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Political actors and clamour for issues-based 2019 campaigns

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Femi Fani-Kayode

Describing the nature of political campaigns, three-term democratic governor of New York, Mario Mathew Cuomo famously quipped: “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” The idea of “campaigning in poetry” speaks to the projection of possibilities and optimism about what should be done to make society better. Most times, challengers pushing to defeat incumbents in an electoral race have the advantage of painting such sunny pictures of how well they would do in office, if they get the mandate of the electorate. On the other hand, incumbents try to convince the electorate by playing up whatever “achievements” they have recorded within their time in office. Nonetheless, on any side of the partisan divide, there is no mistaken the fact that when it comes to governance, the narrative changes to one which adjusts to the realities of getting things done.

In the final build up to the 2019 general elections, the feverish pace of political activities, especially after party primaries, will move into overdrive mode as the window for campaigns officially opens today. Although some forms of subtle campaigning by partisan interests, involving the passing of subliminal messages about the suitability of their candidates and the deficiencies of their opponents had already started since the conclusion of the primaries, the political actors are now expected to use the official campaign window to reach out to voters on what their plans and programmes would be, if they get the mandate. In other words, the party candidates would pitch to voters their main ideas for tackling the problems faced by the electorate within this specific timeframe. Although the political culture in Nigeria has tended to allow the politician make outlandish, and often unrealistic promises to the electorate without being fact-checked as to the feasibility of the plans, it remains the role of the citizen to insist on not being sold a dummy by the politician.

It is for the above reasons that the period of campaigns trail should provide the veritable platform for a multi-faceted dialogue, which would involve aspects where citizens can interrogate and subject to scrutiny the plans and promises of those seeking their votes. As such, while the campaign window gives the candidates specific period within which they are to articulate the details of what they expect to do, if they win the mandate of the electorate, it equally provides the voting public the moment to assess and chose. Campaigning within the partisan context is therefore about communicating the ideas, and providing the feedback regarding the “how” question, especially if the voting public feels some of the propositions are too fantastic or that there might be no resources for the realisation of the set target. Importantly, as the campaigns officially begin, the key question moves from the form to the content of the discourse. The experience from previous general elections showed a lot of desperation on the campaign trail, leading to the use of hate speech by political actors to get advantage in the political contest. In the prelude to 2015 for instance, ethnic champions from several regions stake a claim to the Presidency of Nigeria, and threatened that if their preferred candidates do not emerge, the country would burn.

There were similar threats to make the country ungovernable, if certain candidates emerged victorious. These violent rhetoric in some of these cases were taken to heart by the foot soldiers, who took it upon themselves to execute the details of the previously issued threats to threats. In 2011 for instance, the post-election violence claimed the lives of not less than 800 innocent Nigerians in the North. The seeds for the slaughter were planted during a campaign that was dominated by threats and vitriol. In 2014, militants of Niger-Delta extraction similarly issued a threat to make the country ungovernable should the then incumbent lose the elections in 2015. The reality of Nigeria’s recent electoral past, steeped in violence and blood-soaked outcomes, invite both the state and society to explore innovative ways to keep the political class busy, such that they have no time to engage in the kind of mischief, which would undermine peace and security, before, during and after the 2019 elections.

This task is even much more compelling when the rancour and bad blood precipitated by the primaries of the political parties are put in perspective. As close watchers of the political process have observed, the campaigns begin at a time when they will be directly impacted by the outcomes of the primaries. The primary process was not just rancorous; it was fraught with allegations of exclusion of groups not aligned to the dominant forces controlling the space in the parties. As such, there are many political actors who have shifted party base, who would be keen to use the campaign trail to get back at those who allegedly prevented them from winning the tickets.

There is no doubt for political actors who see the campaign trail as a place to get even with their adversaries, the content of the messaging would have little to do with ideas about how to competently and sustainably govern the country. It is apparent that when political actors like these match up with those who denied them the space in their previous parties, the conversation would degenerate to a poisonous cocktail of threats, baseless allegations and character assassination. In such an atmosphere, there is not a doubt that very little attention would be paid issues of policy and governance.

