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Re-engineering our politics

James Carville, the American political strategist coined the phrase “The economy, stupid” as one of the three messages to be used as sound bites in…

James Carville, the American political strategist coined the phrase “The economy, stupid” as one of the three messages to be used as sound bites in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. The other two were “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget healthcare”. It can be argued that in most of the industrialized countries, the driving force of their politics has remained “the, economy stupid.” And here we are looking at ‘economy’ in its various manifestations – from unemployment and mortgage concerns to issues bothering on healthcare and immigration.
In contrast to most of the industrialized countries, it could be argued that the fundamental challenge in most of the underdeveloped economies of Africa is not poverty or issues of the economy but politics in all its manifestations – from the politics of leadership recruitment and its ancillary of ‘who gets what, when, how, why and where’ to the politics of nation-building and its embedded contrariness. In fact during Ghana’s struggle for political independence from Britain, the late Kwame Nkrumah admonished his fellow Ghanaians to “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added to you”. Though Nkrumah was among the radical Africanists who embraced what they called ‘African socialism’, Nkrumah’s dictum turned the doctrinaire Marxian dictum of ‘economic determinism’ on its head by privileging politics over economics. In essence, the trouble with Nigeria is the character of its politics.
In this era of ‘change’, it is important that the government pays adequate attention on how to change the character of our politics:  Why is our politics too anarchic? Why do politicians want to sit tight beyond their tenures? Why do we need to rig elections if it is all about service? Why does identity politics almost always trump issues-based politics?
To blame the PDP for the character of our politics or to sanctimoniously present the APC as an embodiment of progressive politics is to be manipulative with language and logic. I do not see any fundamental difference between all the parties in the country.
The truth is that owing to the centrality of power in fragile and polarized states like Nigeria, the struggle for it is anarchic. Power is not only a veritable means of individual material accumulation and distribution of privileges, the constituent units of the country also believe that winning power is a prerequisite for redressing the perceived injustices they suffered. They also fear that if another ethnic or regional group is allowed to win power at their expense, that group will use the power to privilege its own primordial groups or to punish and disadvantage the others.
In a situation such as the above, suspicion is pervasive and no individual or institution enjoys universal legitimacy across the fault lines. There is hardly consensus on anything, including the parameters of nationhood, a regime’s performance in office or the notion of merit. 
No matter the integrity of the electoral umpire, the outcome of elections is bound to be contentious – simply because of the character of our politics. This is not to suggest that integrity and competence of the electoral umpire does not matter. It does. But in terms of contribution to the acceptance  or otherwise of the outcome of an election, the competence and integrity of the electoral umpire will probably account for about 20 per cent while the invisible hands of the character of our politics will account for about 80 per cent.
What will be done to re-engineer the character of our politics?
The way we treat those who lose elections and concede defeat will go a long way in determining whether losers will accept defeat or make it a do-or-die affair.  If losers perceive that the winners are going to use instruments of state power to come after them, it will encourage sit-tightism. This is why some of us have been consistent in arguing that former President Jonathan and indeed others who lost elections should be treated with respect and dignity. This is not incompatible with ‘probing’ any aspect of the tenure of such leaders, if the new regimes must. But care must be taken to ensure that their being called to account for their time in office is not seen as a witch-hunt.  Governance is a continuous process. Each government is expected to make its mark and also make its mistakes. It is the job of a succeeding regime to correct such mistakes while building on the achievements of the previous regime. Any new government must inevitably also make its own mistakes – hopefully to be corrected by the regime that will come after it.
Related to the above is that while ethnicity, religion and region are mere masks used by the elites in the struggle for power and lucre, over time these categories have become ‘ideologized’ such that they have now acquired objective existence of their own.  This is why you have ethnic, religious and regional entrepreneurs who will analyse our politics through these identity markers.  This means the need for certain sensitivity among our national leaders on how some of their policies, no matter how well-intentioned, could be decoded, especially by those who do not share same primordial identities as them.  It will always be a delicate balance because leadership is not a popularity contest. Good intentions are certainly not enough justifications for policies especially in a polarized and low-trust society as ours.
Since suspicion that the group that comes to power will use state power to privilege its in-groups and disadvantage others is pervasive, a way out of this is to strengthen the Federal Character Commission and make it independent along the lines of INEC. An invigorated FCC will be crucial in attenuating the anarchic character of our politics as it will help to remove the cloud of suspicion around wielders of political power. This will especially be so if it also becomes a requirement that the agency’s imprimatur will be a prerequisite for the National Assembly approving most federal appointments by the President or approving the budget for capital expenditures.
Strategies should also be evolved for winning back ‘de-Nigerianized’ Nigerians. The truth is that there are several individuals and groups who feel alienated from the Nigerian state and have chosen to delink from it into certain primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. Contrary to what many people think, Boko Haram, Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and other insurgency and separatist groups are not the only groups that have de-linked or attempting to delink from the state. The politician who  corners what should be a common patrimony, the policeman who looks the other way on a little inducement, the civil servant who moonlights and is hardly on seat are all displaying the same symptoms of ‘de-Nigerianization’ as Boko Haram.  Preaching only patriotism to these individuals and groups when they are angry with the state will not be helpful. They need channels to ventilate their grouses. They need agencies to hear their own sides of the story. They need to be engaged.
One of the fears for newly democratising societies such as ours is that liberal democracy could aggravate the structures of conflict in the short to medium terms. The fear is that bottled up feelings that were not allowed expression under periods of authoritarianism may now be let loose, leading to aggressive challenges to the state and separatist movements. We are witnessing such a scenario in the country now. But experiences from other countries show that it is much better to draw the ideas espoused by the leaders of such movements into the marketplace of political ideas and outcompete them than banning them or using a high-handed approach on them. It is often more dangerous to drive the ideas purveyed by such groups underground where they will be romanticised and the purveyors of such ideas turned into heroes and heroines.   This is why in advanced democracies hate groups such as the KKK in the USA and the British National Party in the United Kingdom are never banned. Rather efforts are made to draw their ideas into the marketplace of political ideas where they are outcompeted.
More importantly the government needs to put servicing the country’s nation-building process in the front burner by establishing a special agency in the presidency to drive this. In fact unless a president focuses on creating a nation – in words and deeds – his policies, no matter how well-intentioned, will be distrusted and politicised because people have different markers and lenses for filtering reality. In this respect, several measures put in place in the past to further the cause of building unity in diversity in the country such as the country’s federalism, the NYSC, unity schools, creation of states and local governments –  need urgent review to ensure they are still optimally contributing  to the objective of nation-building.

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