Friday Musings with Ayo Olukotun
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Reading books, even newspapers, magazines and journals is not a popular past-time in Nigeria. For example, each time you have to pass on information to people in power, you are admonished to keep it within a page or two. You are then told, sternly, “anything beyond that you can be sure that material will not be read”. So, our political culture is dotted with office holders who do not read memos from start to finish and not a few who boast about their not reading newspapers, of course, with disastrous consequences which this writer once alluded to in “What does President Jonathan read?” (The PUNCH, Friday, January 19, 2013).
Against this background, it was entirely appropriate that the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy organised on Thursday as part of its regular book-reading programme a talk-shop around lessons to be drawn from Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, entitled, Against the Run of Play: How an Incumbent was Defeated in Nigeria. The parley at which this writer was present as a participant observer and discussant brought together scholars, such as Lai Olurode, Professor of Sociology, University of Lagos and a former National Commissioner, Independent National Electoral Commission; Dr. Festus Adedayo, Editorial Board Member of the Tribune; Dr Irene Pogoson, University of Ibadan, as well as Mrs Yemi Alabi, public affairs analyst. Also in attendance and contributing were Emeritus Professors Akin Mabogunje, Femi Osofisan and Bolanle Awe.
Organised under the imprimatur of Prof Olubode Lucas, ISGPP’s Book Readers Club Chairman, the event was chaired by a former Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan and well-known political scientist, Prof Adigun Agbaje. Of course, Adeniyi, was on hand to enliven the discussions.
The question to ask, and which the intellectual gathering grappled with therefore, is: What lessons can be drawn from the author’s account and analysis of the 2015 elections in the light of the forthcoming 2019 elections? Let it be noted that, around the globe, incumbent parties are difficult to defeat, as the long tenure of such parties as the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, at certain periods and for much of the British history, the frequently uninterrupted rule of the Conservative Party of Britain, the Republican Party in the United States, shows. In Africa, it is almost impossible. Indeed, it is possible to count the number of times in which incumbent parties in Africa, had been defeated. This should not be the cause for surprise considering the authoritarian inheritance of politics in Africa, the presence of strongmen and one man rule, as well as what one of our social scientists, has described as choiceless democracy.
Of interest is the role of the global public sphere, especially countries like the US and Britain, two traditional friends of Nigeria. Adeniyi documents their roles in Jonathan’s loss of the election, including the refusal by the US, under former President Barack Obama, to sell arms to the Nigerian military. He also cited the endorsement of Buhari by the British weekly, The Economist, as evidence of a Western position on getting Jonathan out of power. Perhaps, the most overt action in this connection was the visit to Nigeria of the former American Secretary of State, John Kerry, to warn of possible consequences in the event that the elections were disrupted or cancelled. It would appear, at least on the face of it, that in contrast to what happened then, the current American President, Donald Trump, appears to endorse Buhari, going by Buhari’s recent diplomatic visit to the White House. So, to the extent that the international community would play a role, as they did in 2015 in the forthcoming 2019 elections, the bets are safely on the side of Buhari and the All Progressives Congress.
But let us enter a caveat here, the ensemble of election observers, the global media and global institutions have undoubtedly become a part of elections, especially in developing democracies. However, there is no causal relationship between what roles they choose to play, roles dictated by their national interest, and the outcome of these elections. In other words, it is not easy to disentangle all the causative factors leading to election victory or loss, warning us therefore not to put too much store on the role of the global community.
One of the interesting dimensions is the shellacking of Jonathan by the media and the organised publicity of the opposition. As the interview with Jonathan, conducted by Adeniyi, informs, matters got to a point where whatever Jonathan said or did not say mattered less than the twist it was given by the media. So, beyond all the discussions about card readers, underage voters, the skewed nature of voter registration, the alleged but unproved impartiality of the electoral commission, is the fact that the media, egged on by the opposition, had weighed Jonathan in the balances and found him wanting, to borrow a Biblical aphorism. We are yet to have an equivalent of the British debate on the role of the media in elections, which began after the 1992 elections in that country. It will be interesting, at least for the future, to inspect the pattern of ownership, print, electronic and digital, with a view to coming up with a discussion on the extent to which the media provide a level playing field or otherwise, regarding the outcome of elections.
For example, on the two critical issues, which appeared to have cost Jonathan the election, namely, the Boko Haram insurgency and public sector corruption, public discussions appear to have focused on the narrative that Jonathan’s incompetence and “cluelessness” resulted in a laid back approach to tackling these issues. This may well be so. However, having had a strong government, elected on an agenda of change for three years, it is now not entirely clear that the issue is the “cluelessness” of the then President or the systemic nature of these debilities. For example, Buhari has been accused of not being able to rein in his close advisers or relations, while the claim to have defeated Boko Haram, is contradicted somewhat by their recent activities and continuing sporadic offensives. But there is a law at work here: whenever a government enters the red in its legitimacy account, whatever it does right, is either taken for granted or written off as an accident. Ironically, just as Jonathan entered that political red-circle in his twilight years, it remains to be seen whether Buhari himself has not, especially in the wake of atrocious killings by Fulani herdsmen and the failure to convoke a national conference in one form or another, entered the same vicious circle, which Jonathan found himself. An American senator, tried and hounded by the media for offences yet to be investigated, put it this way: “When I‘m right, no one remembers, when I’m wrong, no one forgets”.
I conclude with a final troubling question: Apart from the putative struggle against corruption in public life, how much difference has it made to Nigerians’ lives that the then opposition APC won the 2015 election and became the political establishment? In other words, our contemporary history appears to be one of going round in circles with each political party promising much but delivering little. Is this not another example of transition without change?
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