesion in human society. The stakes during elections are very high and some people become desperate during campaigns and cross red lines that could create high levels of tension and political instability. Mobilising primordial loyalties is a dangerous pathway if we are to remain focused on having free, fair, credible and violence-free elections. Let’s do all that is in our will and power to ensure we have one of the best elections in our history. It is possible. It is necessary. It is the right thing to do.