By Olusegun Adeniyi
The less you say, the less risk you run of saying something foolish, even dangerous. In 1825 a new czar, Nicholas I, ascended the throne of Russia. A rebellion immediately broke out, led by liberals demanding that the country modernize—that its industries and civil structures catch up with the rest of Europe. Brutally crushing this rebellion, Nicholas I sentenced one of its leaders, Kondraty Ryleyev to death. On the day of execution, Ryleyev stood on the gallows, the noose around his neck. The trapdoor opened but as Ryleyev dangled, the rope broke, dashing him to the ground.
At the time, events like this were considered signs of providence or heavenly will, and a man saved from execution this way was usually pardoned. As Ryleyev got to his feet, bruised, and dirtied but believing his neck had been saved, he called out to the crowd, “You see, in Russia they don’t know how to do anything properly, not even how to make rope!” A messenger immediately went to the Winter Palace with news of the failed hanging. Vexed by this disappointing turnabout, Nicholas I nevertheless began to sign the pardon. But then: “Did Ryleyev say anything after this miracle?” the czar asked the messenger. “Sir, the messenger replied, “he said that in Russia they don’t even know how to make rope.”
“In that case,” said the Czar, “let us prove the contrary,” and he tore the pardon. The next day Ryleyev was hanged again. This time the rope did not break. Learn the lesson: Once the words are out, you cannot take them back. The momentary satisfaction you gain with your biting words will be outweighed by the price you pay.
I lifted the foregoing story, ‘Always say less than necessary’ from Robert Greene’s ‘48 Laws of Power’. It is one lesson that many Nigerian politicians and their supporters have refused to learn: That words spoken or written in moments of anger or sometimes for fun, have consequences. Beneath the sabre-rattling we have witnessed in recent weeks is a certain mentality of politics as warfare. However, my concern is not the damage their words can do to themselves but rather to the peace of our country and national security, especially after the votes are in. With the presidential election just hours away, it is important that the leading candidates and their supporters watch what they say, regardless of whether they win or lose.
Given how the BATified, ATIKUlate and OBIdients have gone overboard during this campaign, especially on social media, one cannot rule out gloating or even ethnic baiting by members of the victorious side at the end of the process. Yet, one insensitive tweet or a reckless Tiktok video post could trigger violence in a contest that unwittingly stands on Nigeria’s ancient tripod. “With each front runner drawing support – strongly but not exclusively – from his ethnic, religious and regional bases, the campaigns are stirring up communal tensions that could turn ugly,” according to a 26-page report, ‘Mitigating Violence Around Nigeria’s 2023 Elections’, released last week by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
While there are 18 presidential candidates, each of whom is president-in-waiting to their army of supporters, most Nigerians believe that this contest is essentially between Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Gregory Obi of the Labour Party (LP). The main challenge is that if you speak to supporters of any of these three, they are so sure of victory that the only allowance made for defeat is if their man is “rigged out”. That perhaps explains why partisan polling has become not only a thriving industry but also a tool being primed to game or delegitimize the outcome if it goes against their expectations. Yet, as in every election, only one person can win on Saturday.
It is remarkable that despite decades of failed dreams, shattered expectations, and betrayed hopes, Nigerians renew their faith in the electoral process every four years as they vote with optimism for better days. We see the same optimism in this election cycle. But the reality of our situation is that we now live in a country increasingly torn apart by hate and instincts to dominate others, not necessarily by superior argument. We are not even talking about the daunting existential challenges on the security and economic fronts, including the needless one created by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) that has worsened the plight of most ordinary people who now use money to buy money at scandalous prices—a new Nigerian invention in infamy.
Whoever wins the presidential election on Saturday, his work is already cut out for him. But the job becomes harder if the defeated candidates (And I repeat, only one can win while others will lose) and their supporters refuse to concede. Worse, if supporters of the winner decide to incite. As an aside, this election has been devoid of the usual drama of predictions from renowned clerics, marabouts, and all manner of fortune-tellers. While the Catholic Church suspension of Father Ejike Mbaka has ensured that office seekers are not trooping to his Enugu ‘Adoration Ground’ for anointing, many others in the business of political prophecies are now speaking in ‘parables’.
Before I continue, let me encourage Nigerians to exercise their franchise in this election cycle. Nobody should say their vote doesn’t matter. It does. Since our presidential system of government is patterned after that of the United States, we can learn from some of their interesting close elections. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected President by one vote in the House of Representatives after a tie in the Electoral College. 24 years later, Andrew Jackson won the presidential popular vote but lost by one vote in the House of Representatives to John Quincy Adams after a similar deadlock in the Electoral College. While the 2000 presidential election was not decided by a single vote, the margin of 537 votes by which George W. Bush won the State of Florida which tilted the Electoral College in his favour (despite losing the popular vote) is indicative of why every vote counts. But no American election has perhaps demonstrated the power of a single vote better than what happened in November 2017 in the State of Virginia. After the election, 23,217 ballots for the House of Delegates 94th District were recounted several times because of the margin between the Democratic challenger, Shelly Simonds and incumbent Republican, David Yancey. At the end, the difference was just a single vote. But that lone vote was significant not only because one man lost the election but also because that seat also switched the majority party in the Virginia House of Delegates!
