The 2023 general elections have largely been held and concluded, even though it remains inconclusive in a few places. The presidential and National Assembly elections were held on Saturday, 25 February, while those for the governorship in 28 states and the State Houses of Assembly were held on Saturday, 18 March.
Without doubt, these polls could be described as the most divisive electoral contests ever held in the country since the advent of self-governance. They were ethnically-charged and deeply polarising along religious lines. The political elite, their “influencers”, as well as a section of the religious elite pushed Nigeria close to the brink of national collapse yet again through their actions and utterances.
A number of the leading political parties and their flag-bearers mobilised ethnic and religious sentiments through their comments, and in some cases Freudian slips, to garner votes. Some religious elite, including religious leaders, turned the presidential election into a struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Such opposing binary — posed as a cosmic battle between light and darkness — ironically put the masses, most of them Christians and Muslims, at risk. Existing gullibility and needless distrust between Nigeria’s two major faiths meant that the masses forgot that those driving these religious divisions could quite easily leave the country at a moment’s notice once violence breaks out. Ethnic groups, in particular, the Yorubas and Igbos, who had lived together and intermarried for decades, were once again dangerously set up as political enemies.
Political vitriol was the start. Then, autochthony, the politics of indigeneship and the question of belonging, were taken to a new level in a place like Lagos, where it is suspected to have triggered arson on a market and sparked pockets of violence across the metropolis. As the climate of antagonism spread, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, took immediate actions to douse the situation, while the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, made a plea for healing across strife-riven groups, greater social inclusiveness and a rebuilding of our sense of community. They and other political leaders can and must do more.
Politics is serious business and has always been engaged in with heightened passions, which at times could be followed by intense bickering, even in longer practiced democracies. However, Nigerians must refuse to accept being regularly pushed to the brink of national collapse every time there are elections in the country. Nigeria has, in the space of 30 years, gone from the monumentally and historically popular MKO Abiola-Babagana Kingibe ticket to religious and ethnic political war-lordism, fuelled by unscrupulous political strategies and newer ubiquitous technological tools and platforms like social media. The state of affairs is an invention of the elite in interaction with gullible followers.
PREMIUM TIMES believes that it is time for a policy of national reconciliation. There are deep and wide wounds that predated the 2023 elections. The recent elections have only exacerbated latent and unresolved national issues, including those from as far back as the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970. The country has failed to fully reflect on the war and robustly invest in enduring protocols of national unity. Even key policies and institutions, such as the unity schools and the National Youth Service Corps, have not enabled real integration. They must be revitalised, while the perpetually underperforming National Orientation Agency must be nudged back to consciousness. It is needed at times like this to educate citizens on the need for love, peace and unity.
The Nigerian government would need to take drastic and firm steps to insulate our religious institutions from politics, going forward. Section 97 of the Electoral Act 2022 forbids candidates, individuals and associations from campaigns based on religious, ethnic, or sectional interests. Yet, the top three candidates in the last presidential election, as well as many influential citizens, violated that provision without consequences.
Our churches and mosques became platforms of intense campaigns, while press conferences were repeatedly organised by individuals and groups to denounce and oppose the faith-based candidacies in some parties. Likewise, ethnic and regional groups, such as Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Middle Belt Forum, the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Northern Elders Forum and the Pan Niger Delta Forum, all worked hard at outdoing one another in a scramble to endorse one candidate or the other, without bothering about the consequences of their actions.
While the Nigerian constitution guarantees the freedom of association for everyone, the divisive activities of some of these groups, which did not help national unity, should be discouraged. Going forward, INEC should liaise with security agencies to enforce the provisions of Section 97 of the Electoral Act, which stipulates, on conviction, a maximum fine of N1,000,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both, for violators.
In addition, although there have been several efforts to reform Nigeria’s electoral system in the recent past, the actual voting format needs to be reconsidered. First, the idea of asking nearly 100 million people to vote on a single day across the entire country in multi-level elections organised by a single organisation is a recipe for disaster. Many countries have staggered elections over several days. The election period is as long as 28 days in some countries. Second, the notion of having all eligible voters stand in line without any recourse to alternative ways of voting is a choice we have made as a country.
There are innovations in the banking sector that may be easily adapted to the political arena. To be sure, Nigeria’s e-banking at the individual client level is on par with that in several Western countries. Some of the data and markers of identification can be deployed in the political arena. That would increase participation and reduce the debilitating pressure on days of election.
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There is also the need to strengthen existing laws to make more stringent punishment for actions intended to intimidate others in pursuit of electoral victory and/or to dissuade identifiable groups from exercising their right to vote for whomever they please. The suspected arsonists in Lagos and other perpetrators of electoral violence must be found, arrested and prosecuted. Those who lost their businesses must be compensated. Political appointees making divisive or ethnocentric comments on social or traditional media should be cautioned, reprimanded or sanctioned, depending on the severity of their prejudicial statements. There is a certain mentality and temperament required in governing a diverse society. Knowing what to say and how to say it are equally important in such an environment.
Those weaponising ethnicity and religion to win elections must realise that they are making governance more cumbersome through the divisions they are creating or nurturing. There is no substitute for good governance. Therefore, governments at all levels must recognise that they are on borrowed time, unless they govern with competence and excellence.
The Nigerian diaspora has an enormous role in creating a culture of reconciliation. Those uncritically sharing unverified videos or images and threatening fire and brimstone on social media should realise that there are millions of Nigerians who have no other place to call home. Elections should not be matters of life and death. Linked to this is the need for our government to engage with social media companies to mainstream better protocols of identifying and reining in posts, including videos and audio materials that spread hate speech, misinformation and disinformation, which have constituted some of the greatest threats to our democracy and safety.
Nigerians have an opportunity to determine how they want to live. Do we desire to live by the rule of law or the will of a few powerful people? All Nigerians have a role to play in this. We need to be very mindful of our common humanity and act in ways that enhance and promote our better angels, rather than the recourse to baser instincts, while affirming a greater sense of community, and honouring the sacred creed of good neighbourliness. Any ambiguities in law and policy regarding autochthonous issues need to be corrected. Laws are as good as those implementing them and the people subject to them.
Political leaders at all levels need to clearly articulate that all Nigerians have the right to live anywhere in the country. That also means, regardless of where you choose to live, you are obligated to treat your fellow citizens with dignity and respect, as well as sensitivity to their histories and values. There are many countries doing this on a routine basis. The 2021 census in Canada, for example, indicates that there are 450 cultural or ethnic origins among the 38.25 million people in the country. Nigeria’s ethno-religious plurality is no excuse for self-defeating violent politics.
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