The politics of democratic transition is hardly ever a beauty pageant. Oftentimes, the dazzling brilliance of campaign media displays conceal an underlying ugliness in the substance of what is on offer. It is all an ancient marketing gimmick in which the public is sold the new messiah as the product of an immaculate conception. The woman or woman to save society is packaged as a new brand of detergent, toot paste or antacid to ease our current discomfort.
Ultimately, when the campaign is over and the frenzy of marketing ends, the elegant Photo Shopped images of the contestants on campaign billboards and Instagram posts end up in the trash. The ‘’fine boys” and “sharp girls” that street people would have liked to see as winners end up being scrubbed off the walls of public places. More often than not, the most morally attractive and physically appealing people hardly win democratic elections. Morally ugly and physically unkempt people emerge from behind the screen of marketing and campaign make-up.
In parts of the Third World especially Africa, elections into high political office are mostly a contest among the rough hewn and jagged operators of the power system. It is often the jugglers of multi- dimensional crookedness or at best the princes of the hegemonic deep state that get rewarded with the prime seat at the high table of power. Other power aspirants merely crawl around the high table in concentric circles of relative power access dictated by proximity to the master. African democracy is mostly a referendum to choose the most decorated fox.
So, as tribunals and sundry courts deliberate on an avalanche of petitions arising from Nigeria’s last general elections, public response to the outcome of the elections has shifted to matters of the morality of those who won. Some people are lamenting the emergence of persons of doubtful integrity as the imminent leaders. Others are regretting the emergence of persons of less than papal purity as leaders of the next government. That is not totally true. After all, in Benue, the long suffering citizens have elected a serving Reverend gentleman as the next governor. Nonetheless, there is now a residual excessive moral emphasis on the imminent leadership of our republic.
The social media is perhaps the prime purveyor of the emergent moral crusade. All available platforms are awash with moral valuations of the major figures that the elections have produced especially at the presidential level. I personally do not like the unprintable things that people have been posting in the social media about the major figures of the incoming administration.
Mr. Dino Melaye as spokesperson of the campaign organization of Mr. Atiku Abubakar and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) literally set the tone in the immediate aftermath of the elections. He was bitter, sounding more like a nattering co-wife. He called the President-elect all manner of uncomplimentary names that have to do with the assumed murky origins of the man’s humongous wealth and fortune. Similarly, he characterized the Vice President- elect, Mr Kassim Shettima, in unedifying epithets that make him look like a world famous Al Queda villain. In fairness to his myriad critics, Mr. Shettima did not quite help himself when he went to represent Mr. Tinubu wearing that over-sized musty grey suit complete with a knee length tie and a bad pair of workout shoes! The comic essence of his outfit on that occasion was probably lost on his bespoke audience!
In more recent times, the power game has shifted to the leadership of the incoming National Assembly. There again, the front runners Mr. Akpabio and Orji Kalu, both senators, have been cast in not very attractive moral portraits. Some social media cranks have argued that when coupled with the incoming first two citizens, the three foremost citizens would look like a triumvirate assembled from Columbia, Afghanistan and clans of old Sicily.
The social media and widespread Pentecostalism are largely to blame for the confusion of values. Judgments and value assessments about people thrust onto high places are being made by both street urchins on social media and all manner of religious zealots. The other powerful set of moral arbiters of the new power people are the new crop of religious fanatics being spewed by the thriving national industry of Pentecostal pastors and congregants of sundry churches. Along with them are sundry free lance moral crusaders in mosques whose targets are everything secular. Consequently, conversations about the appropriateness of our democratic choices of personnel are failing to address the pragmatic political and governance challenges that now face us. I would contend that the excessive emphasis on the moral credentials of our new leaders is fatally misplaced and wrong headed. People are mixing up things that do not work together or necessarily add up.
Politics and ethics do not work well together. It is often said that politics is an amoral undertaking. No one knows whether it is a profession, an occupation, a hobby, a game or a business. But one thing is clear: the normal parameters of any known professional ethics and moral code have no place in the political enterprise. The story is often told and re-told of the old Ibadan dark political genius who used to insist on a screening interview for apprentice politicians who sought his assistance or want to sign on to him for tutelage. The first entry qualification interview used to consist of a set of related questions: “ Can you tell lies without batting an eye lid?” “Can you see what everybody says is white and swear an oath before the most powerful gods that it is actually black?” “Can you kill your opponent to clear your way to power?” “Can you betray your mother if it becomes necessary?” “Can you swear and stand by a lie on oath with any of the Holy books?” Applicants who score the highest affirmative marks at this screening interview sessions end up as the next set of successful politicians!
