2019 Elections On the Horizon: the Return of Hate Campaigns, By Yohanna Bwala

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Our current political class can’t keep sowing seeds of hate in their constituents for political gains, without considering the long-term implications of such a strategy. The current state of acrimony and mutual suspicion between ethnic and religious groups in Nigeria is enough to retard the growth of any nation in the world, no matter how great it presently is.

As beautiful and promising as Nigeria’s diversity is, therein also lies her Achilles’ heel. Our communal nature as a people is a force holding the greatest potential for our march to greatness. Since the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999, Nigeria’s diversity has been serially manipulated for political gains. These manipulations are often deployed by those in the political class, as a tool for soliciting votes during elections. In a kind of divide-and-conquer style, one ethnic/religious group is often pitched against the other, so that discussions about real issues having direct impact on the citizenry can be avoided. Our campaign rallies are most of the time known as theatres of trivialities and character assassination. Freedom, as guaranteed under an ideal democratic society, also comes with a great sense of responsibility. As much as our political leaders (both at the state and national levels) have their rights to stand for elections protected by the constitution, they also bear the responsibility of playing by the rules.

As James Burke said: “Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.” In the run-up to the 2015 general elections, hate and inciting speeches at the campaign rallies of the major political parties heated the polity so much so that the nation seemed like one on the verge of a civil war. Nigerians from the north, east, west and south were thrown into panic mode. A few days to the presidential and National Assembly elections, motor parks and airport terminals were crowded by desperate Nigerians travelling to their hometowns, not necessarily for the purpose of voting, but to mostly ‘run’ away from and escape the anticipated violent fallout of the elections. Even those of the political class were not left out, they flew their families overseas to safety, while others kept their families secured in heavily fortified mansions in our major cities. The common man was then left in a state of uncertainty. Are we really a sane society? As the “Giant of Africa”, are we leading by example?

That seed of hate planted in the hearts and minds of our youth in the run up to the 2015 elections has grown and blossomed into a nasty carnivorous monster. You need not go far to catch a glimpse of the chaos caused by unguarded speeches. A short trip to the virtual world of social media would have you convinced that this nation is on a gradual and steady drift into oblivion. As a nation, we can’t afford to leave the minds of our youth at the mercy of merchants of hate and division. The huge potentials of the Nigerian youth alone is enough to drive us as a nation towards our desired destination. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) needs to be more proactive in the way it confronts issues threatening the nation’s social fabric. At a time like this, when the unity of the nation is at its most vulnerable state, we can’t afford to have an agency of government responsible for fostering national cohesion playing catch-up.

For how long would we keep looking to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, to check the excesses of our political leaders? It is time we empower our judiciary, by making it truly independent, so that when offenders of our electoral laws are caught, justice would be served, not minding the political affiliation of such persons.

A friend of mine who works at a Travel Agency in Cyprus complained to me a few weeks ago, how exchanges between Nigerians on social media platforms of our major news media outfits was damaging the nation’s tourism potentials. He cited an instance where he tried marketing The Obudu Cattle Ranch as a tourism destination to a client that was looking for tourist sites to visit in West Africa. The client clearly told him he wasn’t considering Nigeria. The client’s perception of the country was derived from his close observation of vile exchanges between Nigerians on the social media platforms of some popular Nigerian online news organisations.

To halt this downward drift, we need to take care of the problem at the source. And the best time to do that is now. The era of ‘fire brigade’ approach should be confined to history books in our libraries. Civil rights NGOs and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) need to lobby the National Assembly towards amending sections of our electoral laws responsible for addressing cases of incitement by our politicians and media outfits. We need to tailor our electoral laws to take care of those challenges that are unique to our society. We need to make penalties for such violations harsher. As the largest black nation in the world, we need to make our elections serve as a template for other smaller African nations looking up to us. For how long would we keep looking to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, to check the excesses of our political leaders? It is time we empower our judiciary, by making it truly independent, so that when offenders of our electoral laws are caught, justice would be served, not minding the political affiliation of such persons.

Considering our huge infrastructural deficit, the best legacy those in the political class can leave behind is a saner society, which those coming behind them can build upon. Our current political class can’t keep sowing seeds of hate in their constituents for political gains, without considering the long-term implications of such a strategy. The current state of acrimony and mutual suspicion between ethnic and religious groups in Nigeria is enough to retard the growth of any nation in the world, no matter how great it presently is.

Therefore, as we prepare for another cycle of elections in 2019, we should be honest enough to tell ourselves the bitter truth: in our current state as a nation, Nigeria cannot survive another cycle of political hate campaigns. There is no way a nation as diverse as ours can make tangible progress without unity. Every unit – no matter how little – making up Nigeria, is important to the Nigerian project. How does a nation attain greatness, in an atmosphere of distrust and acrimony between the same set of people expected to work together towards its greatness? Governments at state and federal level need to govern with equity, so that every citizen will have a sense of belonging.

Yohanna Bwala is a Lagos based environmental geologist.

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