In many nations, whenever it is felt that hard times have befallen a people, elections represent a real opportunity for contemplating a variety of options. Voters become relatively more attuned, more sophisticated, more attentive to policy debates between candidates. Many voters jettison primitive partisanship. Instead, they leave themselves open to consider new directions, receptive to new ideas. In fact, many voters become impatient with politicians who stick to the usual, easy game of mudslinging. Eschewing the politics of personal attacks, these voters insist that political candidates wrestle with issues. Often, they listen to, and reward, candidates who are most adept at spelling out what they understand the problems to be—and most gifted at proposing ways to fix things.
Let’s take one recent example, from the United States. A man of African descent like Barack Obama was able to get to the White House in large part because too many Americans had become fatigued by the escalating cost—in lives and dollars—of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Candidate Obama’s promise to de-emphasize war and to zero in on revitalizing economic growth resonated with voters who despaired of a recession that sucked jobs, weakened the real estate market, and gutted real incomes.
Faced with the prospect of a deepening economic crisis, US voters demanded answers from seekers of elective office, whether it was state legislatures, Congress, gubernatorial posts or the presidency.
I’d suggest that Nigeria has hardly been in a more dire time, but you would not know it from the tone and tenor of the current phase of politicking. Nigeria is not about to slip into a crisis; it is fully mired in one. Even so, with elections approximately a month away, it is—for the politicians and voters alike—very much a season of business as usual.
How bad are things in Nigeria? Grim, from the evidence of my eyes and ears during two recent visits—in November and December. I was there as tumbling crude oil prices forced the Federal Government to devalue the naira. I had drinks at a restaurant with a contractor who bemoaned the woes of putting in bids in naira. I met another businessman in Abuja who told me, in a weary, forlorn tone, “It is impossible to get paid for any jobs now. They [political parties] have mopped up all the money for the elections.” In Enugu, a state commissioner spoke in a similarly bleak accent: “The way things are going, most states will not be able to pay salaries in a few months.” Several state governments were already behind in the payment of salaries. And the Federal Government was not about to be left out. As I left Nigeria on December 22, thousands of Federal Government workers were yet to receive their November pay!
Any government that is unable to meet its recurrent obligations might as well be declared moribund. Yet, in Nigeria, this is about to become the new normal.
In the face of such a crisis, you’d expect the political space to be abuzz with solutions. I was in Nigeria as various political parties carried out their primaries. The space was abuzz all right, but it was the buzz of vultures hovering overhead, bent on pecking away at the carcass of a near-bankrupt Nigeria.
If the candidates and delegates at the various primaries knew a thing about the desperate state of Nigeria, they did a terrific job of concealing it. Yes, there were speeches, lots of them, but there was nothing clarifying, no attempt to offer a reasoned critique of opponents’ policies and to articulate alternative, differentiating policies. There was no light at the political events, only the dust of insults hurled at opponents and hollow self-bragging. If anything, most of the speeches were feckless regurgitations of standard clichés: “moving the nation forward,” “delivering the dividends of democracy,” “total transformation” of this and that.
Above all, the primaries were a cash fest, occasions for candidates to splash obscene sums of looted cash on so-called delegates. Delegates were bought and sold, and they in turn traded their votes in exchange for the highest bid they could get. It was a particularly ugly example of political prostitution, of political mercantilism.
It is as if the broad confraternity of politicians had set out to offer comfort to those who argue that Nigeria is not tailored for democracy, that what we need is a benevolent dictator—or God. Nigeria is virtually bankrupt, but few politicians are insisting that we have a conversation about it at all—much less that we ponder how to get ourselves out of the jam. The price of oil has dropped sharply, but there’s nothing in the Nigerian public space about how to sustain ourselves in a post-petro-dollar time. Nigeria has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars of its oil bequest, with little or no infrastructure to show for it, but nobody is talking about effective ways of plugging the loot, holding looters accountable, or prudently husbanding what little resource we have left.
No, the country’s disappearing wealth has bred a new fever pitch among the rats racing to gnaw at what’s left. No political party, as far as I know, is seriously pushing any ideas for reducing the untenable cost of running this monstrosity we have misnamed a democracy. No party has backed the idea that legislatures, at the state and national levels, should be on part-time basis, with legislators earning sitting allowances only when they meet. Few have raised objections to the abuses of the security vote, or demanded a drastic review of Nigeria’s immunity clause, arguably the most expansive such stipulation in the world.
At a time like this, with the US shunning our oil, with our foreign reserves evaporated, with Boko Haram abducting, maiming and slaughtering victims as they please, with armed robbery as rampant as ever, with roads, universities, healthcare and electric power supply terribly wrinkled, with hundreds of thousands of graduates without jobs, one would expect this year’s elections to have an illuminating effect, a winnowing moment. You’d expect politicians to speak seriously about these crises, to proffer considered solutions, and to map roadways to a different, more hopeful future.
Instead, the politicians are strutting the length and breadth of Nigeria in festive mode, their agbada more suited to inebriated excess than to work, their speech alternating between pompous self-inflation and infantile denunciation of their opponents. On social media, oblivious to the depth of crises that have gripped their country, confused choruses of partisan commentators are having a gleeful time as their country burns. They are content to make sport of people of other ethnicities, other religious faiths, and to heap scorn on those who profess a different political loyalty. It is as if our politicians and many of us—the victims—believe that the answer to our bankrupt, bankrupted lives lies in mastering the art of proclaiming the virtuousness of our partisan cliquishness and spewing invectives and stigmas at the occupants of other tents.