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Changing rhetoric of the 2011 elections

By Rotimi Fasan

About three weeks ago, I commented here on the seeming camaraderie between the presidential aspirants of the Peoples Democratic Party, specifically President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida. Both men had spoken in a language and manner that suggested they could be fast friends even as they individually had their eyes set on the same prize in the forthcoming 2011 elections.

Babangida had said very nice things about Jonathan’s wife; mentioned her frequent calls and kind inquiries after his children. Jonathan on the other hand had also spoken in friendly terms about Babangida, and neither men seemed to harbour any hard feelings about the political ambition of the other.

This was before either of them formally indicated interest in the presidential race. I had found the soft touch approach of both Jonathan and Babangida not quite in the character of politicians in these climes, particular those in different and potentially antagonistic camps. So much did the language and body talk of both men sound so friendly that they appeared programmed for the cameras.

I had then wondered how far this would hold and if the friendly faces being presented to the world wouldn’t turn stony as we inched closer to the elections.

There was nothing in the manner and language Babangida and Jonathan employed about each other that was out of the ordinary. It’s just that it wasn’t the usual language of Nigerian politicians, who would sooner hurl abusive words at one another than pat each other on the back for checking on one another’s welfare.

Thus as Babangida and Jonathan bantered in their different corners it was not too difficult to imagine how deep were the feelings being expressed; and what their different supporters would make of their apparent friendship when things got hotter on the political trail.

That edition of this column during which I’d spoken on the matter had barely gone to print before the first shots were fired across verbal lines. First to complain was the Babangida camp, whose dean, Raymond Dokpesi, raised alarm that his life was in danger, and from no other group than that of his principal’s chief opponent and the President himself, Goodluck Jonathan. According to Dokpesi, people he believed were sympathetic to the presidential ambition of President Jonathan were out to eliminate him. Indeed, the media had reported the notice of some militant groups in the Niger-Delta declaring Dokpesi persona non grata.

How much of a threat this constituted, or how well the group could be taken seriously is a matter only the police can decide. But Dokpesi found the declaration serious enough to warrant his crying out to the world for help. And Babangida no doubt believed him, as he quickly took up the Dokpesi alarm, assuring all that the threat to Dopkesi was indeed real. For a former general and military leader who famously proclaimed his mastery of the means of violence in the wake of agitations against his government by would-be trouble makers in the 1990s, Babangida might know more than some Nigerians care to credit him with. Yet as the police haven’t said anything new on the matter, every other conclusion remains speculative.

And so I wonder: Was Dopkesi being a politician in the Nigerian way, trying to gain political sympathy and mileage, by his alarm? Was the alarm raised genuine? Would it bear scrutiny? We may have to wait a little longer for us to make anything of this.

But how did the Jonathan’s camp react to all of this? Predictably, they turned the heat back on Babangida and his men. Presidential spokesperson, Ima Noboro, told anyone who could hear that there was nothing to the Dokpesi alarm but politics. He would want Nigerians to discountenance all claims of threats allegedly emanating from the camp of Jonathan. More barbs have since been hurled at one another, including from and to others not part of the initial spat. Gradually, the language of the political combatants is sounding more like the martial diction that spews from a war camp.

The photo opportunity that could have come from the former smiles from Babangida and Jonathan is fast frittering away and nobody can tell how long we need to wait before words give way to more lethal tools. But clever people that they are, neither Babangida nor Jonathan had allowed what happened to draw them into open exchange of words.

We would hope that things continue to hold between the two camps and others in the various camps. How pleasant it would be the day Nigerian politicians learn to play politics without recourse to so-called gutter language that characterised previous dispensations.

Our politics should be growing, and as we grow we should leave behind the unprofitable habits of old. It is the minimum we can expect from people claiming to be leaders and managers of other men and women.


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