December 28, 2022

Stuck between past and future

Stuck between past and future

By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going —Anon.

VETERAN Nigerian politicians are that species that has now assumed a size and clout large enough to decide the entire character of our democracy. It may have taken note of changes in the electoral process since the 2019 general elections.

Please note that I said “may have”, not “must have”. It did not have to, given its familiarity with a terrain it can always alter, and where it did sit up to see what was new in a game it wins all the time, its interests must have been forced by seemingly threatening developments like changes in voting rules, new technology, or compilation of results.

It suits politicians to let INEC and a whole posse of largely foreign-funded, election-focused civil society organisations think they are always a step or two ahead. Then it sits back down to ask insiders and professional fixers what is new, and how to get around it. Its trump card is that the game will not be played without it, and it is on both sides of the game. It never loses.

The perennial loser is the voter, although he too gets to think he has a hand in affecting those who will run his life. Those whose jobs it is to update professional contestants, managers, riggers, fixers, and head-breakers know that four constants go through some routine scrutiny before and after elections: massive amounts of money; laws, rules, and regulations, potency or otherwise of identity politics; and which former ally is now an enemy.

Financial muscle has always been the main decider in all elections. It drives the process in its entirety, feeding on endemic poverty of the voting population, the complete monetisation of all stages of the process, and the unceasing plunder of the commonwealth, which creates the impression that the only benefit of the democratic system for the poor is located around election times, when billions are spread to buy electoral tickets, votes, and judges.

Since 2019, a lot of changes have been introduced into the electoral process. Huge numbers of new polling units have been created, and the unusual absence of intense controversy over this could be explained by either the successful stealth of INEC in pulling off a very sensitive exercise, or its indifferent impact in the reckoning of the politician, who understands that more is not necessarily better.

New changes have been introduced through changes in the Electoral Act, significant among which are new technologies in voter verification, transmission, and collation processes. Critical timelines in the electoral process have been altered, one of the more significant being the periods allowed for campaigns, which make them longer and, in effect, more demanding on resources, stamina, health and capacity of the state to limit the damage to violence in the entire process.

Technology has been introduced that should improve voter identification and transmission of results, two areas that the Nigerian politician finds most irritating when changes work, and most comforting when they fail and therefore create space for the more amenable, traditional Plan ‘B’. Other attempts to de-monetise the electoral system, such as new caps on spending, have been laughed away even by the legislators who contemplated them.

Millions of Nigerians rushed to become voters in the usual last minute scramble, stimulated in great measure by the emergence of signs that religion and ethnic identities were likely to be decisive in the emergence of the next president of Nigeria. Now, should we expect an election that must represent an improvement, at least to a level consistent with the quality of thinking and design of the reforms?

The truth? That will be expecting too much. A good election by our standard should be one where popular will trump violence and subversion; where rules are substantially respected, with levels of breaches kept within normal, respectable Nigerian standards; where contestants accept results and walk away to await the next elections; or rush to the judiciary to make billionaires of lawyers and judges and restrain supporters who will be tempted to think you can change election results with lots of blood flowing in streets. 

Our politicians are resuming postures that should tell us that it is all a bit too much to expect that new rules and processes will change their approaches and attitudes to the elections. Actually, what the changes in the election processes promised had long been compromised by a political system that digs deeper with every election.

Who is entirely new or different in the top ranks of those angling to be elected president, governor, senator, or state legislator? It is not a problem that some politicians have been on the ballot  in every election since 1999. In fact, experience in either exercising power or chasing it is supposed to be an asset. The spoiler here is the prominent position of President Buhari, who would have been on every ballot for the last 20 years by February 2023.

Look at what he’s done for the country since transitioning from perennial candidate to winner in 2015. His party is a serious contender for another four years, but it had to play the game like everyone else: settling this and settling that with humongous funding. It is walking a tight rope between hugging his record too tightly or moving too far from it.

His administration will superintend the elections, influence the degree to which violence and widespread insecurity become factors in the campaigns, and integrity of the ballot and the outcome of the elections. President Buhari says he wants to leave a legacy of a credible election, but he does not have a firm control of the terrain. His party’s candidate is a study in the deadly battle between a past and a future of Nigeria.

He carries a burdensome cross of identity politics, with religion threatening to create massive gaps in its fortunes. More charitable Nigerians want to be convinced that Tinubu has the physical and mental capacity to make up for APC’s poor record and inspire a nation to rise and chase new dreams and inspirations. 

PDP’s Atiku’s luggage is uncannily similar to Tinubu. Like Tinubu, his emergence as candidate has not been without its price in reminding Nigerians that PDP invented mass political suicide, unspeakable history of poor management of internal crises and absence of humility which suggest that it lost key chapters in its history which record it as the party that laid the foundations of Nigeria’s recent experiment with democracy.

Its trump card is its candidate who stands apart from others on his record as former of Vice President and a successful businessman. His challenge is to weather internal subversion, create a vision of a new Nigeria out of the rubble his party and APC made out of Nigeria, and show why it has to be the one to do it.

Every once in a while, it must strike Atiku and Tinubu how much they resemble each other in our journey to the bottom in a democratic system which has only place for the politician, not the citizen. Then there are Obi and Kwankwaso, whose strongest cases are that they are not Tinubu and Atiku. Obi’s boisterous support has drowned out the fact that he could have been the PDP candidate today if he had the money of Wike and the reach of Atiku to grab the ticket.

He has been re-invented as a messiah with the only key out of our sorry past. We have seen few examples of fanatical support like his, except for the buildup in Buhari’s career. The difference between Buhari’s famed constant army of 12 million votes and Obi’s noisy, but untested strength was that Buhari’s people pointed out that a popular candidate holed up in one part of a large country cannot win an election, and he linked up with an exposed politician who knew it would take little more from him to make all the difference.

Obi is hostage of the power to dream, the power of miracles and a stubborn belief in the power of statistics over painstaking, political heavy lifting. Kwankwaso says his entire adult life has been about politics. He certainly has the scars to show for it, but scars are notorious for not being reactivated. On the contrary, they remind you of injuries, wrong turns, lost fights  and avoiding more bruising fights.

There is still a long way to go, so Kwankwaso may link up with one of the big two, or even Obi, or he may not. If he does, and the linkage wins, he will be part  of the future. If he does not, he will be consigned to history as a popular politician in a part of a country with an outstanding record of following heroes. Right now, we are in a deadlock.

The candidates cannot give out what they don’t have. Camps are limited to unleashing terrible insults at each other. They tip-toe around exposures. Rallies are more about crowds than hearing candidates speak about plans and visions. Supporters are getting more restive, INEC is attacked at will. Yet, we still have a long way to go. It could be forward, or backward.