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The radicalisation of political conflict

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At the heart of the concept of democracy, is the sanctity of the idea that my opponent’s view is a strong part of the democratic conversation. That whether or not I agree with you, you have the right to your position and to articulate it to the electorate, and yes, that position can include a vicious denunciation of my opponent. That is the basis of free speech and political debate. Ideally, it should be conducted with respect, but decorum is not the test of validity.

Over the last few years in Nigeria, we have gone from at least paying lip service to this idea, to a position where it is more and more accepted that stamping on, detaining and even killing those who disagree with me is an acceptable weapon in the political armoury. Those who use it do so because they feel a level of impunity; it seems that the refrain ‘and what can they do’ has taken hold, something that can only exist when the answer is ‘nothing.’

The more it is ignored, the more daring and empowered the culprits to become. Increasingly, the justification for this type of action is ethnic, or regional. Boko Haram and Cattle Grazing are viewed as Northern problems, while oil theft, pollution and gas flaring are viewed as problems of the South-South. Since when did these challenges stop being NIGERIAN challenges, affecting us all? Thinking regionally is a slippery slope that we must avoid at all costs. Just look at the fights taking place around regional security forces and their validity.

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Situations like this emerge because of the example set by the highest authorities in the land. While I commend the decision taken by the government before Christmas to release Sowore and Dasuki from detention, I caution very clearly that such a move does not undo the wrong nor change the course of others. There are many others that remain in questionable custody and the impunity that exists at the top only emboldens others throughout the system.

This type of impunity is almost always justified by what I call the creed of the wicked. The idea that the end justifies the means. That we must take this action now, this hard thing that must be done, because, in the long run, Nigeria will be better. We are the ones willing to do so, despite the risk to ourselves. But this argument amounts to the idea that you simply must ‘trust me’ with power that was never intended to be granted. It’s the fundamental tenet of the idea of benevolent dictatorship. But at least with most benevolent dictators, there is a clear roadmap and vision for where they are taking us. If the Nigerian government has that roadmap today, then they are not telling us what it is! Perhaps that is the problem that they face. If they could verbalise those objectives, they might get more support. In the absence of them, the transgressions become the story and the focus.

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There does not seem to be a recognition, or understanding, that simply claiming to be morally right, without working hard to gain the support of your constituency, is not enough. Maybe what we have is the simple arrogance that comes with the belief that ‘now I am in power, I do not have to explain myself to you.’ I do not believe this is solely the problem of the Federal Government in Nigeria, it has filtered down into the States as well and it is spreading. This slide into moral suasion over the rule of law is one that is very slippery and it is something that we have to watch closely.

The traditional power balance that means executive authority is tempered by the legislature and the judiciary has to remain sacrosanct. The more court orders are disobeyed, the faster the slide is. But I want to be clear that this is not solely the fault of the executive. It cannot happen if the other institutions are strong. It would not be possible for judicial orders to be ignored if there wasn’t at least some semblance of belief across the system in Nigeria that the Judiciary itself has been compromised. The judges and lawyers that have allowed such a situation to develop must be held equally accountable. It is their responsibility to ensure that the judicial arm is beyond suspicion, but they have failed at that task.

It would not be possible if the police and the anti-corruption authorities operated entirely independently of the political system. Nor if the freedom of information act, and asset and tax declarations of public officers were enforced in they way they were envisaged. It is the complicity of multiple parts of the system that enable authoritarianism and seeking to direct blame in any one direction is pointless. But I do not think that all is lost. Time is running out and the journey to our 2023 elections is going to be a rocky one, but how the process evolves and develops will be the true strength of our democracy. Will that vibrant opposition that I spoke of at the start be allowed to flourish, or will we continue down the path to silencing dissent, and so significantly degrade the democratic freedoms that we aspire to have.

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