News The African Way

The Cruel Optimism Of Nigeria’s Presidential Elections, By Jumoke Verissimo

As the Nigerian presidential election approaches, political contenders are still distributing promises of a better Nigeria, like they are handing out Agege bread. In a country where basic amenities remain a campaign promise, year in and year out, promise also comes wrapped in souvenirs and cash gifts, or to use the language of Ayo Fayose, the former governor of Ekiti State, many Nigerians also like political promises that come with stomach infrastructure. Yet even though many citizens are reduced to collecting bribes to vote for a candidate, the expectation is that this 2023 elections will bring a leader with the magic touch. Consequently, it is not surprising that the nation’s focus is again drawn to the presidential candidates; as with previous candidates, this election season’s political landscape has proven to be yet another one of a comedy of errors. Still, Nigerians hope that things will get better for them this time.

Many of us choose to believe that Nigeria is a country of optimists. Or, how or else does one explain that in spite of the trail of violence and loss of lives in the country, the average citizen, mindless of being a walking trauma shouldering the burdens of the nation’s economic and political insecurities, knows only to hope for a better Nigeria. Hope, however, does not always promise survival, even though ensuring a means to survive is at the root of the increasing problems for many Nigerian lives, which sometimes succumb to political judgment shaped by conditional obligation. For example, it is not uncommon to hear arguments that a political candidate can be voted in, because of personal help offered in the past, or that he, at least, shared stolen public funds.

While I won’t go into the extent or meaning of “help” here, my main concern is how people have become inherently deaf to the subject of corruption once they stand to gain something. My point is, there is nothing collective about the way Nigerians want change, except there is something for individuals to gain in the process. The result is how these political candidates use this as a leverage for their political ambitions, calling in favours from those they offered personal help to in the past. The question is, what happens to those who are not close to these political aspirants and who rely solely on a functioning structure to realise their dreams? They hope. They hold on to blind optimism, rested in the one considered the magician for the year. The thing is, in every election, Nigerians place their hope in a particular aspirant to bring about the much-needed change.

Increasingly, the country is also losing some of its youngest citizens to take the option of flight. In popular culture, japa has become the terminology of flight or movement, representing the increasing physical and psychological migration of Nigerians from their country. The consequence of this unending movement, as aptly captured in this recent PREMIUM TIMES editorial, is nothing more than another enactment of Nigerian lives as a confluence of losses. While the idea of japa is an intriguing subject on its own, this piece does not intend to reflect on migration as a condition of poor governance. Instead, I want to think of japa as suggestive of an anticipated political change that never materialised. For those who cannot japa, getting a Permanent Voters Card (PVC) to vote is always the only form of hope and optimism that things will change, and most focus on the presidential election, sometimes ignoring their grassroots leaders, like councillors and local government chairmen.

Usually, many of those who voted, end up joining the japa train once their optimism in the government crashed. In fact, should one use the rising number of professionals migrating overseas as a criterion for assessing dashed hopes, a consequence of the failed promises of the present administration, the question to ask is: “Whether the presidential elections keep Nigerians from having a chance at a good life?” By living a good life, I am thinking of where citizens do not wallow in anxiety, knowing that there are opportunities to thrive, and basic amenities like shelter, good roads, electricity, hospitals, transportation, free spaces for gathering etc., that are available and provided by the government of the day. While this appears a rather simple way to approach things, it is how many Nigerians express what they want from their country. Therefore, it is not unusual for the presidential elections to be salient to the shape of survival or success for many Nigerians, which is why it is held as a source of optimism for a better life.

Hence, presidential candidates in Nigeria have found it significant to push their political agendas around these sentiments of hope and push emotions to generate controversies among one another. In fact, the emotional breadths of optimism played a significant role in President Goodluck Jonathan’s and later President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential elections during the last electoral season in 2015, with the former riding on his name as a source of solace and the latter, now the incumbent president, promising change to Nigerians. If Nigerians have seen any change from Buhari’s government, it is about being shortchanged on the hope they placed on his shoulders. Yet, the optimism from which hope is produced is also a source of distress for many Nigerians. The optimism that things would be different after the election is a narrative that circulates before elections. In most instances, there exists a presidential figure on whom Nigerians place their hope for a magical transformation of their lives and country.

