By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
‘When you are on the periphery its not the periphery; it is the center.’ Mary Robinson
WITH just a few months before Nigerians go to the general elections, the outlook on a nation ready to confront and successfully deal with a major turning point is poor. Vital requirements for the success of the transitional processes between this administration and the next are missing, and there is little evidence that capacities exist which will re invent or develop them.
Of these, the most important is the limited space for formal political structures and processes to canvass for support and organize to contest in the election. Political parties and politicians have lost much ground to powerful ethnic, religious and political interests. The 2015 elections, if they hold at all, will not be about choices involving candidates and parties. They are likely to be a contest between ethnic and religious groups.
Ironically, the National Conference which could have improved elite consensus around key issues is principally responsible for the increased disarray among the elites. For this you have to blame President Goodluck Jonathan.
Predicating the conference on the assumption that ethnicity is the building block of the Nigerian state, Jonathan designed it in such a manner that he basically re-invented ethnic and regional leaders who had no capacity to address the foundations of national security, reform a threatened electoral process or mitigate the damage of widespread corruption.
They quarreled their ways into deeping the chasms his presidency had created, and each fraction of the elite went away with an injured agenda and its own idea of priorities for good governance. People who exercise constitutional authority, or operate basic political structures stood by as un-elected Nigerians briefly basked in the sun and told themselves that they held the aces regarding the future of the nation.
It is no surprise that the post-conference atmosphere is characterized by higher levels of hostility between ethnic and regional elites. Political developments are being substantially influenced by fallouts from the national conference. Nigerian elites have rarely been as polarized along ethnic and regional lines, and politicking towards the 2015 elections will bear all the hallmarks of a nation labouring under the overbearing influence of forces which the democratic process is intended to accommodate and overcome.
Every development these days is ground for ethnic battles. INEC rolls out proposals on allocation of 30,000 additional polling units, the first such review since 1996. Ordinarily this should have been a cause for celebrating a major step intended to address a major bottleneck in the electoral process. Most parts of the country desperately need additional or decongested polling units, given the massive increase in voting population and democratic changes.
INEC thought it had applied all the appropriate indices in allocating the additional polling units across the federation, including the criterion of equity. It was wrong. The allocation of over 70% of the units to states in the north was rejected by ethnic and regional leaders from the south, quite possibly with prompting from politicians holding offices in the present administration.
Jega who was a hero to many in the south only for conducting an election in 2011 that produced a southern President, was stripped to his bare bones as a hard core northern chauvinist who should resign immediately.
The distinguished assembly of the outraged, long accustomed to bullying a weakened north into giving ground, failed to note that Jega admitted that many states in the south did not even deserve the number of units they got, but for the inclusion of the principle of fairness and equity. In other words, if INEC had been strict in sharing out the units in accordance with voting population and geography, the north would have received even more.
This means units that should have been allocated to ease voting for northern voters have been given to southern voters, presumably on the assumption that their leaders shout louder than northern leaders.
The painstaking and detailed response of INEC to the criticism from ethnic champions from the south merely opened up a new front for Jega: northern regional leaders were outraged over the concessions INEC says it made at northern voters’ expense.
They insisted that the entire exercise be revisited, and justice done to the northern voters by giving them back units that were unfairly allocated to southern voters. Their language suggested a pronounced exasperation of people who had watched the grounds shift away from the north or many fronts, and whose pleas for justice or redress are not even the irritants they were a few years ago.
The quarrel over allocation of polling units is a symptom of much deeper crisis afflicting the Nigerian elite. In a way, INEC read the terrain much better than most observers are willing to give it credit for.
It attempted to balance political exigencies against the demand for fairness in an exercise that cannot be stretched beyond a certain threshold. It is also quite possibly aware that this quarrel is less about the manner it distributed 30,000 additional polling units than a symptom of the deeply soiled relations being actively promoted within and between many parts of the nation by ethnic and regional leaders. Evidence of this is all over the terrain. Igbo ethnic leaders will go to war over allegations that Ihejirika has been supporting Boko Haram.
Northern elders accuse Jonathan of turning his back on the north as an insurgency he can fight destroys it, and for fraternizing with its sponsors. South south leaders provide the muscle for the sole candidature of Jonathan, and let everyone know it is less about the PDP than it is for their son. If Jonathan attempts to postpone the 2015 elections, he is likely to have a long queue of ethnic and religious supporters for it.
With all this space taken up by ethnic and regional leaders, the two leading parties now have to struggle for room to be heard. In this respect, the PDP has a slight advantage; it has ethnic leaders who will defend and support the PDP position in the south east and south south as a matter with deep significance for their ethnic constituencies.
Northern leaders suffer deep divisions around partisan, religious and ethnic lines, and it is most unlikely that they will endorse APC or PDP in the same manner ethnic leaders in many parts of the south openly do. In spite of its massive support in the south west, APC knows that it has very serious problems with a large segment of Yoruba elite, and these will be difficult to stop from walking on both sides of the street when it matters most.
As the 2015 elections approach, influence of ethnic, regional and religious sentiments will be channeled more actively into the contest. It is unlikely that the nation will witness radical departures from patterns of electioneering of the past, but the combined effects of the insurgency which has made every northerner an equal victim may reduce the gulf which exists between its many ethno-religious groups, while a new determination by northern regional leaders to cobble together a firmer political unity could reduce the region’s vulnerability. A north/south west alliance is one of the possibilities in 2015, but there are many permutations in the pipeline for this to become real.
If elites who believe they represent ethnic, regional or religious interests can speak to each other, they could find that they have a stronger influence than politicians in the manner the 2015 elections affect the fortunes of the people that they think they have responsibility for. If they do not, they may push a fragile nation nearer to a point even they cannot salvage.