I am concerned, but not shocked in any way, that the most prominent reaction to the interview that Arise News conducted last week with the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar has been sheer tittle-tattle about location, and format and silly ego games. It is a measure of the confusion in the land, and the failure to focus on ideas and concrete issues. The big problem that we face in this country, six months to the 2023 general election, is the obsession with minutiae and the irrelevant. This must be considered a national tragedy considering the challenges before us. Thousands, if not millions of young Nigerians burn hours on the social media/internet abusing persons engaged in productive work, while they idle away in their ignorance and obscurantism. Times like this call for a greater deployment of time and intelligence, because Nigeria, indeed, now more than before in the last two decades, stands at the brink of a precipice. But alas, Nigeria is saddled with a growing generation of idlers who think that their lives are enriched by pulling down others. But while these ordinary, eponymously anonymous persons need not detain serious minded persons from forging ahead, it must be noted that the emergent political elite is not in any way better. Its members are worse in terms of intellect, capacity, and character. This forces us to ask that question again: What a country! Or as the sage, Chinua Achebe, put it: “There was a country!” The race to 2023 is a painful reminder of how the biggest tragedy that has befallen Nigeria is the absence of ideas, the collapse of good reason, and the brazen triumph of mediocrity and selective amnesia.
My concern is this: What is the central election issue as Nigeria prepares for the 2023 general elections? Where is that consensus that propels a nation? It is six months to Nigeria’s 2023 general elections, can anyone put his or her finger on any big issues of direct relevance within the context of the Constitution and the people’s expectations? I will address these same questions anon. But to get an idea of my drift, I would like to draw attention to what is currently going on in Britain. There is a bitter, blue-on-blue acrimonious fight for the seat of the Prime Minister of the UK within the ruling Conservative Party. The battle began with Prime Minister Boris Johnson losing the support and confidence of members of his own party and even if he survived two confidence votes, it eventually became clear that with the party-gate scandal and the abandonment of his government on the grounds of principle by many of his key persons, he had lost the support of his own party. From party-gate to everything else, Boris Johnson was his own assassin. He committed political suicide, damaged his own legacy and lost the moral right to lead. The practicality of his rejection is one of the reasons why I argue that Nigeria, going forward, should consider the option of a return to a parliamentary system of government or a combination of the parliamentary and the presidential, as has been robustly canvassed in the extant literature on the subject. The presidential system creates monarchs, and that is precisely what it does in developing economies. A parliamentary system places greater emphasis on accountability and responsibility at all levels, and the people’s voice. That is what we need. But what do we have?
Nigeria’s political process is inundated with nonsense for structural reasons and what we have is a mad-house. In the UK at the moment, there is a race to succeed Boris Johnson. There is a consensus that the Prime Minister has overstayed his welcome. His party needs to get rid of him, to protect the party ahead of the next general elections. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has desecrated the seat long enough. He has resigned. He will quit on September 5. But as his party, the Tories seek to appoint a new leader and a new Prime Minister, what we see is a focus on the issues. About eleven candidates began the race for No. 10 but after five ballots within the party, the choice has been narrowed down to former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Before this Liz vs Rishi moment, it must be noted that the arguments have been about issues and the British people – what can be done to make their lot better, what can be done to reinvent the party and deliver better dividends to the people in the face of an excruciating cost of living crisis – the cost of gas is high, the NHS is in trouble, inflation is so high, the Bank of England has had to tighten rates five times, persons in England now skip meals, confronted as they are by foodflation – so, how to save the Tory party and move beyond Boris Johnson. We have seen in that example, even if the eventual choice would be determined by a minority of about 160,00 Tory party members, a focus on the big issues that are relevant to the people’s interests. Human beings will ways be human, I know that, but even the personal attacks that we have seen in the Tory dog-fight: on Penny Mordaunt, on Sunak’s centrism, Liz Truss’s extreme right politics, have all been within the context of ideas and ideologies. The top contestants are talking about China, immigration, national security, the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war, cost of living crisis, climate change, tax cuts and investments. When the British eventually make their choice at the current intra-party level, it would be one between definite ideas, and when they do so in a future general election, it would also be about ideas and the people’s interest.
While the British are in that mode right now, Nigeria is also looking for new leadership, from a choice of 18 political parties and presidential candidates. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had their first, major, one-on-one debate at 9 p.m. on Monday. The debate continues today, on Tuesday. Both debates matter because the candidates are spelling out their missions and visions. They will be watched closely and scrutinised by their publics, and whoever wins and emerges through the process would be convinced that the battle was truly won and lost, as both candidates continue to slug it out on the battle-grounds. Here, in Nigeria, the candidates are not talking to the people. With the key exception of Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Omoyele Sowore of the Africa Acton Congress (AAC), who both run movements, not political parties, the other candidates are busy talking to their kind: godfathers, persons they think control Nigeria, and who can fix the election for them, and the party elite. When they remember the people, they throw money at them, and promise to give them more money if they are elected.
Nigeria, like many developing countries of the world that jumped on the democratisation scheme in the early 90s, does not understand what it means nor have the people been able to domesticate the idea of democracy. The democratic project was imposed by the West as a one-size-fits all proposition, but the many contradictions that this has thrown up is beguiling. To use Nigeria as an example, it would be in order to say that our country is not ready for democracy, certainly not in the present shape in which it is. Nigerian politicians are royalists with an undeserved sense of entitlement. They want power because power is sweet and grants a sense of control, relevance and importance. Our democracy is a democracy of terrorists, scavengers and opportunists. This is why there is a terrible gap between those at the apex and those at the base of society. Those who argue that the electorate should get their voters’ cards and make informed choices at the polls next year are all correct, and spot on, but what is anyone doing about the people’s cynicism, and the banditi-sation of Nigerian politics? In the absence of ideas and good conduct by the political elite, the people are in order to be cynical, as they have ever been, and what we see in the current lead up to Nigeria’s 2023 general election is chaotic cynicism.