Secondly, power and morality are strange bedfellows. The old Machiavellian dictum is a classic of this school of power politics: the end justifies the meanness. On your way to power, it does not matter whose ox is butchered and converted into ‘suya’ to energize the race. The key objective is to get there. Power has its own driving morality. What is right is what takes the power seeker to the place of power. All else is a distraction. The preachments of a thousand pastors and bishops amount to nothing. Power defines and decorates its own saints. It does not matter what you call a man of power on his way to the summit. When he gets there, he will re-christen himself in the most glowing and saintly epithets. He will pile up all the accolades that the best of men desire and dream about and heap them on himself.
More importantly, the criteria for the selection of those who must contest elections to our highest political offices are guided by existing legislation and procedures. The current Electoral Law in its most current version reserves the screening of party candidates for elections for the political parties. Each candidate is deemed an ambassador of his/her party. Only the party can decide who to present to INEC as the candidate for an election. Once that decision is made, no other body can contest or invalidate the choice. Not the police even if the person has been arrested a thousand times for sundry crimes. Not the security services even if the candidate has endangered the state in words or deeds in the past without being convicted by a court of appropriate jurisdiction. Even the law courts have their hands tied because the Electoral Law happens to be the law that guides and guards all election matters. Therefore social morality as protected by law enforcement, the judiciary or state security have no meaning in matters of determining who seeks or ascends to power in our polity.
There is therefore a conspiracy of factors that insulate those who contest for and emerge from our elections from the normal run of moral and ethical scrutiny that would ordinarily bar common criminals and other miscreants from aspiring to high public office in other climes. In other places, even ordinary traffic infractions, drunk driving, an unwarranted wink at a damsel or falsification of a birth certificate can deny you clearance to run for a county election let alone a presidential contest.
Even in situations where clearance for electoral contest follow reasonable scrutiny, democracies have a way of returning outcomes that may not showcase the best that a society has to offer. The offspring of even the best democracies can be decidedly ugly and unattractive. American democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries was believed to have graduated to an exceptional meritocracy in which only the best candidates in each party can hope to be cleared to contest for the presidency. Additional merits are accorded to moral credentials, quality of knowledge of national and world affairs as demonstrated in open media debates and speaking engagements. Yet in the 2016 presidential contest, a nasty Donald defeated a relatively decent and brilliant Hillary Clinton to become president. Trump merely honed his ability to mouth gutter clichés, to abuse and mock opponents and to trivialize serious national and global issues. He abused and cursed his way into the White House and used the same antics to hang in there for four years.
This anomaly in democratic outcomes is worse in illiberal democracies. Check Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Syria and the Philippines under Duterte. The reality of the illogic of democracy is that the electoral outcome is the product of a popular mandate delivered at the ballot by an irrational mob. On election day, I step out to go and cast my vote just as my security guard, steward or janitor is on their way there as well. The egalitarian end of democracy overwhelms enlightened votes with irrational inputs.
More often than not, the outcomes that make the elite unhappy are the result of so many non -rational variables that may not have anything to do with common sense or enlightened moral considerations. It is very often dominated by simple bread and butter or pocket book issues. But at least a credible democratic system ought to emplace sufficient guardrails on the way to critical power contests to protect the society against the emergence of proven criminals.
But the bottom line remains that cannot limit individual access to power with rules outside what our enabling laws allow. To that extent, all those who have emerged as a result of the February and March presidential and governorship elections are qualified by law to wear their new toga. Roadside reservations about their moral credentials are neither here nor there. The challenge of ensuring an appropriate moral context for public office is to change the enabling law that determines who qualifies to run for crucial public office. Such a revised electoral law should have roles for the police and the national security apparatus.
In the aftermath of the 2023 elections therefore and as we await the swearing in of the new governments, what becomes of utmost importance is the performance of those elected to the various offices. Equally important is the moral conduct of those newly elected after being sworn in. Technical qualification to contest these elections does not however confer immunity from moral censure on the office holders once they are sworn in. Their present and past actions remain subject to scrutiny and investigation throughout their tenure in office and perhaps afterwards. It is only in their incumbent positions that they can be held accountable as moral examples for the society.
However, the imperative of maintaining the moral leadership is not diminished by the laxity in the electoral selection process. Big camels may slip through the needle’s eye of party qualification to contest. But once elected and sworn in, rulers are held morally accountable by the strength of the institutions of state. The police, the anti corruption agencies, national security agencies ,the judiciary and the mechanism of public book keeping must remain the gaurrails of accountability of the political leadership.
When democracy births illegitimate offspring, the same electorate that enthroned the ugliness waits to judge the moral compass and competence of the new power wielders. If the electorate fails to bring its will to bear on those who rule, the only recourse for society is the strength of the institutions of state. There lies the beauty and contradiction of the democratic state.