However, in a country where sentiments make and mar political careers, one can forgive politicians for being the way they are.
On October 23 this year, Nigerians woke up to the much-expected announcement of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s intention to seek a second term in office. A term that, if he succeeds in getting and concludes, would make him Nigeria’s longest serving civilian President. However, the fact that Jonathan is close to completing six years at the helm, and in the past had called for single seven-year tenure for elected public officers, is not the item up for discourse here. What we’re looking at—at least in part—is how little politicians’ words are worth. So let’s get to it.
When he was running for what is officially his first term in office in 2011, President Jonathan declared that if elected, he would not seek re-election for another four-year term. Why he would make such a statement is not fare-fetched if you understand the dynamics of Politics Nigeriana. Did I already mention that sentiment is a big deal in Nigeria?
At that time, Jonathan was president, completing the tenure of late President Yar’Adua, who died two years into his presidency (Jonathan was his vice), and the sentiment in the north was that, while Jonathan had been allowed to complete Yar’Adua’s tenure, a northerner should be given the opportunity to serve out what they considered to be their turn at the presidency. This argument, many said, was valid, going by the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP’s) absurd zoning arrangement. As such, telling the nation that he wouldn’t seek re-election served to calm some of the flayed nerves up north and Jonathan went ahead to defeat his main contender for the Aso Rock bedroom, former military Head of State Mohammed Buhari, a northerner, in the election that followed – something that could not have happened without the support of the north.
The question I asked after the election was whether Jonathan’s word would mean to us what they would to the gentlemen we read about in renaissance stories, who always appeared to prefer death to dishonour—which included breaking their word. During much of his still-ongoing term, President Jonathan danced around that question, leaving his opponents shimmering in a stew of guesses. Would he run? Would he not run? The questions kept coming, but Jonathan stayed mum, until two days ago, that is.
Now Nigerians know (as if they didn’t from the start) that his words where just words. Not that it counts for much in Nigerian politics. While a similar gaffe would have sealed his political fate in more advanced societies, here the power of sentiment will ensure he gets away with lying to the nation and put him right back in his cosy bedroom in Aso Rock.
As is the nature of Nigerian politics, Jonathan’s lack of a clear-cut response to the question of his candidacy left the opposition in disarray. While Jonathan had clearly performed below par, elections in Nigeria are won not based on performance or promise, but on the caprice of a sentimental society. For sure, the plethora of little significant political parties will field diverse people who aspire for the post but know they are only sure of their own vote. The major parties thrive on and are controlled by religious and regional sentiments. Take Jonathan’s candidacy as an example, the fact that he is a Christian, from a south-eastern minority, has been in office for close to six years and is enjoying what many in the north believe is their slot will be taken into account in fielding an opposition candidate.
This is one way Nigeria’s self-defeating system ensures that very effective politicians such as the current governor of Lagos state, Tunde Fashola, would not be up against Jonathan. Instead, a Mohammed Buhari will again be thrust on Nigerians as a candidate, running on what many perceive to be his personal integrity and incorruptible personality alone. In the same vein the All Progressive Congress (APC), the main opposition party, wouldn’t pick Fashola as Buhari’s running mate (my opinion is that Fashola’s quality places him way above most of the politicians in APC and he should rather be the one seeking running mates) because they are both Muslim. In addition, Jonathan’s running mate would be a northerner and Buhari’s would be a southerner, and that’s that, whether they are the best men for the job is secondary to political calculations. It may be of importance to note is that Jonathan’s political ascension was mostly as a result of these calculations.
Like Jonathan, Buhari declared the 2011 election to be the last time he would be running for the presidency and he did cry while saying this. He too has now returned to his vomit. 2011 was Buhari’s third attempt and it appeared his declaration was a response to the questions about his age and what was being perceived as a career as a perpetual candidate. I doubt if those perceptions have changed as he is now on his fourth attempt, he is older too, so…what sentiments would he appeal to this time?
The sentiments the politicians appeal to are not solely their own, even if they serve them best and they do their best to propagate and encourage it. The sentiments, in truth, belong to the average Nigerian who finds it difficult to pull away from the cocoon of ethnic and religious bigotry. It is for this and other not too dissimilar reasons that make it impossible for the average Nigerian to see that what the country needs is not someone at the helm whose name sounds like theirs, but people who have the drive and the willingness to positively affect the lives of every Nigerian.
Come next year, Nigerians will again vote for their future; but don’t expect most of them to think beyond the sound of the name of the candidates when they do.