Dousing political tension in the land
Elections everywhere tend to be divisive. This is because mobilization of support hinges on a successful creation of a simplistic binary of ‘we-versus-them’ dichotomy, which is then nourished by all manner of scaremongering. This is why political campaigns are often likened to wars without weapons. In Africa, it is even more so where politicians seem to have taken literally the exultations by Kwame Nkrumah, a pioneering pan-Africanist and Ghana’s independence leader (1957-1966), to seek first the political kingdom and everything else would be added unto them.
In Africa, the allure of political office is exceeding high. Apart from being perhaps the quickest means to personal material accumulation, there is a pervasive fear that the group that captures state power could use it to privilege its in-group and disadvantage others. For these, electoral competitions tend to be especially anarchic, deepening existing fault lines and even creating new ones. In countries like ours where the basis of nationhood remains highly contested, and where several groups have institutionalized memories of hurt, electoral contests often re-open old wounds that raise doubts about the basis of togetherness. This therefore makes it imperative that the task of healing and reconciliation is prioritised after each election.
After a very shambolically organized presidential election that, on the positive side, witnessed some upsets across several states of the federation, the Governors, who reign like emperors in their respective states, seemed to have quickly returned to the drawing board. By the time the Governorship and State Assembly elections were held on 18 March 2023, they had regained the initiative. It quickly dawned on many people that we were too quick in ascribing a game changer status to the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). In several states across the country, there were snatching of ballot boxes by thugs, alteration of figures recorded at the polling units, voter suppression and intimidation and the weaponization of ethnicity, especially in Lagos State, the home base of the Presidential candidate of the APC, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who lost the state to the Labour party candidate, Peter Obi, to the chagrin of his supporters.
Amid the escalating tensions and profiling and even physical attacks on Igbos and the torching of markets where they dominate in Lagos, came a video purported to be a phone conversation between the Presidential candidate of the Labour party, Peter Obi and Bishop Oyedepo, founder of the Living Faith Church Worldwide, in which Obi was heard repeatedly calling the Pastor ‘Daddy’ and claiming that the election was going to be a “religious war”. Though Peter Obi has denied the authenticity of the audio clip, and some have raised questions about what it portends for our privacy laws, the Tinubu camp, like any political party would do, decided to reap political capital out of it.
Amid the tensions came the allegations from the Tinubu camp that some people were plotting to foist an interim government on the country. Surprisingly, the DSS chose to amplify this by corroborating what was apparently a mere political grandstanding. Lost in the politics of it all, is that even if people actually canvassed for an interim government it would be an expression of opinion which is not a crime under our laws. It was the American jurist Wendell Holmes who declared in a famous judgement, (Gitlow v New York, 1925) that “Every idea is an incitement… The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the results”. In essence you cannot criminalize an opinion because an opinion becomes an incitement only when urgent steps are taken to actualize what was opined. For interim government, not only is it not in our constitution, such a contraption cannot happen without the active connivance of the President and the National legislature. So what was the basis of trying to frame some people for allegedly ‘plotting’ to install an interim government?
To further escalate the tension, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed travelled to New York to accuse Peter Obi and his running mate, Dr Datti Baba Ahmed of committing treason by allegedly inciting people to violence over the outcome of the presidential elections. He was not specific on which action of the two constituted an incitement or treasonable felony. In that posturing he conveniently forgot that the APC had threatened to form a parallel government in exile if the 2015 presidential election was rigged or that as a candidate Buhari made worse remarks than he was accusing Obi and his running mate of doing. Lai Mohammed’s US trip only added to the prevailing tension as it led to a more aggressive pushback by supporters of Peter Obi and his running mate.
Recently, Nigeria’s two most renowned living writers – Professor Wole Soyinka and Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie – got into the fray, apparently on opposite sides of the divide. While Chimamanda wrote an open letter to President Joe Biden urging him not to congratulate Tinubu who was declared the President elect by INEC as that would confer legitimacy on an election she thought was rigged, the Nobel Laureate picked on both the Obidient Movement and Dr Datti Baba Ahmed, describing them as ‘fascists’. With the involvement of Soyinka and Chimamanda whose voices re-echo powerfully on the international arena, we await how their conflicting interventions will shape the responses from the international community.
It is obvious that many people are getting fatigued by the elections and their aftermaths and would like the country to find a way of moving on. I however don’t think it would be wise to just move on – as we are won’t to do in situations like this. I feel that we must seek to understand what happened, give justice to victims of what happened and punish those who helped to sabotage the processes.
I would recommend the following steps to douse the tension in the short term:
One, Buhari should try to be a statesman rather than giving the impression that he has been blackmailed by his party into handing over organs of the state to them to use for incumbency advantages. The DSS’s corroboration of the furore over calls for interim government was an unhelpful partisanship. Two, the government should suspend or sack INEC Chairman Professor Yakubu immediately. Not only did he over promise but grossly under-performed, Rotimi Amaechi, the former Transport Minister, had also reportedly alleged that he was foisted as INEC chairman by forces loyal to the Tinubu camp. That allegation, to the best of my knowledge, has not been denied. Three, the government should bring immediately to book all who were involved in electoral offences and ethnic profiling across the country to signal that bad behaviour has consequences. Four, there should be speedy, if possible televised, trial of the petitions against the declaration of Tinubu as President-elect. Five, the leaders of the three leading political parties can be persuaded them to reign in their rambunctious spokes persons.
Jideofor Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, and Extraordinary Professor of Government Studies at North West University, Mafikeng South Africa. He is the founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers and can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07058078841 (WhatsApp or Text message).