Moving beyond Season of Fear and Loathing
Postscript by Waziri Adio
The days after the 2023 general election have been defined by a high dose of toxicity. Some of it was expected. Given the way the presidential race was set up, the manner in which combustible identities got inserted—either by design or default—into the contests, and the level of emotions invested in and generated by the electoral outcomes, some of the post-election reactions are normal. They go with the terrain. But some of the actions and counter-actions are not, and are dangerous. Simply put: they go beyond the pale. And there is a grave risk of escalation, which doesn’t bode well for the democratic project, for the country, and for its citizens.
It is thus time to press pause, and stop the dangerous dance on the precipice.
As critical stakeholders in both the Nigerian and the democratic projects, we need to have a binding consensus on certain things. The first is that every qualified Nigerian voter, irrespective of tribe or faith or status, has a right to her preference. Others do not have to agree with or understand that preference, but they have to respect it. No one’s right is superior to another’s.
So, this is patently wrong: preventing some Nigerians of Igbo extraction and others from voting in Lagos on 18th March and attacking them for their assumed choices. It is undemocratic and it constitutes a serious infringement on their constitutional rights. Those responsible for these reprehensible acts should be fished out and prosecuted. Equally deplorable is saying or insinuating that Igbos and others do not have a right to vote in Lagos. Any Nigerian should be free to vote for any candidate of her choice wherever she resides and is registered to vote.
The second thing I think we need to agree on is that as equal citizens, we have an equal right to see things differently. While some Nigerians believe that the results announced by INEC are a true reflection of how Nigerians voted, some other Nigerians believe the results were tampered it. We all have a right to our views. But none of the sides has a right to shout down or demonise the other. In the public sphere, there is a huge space for persuasion and decorum. Drowning out opposing views and resorting to ad hominem rob the society of reasoned engagement, which is vital to both democracy and development.
For example, I do not subscribe to the strongly canvassed position that the 2023 general election is the worst set of elections in the last 30 years or in our history, and I have said so on this page, including highlighting the dramatic shifts in this electoral cycle and the not-well-acknowledged role that the adoption of technology has played in reducing the scope for electoral mischief by our politicians. But do I expect everyone to agree with me? No. Others have the same right that I have. All Nigerians should be able to freely express their views without fear of being attacked, ridiculed or cancelled.
The third is that those who are dissatisfied with the results announced by INEC have a right to seek redress and a right to register their displeasure through all the lawful means available to them. Expressing contrary opinions, protesting, and going to court are all guaranteed by the constitution and they all accord with democratic practice. And it is right and commendable that some of the candidates and their supporters have exercised these options. People should not be condemned for exercising their rights. Lawful dissent should not be demonised.
The last minimum consensus that I want to mention here is that we need to agree that we are better served in a democratic, peaceful and equitable Nigeria. In this wise, there are certain actions by some of the combatants on all sides that go beyond the elasticity allowed by democratic practice and may put both democracy and the country at risk. We should always mind the gap. And irrespective of whether or not we are committed officially or unofficially to any side of the political divide, we should be able to agree on where the lines are.
Beyond the emotions and partisanship that we are all entitled to as humans and citizens, there are certain developments of the last few weeks that should get all of us worried. I will highlight a few here.
The first is that a few days ago, some people went to the Defence Headquarters in Abuja to protest the results announced by INEC. The leader of the protesters said they had come to reject the results and that they knew that Nigeria’s defence would not fail. They knelt down to sing and make their plea. For those who may not know, Defence Headquarters houses the top echelons of the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Airforce and the Nigerian Navy. I don’t need to spell out what they were suggesting.
I am still traumatised by the clip that has made the rounds, as I think all reasonable Nigerians should be. I am shocked that the military authorities have not issued a strong statement warning protesters to stay clear of openly or secretly taking their case to the military. I am equally appalled that all the major opposition political parties have not dissociated themselves from the ill-advised and dangerous move. We need to agree that this kind of expedition is a capital NO-NO. The military has no legal or constitutional role in resolving electoral disputes.
We have had two episodes of military rule, lasting about half of our 62 years as an independent country. We know how that went, especially the five years when General Sani Abacha held sway following an annulled election. Anyone who thinks that the military is an option for resolving their grievance needs a close reading of our history in case they were not born or old enough during the military interregna of 1966 to 1979 and 1983 to 1999. The fact that military rule is no longer a rare exception, especially in our neighbourhood, is an extra reason why such careless talks and moves should be taken more seriously.
Another deeply worrying development is a series of interviews granted by Senator Datti Baba-Ahmed, the vice-presidential candidate of the Labour Party. He said based on Section 134 of the 1999 Constitution, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu did not meet the conditions to be declared the winner of the 25th February 2023 election. For context, Section 134 (2) (b) is about whether or not the winner of the presidential election needs to secure 25% of the votes in the Federal Capital Territory. This is one of the grounds on which the Labour Party is contesting the announced result of the election at the tribunal. So, this is a matter already in court.
But Senator Baba-Ahmed, who claimed in one of the interviews that he is not a careless and reckless speaker, said that swearing in the person that INEC declared the president-elect would amount to swearing in the military and ending democracy in Nigeria. He called on the president not to organise the inauguration event and the Chief Justice of Nigeria not to swear in anyone on May 29th.
These are not only extreme views, as one of the interviewers pointed out, but also constitute extremely careless and reckless talk. And as a former lawmaker, Senator Baba-Ahmed should know better. Apart from the fact that he is trying to engage in self-help on a matter his own party has taken to the appropriate quarters for resolution, he is offering an open invitation to anarchy. Has he taken time to think about what will happen if President Muhammadu Buhari doesn’t hand over on May 29th?
There is no provision in our laws for a candidate declared as elected not be sworn in until the courts decide otherwise. And we have had many instances in which the courts have upturned decisions of the electoral body, including Senator Baba-Ahmed’s victory over Senator Ahmed Makarfi in the 2011 elections. By the way, he was inaugurated as the senator for Kaduna North before the court decided he was not the rightful winner of the election based on the evidence provided by his opponent. Making compelling argument before the courts is the proper lead for Baba-Ahmed and his party to follow, not what appears a desperate call for chaos.
Equally concerning is the spirited attempt to pile pressure on or discredit the judiciary. A lawyer to one of the candidates at the tribunal is running newspaper commentary on a case already before the courts. Another senior lawyer says he no longer has faith in the Supreme Court based on some recent rulings. Some media houses are alleging that the CJN disguised to meet the president-elect in London and are circulating images of the CJN on a wheelchair at an airport as proof of the grievous allegation. Some people are calling on or encouraging the United States of America and other countries to impose visa bans on Nigerian judges.
If a case is in court, commenting on it is sub judice, whether you are a party to it or not. But especially if you are party, or attorney to a party, in the case, the place to argue your case is in the court rooms and not in the media. You can run your commentary or express your opinion after the case is decided. But doing so while the case has been filed amounts to trying to influence the outcome or force the hands of the judges. This is wrong. But even more egregious is trying to discredit the entire judiciary as an institution.
To be sure, the judiciary—including the Supreme Court—is not beyond reproach, and we all won’t always agree with its decisions. There are always provisions for appeal, but once the court of last instance rules, all parties move on, as part of democratic practice. In 1979, Chief Obafemi Awolowo clearly did not fancy the decision of the Supreme Court on the 12 2/3 matter. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore clearly would have preferred the US Supreme Court to rule otherwise on the recount of the Florida ballots. Neither Awolowo nor Gore tried to discredit the judiciary before or after the rulings. Trying to discredit the judiciary or even democracy itself, as now is becoming fashionable with some, is a slippery slope. It is a danger to all.