I have found Laurent Berlant’s “Cruel optimism,” which supplies my titular opening, useful in framing this state of affairs in Nigeria. Berlant describes the cruelty of optimism as a double bind in which attachment to an “object” holds out the promise of flourishing, while simultaneously wounding. She explains that: “optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation.” For our purposes, if we consider Nigeria’s presidential elections as the “object” of optimism, it becomes legible how it offers the promise of a good life for Nigerians. But “optimism” in Nigeria is also not synonymous with “gullibility” or “co-optation” by the administration or political players. Rather, it is an ongoing endeavour to “repair… what may be constitutively broken.”

As Nigerians prepare to vote, the underlying issues that have always accompanied our elections return. While looking for a magician-cum-messiah, Nigerians consider one who can be moulded into the image of their identity. The echo of ethnicity resounds on social media, and those on the streets say they hear reverberations of the pre-war sentiments and tensions. In fact, the eminent professor, Toyin Falola, in an interview with the Nigerian Tribune last year, mentioned that the conditions that created the civil war are prevalent in Nigeria. This is not to say that Nigeria will go to war; rather, it is to highlight the unresolved divides that continue to dictate Nigeria’s electoral practices and, more importantly, its governance.

In fact, while there are several presidential candidates, the spotlight falls on three of them — all members of the larger ethnic groups in Nigeria. There is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, contesting on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Senator Ahmed Tinubu, who was once a sitting governor of Lagos State; and Peter Obi, contesting on the platform of the Labour Party (LP), and also a former governor of Anambra State. As in most Nigerian presidential elections, the political parties are in no way seen as places from which ideologies emerge, and the emphasis is usually on the individual, hence the perception that we need an individual who can do it. In fact, during the primaries of the APC, the party’s flagbearer Tinubu had claimed, “emilokan”, saying it was his turn to become the president of Nigeria because he had been instrumental to President Buhari’s presidency.

Each of the candidates is also quick to criticise any form of ethnic sentiment, even though these sentiments are not ignored at campaign grounds or wherever they prove useful. Whether it is ethnicity, youth, or acclaimed political experiences that are people-focused, the presidential aspirants are pushing their brands into people’s faces as the place where change for the people will emerge from. It is therefore not unusual for supporters of these presidential candidates to argue on social media or in public spaces about which candidate is the least corrupt, young, and healthy to lead the nation. But then, Nigerian society projects a rather vague understanding of judging values regarding their favoured political candidates.

Going by the news stories, the three prominent presidential candidates have at different times been accused of trading in narcotics, money laundering, and global tax avoidance. While no one has been charged, it speaks volumes about the calibre of candidates on whom Nigerians’ hopes are pinned. Most supporters of Peter Obi, for example, argue that he is the healthiest and youngest of the three, and possibly the best. The emphasis on “young and healthy” has resulted from the recent poor health of our country’s helmsman, including the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who became Nigeria’s president despite rumours of a kidney condition. President Buhari of Nigeria has raised concerns about his health for the majority of his presidency.

There have been rumours that Atiku Abubakar and Senator Ahmed Tinubu, two of the most well-known presidential candidates right now, are not in good health and that Nigeria will again have to pay for their bad health if they succeed in their aspirations. This is not a case of ageism, I think the fear is about installing a dotard as president. None of the accused candidates has agreed to rumours of his poor health, rather their public relations teams have /come up with one statement or another to argue that their candidates are in good form. Yet, I wouldn’t consider the problem of voters to be a case of ageism, if one should go by the perpetual drama of garbled or slurred speeches, captured in the videos from the campaign grounds of these candidates, one may worry about the state of these candidates.

Many who seek to reflect on these candidates find it difficult to see the differences between the three. As we say, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The point to reflect on is whether the hope of a better life in Nigeria is indeed possible among any of these candidates. The tradition of sharing optimism that Nigeria is at the brink of change is here again with the upcoming election, and with the unceasing news of tragedies from insecurities, the drama of new naira notes, corruption, and several others, the only thing Nigerians want more than ever is that individual who will amaze them with feats of legerdemain. There is a part of me that wants so much to believe that one of these presidential candidates who may end up as the country’s president indeed has the magic, but this time I want to be a skeptic. Therefore, while movement and migration will always be a part of our lives, and some of the choices Nigerians make about existence and survival may also go against the values many of us hold as standard, the consensual aspiration is that whatever form of conditional moral and japa movement lies in the future of Nigerians, following a disappointment with their presidential aspiration, may it not be a forced migration.

Jumoke Verissimo is the author of five books, her latest is A Small Silence (Novel). She is currently an Assistant Professor at the Toronto Metropolitan University, in Canada.

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