News The African Way

Election 2023 And The Nigerian State: Coming To Terms With Its Many Contradictions, By Femi Mimiko

Nigeria is at the crossroads. Elections, for good or bad, have come to represent the critical element by which commitment to the democratic principle by social formations, is gauged. They are ordinarily a very serious issue in our climes, given the very highly questionable attitude of the power elites, and increasingly the electorates too, to this uniquely contentious pathway to political power. Many of the more challenging nation-building crises that Nigeria has witnessed since its divestment from the British colonial enterprise were actually anchored on, if not propelled by, the mismanagement which the electoral processes were subjected to. But the 2023 elections promise to be much more challenging than anything the country has witnessed since 1999; and the reasons are obvious. Two of the leading candidates have gotten to a stage in life where it would be legitimate to infer that this year’s election constitutes their last shot at the presidency of the country, one position they have both coveted for the better part of a century. Both of them, therefore, have every reason to be desperate. The youths of Nigeria, or a good number of them, it would seem, see this election as one with which they could redefine the trajectory of the country, and make its governance more responsive to their interest as a critical demographic, which Nigeria had actually abandoned, over the years, in the wilderness of alienation, frustration, and hopelessness. Are the Christians, by this election, about to be shut out of power for another four or, in all probability, eight years? This is something in the mind of many a Christian across the country. Is it inevitable that the country may have four or, in most probability, eight more years of a Northerner, indeed, a Fulani, in the presidency, and all what that portends, many southerners are already wondering?!

Some 11 months ago, when the issue of whom the presidential candidates would be was at best still in the realm of conjecture, I had given indication, in a PUNCH newspaper interview (10 April, 2022), of what, for me, were the attributes of the person who should be president. I itemised these thus, “Good education; intellectual depth; bold vision and ability to market the same to the population; courage of conviction; compassion for the underprivileged; broadness of mind; cosmopolitan outlook; self-confidence; commitment to justice and the unwavering desire to help deepen the democratic process in Nigeria. He or she must be of uncut integrity, disciplined and incorruptible.” As I indicated a few days ago, on a WhatsApp discussion platform, in a question asked of me by a friend, if I was hired as a consultant on the recruitment process for the president of Nigeria, this indeed, would be my recommendation. It would then be left to the panelists scrutinising the candidates – in this instance the Nigerian electorate – to determine who amongst those of them currently on the hustings fits the billing, or is closest to doing that. We have only a few more days, for the electorate to make this critical choice.

As things are, my hunch is that whoever wins this election, the contradictions facing the country at the moment are such that would require the grace of God, and the smartest of acts on the part of the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari government to hold the country together, between Election Day and 29th of May, in particular. Significantly, there is no evidence on the ground to suggest that the government has this type of capacity, and/or the reservoir of will to call upon, to lead this charge. If anything, the pages of Nigeria’s governance history in the past eight years are littered with compelling pieces of evidence of shortage of such organisational and delivery ability requisite for holding the country together after what promises to be a very divisive and consequential election. The mismanagement of the nation’s diversity, which ordinarily should be a basis of its strength, and the slipshod manner in which the otherwise correct and commendable naira redesign policy – for the nation’s economy, security, and electoral process – has been handled these past few weeks, are a ringing testimonial to the maxim popularised by Ivan Illich (1968) that the road to hell is paved with good intentions!

