ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta
The ruling All Progressives Congress is entitled to roll out the drums in an orgy of triumphalism. The feverish inauguration rehearsals at national and relevant state levels are all in order given the announced outcome of the last general election. After all, democratic succession is ultimately a ritual of collective self-renewal. We have an entitlement to expect a season of change both in personnel and in the general method of governance. This is partly why hordes of jobless office seekers have now taken up residence in hotels in Abuja and some state capitals. It is almost a gold rush in a country where some attachment to government office and free money is the easiest way to come by unaccountable wealth and influence.
A few days ago, an interminable motorcade of shiny black SUVs followed Mr. Tinubu and his deputy Alhaji Shettima as they moved into Defence House to begin the effective transition rituals. No one knows exactly why that cacophonous multitude had to follow the president-elect and his deputy to their power transit camp. It can only be hoped hat both men will find time to think through whatever they want to do for Nigeria in the midst of the surging crowd of lobbyists, hustlers and attention seekers.
All things considered, as the party in the forefront of fray of our partisan ‘grab and keep’ politics, the APC cannot be denied the endless clinking of champagne glasses of triumph. In the just concluded elections, both at the national and state levels, it has fared decisively better than its opponents. In addition to producing the INEC declared president-elect, the APC clinched a total of 16 new state governorships out of the 26 that were in contention. It has scored a clear majority in the membership of the incoming National Assembly.
On balance also, the decibel of triumphalist noise coming from the APC and its endless campaign megaphones remains the highest in the land. A lot of this is plain empty rabble rousing and motor park grade bluster which has nothing to do with any clues as to the content, substance and character of the administration that Nigerians should expect come May 29th.
However, the APC’s electoral success and stature as the de facto dominant party in the land has raised far too many fundamental questions about the present state and future prospects of Nigerian democracy. The central curiosity remains that of how a party with a dismal record of governance in the last eight years can score such overwhelming electoral success. If democratic elections are indeed periodic tests of the popularity and acceptability of a party, the verdict of the Nigerian electorate in this last election deserves closer look.
At the expense of rehashing the familiar features of the sad realities of the last eighth years, the consensus on the eve of the last election was that the APC under Mr. Buhari had run Nigeria aground. In every conceivable direction, the business of Nigeria has been in tatters. The economy is at its most hopelessly indebted in recent memory. With debt service at 108% of revenue, an inflation rate of close to 22% and unemployment rate of close to 40%, this is no place for cheers.
Under Mr. Buhari, the size if the poor population has increased from less than 40 million to an acknowledged 130 million, the largest in the world, in eight years. The Naira in your pocket has shrunk in value from 185 to the US dollar in 2015 to the current 750 to the dollar. An epidemic of insecurity has come to be taken as the new normal all over the country. Literally anyone can be abducted, kidnapped, raped, killed or wasted without a trace. Many have disappeared into thin air without a trace. The catalogue of missing persons has continued to grow to the extent that some states like Anambra have had to open a register of missing persons just to keep track.
On the eve of the election, the APC government colluded with the Central Bank of Nigeria to ostensibly redesign the Naira. No one knows exactly why this foolish gambit became necessary. Government claimed it was an anti inflationary move while the veiled assumption was that it was designed to curb the vote buying power of the APC’s own presidential candidate!
At the end of the day, it turned out to be one of the most foolish and self defeating and thoughtless policy escapades in our national history. People’s money was confiscated and locked up in banks under the guise of a swap to new notes. Many innocent people lost their lives because they could not access their own legitimate funds to pay hospital bills or meet basic existential needs. An economy already hobbled by inflation, general shrinkage of productivity and massive business closures was brought to its knees. At the end, there were neither new notes nor economic reprieve nor a curb on vote trading.
With this backdrop, the general anticipation especially among the elite was that the 2023 general election would be an opportunity to sack the APC at the federal level and a number of state government houses. Many thought that the election would be a referendum on Buhari and the APC with the anticipation of a resounding NO on both. It was a logical democratic expectation therefore that the electorate would throw out or minimally punish the APC as a non performing party. On the contrary, what we have witnessed is the opposite of such a normal and rational democratic expectation.
But electorate are not like individual voters. Electorates are made of mobs. They have no collective mind. A mob is a collective mass of divided interests. They will individually vote according to faith, ethnicity, region or plain crass financial inducement as in a transactional vote buying and selling situation.
The speculative and analytical spectrum is quite wide. Could it be that Nigerians as a people love suffering and deprivation as to reward a party that has subjected them to such harrowing anguish? This is the ‘donkey syndrome’, the belief that the people are mere beasts of burden who are insensitive to suffering and in fact would vote for a harsh master again and again.
Is there a possibility therefore that Nigerian democracy operates through an inverse logic in which electoral outcomes defy commonsense logic and the drift of public opinion? Could it be that the outcome of our elections bear no relationship with voter sensibility and sensitivity? In other words, if periodic elections in our democracy do not serve as a test of the popularity of governments, what other justification can we find for staging these elaborate and costly periodic elections?
One compelling perspective holds that the electoral endorsement of the APC came from the mob of illiterate and ignorant voters in those states of the federation where the people may have been deliberately quarantined in relative ignorance and illiteracy. The argument is that in those states, people voted for whichever party the political and religious elite directed them to. In such places, the progressivism of the APC amounted to a mere signpost rather than a serious ideological commitment.
