Some years ago, I was among those invited by the US Consul General to his residence in Lagos for a cocktail party as part of the celebrations of the American Independence Day. I stood at the back of the open arena next to one of the officials of the US Consulate. I later got into a conversation about political developments around the country and particularly the Niger Delta region with the nice, polite and informed American.
When he asked me pointedly if I would like to give another shot at the governorship contest in Rivers State, I was surprised. My first instinct was to decline to respond to the question, but on a second thought, I responded by telling him it would depend on several factors. He was blunt in his response as he said to me that if I was considering running for the office of the governor for the second time, I must have four things in abundance. He stated that these things were capacity for thuggery and violence; ability to raise plenty of money; readiness to lie, spread false information and fake news and finally, willingness to compromise institutions of state or confront them.
I was surprised at the bluntness of this gentleman who I was meeting for the first time but acknowledged the fact that he has deep insight and understanding of the politics of the Niger Delta region. However, I disagreed with his position. I politely told him that he might have formed his impression from the events of the 2015 elections but that a lot has changed since then. I shared with him my thoughts that democracy is deepening in the Niger Delta region, and the people were now wiser. The strategy of yesterday will certainly not work today.
He laughed off my assertions as if he was very sure of what he was saying. He opined that what he said was not peculiar to the South-South geopolitical region but that it was just that the degree was higher in that area than in other regions of the country. Many years after this encounter, with the benefit of hindsight and sense of perspective, I am forced to reflect on what this Political Affairs Officer, a foreigner who had barely spent three years in Nigeria at the time he spoke with me, shared with me that fateful evening. The unfolding scenario in Edo state has forced introspection as to who is right and who is wrong between my American acquaintance and myself.
The current governorship campaign in Edo State sadly embraces the issues and perspective the gentleman shared with me that evening and could be a playbook of what is wrong with Nigerian politics.
The campaign is replete with violence and may descend into total anarchy if left unchecked. Sacred places have been desecrated. The shooting and fracas between APC and PDP supporters at the palace of Oba of Benin after the PDP campaign team paid the customary visit to the revered traditional ruler are as atrocious as they are unprecedented.
The drama in Edo House of Assembly that degenerated into violence, the thuggery incident at Apana Community in Etsako West LGA, and several other flashes of pre-election fracas are indicative of orgy of anarchy and violence at play.
Meanwhile, in Edo State, we have what could be called a balance of power or at a stretch, a balance of terror. The federal might of the ruling APC valiantly tests itself against the local prowess of the PDP. If the APC can count on the cooperation and connivance of the law enforcement agencies, the PDP can count on local thugs who know the terrain and who may be more dangerous and formidable as they do not put much premium to the sanctity of life, both their own lives and the lives of anyone who stands in their way.
Campaign rallies of either of the two major parties are showpieces overflowing with name-calling and hate speeches. Fake news, misinformation and rumour are the order of the day. From the childish allegation that the state Deputy Governor wants to stage an attack on his convoy, one party printing Permanent Voters Cards, another party fanning the embers of religion, to a traditional ruler walking out the campaign team of one of the governorship candidates, the language of the governorship campaign is dangerously inciting.
The allegation of outside influence in the contest is oversized, and there are concerns that the external forces bent on forcing their will on Edo people will be insouciant and brutal in formulating their winning strategies as they would not be primarily affected by the consequences of their actions. If the streets of Edo State are littered with tears and blood at the wee hours of September 19, 2020, the external instigators and perpetrators would have returned to their home states from where they would be vocal in casting aspersions on INEC and law enforcement agencies, the usual fall guys of failed Nigerian electoral contests.
‘Edo Votes 2020’, a rematch of the 2016 contest that sees the significant pugilists – Governor Godwin Obaseki and Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu – exchanging the umbrella (literarily and metaphorically speaking) under which they contested, also accentuates the spectre of godfatherism in Nigerian politics to new levels. It sees immediate past APC National Chairman and former governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomole, not just switching godsons but becoming the godfather of someone he had literally disparaged and maligned four years ago. He is campaigning for him with so much gusto and passion at the expense of a former ally he swore was the best thing that had ever happened to Edo State four years ago. Governor Obaseki, on his part, is going after both Ize Iyamu and Oshiomole, like a wounded lion, sparing none of them in his diatribe.
The campaign in Edo far from being issue-based has instead focused on political personalities and groups mainly: Wikeversus Ganduje, Pro-Oshiomhole versus Anti-Oshiomhole forces. In the absence of issues, the election is no more than a contest between warring armies. Victory will not be a triumph of one agenda over another. It would not be a case of whose programme is more popular. Instead, it will be a matter of who makes a more effective deployment of security forces and partisan thugs.
Besides, the unfolding scenario gives rise to palpable fears in most quarters that the votes of the electorate may not count in Edo 2020, putting the spotlight on INEC and security agencies. The electoral umpire, still reeling from the hard knocks it received over the conduct of the 2019 general elections may not have an opportunity for at least a partial redemption.
Edo State 2020 may be a worrisome foretaste and signpost of 2023 elections. Suppose the violence continues unabated, and one side ultimately uses violence and intimidation to subdue the other and become victorious in the election, how does one convince the Nigerian electorates who are keenly watching the events that 2023 would be different? One grave consequence of election characterized by violence is that it undermines the legitimacy of the emergent government, public trust and confidence of the electorate in the electoral process.
Leaders who come to power not by gaining the popular votes of the electorate but rather by devising unscrupulous strategies to subdue their opponents do not usually feel accountable to the voters. They hardly feel a sense of responsibility, and the result is terrible governance.
Moreover, if the electioneering process becomes very flawed and irredeemable, good people will likely keep away from politics. People whose only interest in politics is to better the lots of the people may be incapable of being part of a process that is synonymous with mudslinging, name-calling, violence and wanton destruction of lives and properties.
In Nigeria, as politics of godfatherism, hate speech, violence and intimidation take centre stage; issue-based campaigns are gradually being relegated to the background. The electorate does not know where those who seek their votes stand on issues and policies. Politicians bereft of vision and ideas find conducive environment to thrive. In saner climes, political parties use campaigns to raise and discuss problems considered essential to the people.
Most Nigerians cannot identify the cultural, social, political and economic mindset cum outlook of most of their leaders. This paucity of ideology and lack of distinct identity enthrones politics of charlatanism where anything goes. Governance suffers, and the people are the ultimate losers.
Edo 2020 election is the first significant election that will hold during the COVID 19 pandemic period. Securing the credibility of the election and maintaining public health will be a considerable challenge. Election observation by domestic and international observers is crucial to ensure the integrity of electoral processes and acceptance of election results in line with international standards. But, in recent months, restriction of movement, border closures, and quarantine requirements for international travellers will significantly affect election observer missions. This problem may rub us of the opportunity of third party validation of and strengthening of our electoral process.
Edo election will be a barometer to measure Nigeria’s readiness for a free, fair and credible election in 2023. There is nothing in the horizon to indicate that Edo will deliver any novelty in our electoral system or political behaviour ahead of 2023. For now, the signals from Edo election barometer points to all the negatives – We must get it right in Edo State in 2020 to set the stage for 2023.
Peterside is a leadership & organisational consultant and corporate strategist