Ridding the Country of Acrimonious Opposition Politics

by Sam Kargbo
politics of acrimony

Writing in the December 2019 edition of the Atlantic, under the title of “How America Ends: A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?” Yoni Appelbaum, who oversees the magazine’s ideas section, opined that democracy depends on the consent of the losers. I agree. I also agree with him that parties and candidates who compete in elections should do so with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers should “accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat (should) not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but (should not be) existential.”

Unfortunately, this has never been the case in Africa. Politics and elections are the causes of many of the continent’s violent conflicts and acute crisis.  Unlike Mahatma Gandhi who wished for a state where a man would be able to love the meanest of creation as himself, the average African politician hates his opponents more than he hates the devil, often employing the devil and his warfare against them. It is, therefore, no surprise that campaigns and elections are not bridge builders, neither do they promote unifying political narratives. Rather, they polarize and expand fault lines in pluralistic societies. That is why every political campaign – indeed, every election cycle – creates its brand of violent conflict and insurgents against the state. That is why I am pointing out here how some of the assumptions that underlie the constitutional, representative democracy that we are striving to deepen and foist on our cultures makes politics and elections existential careers and endeavours.

In the first place, the proposition that “democracy is a rule of the people, for the people and by the people” is only true to the extent that it reflects the need for all political office-holders to be either elected by the people or perform functions or exercise powers donated by legal instruments made by the people or with the authority of the people. Beyond that, democracy is heavier on the institutions through which democratization is implemented and sustained. In other words, democracy is constituted and sustained by institutions – not by the people. Institutions are more involved and much more imposing in determining the cause and shape of democracy than the people. There is no better way of illustrating this than by having a second look at the assumption that “free and fair elections” are the most appropriate way both to avoid and manage acute internal conflicts of a country. This assumption is dependent first on the electoral law enacted by the legislator, who formulates the rules of the game and prescribes the choices available to both the political actors and the people, and secondly, the quality, independence and competence of the electoral manager, who fashions the electoral process and superintends the elections.  “Free and fair election” speaks to conduct and behaviour of both political actors and voters but it is more a function of the effectiveness of the laws, rules, structures and character of the managers of the election than the will or desire of the people to have a free and fair election.

What I also consider missing in the discussion on the concept of “free and fair election” is the purpose of elections and what happens to the democratic process after the people have cast their votes and made their choices. If elections are merely for the conferment of political legitimacy, then what defines the peoples’ power and interest in governance? How can those who practice winner-takes-all models of elections establish an inclusive government that can maintain law and order and serve as a vehicle for developing and promoting the people’s welfare? What do we expect from an electoral system that is not focused on power-sharing and cooperation among contending parties in such pluralistic societies as ours?

These questions also emphasize the relevance of institutions in democracy and the democratization process, proffering a basis to agree with the call that it is safer to talk of institutional and institutionalized democracies than the peoples’ democracies. Regardless of how they perform economically, democracies that have more coherent and effective political institutions will perform well in maintaining political order and a rule of law, thus ensuring civil liberties, checking the abuse of power, and providing meaningful representation, competition, choice, and accountability. It is no brainer to assert that over the long run well-institutionalized democracies are also more likely to produce workable, sustainable, and effective socio-economic policies because they have more effective, stable structures for representing the interests of the people. Democracies that have strong, effective democratic institutions are better able to limit insurgencies and terrorism than those with less coherent or less effective political institutions.

I am, therefore, making the proposition that Africans will start detangling the democratic constraints by employing political strategies for the strengthening of their political institutions. Until Africans give political institutions enhanced roles and make them central to their democratization process, their survival and development will continue to be in the margins.

I do not know of a country where this background has a better expression than Nigeria, which is deeply divided along ethnic, regional, or religious lines. The country has, since independence, relied on its leadership for its development, cohesion and unification. Not much attention is paid to its democratic institutions and, as such, the country has been scoring dismal marks in all of its pursuits.

Opposition politics has been extremely acrimonious, divisive, polarising and destructive. There has never been a president with countrywide acceptance; none has been lucky not to attract constant fierce, vicious criticisms from the opposition.  There has never been a president who has not been accused of being a tribal or regional interest representative and promoter. None has been able to unify the country along the lines of common political and economic goals. Every president has always been considered worse than his predecessor. Leaders are not often assessed and graded on account of what they do but, on the failure, to satisfy ethnic and regional interests. Despite the near even spread of Federal presence and developments, there is hardly any region that has acknowledged Federal efforts in its domain. Every region has its grudges against all others because the other side is always greener.

Interestingly or if you may, worse for Governments, governance is becoming very complex and more challenging. The Internet and digital technology are empowering the people to keep Governments and government functionaries under observation and critical scrutiny more than ever before. It is now easier for the people to monitor and evaluate the actions of the Government. Worse still, the majority of the populations are the youths, many of whom view – and make assumptions about – Government and governance from the prism of social media. They expect Government to function like private corporations and expect results from Governments the same way they get results from mobile smartphones, Google, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and other microblogging and social networking services.  Not many of them will waste a moment to consider the economics of demands. To many of them, Governments have money and it is only wickedness or sheer incompetence that is preventing them from meeting their wants and the needs of the people.

What is further compounding and confounding the relationship between Governments and their most vibrant, active and adventurous population is the inability of Governments to speak the language of the Youths. Governments are still stuck to archaic methods of communication, like radio and television broadcasts or press releases despised by the youth. Attempts to engage the youth in social media is often disastrous due to mis-messaging and the employment of patronizing language in communicating with them. Until Governments start engaging professionals and experts in their communication Ministries and Departments, the gap between them and the youth will continue to widen and the social pressures will continue to mount.

Whilst the social gap between Governments and the youth is concerning, I consider the weaponization of differences and fault lines in pluralistic societies by oppositions to be the most dangerous threat to the democratization process and nation-building on the continent.  It has become common for the opposition to define and restrict its job to the spinning or spewing of what Yoni Appelbaum would call “apocalyptic rhetoric” or the stimulation, aggregation and unleashing of hatred, prejudice, and rage against Governments. Oppositions do not strive to canvass alternative and competitive views and values but to bring down the house. They employ the philosophy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend and as such could instigate and egg on any form of violence against the Government even if it means one that would eventually consume the whole country. Without prejudice to all other factors, the rise and spate of banditry, lawlessness, insurgency and terrorism may not be entirely dissociated from bad politics. Some of these acts of violence threatening the life of the country may not be anything more than proxy political wars.

Nigeria may not be able to produce a political Messiah in the future, but it can build on its political institutions to turn its political fortunes around. The institutions that make up the security architecture of the country would not be able to deliver on their mandates if not allowed to operate independently of political influence and control. If the intercourse between these institutions is limited to the oversight functions of the executive or the legislature, I guess that they will be better constituted, more prepared to face the security challenges and be more effective.


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