The two major entrances into the Samaru campus of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria have long, tiled paths. Flanked by these paths are trees and neatly trimmed flowers barricaded with lawns, dry carved woods hanging loosely from them with stern warning: No lawn crossing. This is to protect the blooming flowers and evergreen landscape from being trampled upon. The trees, some of which look like they’ve been planted since the school was first built, have trunks large enough to accommodate students’ posters for social programs on campus or pitch politics to you with campaign posters. The posters on wall paths and tree trunks are bits of what to expect as you approach student hostels and lecture theaters.
You’d find the students in clicks. Cohorts are either devising winning strategies for their candidate or an opposition group is discussing the stunt pulled by their opponent overnight. You might be run into, by a contesting candidate himself, distributing flyers and canvassing for votes for a particular office. The semester is fast folding to an end, and despite the rigor that comes with the preparation for exams, the students are driving campaigns around the campus, heating it up with strategies.
The student union elections in ABU, like most Nigerian campuses and the general elections in the country, is not devoid of sentiments. This bitter reminder of how divided we are re-surges as soon as the election bells are rung. And so, out of the desperation to win by a contestant who perceives himself as an underdog due to the fact that he is neither a Muslim nor core Arewa, there is an intense search for a name that is northern-like, and an outfit that portrays him as “one of us” on campaign posters.
Bello Rilwan, the president of political science students, a Yoruba-Muslim, thinks this as plain folk. According to him, “it’s a strategy that has been working over the years for some students who think the only means of winning an election in a school on the northern soil is dressing and bearing the names of people from such region.” The campaign posters come in different qualities and styles. On it, some candidates give a phrasal line of their manifestos; and some boldly flaunt names and pose in pictures with traditional outfit on the posters, beaming as if nomenclatures could be automatic tickets to victory. You may find a northern-Christian with a name like Audu Farouk John. The “Farouk” may be a middle name that has never been adopted before. A daring contestant may even abbreviate the John as “J”, blurring every possibility of outright rejection.
While the political science president perceives this as a working means for some, another candidate contesting for a post of secretary general, Nathaniel Haruna, a southern-Christian, thinks it is pure inferiority complex to conceal your identity just to win an election. He believes that “competence and responsibility” are the tools he possesses, and these will ultimately help him win the election. In a country where merit has been clouded by tribe and religion, some may perceive his clairvoyance as illusions. His opponent, a northern Muslim may not be as half competent, or could be more competent than he is; but so many are of the opinions that past experiences show sentiments prevail over competence, regardless of who is better qualified.
There has been raging debates ranging from where this problem of ethnic and religious politics stemmed from. The social background, including family upbringing, religious homes and parochial beliefs has often been attributed as the breeding spots for such myopia. Bello Rilwan agrees, too. And most students from the department he is currently leading think he has done a tremendous work as a leader. Born and raised in Lagos with education been his only contact with the north, he thinks service should be the forerunner of any political aspirant. It is, however, not certain if this quest for service was the strategy that worked for Rilwan when he emerged as the president of his department last year.
Another contestant, who didn’t like to be named, thinks the environment influences the disguising choices aspirants make. Just like majority of voters in Nigeria’s general election would weigh money and material comforts over competence, students, he claims, often prefer a fellow religious partner and tribal person over any other candidate not inclined towards their beliefs. He is frank about this and wouldn’t budge when I cited Rilwan as yoruba who had won, beating a northern candidate. Nathaniel, however, thinks politics of sentiment is fast dwindling in his faculty due to the orientation the social science students are receiving from their enlightening courses. He is of the belief that it may, someday, totally end.
While doubters may disagree with Nathaniel’s opinion, an event which recently happened in his faculty has been perceived by some as a beginning to an end of such polarization. A President of a department in the faculty was charged with misappropriation of funds and the duo who raised this alarm with constructive petitions were a southern-Christian and a northern-Muslim. Their courage was a bold step that opened the eyes of many to what they were seemingly blinded to. Even though this president may have misappropriated with impunity, the charge by these whistle blowers was a conscious awakening that though we may not unanimously vote you into office, we will collectively expose you. This may be a first bold step; optimists like Nathaniel are likely to think, towards fighting a political ill that is pervasive in a nation divided across thick ethno-religious lines.
Article written by Olajide Omojarabi @olaomojarabi
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