Despite the fact that the political actors would likely want the conversation to be about brick brats and vitriolic abuse of one another, the respective manifestoes of the different parties is a good starting point to engage them. Although many of the political parties may have even forgotten the content of their manifestoes, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of civic actors to remind them of those documents and engage them in conversations, which would tease out those core deliverables. Already, several civic groups are planning debates to give a platform to candidates and citizens to brainstorm on, analyse and proffer solutions to the major challenges facing Nigerians. One such initiative is the Nigeria Political Parties Discussion Series (NPPDS), a series of debates themed around the dominant issues of security, corruption and accountability, the women’s debate, the social sector, and finally the economy. The strategy behind these kinds of initiative is that when the candidates are forced to take the podium to discuss and respond to issues in a structured and very smart manner, they are likely to be weaned of the tendency to engage in the usual bull-in-the-china shop campaigning, wherein sheer verbal brawling takes the place of a reasoned conversation on how to move the country forward.

Again, these kinds of initiatives also stem from the increasing capacity of the citizen to access information, and use it as a basis to hold political leaders accountable. Civic agencies, which have the convening power, would act as non-partisan facilitators and arbiters of the process. In the case of the series of debates being organized by Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) for instance, detailed evaluation of party manifestoes have been undertaken, to break down the issues to specifics, while inspiring the parties to think through those issues. In the end, part of the contribution of these kinds of initiatives is in the push to get decision makers and the core of policy formulators within the parties to ruminate on their proposals even beyond the ballot. It is from this perspective that a public scrutiny of the manifestoes and promises made by the parties become critical.

It is similarly pertinent to observe that getting the right tone and voice during the campaign would partly contribute to addressing another major threat to the integrity of the 2019 electoral process. Social media remains the elephant in the room because of its capacity to move content and information at such rapid pace into the hands of the connected public. One manifestation of the downsides of social media is the increasing threat posed by fake news, misinformation and disinformation. The threats would be further compounded if political actors are not corralled to put up their best behaviour while engaging voters. Hate speech and other forms of degrading pronouncements to win votes, would have much more serious impact than it was in previous elections. Apparently, the problems of fake news, hate speech, misinformation and disinformation would be accentuated by the fault lines, which characterize the public debate in Nigeria. Ethnicity and religion are likely to be manipulated by politicians in order to gain advantage in the different elections. This is where the discipline of fact-checking would be brought to bear during the campaigns.

Again, many proactive and rapid responses to divisive content would have to be programmed to counter content designed with sinister motives in mind. Part of the push for a reasonable and measured discussion during the campaigns should get validity from the various provisions of the Electoral Act 2010, on what is acceptable and what is not during the campaign. Section 95(1) of the Act, for instance, makes it clear that a political campaign or slogan shall not be tainted with abusive language directly or indirectly likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings. In the same vein, the same section 95(2) calls on political actors to desist from abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language designed or likely to provoke violent reaction or emotion.

Also, Section 96(1) provides that a candidate, person or group of persons shall not directly or indirectly threaten with the use of force or violence during any political campaign in order to compel the person to support or refrain from supporting a political party or candidate. Further, down the line, Section 102 warns against campaigning or broadcasting based on religious, tribal or sectional reason. Political actors who run afoul of this provision by promoting or opposing a particular political party or the election of a particular candidate on the basis of religion, tribe and sectional consideration commits an offence, and is liable on conviction to a fine of N1million or a prison term of 12 months.

Although, these clear provisions in the nation’s electoral laws should ordinarily be sufficient to deter political actors from engaging in acerbic campaign, the limitation of the laws stem from the culture of impunity, which has become a part of Nigerian political culture. The fact that those who committed such infractions in the past were not held to account is likely to embolden further reckless pronouncements on the campaign trail. In the face of these challenges, the last hope for a tempered and measured conversation during the campaigns for the 2019 general elections rest with the civic initiatives being put forward to get the politicians talking on facilitated platforms. In the end, the expectation of Nigerians would be that the ideas distilled from the campaign season would translate into quality interventions, which would positively influence the lives of the people, beyond the 2019 vote.


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