Mr. Fela Durotoye, a presidential aspirant, recently suggested that women should deny their husbands sex if they do not have the voter card, popularly known in Nigeria as permanent voter’s card (PVC). He might have put things rather dramatically, but he was in essence hammering on the importance of registering to vote in the 2019 elections. I have also followed campaigns on social media asking Nigerians to get the PVC so they can vote, as INEC will not be counting prayer points and number of tweets on the election day. Under military regimes, there were threats not to pay civil servants their salaries or stop their children from attending school if they did not register to vote.
Sometime in 1991 at the University of Lagos, a few of us gathered and started discussing President Ibrahim Babangida’s transition programme. We were busy analysing who should be president and who should not be. One of us, mischievously, stopped the discussion. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but we’ve been busy speaking English for one hour now over the elections. How many of us have registered to vote?” Not a single hand was up, including his. We all laughed it off but he went on: “We will sit down here and be speaking English while the area boys, agberos, bus drivers and conductors have all registered to vote, and they will be the ones determining our future.”
That was the day I finally decided to register as a voter. It felt good to register and felt even better to exercise my right and civic duty. Even if your candidate doesn’t win, you are somewhat happy that you registered your voice at the ballot. It is one of the things that make democracy beautiful. It is one reason democracy is described as government “of” the people, formed by the winner of the majority of votes. Another aspect of democracy that excites me is regular elections, during which you can decide to change or retain leaders. You are not stuck for life, unlike under military regimes and monarchies. Not forgetting, of course, the rule of law and all the freedoms that come with it.
However, as the campaign for PVC gains momentum, I am beginning to see another danger around the corner – the danger of unrealistic expectations. The way people talk about “PVC”, you would think voting can on its own bring about good governance. If 100 million Nigerians are eligible to vote and they all troop out to pick the candidate of their choice, we seem to think that the end result will always be good governance and rapid development. That is the impression I get with this PVC talk. We tend to believe in the collective wisdom of the majority to pick a good leader. We, as well, believe in their collective wisdom to dump the leader if he or she does not deliver the goods.
I should think what the PVC guarantees you is just your basic right – the right to vote and be voted for when you attain a certain age. I will stretch my luck further by saying that, in fact, that is the only thing the PVC guarantees you. The PVC does not guarantee that you will vote wisely or make an informed choice. It does not mean the winner of an election is the best candidate on parade. It does not mean even if the best candidate wins, he or she would do well in office. The PVC does not make you smarter, does not defeat poverty, does not overcome hate and does not make you a prophet – all by itself. It has to be the PVC in addition to something else.
At election times, every candidate comes forward to promise us heaven and earth. It could be in council, governorship, legislative or presidential elections. The campaign promises are always about how rosy things would become “if you vote for me”. I have never in my life heard any candidate promise to make life miserable for the people. I have never heard any candidate promise to be corrupt. They all tell us what we want to hear: that they will fight corruption, provide quality education, make the roads motorable, make the hospitals hospitable and generally make Nigeria a better place. Political season is the season of beautiful promises and grandstanding. Nobody is left out, trust me.
Confronted with an array of beautiful promises, the voter has to take a decision. Unfortunately, the PVC cannot help anybody here. Intelligent or intuitive decision-making can never be guaranteed by the PVC. You have to take the decision with the PVC tucked in your pocket. Who should you vote for? The candidate who speaks English like the Queen of England? The one whose oratorical prowess can put Martin Luther King Jr out of business? The one who dresses like a model or bank MD? The one who has a wonderful CV with a “sparkling” track record? The one who is very good-looking? The one who is so well packaged you think this is the messiah we’ve been waiting for?
Or, to go emotional, are you going to vote for the one who speaks your language or shares your religious beliefs? Or the one you were “instructed” to vote for by your leaders – the ethnic, religious, community and ideological influencers? Will you vote for a party simply because that is the one you have been supporting all your life, irrespective of who is flying the flag? Are you going to vote for a candidate for distributing rice and salt, thereby meeting your temporary needs? By the way, virtually every candidate distributes “something” – either directly or by proxy – at election times, so after you have collected from all sides, will your PVC help you choose who to vote for?
I have asked so many questions that are better answered by the individual voter. What determines my choice is not what determines your choice. But, globally, some things are established. For one, no election is guaranteed to produce the best candidate as winner. You win an election because you have the highest number of votes or seats, and this does not automatically mean you are more competent than your opponent. It only means you have a better support base on the strength of your party structure, finance, charisma, packaging and publicity. The candidate you defeated may be more competent than you, just that he is electorally weaker.
The question then is: how do you know a candidate who is going to do well in office? Nobody in this world can say for sure. For instance, when I saw the campaign materials of Alhaji Yayaha Bello in the “supplementary” Kogi governorship election, I said: finally, Kogi is going to have a proper governor. For once, I saw a candidate for Kogi governorship articulate a programme cutting across all sectors with beautifully designed pamphlets. He was young as well. But what did he do immediately he became governor? He married another wife and began to stockpile bullet-proof vehicles that look like bulldozers. How could a voter have foreseen this?
