Even at the tamest of times, Nigeria can be an infuriating address. In an election season, it becomes maddening, a space where nothing is sacred any more. Lies, which are often the politician’s favourite currency, enter a festering phase. Tall tales are traded across partisan divides. In the age of the Internet, where the most mendacious of claims needs a mere click to travel all over the globe, overzealous party apparatchiks and hirelings thrive, waxing with perverse energy. Every imaginable lie—and many unimaginable ones—are manufactured and put into circulation. The credulous and gullible appear always in large supply, always at the ready, always willing to gulp down the latest confection of a new kind of professional: the liar-for-hire.
These hired liars accuse their master’s opponents of suffering from anything from kwashiorkor to cancer, and heap allegations of all kinds of moral lapses and crimes on their targets, a menu that frequently includes addiction to bleaching, obsession with cultism, engagement in adultery and fornication as well as sponsorship of terrorists.
It’s a madcap orgy of lies, but there’s a method to the madness. It lies in a careful game of obfuscation. If all these verbal brickbats were not being hurled across partisan lines, why, people would expect—perhaps even demand—that each politician or party provide clear plans as well as specify the roadmap to implementation.
Neither the madmen who are our ostensible saviors nor the hirelings who serve as their specialists would permit anything as unpredictable and treacherous as a civil political atmosphere to reign. For a climate of sobriety would then provoke people to seek what politicians are hardly ever capable of offering: a dissection of the current malaise and a blueprint for redemptive action.
Nigeria approaches the 2015 general elections in an atmosphere that could not be more fractious, more terrifying, more fraught with dire prospects. The alignment of political factors and tendencies strikes me as perfect for an explosion. Sectarian sentiments are often volatile even without mischievous people stoking the fires of religion.
In 2015, desperate politicians and their army of hired hands have turned religion into a macabre plaything. In many quarters, the impression has taken root that the elections represent a referendum on which religion would triumph or become triumphal, which subsume or subjugate its fellows.
It’s windfall season for crooked pastors and imams. These traders with God’s name are having a field day. Some of them, boasting nothing less than direct telephone contact with heaven, are “seeking God’s face” for one candidate or another. Daily, Nigerian newspapers and online sites report “divine” revelations to one man or woman of God or another about the winners and losers in the coming elections.
But all that is the innocuous, harmless stuff. In fact, if Nigeria did not have a particularly violent history of sectarian conflict, one might have found residual entertainment in the profusion of disparate, conflicting messages said to be issuing from divinity. But the game, even at this level, is no laughing matter. And we certainly cannot afford hilarity when many politicians, through their Christian or Islamic clerical proxies, are manipulating religion in more dangerous ways.
Many of these clerics have turned prophets of perdition. They specialize in filling their audience’s heads with doomsday predictions in the event of victory by this or that party, or this or that candidate. Thanks to their labors, the elections have become, in the estimation of many, a veritable duel between religions, between faiths, between clashing notions of divinity. Elections in Nigeria always ignite a fire; religion often throws fuel into that fire. The current climate of bellicosity suggests that, unless moderate-minded religious leaders and enlightened citizens awake to the lurking danger and act to counteract the exploitation of religion for political purposes, this may well be the year when the sectarian fuel makes a conflagration of things.
The sheer toxicity pervading Nigeria’s political air also finds expression in ethnic and geo-political channels. The circumstances have never been better to trigger an issue-based, programmatic conversation about Nigeria’s future. Yet, the political parties and their candidates—at any rate, the PDP and APC—have been content to traffic in generalities and the clichés. Political debate has revolved around such vaporous phrases as “moving the nation forward” (a spurious statement, a, because Nigeria is far from being a nation, and, b, because it does not answer the question, forward into what?) and “delivering the dividends of democracy” (a phrase, I suggest, that ought to be banished from the public arena on account of its fatuousness).
Even more troubling than the reluctance to engage at the level of ideas and issues is the polarizing accent of entitlement that defines the presidential race. Many who champion President Goodluck Jonathan insist that, regardless of his performance, he is entitled to a second term in office, if possible by hook or crook. In fact, ex-Niger Delta militants have made veiled and open threats to shut down oil production in the event of Mr. Jonathan’s defeat.
In similar vein, many political figures from the northern geopolitical space contend that political power must fall in the hands of somebody from their zone. This claim trumps and supersedes any argument about competence and vision.
A highly articulate friend sent me an email last week in response to my column, an argument for Nigeria’s cultivation of strong institutions instead of the persistent search for the elusive strong, messianic leader. First and foremost, this friend argued, Nigeria needs to be restructured in a way that translates its federalism into a matter of practice—not a mere verbal claim. And he suggested that, unless the country’s structural character is put on the agenda and resolved soon, many more Nigerians lives may be sacrificed to the ostrich game that pretends that everything is settled.
It’s a cogent argument, one that I have essayed to make numerous times. I always start from the premise that Nigeria—as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and many others have stated—has yet to be founded. I also stipulate that there’s nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria. As an idea, it is up for grabs. It is up to Nigerians to decide whether they wish to coexist—and on what terms—or live apart. That question has always been an essential one. Today, the question has acquired even greater urgency.
It’s silly to persist in the fiction that Nigeria is non-negotiable. If anything, nothing else will fall right unless—or until—Nigerians negotiate their relationship. Read any online website, see the way Nigerians savage one another, and realize that we are NOT a family. Too many Nigerians regard those of their number from other faiths, ethnicities or states as sub-human—or worse. Those who pretend that Nigeria cannot be subjected to scrutiny are often profiteers from the confused, amorphous and anomalous state of the country.
Which brings me to the crux of the cult of mad people and their specialists. If Nigerian politics is shorn of issues and devoid of ideological anchor, it is because, in the final analysis, those who quest for political power are jostling for position to help themselves to the largest pieces of the “national cake.”