In an article-length and widely remediated post on Facebook, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, alleges that “some past and present political leaders, disgruntled religious leaders, and ethnic champions” are plotting to upturn Nigeria’s constitutional order through a “war of tongues” aimed at having President Muhammadu Buhari removed from office, using “the security challenges the country is facing” as a “smokescreen”.
Adesina does have a point, even if overstated. The increasing hysteria of press conferences and statements on security by all sorts of ‘leaders’ and ‘civil society organisations’ in recent weeks does not only leave much to be desired but is often divorced from the actual situation on the ground and seems designed to “exacerbate the situation”, as Adesina alleges. Above all, the dominant media coverage of these issues certainly appears to be aimed more at inciting public anger and outrage than to help towards a peaceful resolution, not least by some media openly pandering to and ennobling those calling for a military take-over of the government.
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So Adesina is correct to suggest that there are those who would like the president hounded out of office by foul rather than fair means. He misses the point though to think that such people and Adesina does not name any names, are doing this merely because they “love to hate” Buhari as he put it. It is true that there are many Nigerians who simply can’t stand even the thought of Buhari as Nigeria’s president for a day, let alone the reality of it for six years. It is also true that many in this category demonstrate their frustrations in many different, often, undemocratic ways. Hate may be part of it, but no president should expect to be loved by all.
And while much media framing of the current security situation would more inflame than calm public passions, the government itself has not done enough to cultivate public understanding of the severity and complexity of the security challenges we all face. Buhari’s own say-nothing and hear-nothing approach creates the impression of a do-nothing president in the eyes and minds of even the millions of voters whose political goodwill he has always enjoyed, and perhaps often taken for granted. It is not just that other people are taking advantage of worsening insecurity to create discord between the government and Nigerians; it is also that the government does not do enough to build accord with the governed.
Besides, underhand political behaviour against the government of the day by opponents is nothing new in Nigeria. All of our previous presidents and heads of state have had to live with it. A few have been felled by it. When the late President Yar’adua was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, some of his political opponents sought to turn public opinion against him and quicken his fall from office, long before death did so, by feeding the press ruses about a certain ‘cabal’ in his government bent on preventing an orderly transfer of power to his then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. At least, this is what Yar’adua’s then spokesman, Mr Olusegun Adeniyi, would claim later in his book, Power, Politics and Death.
If underhand tactics by opposition politicians are not new in Nigerian politics, neither is the accusation of ‘hate’ against opponents by those in government. In the years leading up to the 2015 elections, when Nigeria was politically as overheated as it is today, the dominant narrative by the supporters of former President Jonathan was that Boko Haram, in particular, was a political hatchet job designed to make the country ‘ungovernable’ for him merely because some Nigerians hated him that much. It is sadly ironic, then, that we are invoking this same narrative all over again.
Perhaps we should all look elsewhere for an explanation, rather than approach politics in terms of love and hate. Nigeria always gets too hot for anyone who stayed long enough on the saddle, and the long enough is hardly decided by constitutional tenures. Unfortunately, in our case, the heat generated in the rival contests for power too often involves violence, or threats of it, in some form. This is most deplorable, but also easily understandable, at least from a public choice perspective.
First, once people sense an opportunity to take power, or to put it bluntly in President Buhari’s own words when he addressed the #EndSARS protests, once opponents sense a “sign of weakness in the government”, they would pounce, and would do so by more foul than fair means. After all, politics is a game of the sullied, not of the innocent, where love and hate play equal roles, if in different directions. Love, or hate, has less to do with it than the nature of politics itself.
This is where elections, or rather their frequency, come into play. Nigeria is the fifth-largest democracy by the number of citizens, yet for all our size, we probably hold the fewest elections of all the large democracies. Elections to all but three of the 36 governorships, and all state houses of assembly, are held in a single day, usually about a week following those of the president and the national assembly. In effect, polls to almost all elective offices of state are held in just two days every four years. Only three or four governorship elections punctuate this period. On top of this, elections at local government levels have all but collapsed altogether.
For a country of 200 million people, this is a recipe for perpetual political instability, and for me, partly explains why even as a democracy, Nigeria is almost always tethering on the brink, sometimes with violent turns. Elections are not just the primary means by which citizens appoint their leaders. They are also the key medium for channelling political ambition, anger and disagreement into more sportsmanly ways. Elections are a grand strategic device for statecraft and public management. This is why the frequency of elections matters so much for democratic stability, and why countries with more frequent elections also tend to be more politically stable.
Could more frequent elections result in a more politically stable Nigeria? I am confident of it, at least in the medium to long term. Those who are displeased with the government of the day have only the next year or two to wait to express it in their votes, even if indirectly. How can we make it happen? I have no idea. But if 18 of the 36 state-wide elections, and a half or two-thirds of the national assembly elections are held every two years, with local government polls in between, we will have a system whereby only the president once is elected every four years. I have little doubt that in 10 years, our perpetually-on-the-brink political scenario would be reduced considerably, all other things being equal, of course.