By Dul Johnson
Even before the political party primaries produced their candidates there was a lot of anxiety as to what awaited the nation as regards the 2023 general elections. There were different reasons for the anxiety. Would the primaries produce credible and popularly accepted candidates? Were the elections going to hold or not? If they held, would they be free, fair and credible? Could we trust the old parties that have failed us so many times in the past? What prospects could there be in any of the new parties that did not seem to have formidable structures on the ground? Could we trust INEC to be fair or would the umpire pander to the whims of their payer? The most ridiculous question one heard (and this came from many), was: “If party X won the election, would ‘they’ (meaning the powers that be) give it to them (i.e., the winning party)?”
These concerns and questions are not unfounded, yet, they are defeatist, and coming from defeatist minds. If these concerns and questions were coming from people in other parts of the world other than Nigerians, one would understand. For, other people do not have the power to address the concerns or bring into being the answers to the questions. Only Nigerians do. The elections are in the hands of Nigerians and they are the only ones that can allay their own fears. The spirit of despondency that these questions and fears convey is tantamount to giving up your rights to someone who has not even posed any threat to you, someone you cannot see or identify, but whom you assume has more power than you, or, in fact, that has power over you. You cannot take off for the battlefield saying and believing that you are going to lose. Why would you go in the first place?
If any person or group of persons was planning such unwholesome acts as the questions suggest, our belief (or lack of it), our fears and despondency can only bolster their cowardly minds to carry out their evil intentions. Why should we give them such opportunity so cheaply? Fortunately, election battles are not fought with guns or any dangerous weapons; they are fought with the Voter’s Card, and your determination to ensure that your vote counts! How do you ensure that your vote counts? This must be the question on the minds of many, especially when voters are advised to leave the polling station after voting. The other million-naira question is how to ensure the safety of the ballot box.
Leaving the venue after casting your vote is only a piece of advice. There is no law that says you must leave. But we can leave once we have ensured that certain steps have been taken to safeguard the box and our votes. The political term for your vote not counting (other than technical issues) is ‘rigging’, and rigging is not done by spirits. It is carried out through the compromise and connivance of persons that we ourselves put there to protect our interests. What we need, therefore, is to ensure that whether we remain at the polling venue or not, our interests are protected, and this can happen only if we ensure the allegiance and credibility of the people we put in charge; the party’s representatives at the polling units. However, this problem seems to have been taken care of with INEC’s plan to adopt the bimodal voters accreditation system (BVAS) in voting and also transmitting the results electronically to a central server at their office. This decision couldn’t have come at a better time than this. With this system people can cast their votes and go to sleep knowing that it is already transmitted and so cannot be tampered with. With this, the problems of ballot stuffing, ballot snatching and result writing would have been solved. One can only pray that INEC will truly be independent and that no daredevil hackers will break into the server to alter the results. Once political office holders know that the electorates can determine who gets elected and who does not, they will work to earn their votes.
In other words, until the BVAS becomes a reality, the protection of our interests begins with our interest in who represents us at the polling unit. Even with the BVAS, the foxes have other ways of manipulation (especially in the rural areas), such as confusing, coursing or blackmailing the voters to do their bidding. If you send a greedy person to represent you, know that they can sell off your rights for a pittance. What this means is that you yourself must not be greedy, shunning any temptation to have material gain. This may be very difficult for some people in present day Nigeria, but it will be foolishness to think only of today. Today is one, but there are thousands of tomorrows! Putting the wrong person there means that you are jeopardizing your own future. Choosing a dependable party representative is therefore the first important step. Such must be a person of integrity, lover of peace and equity and one who has the fear of God and respect for the rule of law.
The next thing to do is to ensure that the person entrusted with the task delivers as expected. To do this, they need your support and encouragement. People of integrity are not immune to temptation, especially when they are in want. We either go for someone who is not under any pressure, or we help them remove the pressure. The selection must not be done by one person, and it should not be a one-day affair; there should be a free and fair process leading to it, even if it is done by a party caucus. Of course, at this point in the election process you must be dealing with a party and every party has leadership at every level. The Party Rep should be accountable to the leadership at the Community/Ward levels while the leadership must be accountable to the members at the Community/Ward levels. The people must have the ultimate power and they must ensure that those they have appointed or elected give full account of their leadership. When this happens, rigging would be reduced to near-zero levels if not completely eliminated.
