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Mass culpability and political tension in Nigeria

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[FILE PHOTO] Election Poll

Were Nigeria a human being, she would invariably come down with an acute case of hypertension every four years.

Around the time of the general elections, that is. Of course, she would have minor cases in-between, when elections hold in those states whose history of electoral litigations has gifted electoral timetables different from that of the rest of the country.

Whenever elections come around, it looks as if everything would grind to a halt. Tension rises. People become anxious. Prophets and prophecies arise.

Investor confidence dips. The economy slips into a near-coma. Those Nigerians who can afford it ship their families abroad. Those who cannot, at least send some family members back to the village if they live in the city. And you wonder: what is it about elections that should dislocate the life of a people in this manner?

Commentators are wont to blame the government and politicians for, in the parlance of critics, “heating up the polity.”

It is not unusual to cast the masses in the mould of a hapless, helpless bunch, manipulated like marionettes by political partisans.

No! We need to show more respect to our people. They are not helpless, and they are not hapless. They are also not marionettes either. They are intelligent beings, endowed with genetic responsibilities by God. They make choices. They have a right to accept or reject whatever politicians throw at them.

My purpose is not to exculpate politicians. Many of them are guilty as charged although there are some decent ones.

But many of the ordinary people – including apparently enlightened ones – areas culpable as politicians in heating up the society and creating undue tension. They easily embrace and amplify the shenanigans of politicians. They too readily take sides. And they put too much passion into the process.

The ordinary people are the ones that fight on behalf of their parties. They are the ones that carry machetes and other dangerous weapons. They are also the ones most likely to die when violence erupts. Politicians love their lives so much that they run away from danger.

Even their children hardly campaign for them. When last did anyone see the children of any major politician campaigning for their father or mother? The children are usually kept safe, far away from the madding rallies.

Ironically, politicians hardly need to do elaborate mass communication nowadays. A Twitter handle plus a Facebook page will do.

For every tweet or post a politician sends out, there are millions of willing foot soldiers waiting to re-tweet or re-post.

Their adulation of their political idol is so complete that when s/he tweets “I am sleeping” this horde of admirers instantly shares the wonderful news.

Social media have made it easy for people to push opinions, no matter how outlandish. This is the age of “sharing” and the “share button” always beckons.

At the risk of sounding harsh, I wish to suggest that in this age, sharing and thinking appear to run on parallel tracks. Otherwise reasonable people share ridiculous things on social media.

You ask: do people take time to read messages before sharing them? The same question should be asked about the memes circulating in the cyber-sphere.

In the life world of our people, it seems, the sublime and the ludicrous are Siamese twins.

Some of our celebrated compatriots deserve pity. So much is, nowadays, falsely attributed to them, as ordinary people use their hallowed names to create a halo of credibility around what should pass as malaria-induced hallucination.

Who would not want to read any statement attributed to our only Nobel Laureate? Or, who would not pause to ponder whatever OBJ is reported to have said? And so on.

With over 93 million Nigerians online, 93% of whom access the Internet through their mobile phones, social media have become the opiate of the masses. We are hooked.

Every waking minute, we chat, watch, listen, and share. Do people ever pause to ask some questions? What I am about to share – is it true? What is the source? Is the source credible? Will this “share” build peace and understanding? Will it help Nigeria as a country? Will it edify its recipients? Will it reduce or escalate tension?

From what I see on social media, especially WhatsApp, it does not appear that people mull things over before sharing.

I cannot recall how many times I have received posts about poisoned tomatoes, onions, meat and so on. Or plans by some parts of the country to marginalize others.

Some people do not mind sharing posts about rigging plans they cannot substantiate. They must post about political strategies they were never privy to. They must post about the influx of aliens they never saw. They must concoct all kinds of lies – I don’t wish to call them fakenews – to deceive those who choose to be gullible.

Now it appears that election time in our country is a time of mass silliness.

It is also a time of mass rumour-vending. Audio clips are doctored and shared to create a certain effect and some of us wave them away with a half-hearted hiss.

All kinds of “exclusive” messages are circulated, without any clear source Identified. And all we say is: “It’s just politics.” Is politics about being nasty and mean-spirited? Yet, these things create tension.

We need to stop! A people ranked as the second most religious in the world need to show more responsibility.

Ironically, ordinarily decent people who, as they say, would not hurt a fly, kill. They kill reputations, morale, and self-esteem on social media.

People need to pray more for the country instead of sharing incendiary and hate-inducing content from faceless individuals.

People need to confirm the factuality of any information before sharing it. They owe themselves that responsibility. They also owe the country. Let’s pursue peace by sharing less.

With the volume of information available to the average person just by Googling, none but the inveterately indolent need share any content without confirming its authenticity.

I think it is time our people showed more circumspection and moderation for the sake of the country. Let’s reduce the tension.

The elections will come and go; the country will remain.

It will be interesting to quantify how much capital flight occurs around the election time, how much foreign direct investment is lost or delayed and how much richer other countries become at our expense.

These statistics may not be readily available although it would be good to have them.

What is not in doubt is that the hypertension that attacks Nigeria every four years is killing our economy, disuniting our people and stymieing our development.

• Dr Nwankwo works in the development sector.


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