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Democracy in search of democrats

By Dan Agbese
21 December 2018   |   3:30 am
Some of the presidential candidates in the 2019 general elections signed a peace accord in Abuja on December 11. Those who did not sign it on the first day have since done so.

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Some of the presidential candidates in the 2019 general elections signed a peace accord in Abuja on December 11. Those who did not sign it on the first day have since done so. We can safely accept that none of them wants trouble. It is good and comforting to know.

We can quickly dispose of two points in commenting on this latest effort towards the peaceful conduct of the 2019 general elections and then proceed to interrogate the premise of the peace accord and what hope it holds for the peaceful conduct of the elections.

I commend the National Peace Committee for the initiative. General Yakubu Gowon, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and the Roman Catholic cleric, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of Sokoto diocese, have been tireless apostles of peace in our increasingly divided nation. The country, polarised as never before along its major fault lines of ethnicity and religion, is virtually on edge. It is important to appreciate those who know where we are and where we could be if we allowed the politicians to run on auto pilot. Any careless statements and acts of irresponsibility during the electioneering campaigns, not the soberest moments in this land, could move it closer to the abyss with the grim prospects of the labours of our heroes past and present being imperilled if not in vain. We must be mindful of this and guard against it.

The politicians who responded to this initiative and signed the accord committed themselves in oath or conscience, to its terms. That seems like the right step forward. The peace accord underlines their responsibility in the peaceful conduct of the elections. They hold the key to peace in the land in their hands. Well, when they are not using those hands to dish out money to their followers and effectively corrupting the system.
Here is the five-point peace accord:

To run issue-based campaigns at national, state and local government levels. In this, we pledge to refrain from campaigns that will involve religious incitement, ethnic or tribal profiling, both by ourselves and by all agents acting in our names;
To refrain from making or causing to make in our names or that of our party, any public statements, pronouncements, declarations or speeches that have the capacity to incite any form of violence before, during and after the elections;
To commit ourselves and political parties to the monitoring of the adherence to the accord by a National Peace Committee made up of respected statesmen and women, traditional and religious leaders;
To support all the institutions of government including INEC and security agencies to act and be seen to act with impartiality;
To forcefully and publicly speak out against provocative utterances and oppose all acts of electoral violence, whether perpetrated by supporters and/or opponents.

My first reaction to it raised a two-word question: Can they? This then set off a flurry of questions in my head. At the risk of questioning the sincerity of the signatories to the peace accord, we might as well interrogate its premise. I think it is premised on our experience that our politicians are not at their best behaviour during electioneering campaigns and the vicious contest for power.

We know only too well that our elections have become wars. Matters have become progressively worse since President Obasanjo declared that the 2007 presidential election was a do-or-die matter for him. Even if the candidates do not put it in such stark and frightful expressions, we know that they too approach it with the same spirit and the same determination to win, no matter what. It would be dishonest for anyone to pretend not to entertain some fears about the 2019 general elections.

Given this situation, the option taken by the National Peace Committee to ask the presidential candidates, and by extension, their supporters and party members to commit themselves to a peace accord makes eminent sense. You wonder, though why adults who want to rule this country would need to be persuaded to commit themselves to an agreement that obliges them to be of good behaviour. If our presidential candidates needed to be so reminded that it is possible to win an election without setting the country on fire, I think it takes something away from their sense of their civic responsibility and patriotism.

An accord such as this has its strengths and weaknesses. Its strength lies in its moral imperatives. This is a gentlemen’s agreement whose success does not lie in the fear of punishment but in the worrisome throbbing of the individual conscience.

It follows that its inherent weakness lies in its enforcement. It is not a law; it does not have the force of law. No punishment can be meted to its traducers. Nor can it be policed by our security agencies. An agreement left to an individual to enforce with his conscience is liable to interpretations calculated to sabotage it in the interest of that individual. No small worry, that the presidential candidates do not have such a strong hold on their followers and party members such that they can make them respect the peace accord signed by them. The crises in the political parties after the party primaries tell us something about the nature of our political followership. The parties are unruly because their leaders and followers are unruly. If the party leaders cannot control their members and make them respect their various constitutions, then it is too much to ask them to respect an accord that denies them the right to engage in a behaviour honed over the years that rewards them. More than one week after the peace accord was signed, I am aware that the noise I hear is not of birds flying over my house but of brick bats let loose from the bows of the presidential candidates and their supporters.

My argument is that it would be unhelpful to the cause of peace if we take the cosmetics of signing the accord alone as evidence of its success and allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that all is well. While we must support a peaceful conduct of the elections, we must be mindful of one unsettling fact about the nature of our elections.

We have imbibed the culture politics being a war by other means. It would be too much to expect a peace accord such as this to re-orientate our minds and end that culture in the time it takes to go the polls on February 16. Since power is less about the national interests and more about ethnic and religious interests, our political commitments are defined almost entirely along those lines.

Perhaps more importantly, the fact that our political leaders need an accord such as this shows what little distance we have covered so far in our democratic journey. The peace accord binds the presidential candidates to run issue-based campaigns. As Obasanjo would say, I dey laugh o. This is strange to our national politics. So far and since the signing of the accord, I have heard none of them talking about those things that worry us as a nation and as citizens. They seem to agree that our nation is broken but none is telling us how he intends to fix it. The best we have is the blame game. Here people win power first and then think of what to do with it.

If we strip the high-mindedness in the peace accord down to the basics, we find this: ours is a democracy in search of democrats. You cannot have a democracy without the democratic temperament. It is what we lack and thus makes our democracy not a measured work in progress but a mealy-mouthed commitment to its nuances and ethos.