Probably the biggest problem with elections in Nigeria is lack of mobilization and awareness amongst the populace. I am not talking about the noises made to draw attention to the elections and who is running for what post. The people need to know the import of every election; what it holds for them as individuals, as communities and for the State/Nation at large; what party offers what, and why should we go for it? This should be made known to the electorates who should also know the credentials of the candidate they are being asked to vote for. Literacy and political awareness levels in Nigeria are high enough for this and we should demand it. With increased awareness, we can then encourage the people to participate en-masse.
Having a successful election is not a guarantee that everything will be smooth thereafter. In the past, we have gone home to relax having elected persons we believed would perform. Even those who did not vote for the party in power settled down (often, after much grumbling) and accepted their fate, hoping for the best. We hoped for improvement in areas that were weak or even falling apart. We expected real changes only for things to get worse than they previously were. To carry out elections and successfully install a government is good, but that is not enough to establish a stable political culture, which can only develop through long practice and perseverance as well as the people’s contributions to the running of the system. You cannot employ someone to do a job and then go to sleep allowing the employee to do as they want; they would sooner become the employer and you the employee.
There are a number of things that we must do, if we want our democracy to take proper root and become a culture. We need to begin to talk to the government as soon as it gets into power; before they begin to feel too comfortable and too powerful. What has been happening is that we become too quiet, in fact, too cowed to talk to people that were begging us only a few weeks before. It is our right (and duty) to critique every wrong step or action they take, and their failure to take steps or actions that need to be taken. By the same token, we must commend them when they take positive actions, and encourage them to follow the actions through. In this way, they know that we are watching and that we are concerned about what they do or do not do. The saying that “a stitch in time saves nine” should become our watchword. Complaining after the damage has been done never helps any situation.
We must establish monitoring and reporting systems or channels. Often, we complain about things we expect “government” to see or know about, asking if “government” is not seeing or hearing what we see and hear. We often ask: Are the government officers blind? Do they not drive on the same roads we use? Do they not use electricity or water? And then we provide the answers for them: They don’t feel the potholes on the roads because they ride in Jeeps. They use power generators rather than power from the National Grid, and have boreholes in their houses. Of course, we expect “government” to have monitoring mechanisms, but these are manned by human beings like us who cannot be everywhere at once, or have become nonchalant like the rest of us including their bosses. We must realise also, that it is on our behalf that the appointed or elected officers are working, therefore, the onus is on us to assist them with every information needed to do the job. When we do this, we keep them on their toes and they will be conscious of the fact that we are constantly watching them.
The problem of elected officers feeling they don’t need to be accountable to us is entrenched when the election process is flawed in ways that give them undue advantage. When office holders get into the office without our genuine votes then they don’t morally feel accountable to anyone because they got into office without our votes, or because we did not willingly give them our votes. This is what happens when elections are rigged in whatever form. Those of us who witnessed the last election must have been shocked when ‘winners’ were known even before the votes were cast. It would be foolhardy to expect such office holders to feel accountable to the electorate.
One of our major problems in Nigeria is apathy towards government activities. The people must participate actively in governance without attempting to do the jobs of those we have elected or appointed. Monitoring and reporting are forms of participation, but what I am suggesting is more than that. Ensuring that you pay your taxes regularly and ensuring that that taxes are properly utilised, for example, is a form of participation. Ensuring that your environment is clean, the gutters by your house are not blocked, the security of your community is your concern, that you can maintain the road by your house and mobilise the community to build a sewage or repair the road are all forms of participation, which can challenge the local authorities to rise to their responsibilities. But more important is for us to be able to engage our representatives at the different levels, reminding them of their duty to the electorates. This is where we have failed in our responsibility as employer. The constitution has given us the power to sack and replace any elected officer who fails to live up to our expectations. It is doubtful if any constituency has used this power in the history of Nigeria’s democracy.