I am inclined to fall back to the classical political theory postulation that in a predominantly ignorant and illiterate electorate, the crowds that troop out to greet the rallies during election campaigns are no more than an irrational mob. In general, mobs do not have a mind of their won. They are actually masses of unthinking humanity driven mostly by the rave of momentary excitement. They are out there to belong with whatever is driving the moment.
The mobs of liberal democracy are somewhat different. They share the collective foolishness of the illiterate masses of Third world illiberal democracy mobs but are different in one respect. They consciously buy into the convictions of a partisan demagogue, adopt his defining mantra and allow that mantra to become a political theology to which they subscribe as devotees in a cultic religious sense. That mantra and obsessions overwhelm the values of the political party to assume a near narcotic hallucinatory effect.
For instance, the Donald Trump mobs that invaded the US Capitol to kill, destroy and maim on January 6, 2021 fit into this mould. The group insanity of the MAGA (Make America Great Again) mob is only a gross devaluation of the conservative extremity of the Republican party. In an election, they would vote for the icon of their ‘faith’ in an irrational deluge. The pro Buhari mobs of 2015, 2019 and, to a less extent 2023, were no less incensed by a theological mantra than their educated American opposites.
There is an even more disturbing distortion. The APC presidential campaign was deficient in content and substance. The presidential candidate of the party refused to honour nearly all invitations to media platforms to advance his case or market his party’s programme. No press conferences. No question and answer sessions. No town hall meets and no spirited presentations. When in fact he got the platform of the Chatham House in London to make his case, he chose to outsource both presentation and question and answer session to a motley assembly of discordant associates.
The party’s presidential campaign literally said nothing about any substantive national problem. As a matter of fact, Mr. Tinubu at some point in the campaign promised that he would continue with the programmes and policies of the infamous Mr. Buhari. At one of his most memorable campaign outings, the presidential candidate of the APC just said: “Buhari! Buhari!! Buhari!!!”. The crowd echoed in approving shouts of APC! APC!! Overall, the most disturbing feature of the APC’s electoral prevalence is in fact in its tacit campaign commitment to continue with the Buhari agenda.
In contrast, the other three major parties struck a decisive difference in their serious attitude to policy issues. Their presidential candidates traversed the nation with tangible programmes and policy options. They made fiery speeches at literally every platform they were invited to. Mr. Atiku Abubakar of the PDP was easily the most incisive, mute and informed at the level of policy and programme options. He insisted on a whole gamut of business friendly policies. Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party struck a note of critical difference from the rest. He envisioned a new nation that defies the business as usual politics of the past. Mr. Kwankwaso was equally incisive especially in his policy propositions on national security and defense. But in the end, the APC has prevailed with a road much travelled.
However, the APC’s electoral prevalence does not of itself absolve the party of the serious burden of responsibility. A political party remains a pillar of democracy in any nation. Nothing distinguishes the APC from the other 80 odd political parties in the INEC register. Its acronym is merely a badge of infamy. There is no element of progressivism in either its membership or leadership.
So far, there is nothing coherent about the governance style and principles of the APC states. Nothing unites the cosmopolitan robustness and modern revenue targeting of Lagos state and the prebendalism of Mr. Ganduje’s Kano state. Similarly, there is absolutely no ideological identity in the rudderless economic knee jerk approach of the Buhari presidency vis a vis the drifting chorus that was the Jonathan presidency.
An electoral outcome that looks like an endorsement of an unpopular party can goad the party into the complacency of unchallenged incumbency. If critics insist the economy is dysfunctional, government shows them the result of the last election. If they say the nation is insecure, why did the people vote for us? If you trumpet that the population of the poor is increasing, but the same poor people voted for us! After all, one holy book says that “the poor you will always have among you!” Maybe the people like corruption, poverty and high cost of living. They keep them in check worrying about how to survive to the next day. The critics of government become habitual malcontents, a predictive opposition of grumbletonians and enemies of progress and the state who need to be either silences or put away. That is how the electoral endorsement of unpopular parties leads to the enthronement of corrupt authoritarians regimes and illiberal democracies.
A complacent party becomes an elected autocracy. Its leaders mistake the forced compliance and popular indifference for popular acceptance. What was elected as a democratic government becomes a machinery of evil authoritarianism. A nation is deleted from the ranks of democratic countries. Polite sanctions come into place.
Continuous electoral victory becomes an assumption of inevitable victory at every election. A virulent opposition builds up underneath. But the presumptive perennial party dies from within as well.
And with it, the state decays and the nation withers. This same process is currently ongoing with the African National Congress(ANC) in South Africa. Corruption has yielded a presidency that hides stacks of US dollars in sofas in a farm. The national electricity grid has collapsed, plunging Africa’s most industrialized nation into periodic hours of darkness. Honest politicians confess that today’s South Africa is worse than the worst of the Apartheid era.
For Nigeria’s APC, therefore, the largely undeserved victory in the 2023 election poses a big challenge. The incoming Tinubu administration has a herculean dual mandate as it were. The first mandate is to rescue the nation from the long night of Mr. Buhari’s unrelenting incompetence and divisive rudderless rule. The second mandate is to remake the APC into a responsible political party that has internal democratic accountability, listens to Nigerians and stops investing in the perpetuation of poverty and ignorance as strategies of vote catching. Strategies that guarantees the party a mob of unthinking voters may eventually ruin the nation. Incidentally, both mandates are mutually inclusive and contingent. The are at the heart of any sensible commitment to the development of democracy.