For For a long time, I have wondered about the distant and immediate causes of the irresponsible uses of power by our elected officials. One conclusion I have drawn, albeit without scientific proof, is that there appears to be a correlation between the earlier unorthodox election campaign and the misuse of power by office holders. Thus, the abuse of power will represent an evil seed that the politician has planted on the battlefield to win the election. It doesn’t matter what kind of seed it is – the seed of identity politics, of election violence, or of the commercialization of the vote. Whatever seed enables electoral victory, it ultimately robs the victors of humility, turning them from beggars for votes into emperors whose word becomes law.
It is the evil seed of identity politics that I am questioning today. Most of us commoners who vote are acutely aware that we share existential challenges. We are dimly aware that free and fair elections always release creative energy that promotes peace and propels accelerated development. If you believe that, then you should know that the reverse is also true. An election won by filthy means poisons the political system, triggers discontent and halts or completely halts the march of development. Besides brute force and the commercialization of the vote, the most important feature of a corrupt election is the use of identity politics. Employed unorthodoxy may win elections, but the nation loses. This is as true of the Donald Trump nation of yesterday as it is of the Muhammadu Buhari nation of today.
One can assimilate the non-orthodoxy deployed in the electoral battle to a party in a debate emerging from its corner to physically attack the adversary and put an end to the discussion. Neither the aggressor nor the opponent they physically stopped will emerge victorious. One can win the physical battle but the other wins the most important moral battle. Tragically, the big losers are the people who came to learn from the wisdom and mental preparation shown by the roundtable candidates. The audience leaves the stage less energized because someone dropped their brains in a corner to charge an opponent. Strange as it may sound, the most insidious physical confrontation that defines politics today is neither election violence nor vote buying. Instead, it is identity politics that desperate politicians introduce when they fear losing the power of persuasion.
Identity politics deploys brute force to pursue what should have been a contest of ideas and solutions. They must unleash a mob to intimidate and inject its poison into vulnerable citizens. Politicians inject this poison into the electoral process either out of lack of security or to satisfy their greed. They are unsure of their ability to successfully promote and sell ideas and visions based on experience that make people confident in their ability to execute. They know they are not coming with experiences that prove their pedigree, and that motivate and inspire citizens to aim to collaborate in transforming Nigeria into a successful nation. But they are ready to enter the battle despite this flaw because of greed, a single ambition to fly in the fund. It is this common denominator of insecurity and greed that drives the ambitious to resort to identity politics.
This kind of power play didn’t start today. It has persisted as a feature, from pre-independence nationalist agitation to current struggles “to take back our country”. The ideologies that support it are nationalism, regionalism and religion. Prominent authors of pre-colonial literature on nationalism (Nnamdi Azikiwe) and regionalism (Bode Thomas) have brilliantly articulated the characteristics and benefits. Nationalism has stood the test of time, but regionalism has morphed into ethnicity, zoning, microzoning and other paraphernalia of division that insecure and greedy politicians use today to fight for access to the treasury.
Four such mutations have been deployed to combat nationalism since the 1940s, when Chief Bode Thomas brilliantly laid out the regionalist agenda. Chief Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) has embraced and executed Bode Thomas’ thesis on regionalism. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) manifesto founded in 1951 also adopted much of the sermons. But to their credit, the independence agitators forged a common nationalist front to drive the British out of Nigeria while setting the stage for their eventual ideological battle. During their first electoral confrontation (1954), the regionalists AG and NPC faced the nationalist NCNC. If you think about it, doesn’t it seem like we have come full circle today with the PDP and APC betting on a regional agenda against the nationalist Labor Party?
Interestingly, the Regionalists won federal and regional contests in the North in 1954 but lost in the South. The Nationalists posted an overall victory in both East and West. Although they won the most regional seats in the West, this was not enough to allow them to form a government. A last-minute rally by the AG ended their expectations and the NCNC became the official opposition party, even with more seats than any other in parliament. How did the NCNC, which today’s history effectively portrayed as a regional party, win the 1954 Western regional election and repeat the feat in the 1957 federal election in the same region ?
The NCNC won over a nationalist ideology. It was a party of workers, teachers, students and merchants who were not inclined to any divisive considerations of any kind. Its pioneering 13-member executive, for example, had 11 Yoruba (including the president) and two Igbo as members. The Igbo members of the executive were Dr Azikiwe (General Secretary) and Sir Louis Ojukwu (Treasurer). In other words, the Yoruba dominated the executive. This explains why he easily won the 1954 and 1957 federal elections in the West, despite the great efforts of the revered Chief Awolowo and his AG. The NCNC won because the battle for the West was ideological rather than sectoral. However, although the Nationalists had triumphed in the South, it speaks volumes of his stubbornness and perseverance that Chief Awolowo eventually forced the West to listen and embrace his regional agenda.
Nigeria trembled under the ripple effect of the GA power play. The Midwest split because it interpreted regionalism as an ethnic agenda. The relationship between the Igbo and eastern minorities soured as Zik sought to establish a foothold in his region. The battle between the Tiv and other minorities in the North against the Fulani intensifies, aided by the AG, as in the East. Ironically, the West was the first to lose control and experience a state of emergency, a situation that quickly imploded and engulfed the entire country. The rest, as they say, is history.
From the Midwest, the military further divided the country into a 12-state structure on the eve of the Civil War. The idea was to rout regionalists and ethnic warlords who were troubling Nigeria. The military action ensured that Nigeria embarked on its Second Republic without regional support for politicians to cling to. But the ethnic warriors have again rallied to win the elections by dastardly means. The weed of ethnicity they sowed during the election campaign sprouted and began to stifle the political regime again. The Second Republic lasted less than five years before the military again disbanded the politicians. In their second and third interventions, the military subdivided Nigeria into 36 states with a new federal capital that the Constitution recognizes “as if it were a state”. Left to the tastes of Dave Umahi (Ebonyi State), statism is expected to supplant ethnicity and religion as the seed of evil in elections. But, somehow, the current politics of the PDP, APC and Labor Party seems to have taken Nigeria back to the pre-independence era.
To sum up, Nigeria entered the First Republic with a veneer of nationalism that covered the deadly seed of regionalism sown in the regions. Ethnicity was the poisonous seed of the Second Republic. The Fourth Republic started with nationalism but, thanks to the perseverance and relentlessness of General Muhammadu Buhari, it also ended on an ethnic agenda. And now Mr. Bola Tinubu is becoming the dominant voice in conversations about the latest poison seed – religion. He started planting that seed through his choice of running mate. To say that a General Buhari avoided putting religion first when choosing a running mate in 2015. He knew it was a recipe for failure, as evidenced by three previous mishaps, and so waited to accede in power through regional cooperation. The Lagos strongman is simply brave in this attempt to once again push Nigeria to the limits of what it can accept or endure.
This leaves us with one last question. Will 2023 become the defining year that Nigeria eventually uproots and weeds out the poisonous seeds? Or will the Nigerian people accept and develop the latest power play of the same religion by the greedy and the insecure? We seem to have come full circle, returning to pre-independence politics where an Easterner pushes nationalist ideology but is quietly opposed by the regional sentiments of a Westerner and the northern core. The difference is that the religion became permanent thanks to the ticket of the same religion by a favorite. And this at a time when citizens have become concerned about its potential to promote nepotism and corruption, in addition to fearless violations of people’s rights.