Background to unseriousness
In an earlier intervention on Nigeria’s forthcoming 2011 Presidential election, I opined that only the usual suspects in the status quo appear to understand what is at stake and have, consequently, commenced thorough and visionary preparations. Sadly, “thorough” and “visionary” here are to be understood in terms of their political inflections in Nigeria– giving the rigging and do-or-die apparatus a tune up – and not to be mistaken for the scenario of serious and credible contenders forming genuine think-tanks to develop ideas and a coherent vision, going round the country to rub minds with the critical mass in town hall meetings, Universities, and other spaces and locations of ideas within the polity, making themselves available to journalists for critical, in-depth interviews that could help Nigerians gauge their grasp of issues and the quality of their minds. Such spade work and road map to a country’s presidency are the hallmarks of genuine democracies. One only needs to remember the quality and length of the spade work that the likes of Barack Obama, John McCain, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Ségolène Royal did before announcing their respective candidacies.
Beyond these factors, however, the quality of the candidates a given system is capable of throwing up is one of the most significant indices of the level, standard, and quality of a country’s democratic dispensation. This explains why political punditry and critical public intervention in responsible democracies are as concerned with what they call “the overall quality of the field” as they are with the pedigree of individual presidential hopefuls. In France, the quality of the field is an obsession in public consciousness. In the build-up to the last presidential elections in Benin Republic and Senegal, I monitored the local press in both countries – online newspapers and radio stations – and was amazed by the degree of public interest in the overall quality of the field. I was therefore not surprised that Yayi Boni, Benin’s answer to Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and Olu Falae, eventually got the people’s nod. The consequences of the people’s decision have simply been amazing. Benin Republic, like so many African countries, has left Nigeria behind.
In these and other responsible democracies, where the field does not seem to reflect the quality of a country’s status and potentials, public opinion gets worried, moved as it were by the conviction that the country could do – and deserves – better. Indeed, the mettle of those who dare to even give body language about the possibility of aspiring to the highest office in the land – and the most solemn responsibility to the people – is central to the character of the field. In essence, a democracy that expects and deserves to be taken seriously in the global comity of responsible democracies needs to evolve fundamental benchmarks of character, probity, integrity, and intellect to be minimally met by those dreaming of an appearance in the field of presidential hopefuls.
To take a cursory look at the “fields” of aspirants or hopefuls that Nigeria’s ‘democracy’ has constituted for every presidential election since 1999 is to invite depression. For the three elections combined (1999, 2003, 2007), our system has variously thrown up only five credible and clean people – as far as I know – who qualify for the privilege of aspiring to the highest and most solemn form of service to the Nigerian nation and her people: Gani Fawehinmi, Pat Utomi, Olu Falae, Isa Odidi, and Alex Ekwueme. Amittedly, there may be more credible people that I have left out. I am extremely miserly in these things. It is even sadder that none of this people ever stood a chance, given the Hobbesian nature of our politics. They merely offered themselves out of the stubborn but correct conviction that the fate of the largest concentration of black people on the planet shouldn’t be left exclusively in the hands of the worst charlatans they have to offer. What the fields in 1999, 2003, and 2007 translate to is a tragic political kalahari that threw up as presidential hopefuls the likes of Ibrahim Babangida, Olusegun Obasanjo, Atiku Abubakar, Orji Uzor Kalu, Obong Victor Attah, James Ibori, Peter Odili, and even Ahmed Sani Yerima, that risible sharianist from Zamfara who, to make matters worse, ended up in the Senate after looting his state dry! As if this weren’t tragic enough, the PDP once had a Presidential candidacy vetting committee headed by then Governor Ayo Fayose!
This sad scenario underscores the existence of another layer of struggle in our national life that deserves urgent attention. We are always so fixated on the ultimate prize – tied as it were to our unfortunate belly-driven conceptualization of our presidency as the ultimate “national cake” – that we forget that the initial field of presidential hopefuls our system throws up says as much about us as the manner in which the winner eventually gets into office. We know how the presidency is “won” in Nigeria – military coups or rigging – and no one has any doubt what that says about us. As we struggle to change the nomenclature of accession to that office, we do need to begin to pay serious attention to how the field comes to be in the first place. This involves an ethical struggle to create an atmosphere of respect and solemnity around the presidential process. It is not possible now for Bernard Madoff to insult the American Presidential process by expressing interest in it. Iyiola Omisore “won” an election from jail – even as he stood accused of the murder of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious sons! Today, he is a Senator of the Federal Republic, wearing that meaningless tag, “Honorable”, that every charlatan wears in Abuja. With the right “connections”, Osama Bin Laden could express interest in running for the Presidency of Nigeria and still find enough agbada and babanriga-wearing “stakeholders” and “chieftains” to rally to his cause.
The struggle to change this all-comers culture begins when every Nigerian feels sufficiently hurt and personally insulted by the fact that any intellectually impecunious charlatan in the land can up, call a press conference, and declare that he is reluctantly bowing to pressure from his people and numerous national stakeholders to aspire to the highest office in the land. It could begin if we feel insulted that, about two years to 2011, the “field” thus far is constituted and defined by the unmistakable body language of the incumbent, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on the one hand and the political prostitution of Atiku Abubakar on the other hand. It should be a matter of serious concern to us all that a non-performing incumbent who doesn’t seem to be able to tell pot from kettle and a corrupt weathervane like Atiku Abubakar make up our initial field.
I am personally offended and embarrassed. The international community has no business taking a country seriously whose presidential field can be approached like a guguru and epa stall in Oshodi. Nigeria deserves and can do better. Worse, there was even talk recently that Atiku might be contemplating a ticket with Olagunsoye Oyinlola! Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry for Motherland. I won’t be surprised if, later in the year, characters like Lucky Igbinedion, Tony Anenih, Joshua Dariye, Saminu Turaki, Andy Uba, Olabode George, Tafa Balogun, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, and Iyiola Omisore feel “compelled to bow to pressure from their people, numerous stakeholders, party chieftains, and well wishers” by joining Atiku and President Yar’Adua in the presidential race! That would certainly add Federal character to the appalling quality o
f the field our democracy seems destined to always throw up. If they don’t join the race, we already know that some or most of these names are going to coalesce as “stakeholders” around President Yar’Adua’s second term ticket, contributing to the stench of an already purulent presidential process. It doesn’t take rocket science to tell what Chief Tony Anenih is doing at the Nigerian Ports Authority.
While discussing the subject of this treatise with kindred spirits, one drew my attention to the fact that the very nature of democracy presupposes openness to all comers. To demand otherwise is to envisage a return to, say, the Babangida years when the tyrant took it upon himself to ban, unban, and re-ban old politicians and “moneybags” from the democratic space he was decreeing into existence in order to pave way for “newbreed” politicians. This argument has considerable merit on the surface but it occludes the fact that there is no serious democracy anywhere in the world that does not have built-in ethical colanders of self-examination that make the system and the process much more important than individual aspirations. Civic awareness creates a solemnity around the process that makes it impossible for integrity-challenged charlatans to move near the field. People who have no business moving near anything weed themselves away – or are weeded – from contention because they understand the fact that the world sometimes gauges their country by the quality of the candidates who approach its presidency.
Towards Seriousness: Diasporic Connections (continued in part two)