To hold our leaders accountable, information is needed about their dealings. This is where Nigeria is lacking. There is so much secrecy about government dealings. It took so long to pass a bill allowing information on governance to be freely given to the public and even now that the freedom of information bill has been passed, it is only in principle; we hardly witness any such thing in practice. How many people are aware of what revenue accrues to their State or Local Governments not to talk of how those funds are spent. Even when such information is given out by the Federal government, the States and the Local Governments make it a top secret! Nigeria is a signatory to the transparency bill on extractive industry, meaning that all dealings in petroleum should be openly reported to the public. This will put the people in a position to demand accountability of how such monies are utilized. To date Nigeria is ranked least in transparency and accountability especially as it relates to her extractive industry. We, the people, are guilty for not demanding for this information.
To make matters worse Nigeria is one of the countries with the highest apathy amongst its populace to the extent that we have been tagged as a country where its citizens are suffering and smiling. Everyone seems to think that it is not their business and the rulers continue to do what they like. There is a very poor sense of responsibility on the part of the populace when it comes to dealing with government matters. Any attempt by any group to call government to account is read along religious, ethnic or political lines and this frustrates the efforts of the governed at teaming up to hold the government accountable for their actions or the lack of it. How can we establish a stable political culture with this pervading degree of apathy?
I am aware that many have tried to talk to their elected representatives and failed. I have also tried it and failed. But we must not despair. We must not stop trying, but we must not do it as individuals either. It has to be a community or pressure group effort. The stories of the world’s stable democracies teach us that it took them many, many years to get to where they are today. From what we learnt in our Sociology and History classes, African communities were egalitarian and communalistic. These were the ancient forms of modern-day democracy and therefore it shouldn’t be too strange to us. The greed that has overtaken us, destroying our brothers’-keeper way of life is foreign to us. It was found amongst a few but it is now spreading like wild fire. Corruption and greed are the twin evil destroying our attempts at democracy and are responsible for all other forms of evil and failings in our society today. It is our responsibility to challenge our relatives, friends and associates in power that are engaged in these unwholesome practices. We may not win the battle in a day or a year, but for the sake of posterity we must never give up. It is our attitude of giving up easily that has given rise to the culture of impunity which has been ruling and ruining this country from the lowest to the highest level of governance.
As we look forward to the elections in February 2023 and the installation of a new government in May, we must remember that the world is watching Nigeria with keen interest, and that our nation is on a precipice and therefore we must do everything possible to prevent it from tipping over. It is also important we know that we cannot afford to waste the opportunity we have in the forthcoming elections. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes we have made in the past, both at the elections and when the new government is sworn in. we must vote for people who have Nigeria’s interest at heart and must serve as their conscience once they are in power. We must speak out and/or act once the need arises, both as groups and as individuals. Group actions are far more effective. We cannot easily forget EndSARS revolution of October 2020. There is also the recent example of a young man who was slammed for speaking up against the first Lady. It was the uproar from many people that led to his release.
In the desire to wake us up to our responsibility in establishing a stable political culture, I had published a series of articles calling on different professional and social groups and associations to mobilise themselves and people in their spheres of influence for successful elections in 2023. I am aware of the immense powers wielded by these groups and appealing to their sense of patriotism to use those powers as we go into elections, and afterwards, to rouse our dead spirits of apathy into action for the survival of Nigeria. These include the body of Lawyers (one of the most powerful), of Doctors/Medical Practitioners, the Labour Union (a most formidable force), the Academic Staff Union of Universities (with control over millions of voters), academic associations such as the Literary Scholars Association of Nigeria, Political Science Association, the Clergy, Traditional rulers, the Armed Forces and other Security outfits, Youth groups, Women groups, Old Boys Associations and other Student groups, Nigerians in the Diaspora.
Finally, our media must recognise and play its important role as the fourth estate of the realm in order to checkmate institutional and individual indiscipline and impunity. In fact, they can effectively play the role I am asking the public and individuals to play. The social media is already doing this, but without any legislated code of ethics, it is fraught with dangers, both for the society and the individual user. Yet, the time to take all the necessary steps to establish a stable political culture—most of which we have identified above—is now and must be sustained until we get it right. This is our chance, and probably our last chance.
- Prof Johnson is of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Bingham University, Karu, Nasarawa State