By Abimbola Adelakun
At the annual Nigerian Bar Association conference, several presidential candidates presented their respective agendas to the public. The Tuesday event was one of the few moments in this electioneering season when we will hear anything close to “issue-based” campaigns. By next month, when electioneering kicks off officially, one can expect to be assailed with a deafening noise of candidates struggling to outdo one another in their pander towards the lowest common denominating instinct of their followers. They will have to shed conviviality and antagonise each other to amuse their followers.
In the coming months, they will be on campaign grounds, where, surrounded by a baying crowd who want to be excited with yabis and singers serially flung in the direction of their supposed opponents, they will have to pick at one another’s intestines. Gatherings like Tuesday’s event are one of the chances for the candidates to put the best of themselves forward by sharing the ideas that will define their leadership character. Hopefully, there will be more of such going forward. If any presidential candidates choose to cheat themselves of privileged interaction with a distinguished audience by absconding from such events, it is their loss.
Watching the All Progressives Congress vice presidential candidate, Kashim Shettima, use statistics to substantiate his assertion that security can be improved if the Nigerian defence budget was increased, it seemed to me that we might finally be on the cusp of building a culture of counting. For the most part, Nigeria walks in the dark. Some of the weightiest decisions that affect society are taken (or not) without a grounding in verifiable facts. We hardly conduct polls to weigh public opinion and hardly anyone knows the Nigerian population for a fact. There are so many things about us that we do not quite know. We get by essentially through gut instinct, which is why Nigeria is largely dysfunctional. People frequently talk about “ungoverned spaces” when they refer to the territories occupied by roving bandits but virtually every part of Nigeria is ungovernable. Even the supposedly governed spaces are chaotic and our inability to self-govern properly has to do with our society being mostly unmapped. We have no definitive knowledge of the spaces we occupy. We can barely account for the material and immaterial forces that shape our environment and that is why we are perishing.
Much of the credit for how some politicians are arming themselves with facts before facing the public should go to the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi. He gets much flak when his figures do not match his claims but it always excites me to see Nigerians set themselves to the task of fact-checking him. People are turning into Bereans and cross-checking the things they are told. Hopefully, that attitude is retained post-election. Yes, much of the fact-checking done on Obi by critics is merely hypocritical. If his critics were truly interested in facts, they would extend their diligence to their preferred candidates, some of whom have long been possessed by lying spirits. Still, Obi’s effort at introducing factuality into public dialogues seems to be inaugurating a culture of empiricism into Nigeria’s public conversations, which is quite commendable.
That said, I disagree with Shettima on the need to increase defence funding. Between 2015 and now, Nigeria’s defence budget has gone up by at least 66 per cent. It is not a coincidence that within that same period, the rate of insecurity has risen correspondingly. Despite that flush of money, we are no safer now than in 2015 because a military-industrial complex has sprung up with concomitant leakages and corruption by the top brass. There is a good reason one of them could claim he bought himself prime estate in Dubai from the proceeds of his snake farms. The slithering snakes raking in money from the protracted wars we have been fighting should first be made to account for what they have been given and eaten, not showered with more.
By the way, Shettima also brought up Nigeria’s perennial leadership problem and even alluded to Chinua Achebe’s 1982 thesis that the trouble with Nigeria rests squarely on leadership failure. Coming from the incumbent party that systematically ruined the country for eight years, his assertion sounded insincere. They have had the chance to prove their leadership mettle for eight years but failed. Despite the much-vaunted reputation of Bola Tinubu as a head-hunter, the catastrophic state of Nigeria is a failure of his 2015 recruit into Aso Rock. He should be apologising for his failures as HR manager, not aspiring to move to CEO. Shettima also says they would replicate Lagos’s (and Borno’s) success throughout Nigeria. How is that even achievable?
Of the three leading candidates at the event, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party came off as the one with a conceptual grasp of what Nigeria needs to do to get off the ground immediately. He effectively synchronised issues into the five main points he anchored his campaign. He is a veteran presidential candidate, who has had more time to think about issues, and that experience showed. When Atiku talked about national unity, his ideas about how Nigerians can derive a sense of belonging in their country remained staunchly elitist. According to him, after he and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo got into office in 1999, they took care to form a government of national unity by appointing Nigerians from every part of the country into their cabinet. While such benevolence will be a significant improvement over the nepotism of this present regime, it does not do much for millions of people caught within this geographical expression called Nigeria. The elites, who mostly get appointed into those lush positions when elected officials form a “government of national unity,” hardly quarrel. Well-fed people have no problem uniting; those who promote rancour do it as means to the social relevance that will pay in resource allocation. The challenge is creating national unity and cohesion among the Nigerians outside these privileged spheres.
As expected, Obi reeled out the figures to diagnose Nigeria as a failed state. The country’s systems have degraded and have lost legitimacy but so? What will be his immediate remedial action? What overarching solution has he identified? At this point, anyone purporting to lead Nigeria should be thinking in abstraction. Otherwise, they will merely spend their entire four years of tenure merely tackling the symptoms of Nigeria’s problems and still get nowhere. Obi also thinks that the next election ought to be about competence and character instead of religion and ethnicity. Well, the character that will define the next election will be the primordial rather than any quest for competence. In a society where meaning has been lost, tribal belonging is taken as—and in lieu of—competence.
Overall, the forum was a good start and seemed productive. Bringing the candidates together for a civil exchange is a valuable public show, especially when their supporters are polarised. When the candidates engage in an open ritual of friendship, patriotism and even potential bipartisanship interaction, the likelihood of building up the tension that might result in a post-election crisis goes down. One of the reasons Nigeria could not but fracture badly under the watch of the present regime was the pettiness and characteristic small-mindedness of retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari. In 2011 and 2015, he did not move to assuage the temper that flared during the election. Instead, he moved to set up a nepotistic and utterly divisive government. We all live with consequences right now. In the months ahead, one hopes more organisations with professional clout organise similar fora for the candidates to express ideas before the din of electioneering silences reason.
I hope the next time presidential candidates appear; they do not campaign at all. Selling their candidature at an event like the NBA conference should be about trading in ideas, not merely soliciting votes. That way, candidates would not have to take cheap shots at others like Shettima remarking that Obi lives in Lagos and not in his hometown, Awka. Even Shettima’s principal, Tinubu, does not live in Iragbiji, so what was his point?