On Saturday, February 16, 84,004,084 registered voters, the highest in Nigeria’s political history, are expected to march to the 119,973 polling units across the country (in 2015, there were 68,833,476 voters) to either renew the mandate of President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress or re-enact the “Miracle of 2015” by dumping the incumbent and electing a new President. It is one task that must be accomplished by close of voting. The 2015 election was headlined by the ground-breaking defeat of the incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, of the Peoples Democratic Party, by the then opposition party, also the first time an incumbent would suffer electoral defeat in the country.
The same day, they will also vote in a new set of federal lawmakers at the National Assembly, made up of 109 senators and 360 House of Representatives members in all. Should Nigerians translate their angst against a self-serving and obscenely remunerated National Assembly into votes, many of the lawmakers may bid their legislative misadventures an early goodbye.
Suffice it to note that if holding regular elections, as scheduled, is a defining feature of a thriving democracy, as John Campbell, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, observed during his guest appearance at the PUNCH Forum, organised by this newspaper’s editorial board, last year, one could conclude that Nigeria is inexorably on the path of democratic sustainability, this being the fifth electoral cycle since the return to civil rule in 1999.
This year’s general election is made more remarkable because it marks the longest spell of uninterrupted democratic practice in Nigeria since independence in 1960: 20 years. The previous spells had been upstaged by the military at different intervals: The First Republic ended just after six years in 1966; while the Second Republic was less fortunate, overthrown by this same Buhari just after four and half years in December 1983. The ill-fated Third Republic was an example in political deception, headlined by an endless transition programme orchestrated by the military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida.
Ironically, Buhari, who, as noted earlier, in 1983 truncated a constitutional democratic government and helped in no small measure in blurring the country’s democratic trajectory, is on the ballot this time round, hoping to win a re-election.
Be that as it may, for the presidential election, the Independent National Electoral Commission cleared 72 candidates, yet another remarkable statistic, being the largest in the country’s history. But, the electoral battle is a straight two-horse race between President Buhari, 76, of the APC and the leading opposition candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 72, of the PDP.
That, however, is where the matter becomes more intriguing, and sad. Given that the student population on the Voter Register released for the election by INEC is 22. 3 million, which translates to 26.57 per cent of the voting population, the highest, and youths in the age bracket of 18 – 35 years constitute 42,938,458 of the registered voters and form the largest voting bloc of 51.11 per cent, it is striking that the pendulum is rather swinging between the two septuagenarians, referred to as analogue contestants in some quarters, who obviously belong to the country’s past (and should be confined there) but are being propped up and expected to shape its future.
Put differently, the country’s large youth voting population, which ordinarily should decide the outcome of the electoral contest at all levels, all things being equal, has resigned to entrusting their democratic future onto the weakened palms of either of the aforementioned old and retreating duo, who belong to the generation of leaders who, by their past action and inaction, are responsible for the sorry pass the country has become wherein it was, for instance, recently ranked, by the Brookings Institution, as the world’s poverty capital as well as the worst place to be born in the world.
Incidentally, it is not for lack of capacity and proved competence on the part of the less-heralded candidates also contesting the top job with the uninspiring duo. For instance, in Kingsley Moghalu, 56, of the Young Progressive Party, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and former United Nations official, and professor in international business and public policy at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Tope Fasua, 47, of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party, a brilliant and innovative thinker and economist, to name but a few, are two options many see as representative and reflective of the realities, aspirations and values of the current times. But Nigerian politics being what it is, they are not likely to get any look-in in Nigeria’s moneyed politics, because they have no political “structure” on the ground to win elections.
What then are the choices before the electorate in the presidential election? No juicy choice of note. In Atiku and Buhari, it is, unfortunately, a choiceless one as both belong to the same debilitating political tendency, belief and persuasion. The same thing applies to their platforms, whose only difference, though, is in their symbols: The umbrella and the broom, because Nigerian politics is shorn of any definitive ideological segmentation and character.
Consequently, it is a forlorn hope that any of the tired duo will lead a nation with more than half of its population under 30 years into the expected greatness, all the sloganeering about the “Next Level” and “Getting Nigeria Working Again” notwithstanding.
In 2015, Buhari ran on a three-pronged campaign of fighting corruption, enhancing security by defeating the Boko Haram insurgents and repositioning an economy his party still claims was “serially looted for 16 years” by the PDP. The jury is yet out on his performance on these promises, though the government praises itself for delivering on all, especially on its railway and road rehabilitation.
Studies show Nigerians are becoming poorer and more insecure than they were in 2015, tokenistic gestures like Trademoni notwithstanding. As a recent report by Reuters, X-raying the elections, observed, the Buhari administration has proved not to be a good manager of the economy given that “inflation has been in double digits for the last three years, rising to a seven-month high of 11.4 per cent in December”. The report further notes that “nearly a quarter of the workforce – 23.1 per cent – is unemployed, up from 18.1 per cent a year earlier.” This is not a good testimonial to tender before an impoverished electorate baying for blood.
Sadly, a preponderant illiterate and impoverished electorate does give a hoot about these grim realities and cannot be expected to make any informed electoral decision. About 70 million Nigerians, according to the Executive Secretary, National Commission for Mass Literacy, Prof. Abba Haladu, “cannot read and write.” A poor and illiterate voter does democracy no good of any kind.
However, supporters of Buhari, who’s evidently hobbled by old age and frail health, (he spent over 100 days in London last year and returned with a straight face without anyone told what ailed him or kept him away that long), apart from ceaselessly mouthing how the previous administrations “looted the treasury” brandish his “integrity and character” as what the country needs to recover fully and move to the “Next Level”.
Atiku, on his own part, though burdened by a relentless characterisation by his critics as an “emblem of corruption”, “who cannot be trusted with public funds”, is packaged as the one more suitable to heal the fractured fabric of a multi-ethnic nation Buhari’s nepotistic disposition has put on edge and also re-engineer an economy the President is accused of being barely aware how it is run, or lacks the experiential capacity to manage.
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Pathetic as the above narrative seems, Nigeria will be best served for the next four years with someone at the helm, who is more self-aware, adept at managing the country’s diversity and possesses the broad-mindedness, capacity and acuity to seek out abundant talents and capable hands without being hamstrung by ethnic, parochial, religious and base considerations. Unfortunately, these are not President Buhari’s strong points.
Albeit, whosoever Nigerians choose to vote for on Saturday, they should know that voting is a political decision that will, inter alia, determine their existential realities. And like every decision, they will live with the outcomes, good or bad, day after!