Back to our original question: What are the big issues in Nigerian politics at this moment? The multiple reactions that have attended the Arise News interview with PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar simply show the lack of preparedness at the highest levels in this country. Nobody is talking about ideas. The reactions have been about peripheral issues, not ideas. Arise News sat with Atiku for a whole hour and raised issues ranging from politics to economy, relationships and other matters Nigeriana. The Nigerian social media mob took up editorial duties that is entirely not their business, as they focused on sponsored and teleguided BS and in their sponsored frenzy, they failed to look at key issues. The only exception in this regard would be, in my view, Farooq Kperogi, the scholar and columnist, who resisted and cleverly avoided a habitual tendency to be unkind to other people’s efforts. He focused on bigger issues. But what came from the other communities, that is, the opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Tinubu Campaign Organisation, the Obidient movement supporting Peter Obi, and the Wike Camp, were the usual diatribes about ego: My candidate is better than yours, you lied against me. Within 48 hours, the whole thing degenerated into an ego game. Wike is threatening to talk later and reveal mountains of truth. He should stop threatening. If he has anything to say, let him go ahead and do so forthwith. Tinubu’s people have called Atiku a liar on the subject of the Muslim-Muslim ticket. Atiku says he wants Tinubu in a one-on-one, one hour debate to settle the matter once and for all. Tinubu, we are told, has a memory loss issue.
I won’t be surprised if the two candidates start talking about whose wife is more beautiful and who can still crack the best fires in the other room, or who is richer, or more energetic. The Tinubu group picked on the smallest issues in the Atiku conversation, talking about Abraham Lincoln, the politics of running mates, whereas there are more important issues about the economy, privatisation, national security, education and health. The way the Nigerian process is going, nobody will talk about what concerns the people. The politicians will share money on or before election day, and given the arrest of persons during the recent Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial off-cycle elections, the political bandits will find smarter ways of buying votes, and the ordinary people will find new ways of collecting electoral bribe. It is safe to say that there is no tested, effective law in place yet that addresses this challenge.
So, why are ideas no longer relevant in Nigerian politics? Most of the 18 presidential candidates have no manifesto. For more than two weeks, the Tinubu Campaign Organisation, after rejecting a document that was widely circulated, threatened to release a manifesto. Nobody has seen that manifesto yet. What we see are reactions to rival political candidates on peripheral issues. More serious candidates who could have been on the ballot ironically have since been pushed out of the race. Where is Kingsley Moghalu for example? And why is Omoyele Sowore being treated like a student unionist? And why has Peter Obi been reduced to a social media sensation? Ideas, Ideas, ideas. We can’t get anything concrete. Nobody listens to ideas, because the ones that are ready to promote them are not given the opportunity to do so. Those who try to generate ideas, outside partisan boundaries, are treated badly. In 2015, it would be remembered that the APC, in seeking to wrest power from the ruling PDP, tried to construct its gambit around ideas: Security, the economy and fight against corruption. In 2019, the ruling party sustained the same mantra and asked for an opportunity to complete what it started. In 2022/2023, the main gladiators are terribly distracted.
Yet, the major issue in Nigeria’s democracy – at the federal and state levels today – should be ideas and specific performance. Since the beginning of this campaign, the main candidates have discussed nothing but religion, ethnicity, personal health, clothing, and personality. The 2023 campaign has been dominated by personal ambition and expectations, and trivia. Many of the presidential candidates that have emerged do not even have manifestoes. Nobody knows what they stand for or what they intend to do, not even what they understand about the task ahead. Titles are fashionable in Nigeria. Power is desirable. The allure of position and influence is magnetic. Nigerians would jump at anything along this spectrum. They want titles, not responsibility. This is why I think the reaction to the Arise News conversation with Atiku Abubakar veered off from the centre to the periphery. There are issues indicated in that conversation and alive in the public domain that have been conveniently ignored.
NNPC has just been unveiled as a new, commercial entity, in an industry that accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. What do the presidential candidates intend to do about that? Nigeria has a debt-to-revenue ratio crisis, with the debt service cost exceeding revenue by about 119 per cent? The national grid continues to collapse and function epileptically. Inflation is as high as 18.6 per cent. There is unemployment in the land. Food inflation as well. Life is so insecure, terrorists are threatening to abduct the President, Senators and Governors and either kill them or sell them into slavery, and they sound very serious about that objective. Yesterday, they even made an effort to engage the presidential guards in Abuja. The country also faces a serious foreign exchange crisis – it is so bad that even bread makers are threatening to go on strike because they cannot access forex and raw materials. The aviation sector is down. The nation’s currency has lost everything, including its integrity, the big question is how to save it. In real terms, this country is on the way to Venezuela, if not Sri Lanka or Lebanon. These are important issues that should engage the attention of those who want to rule the country. But the space has been taken over by spokespersons writing platitudes and reticent candidates who piggy-back on the dominance of their parties and abdicate responsibility without negotiating the issues and a proper assessment of the chaos that is upon us. The country’s destiny seems postponed. This trend must change. Every presidential candidate should be shown the video of yesterday’s UK Prime Ministerial debate between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.