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Tolu Ogunlesi: May We Continue To Live In Interesting Times



This week is going to be a very interesting one. The All Progressives Congress will select its presidential candidate; the man who will challenge President Goodluck Jonathan for the occupation of Aso Rock in February 2015.

Like the APC presidential primary, which promises to be hotly contested (frontrunners being Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar), the Peoples Democratic Party Lagos governorship primary is one to look out for as well, this week. There are several candidates in the running, but from all indications, the contest will be between Musiliu Obanikoro and Jimi Agbaje.

I stand to be corrected, but I’m not sure Nigerian politics has ever been this focused on competitive party primaries. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a new trend. I welcome everything that contributes towards making our politics more competitive, at every level, and across all facets – intra- and inter-party.

Our politics has no doubt come some way from 1999. It is nowhere near where perfect – and very few political systems are – but I am confident that there is a reason to be optimistic. Paraphrasing Robert Kennedy (who first quoted the mythical “Chinese Curse” that provides the title of this piece), these are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most possibility-filled of any time in the history of Nigerian democracy. The revolution we’re looking for is in actual fact rooted in an evolution – a slow march of progress, in the direction of increasing transparency.

The Internet and social media are helping to re-calibrate the boundaries of our political space; widening the space for debate and engagement. There is still plenty of debate as to how significant social media platforms are for determining the outcome of elections; what is not in doubt is that they are here to stay. Every day, I see all the conversations going on on Twitter and Facebook, and I see in them the emergence of a new generation of Nigerians for whom the idea of asking questions and making their voices heard loud and clear are not an unusual phenomenon. My hope is that in the near future, we will move our social media activity to a deeper level of engagement, where it becomes, not a substitute for offline, get-your-hands-dirty action, but instead a stimulus.

I think we will look back to this period as a turning point in our democratic journey. If the 2011 elections introduced social media into the narrative; the 2015 elections might go down in history as the one that moved the quality of the competition a noticeable notch upwards. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from this season.

Let me share one personal lesson: In politics, you need different skill-sets for different circumstances. It was the US politician and former New York State Governor, Mario Cuomo, who famously said, in 1985: “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

Today, in the Nigerian context, that profound statement ought to be qualified. It occurs to me that that “poetry” of campaigning would do with some differentiating. The pattern of campaigning needed to win a primary election is different from the one needed to win a general election.

For a primary election, it is generally a waste of time and resources targeting the general public, as they are not the ones who will be voting. With the increasing emphasis on primary elections in Nigeria therefore, it is not enough to be popular with the multitude of voters, you need to gain the loyalty of voting delegates as well. It does not matter how brilliant your manifesto is, if you don’t make it past the primary stage, there’s no chance of you making it into office on the main political platforms. (The exception is “independent candidacy”; more on that later).

We’re also seeing how the expectations of Nigerians are changing with regard to elections, and how those altered expectations are putting pressure on political actors to modify their behavior. So, where once a godfather would have insisted on a consensus selection, there is now the pressure from within and outside a party for proper primaries. Or where once a governor, upon completion of two terms in office, moved on to the Senate as though it was a retirement home for retiring governors, it is now no longer unusual that the said governor will face a challenge. Look at the cases in Delta and Enugu states, where the incumbents have been compelled, against their wishes, to drop their senatorial ambitions – ostensibly for the sake of peace in the party.

The element of surprise – an indispensable aspect of true democracy – is beginning to assert itself more strongly. My view is that there is no democracy where there is no room for surprises, for one party or camp to lose or win unexpectedly. It seems to me that the incumbency advantage is dwindling as our democracy progresses. “Democracy is the right to change governments, non-violently,” said M.J. Akbar, spokesperson of the Indian ruling party, at a recent conference I attended.

I would like to extend the concept somewhat by defining democracy as “the right to pull electoral surprises, non-violently.” The cases in Delta and Enugu, in which the incumbent governors faced serious challenges to their “birthright” senatorial bids, suggest to me (and I might be wrong) that our politics is maturing; that people are gaining the confidence to seriously challenge what used to be taken for granted.

On the flip, rather depressing side, some things might never change. Like the overwhelming role of money in our politics. We can scoff at “stomach infrastructure” as long as we can; there’s no getting away from it; from the fact that in a country as circumscribed by poverty as we are, for the majority of the population, making ends meet is the biggest priority. And often (not always, thankfully), it is the man who spends the most who wins the most.

Take the issue of party primaries. We should not deceive ourselves and think that primary election delegates are looking at the man who is most qualified for the job or has the best policy proposals. No. It is more often than not a case of them looking for the candidate who is most able to meet their demands for cash. It is generally the highest bidder who gets the allegiance of the delegates. From a certain perspective, this depressing phenomenon can be explained. If voting delegates assume that all politicians will help themselves to public funds (and this seems an accepted assumption across Nigeria), then, it makes sense for them to go with the candidates who will at least make a show of spreading the “food” around, and not the ones who are perceived to be “stingy”. We are still sadly a long way from breaking the primitive grip of money on our politics.

One way out of course would be the concept of independent candidacy, which creates an alternative path to general elections, and helps expand the choices that people have. It works quite simply: if the APC and PDP are failing to be transparent and/or meritocratic in the way they throw up candidates for general elections, independent candidacy allows persons who think they have something to offer to go it alone, to present themselves directly to the public outside of the constricting structures of dysfunctional party systems.

It is great news that the National Assembly has approved the proposal of the National Conference to include independent candidacy in Nigeria’s amended constitution. It is my hope that we will sooner than later see that constitution come into effect. That, for me, will be the next great milestone in our democratic evolution. It will take time for Nigerians to get used to the novelty of the idea, and to develop confidence in its possibilities, but that is the nature of real and lasting change: nothing happens overnight.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi and published with permission from the writer, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from PUNCH


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