Beyond the power of a single vote, it is important for Nigerians to participate in choosing their leaders. The low turn-out of voters that we have witnessed in recent elections bodes ill for our democracy. In several instances, governors have been elected with as little as 12 percent of registered voters. As democratic as such processes may be, questions will always arise about the legitimacy of a gubernatorial mandate secured with less than three percent of the entire population of a state, given that many adults do not even bother to register, while those below the age of 18 are statutorily ineligible.
Meanwhile, for the presidential election, the main concern is the possibility of violence if defeated candidates decide to go rogue after the election. The ICG report said the presidential poll was taking place in the country amid wider security challenges. But more significantly, the “sense of desperation pervading the camps of all three front runners is a source of rising tension among them and concern about how the losing parties’ candidates and supporters may react to defeat.” While the dynamics of such risk may differ from one section of the country to another in this open-seat presidential election in which the incumbent is not on the ballot, the fact remains that our delicate fault lines (ethnicity, religion, and geo-politics) are on full display. And should any of the defeated candidates (or/and their supporters) play such cards, a crisis will ensue.
For peace to reign after the election, what the victor and losers say and/or do will matter. And we have seen that even in the most advanced of democracies. On 6th January 2021, thousands of supporters gathered at a ‘Save America’ rally as the defeated American President Donald Trump spoke for more than an hour near the White House. “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide”, Trump began to a thunderous applause. “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen…You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
The moment Trump’s speech was over, the mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington DC in a futile bid to halt legislative proceedings meant to officially ratify the victorious Joe Biden as president-elect. No fewer than five deaths—including that of a policeman trying to restore order—were recorded. Scores of others were wounded in what was described as a premeditated “assault on the sacred heart of US democracy.”
Multiple issues underlie current tensions in our country, and they are so complex that anything could trigger an explosion if the candidates and their supporters are not restrained after the election. I shudder to imagine what would happen should any of the three leading candidates incite the mob the way Trump did in America two years ago. The fallout would be difficult to contain, especially under the prevailing circumstances in our country. We saw a little bit of that after the April 2011 presidential election when hundreds of people—including 10 National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members—were killed, following riots in some northern states. It was instigated by supporters of the current President Muhammadu Buhari who was, at that time, defeated in his third attempt for the office that he has now held for eight years.
The critical point of the foregoing is that in every nation—from Cote D’Ivoire to Kenya and Brazil—that descends into violence and strife because of post-election discord, democracy is set back, national reputation suffers, and the economy takes a beating. Worse still, the ordinary people are usually the canon fodders. Innocent lives are lost while the bonds of national cohesion are loosened by forces of factional partisanship. In the process, divisive identities ossify along avoidable lines. In a fragile society like ours, managing such conflict can be very difficult.
I am delighted by the assurances given by the security agencies and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of their preparedness for the election. I hope INEC will take onboard the suggestions I made last week in my column, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2023/02/16/inec-and-the-lesson-from-var.
In his book, ‘Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places’, Paul Collier makes dire predictions about how ballots could easily lead to bullets, especially in developing countries with weak institutions and a clear absence of accountability in governance—a category to which Nigeria belongs. But we can, and should, avoid travelling that road. In ancient Greece, Athenian democracy where it all began grew out of the instinct to celebrate communal solidarity through drama and play but, in this case, the drama of periodic political choice. This is an exercise to choose the man we expect to serve us, and it makes no sense to fight over that. I hope Nigerians will be mindful of this as they go to the polls on Saturday to elect the next president.
May the best candidate win!
On ‘Selling’ Vento Furniture
At half-time during the UEFA Europa League match between Manchester United and Barcelona last Thursday evening, a commercial by Vento Furniture, a premium furniture company in Nigeria was featured twice. I was not surprised by the calls and messages that followed from those who may have watched the advert on DSTv. I understand it has been repeated many times since then. My simple answer is that for almost two years I have been a brand ambassador for the company. It all started on 23 June 2021 when I received a letter from the company’s CEO, Mr. Hasan Yigit, seeking appointment for an audience with me. In the letter, Yigit wrote: “We have followed your contributions to national discourse in the country and hold the firm belief that the role of brand ambassador should not be for entertainers alone. The intellectual space is deserving of this recognition hence our humble selection of you as our brand ambassador.”
Since the promoters are Turkish, I needed to know more about the company before making any commitment. For the record, Vento Furniture has about 200 Nigerians in its employ, with strong presence in three major cities (Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt). The company also plans to establish a vocational school that would train young Nigerians interested in learning basic skills in painting, plumbing, welding, carpentry, etc. to better their lives. Participants will be drawn from across the country with modalities being worked out to ensure that the process for enlistment is transparent and not hijacked by politicians. Plans are also underway towards establishing a world-class furniture manufacturing complex in the country.
My initial discussions with Vento Furniture went well. All that was demanded of me were photo (and sometimes video) shoots and my availability for some of their Corporate Social Responsibility events. But I didn’t jump at the offer. I consulted widely, including with respected professionals in the Diaspora, to be sure. The consensus is that there is nothing wrong in a journalist serving as a brand ambassador. In accepting the offer, I provided a line that Vento has used in its newspaper adverts with my photo: “My late father was a carpenter. So, now you have a carpenter’s son selling furniture.”
Let’s have all-hands-on-desk!
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com