If Atiku Abubakar of the PDP wins, the southern half of the country, including members of the ruling party therefrom and, indeed, its presidential candidate, would raise the inevitable question of equity. How such concerns are going to be canalised remains in the womb of time. If Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the APC wins, a good percentage of the nation’s Christian population, especially from the Middle Belt, which has borne the brunt of the arrant mismanagement of Nigeria’s religious diversity the most, these past eight years of the APC government, would immediately feel alienated by the victory of the Muslim-Muslim ticket. If Peter Obi of the LP emerges the winner, it is doubtful if the most vociferous of ethno-national irridentists in the North would be persuaded that he should rule. This includes the elements insisting that the ‘sins’ of the January 1966 coup d’état shall neither be forgiven nor forgotten; and that the Igbo of all generations must bear the yoke of whatever mistakes Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and his cohorts were supposed to have made, the acts associated with the revenge counter coup of July 1966 notwithstanding. This school of thought may also hold that, at any event, the Biafrans already wanted out of Nigeria. It would not be important to the line of argument that Igbo votes alone could not have been the ones propelling an Obi victory, if it happens. If Peter Obi does not win, is anyone going to be able to convince the hordes of young men and women rooting for him, who would seem to have already taken it for granted that a new day has indeed, arrived? How would they ventilate their disappointment, given the depth of public trust deficit in the air, especially with this critical demographic?

The implication of all of these is that whichever way the Nigerian electorates turn in this election, the omens remain quite bad! It is akin to what the British award-winning novelist, Fredrick Forsyth (1979), characterised as ‘the devil’s alternative!’ in a novel of that title. It would take the best of intentions, hard-core sagacity, and leadership, on the part of whoever emerges the winner, to assuage the feelings of those who have legitimate reasons to be concerned, afraid, or angry; and thereby hold the country together. It would be quite disastrous and, if you will, the mother of all mistakes, to replay in 2023 what the incumbent president did eight years ago when the country found itself in a similar, but certainly less challenging circumstance. Elsewhere, I characterised that inexplicable faux pas as the ‘Buhari Doctrine of Justifiable Exclusion’ (The Guardian, 03 July, 2016), wherein the president made it clear that he would treat those who gave him 97% of their votes differently from those who gave him 5%! Whether the three leading candidates, any of whom could become president-elect soon after the election on 25 February, possess the uncanny ability to bring people and the nation – in all its tapestry of diversity – together, and very quickly too, remains in the realm of conjecture. It is only when this most critical task shall have been done that we would be able to begin to talk of the types of economic programming needful to give hope to the hopeless, reclaim the self-esteem of the Nigerian, cement our bonds of unity, and enhance our region, nay global visibility.

What all of these make manifest, is the need to substantially recast the nation’s governance structure. We need to devolve powers, and resources, to the sub-national units, such that the reality of power concentration, which makes the central government so compellingly attractive, would, in one fell swoop, be done away with! Call it whatever name – restructuring, recasting, devolution of power, ‘true’ federalism, functional federalism, or whatever – what is certain is that a country of Nigeria’s size and diversity cannot be effectively and successfully managed with a unitary structure-cum-constitution, even when such falsely identifies as federal. Such a bold step would knock the base off the concerns discussed here, and make them inconsequential, as the sub-national units – no more the central government – become the very locus of power, influence, and attention. This is what the lesson of history has taught. It is what is settled, both in the theory and praxis of federalism; and the more we seek to deny these realities, the longer Nigeria would be in this generally unwanted situation. More importantly, the country would constantly live in the fear of a possible journey to Yugoslavia or, indeed, the Soviet Union. This is why it becomes the task which the next president, whoever he is, would do well to prioritise. There are multiple ways in which this could be seamlessly delivered, by a determined, visionary, imaginative and courageous president, who chooses to live for history.

For now, our democratic obligation, as Nigerians, compels us all, who are properly registered for the elections, to go out to vote, on 25 February, and 11 March. In doing this, we have a right to expect that, as promised, INEC would not only be fair to all, but like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be fair. The security services too, we should expect to do well by Nigerians, by doing precisely and effectively the job of securing the votes, voters, election officials, and indeed our commonwealth, before, during and after the elections. But, let no one make any mistake about this, the 2023 presidential election, in the manner in which it is panning out, is a make or mar election for Nigeria!

Femi Mimiko, mni, is of the Department of Political Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and a member of the National Institute, Kuru. E-mail:; @FemiMimiko

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