The interest in Nigeria’s general elections in a few weeks is understandable but we are missing the opportunity to be more mindful about our future and this is reflected in the quality of our campaigns.
The 2023 elections will be our seventh cycle of elections since 1999 – the longest stretch of uninterrupted civil rule. In a region where democracy is under threat from coups, tenure elongation and democratic regression, Nigeria is beginning to shine as an example of fortitude and democratic consolidation, particularly if we achieve another transfer of power between parties. Interest is also driven by fear that if Nigeria does not get it right, repercussions will be felt across West Africa and beyond. People gasp in disbelief when they hear that PwC projects that by 2050, Nigeria could be the second largest democracy in the world. What will the second largest democracy be like in 30 years? Some of the pointers lie with where we are today.
While elections are a small part of what it means to be a democracy, elections provide an opportunity to evaluate governance and strength of democratic values. Over the last week, The Times, Financial Times and Foreign Policy have covered Nigeria’s elections from different angles, and one observation that has stuck is that there is “almost no serious debate about how to leverage the country’s so-called demographic dividend… A putative advantage of democracies is that they promote the generation of good ideas through debate. But in Nigeria, ominously, there was no one talking about opportunity knocking but once.”
This is not an idle observation. A review of headlines and trends of the last week show we are focused on comedy around speech incoherence, presidential candidates throwing jabs, a power-drunk woman abusing the power her husband holds in trust, defections between parties and smutty videos of tell-all’s and religious baiting. Ironically, within these stories lie the conversations we should be having with almost 5,000 candidates vying for different positions. If nothing else, we should be insisting that candidates of All Progressive Congress (APC) – the incumbent party at the federal level and in 21 states – share an account of their time in power beyond borrowing and building infrastructure. Take President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign speech in Yola a few days ago – he said: “Security, education and health is all we need.”
Under his watch, the Academic Staff Union of Universities went on strike longer than any period since 1999, COVID-19 was wasted as an opportunity to improve public health care facilities, and budgets for health and education never met the acceptable global ratios. Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the APC, likes to balance how tight his political umbilical cord is tied to Buhari’s rule – he could have segued into concrete policies on health and education, but he didn’t. Because he has already shown how uninterested he is in policy dialogue by avoiding all debates and invitations to discuss. At a town hall meeting with young people in Abuja, Tinubu said:
“I will create a thriving and conducive environment for you to complete your education, start work or start a business, and earn a decent wage. With hard work and focus, you will once again be able to buy a car or a motorbike, buy a house, settle down, start a family and create a better life.”
The economy is in recession and while COVID-19 and Ukraine play a part, those two events are not responsible for the ruinous monetary policies that have driven inflation above 20 per cent. Administrative policies and indiscipline are responsible for Nigeria’s inability to benefit from high crude oil prices and tame insecurity and its negative impact on productivity and well-being.
The emergence of Peter Obi as a popular candidate outside the establishment has helped elevate discussions on identity, character and political equity – but only with regards to presidential candidates. In a country where the national population and identification systems are mysterious –lineage, personal history and cultural markers associated with candidates are important – who are we voting for? What is their background? How does it fit into the old and emerging narratives of who we are as Nigerians?
The model of how successful persons – in and outside government – behave in Nigeria i.e., entitled and above rules, makes character a campaign issue. Candidates who embody respectfulness and accessibility stand out. Finally, the need for political equity has dominated conversations but predominantly framed as entitlement i.e., ‘our turn’. Diversity and representation are vital, which is why we have federal character enshrined in our constitution but we manage to ensure that too often the worst characters are foisted as representatives with zero accountability.
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There is room before elections to insist on more conversations to compliment large rallies. Those disaffected with APC and the Peoples Democratic Party need more engagement – they cannot be written off because elected officials are responsible for all, not some Nigerians.
Party loyalists, tasked with defending their candidates, will also need more than the emotional satisfaction of seeing large turnouts for their candidates; meaningless, considering our rent-a-crowd culture.
This is the time for more Channels Television-type conversations where candidates are questioned for two to three hours on how they plan to deliver on promises and vision.
No one believes, “I will end insecurity.” Candidates must tell us what policies are vital to a holistic, sustained improvement in security: reviewing the exclusive legislative list in the 1999 Constitution, policy on demographic growth, compulsory girl child education until completion of secondary school, parental responsibility – to go hand in hand with Almajiri education system and improving local access to justice. This is the tip of the convince-us-iceberg.
At a time of global democratic recession that also serves as an opportunity to review our collective understanding and practice of democracy, Nigeria’s general elections provide us with a chance to take stock, assess and redesign our processes and mindsets but we can only do that through meaningful conversations.
Ayisha Osori, author of ‘Love Does Not Win Elections’, writes for the Nigeria Decides 2023 series every fortnight on Wednesdays.