It was not as if Kogites had much of a choice. Alhaji Wada Idris, the incumbent that Bello “defeated”, was a disaster for four years. Indeed, in most elections in Nigeria, voters are forced to pick between “one week” and “seven days”. This is one problem PVC cannot solve. On the other hand, though, not many pundits gave Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode a chance when he was fielded as APC candidate in Lagos. He was not an orator like the incumbent then, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, or his major opponent, Mr. Jimi Agbaje (PDP). But for the strength of his platform, he could easily have lost the election. Three years in power and he has proved to be as competent as anyone. How could a voter have foreseen it?
Where am I headed? One, it is good to register and get your PVC. It guarantees you a vote. Who you vote for is within your control. Two, the PVC is just a card – it does not guarantee good governance. Even if you elect the most “competent” people into office, your PVC doesn’t know what they will do when they get power. This is beyond your control. We have seen honest people get elected (or appointed) into public office but when they get there, they become something else. The PVC can do nothing about that. Three, you can get angry and vote out your senator, governor or president but nothing guarantees the next person will be any better. We’ve seen this a million times since 1960.
What then? Sit down, fold our arms and start shedding tears of hopelessness? I wouldn’t think so. Voting with your PVC is just the beginning of the journey. It allows you to have your say even if you don’t have your way. Thereafter, the real work begins. We have to begin to engage positively and constructively (not negatively and destructively) with whoever is in power. We must demand good governance and police the system closely. We don’t have to like our leaders, but they are in power anyway. If they fail, we will all suffer the consequences. I am always amazed whenever I see Nigerians wish failure for their leaders just to prove a point of “didn’t I tell you?” Who does that help?
The strongest power of the PVC is that we can keep waving it in the face of our leaders, reminding them that we have the power to send them packing. Some will even argue that we should keep voting in and voting out our leaders until we get it right. Knowing that they stand the risk of being voted out may actually be an incentive for them to perform. That is a beautiful argument. It reinforces the get-your-PVC argument. Your vote is your power. But then, there is also the assumption that most voters will take informed and dispassionate decisions. Those voting on sentiments may, unfortunately, outnumber those voting on merit. That is yet another limitation of the PVC.
Nevertheless, whatever our emotions and convictions may be, we need to be very realistic: nobody can transform this society overnight. I said this under President Jonathan, I am repeating it under President Buhari and I will say it again if Buhari is voted out. In life, good things take time. These are the pivotal questions we should be asking: are we moving forward or backward? Are the signals positive in spite of the temporary pains? If we are not impressed, we should engage with power meaningfully while preparing to do the maximum damage with our PVCs in the next election. We can only wish that the new leaders we are voting in will be any better. The PVC cannot guarantee that. Lottery.
It must be regarded as an irony that moments after US President Donald Trump told President Muhammadu Buhari that America would not tolerate “the killing of Christians” in Nigeria, a mosque was bombed, presumably by Boko Haram, in Mubi, Adamawa state, killing dozens of Muslims. I concede that I am naïve, but the poor security situation in Nigeria is a problem for everybody no matter the religion, state of origin or ethnicity. The killing of Catholic priests in Benue state has further worsened religious tension in the Middle Belt, but in truth nobody is safe. For a country that has, over the years, spent (and still spends) billions of dollars on “security”, nothing could be more troubling. Helpless?
One of the best ways of getting the Nigerian government to act on any issue is for the foreign media to highlight it. It always works. We care more about how outsiders perceive us than what we really are. Kudos to the BBC for the excellent report on the abuse of codeine-containing medications in Nigeria. Kudos to Mrs Ruona Agbroko-Meyer, the Nigerian journalist, who did the wonderful job. The Nigerian media has been reporting this, and other social drug menaces, for years but government never acted until the BBC took it up. Can the CNN please help Nigerians highlight the parlous state of our public hospitals and medical centres? There is no way government won’t act. Banker.
BUHARI IN AMERICA
President Buhari was guest of US President Trump last week and many people, critics inclusive, said it was Buhari’s best international outing so far. He hardly put any foot wrong, although some have argued that we set the bar very low. Of interest to me, really, is the criticism that Buhari did not request that US should start buying Nigerian oil again – to counterbalance Trump’s position that Nigeria should open up its market to American agricultural exports. Fair point. However, the US is now a net exporter of oil, so importing from Nigeria is of little or no economic value to them. For example, Nigeria is now a net exporter of cement, so why should any country lobby us to import from them? Why?
Who doesn’t want to live long, especially when your health is not in a terrible state? Dr. David Goodall, renowned ecologist and botanist, is 104 years old and fairly in good health, but the fear of the future means he is no longer happy to be alive. He doesn’t want to become a burden on anybody, he said, so he travelled from Australia to Switzerland to end his life. “I greatly regret having reached that age,” he said on his birthday last month. “I’m not happy. I want to die. It’s not sad particularly. What is sad is if one is prevented.” His major reason is his “diminishing independence” – having to rely on people to help him do certain things. Life could be unfair, even in a different way. Mystery.