The silence of our ‘friends’
The advent of election season in Nigeria is, for a sane observer, a tortured exercise in the suspension of disbelief. For those few months, the drama of political convenience opens across the country, wiping off whims of informed politics. A cast of zany characters determined to ingratiate their way into favours with Aso Rock crops up. Their antagonists, equally determined to check them with portents of frightening probabilities, follow suit. Nigeria’s political class – the aggregation of traditional ruling families, the remnants of the 1960s ‘nationalists’, and the military-democratic complex – direct this show behind the curtains. Outwardly, the political class acts disinterested.
Still, this is also the time that Nigeria’s political elites reappear with a rediscovery of their political conscience. Feigning friendship for the masses and concerns for governance, they massage our sensibilities through open letters, public notices, words of advice, and similar expressions of ‘statesmanship’ and ‘concerned citizenship’.
But they present these interventions – to use the term generously – when their words have little or no value to actual governance. For example, the economy may already be in shambles or thousands of lives lost. For people who claim to care about governance, they wait until an administration is in ruins before speaking up. People who do care about governance are critical of the direction of an administration from the first day of its tenure. They engage its policies to prevent damage, and not just to give a post-damage score sheet.
But Nigeria’s political elites are more interested in politics than in governance. Immediately after an election, they fade into the background for some two to three years, distanced from policy directions and popular agitations. For example, in the last two years, Nigerians have died from terrorist attacks, militia attacks, military ‘accidents’, police brutality, political and election violence, road and transport accidents, deficient healthcare, migration accidents, deficient public utilities and infrastructure. Rarely did members of the political class speak up on these. They were mute when this administration lacked a cabinet, ordered an arbitrary monetary policy, ignored court orders, and failed to disclose the president’s health status.
Yes, there is an element of strategic patronage involved. There is a sort of political code that demands silence when another player owns the field. The ban lifts only when the next ‘match’ is about to begin. Which is why now, when Nigerians do not actually need them, the political class have come crawling out. They will start reasserting a paternalistic relationship, attempting to shape the next elections. I daresay the public issues that matter to ordinary Nigerians are only tactical moves in a game to the political class.
Party labels do not matter in these. The boxes we call APC/PDP today are the same boxes that used to be called AD/APGA/APP/CPC/PDP. If we go back in time a bit, it was NRC/SDP and NPN/UPN or AG/NCNC/NPC. Open these boxes, add some content here and remove some there. Stick a new label over it and a new party emerges under the ownership of the same set of people. This rearrangement is what our elite cares about: the movement of power through political parties financed by resources of state for the redelivery of resources to the elite. And, when a party gets toxic, the political class delegitimises it and guides us into another party they have created.
In the course of this cycle, the ordinary Nigerian seems hapless. We are still disunited by ethno-religious sentiments and policed under a security state. Often, we are less concerned by political ideology and more concerned by the delivery of human security, a good economy, and functional public utilities and social goods. There is, therefore, a tendency for us to support those whom we think have the capacity to control power towards the delivery of these goals. In this way, we never break free from the chains of the political class. Like a telecoms service provider offering different packages of the same product, our political class provides us with a range of seemingly opposing political parties to choose our leaders from. They motivate us with the sudden clarity they have derived from ‘watching’ and ‘observing’ the current administration. But once the elections are over, the elites rarely try to steer these parties into delivering good governance for the masses. This is ridiculous.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated that, in the end, the words of our enemies would have less impact than the silence of our friends. Yet, it seems that we Nigerians are prone to forgetting the silence of ‘our friends’. We are pawns in one integrated game of political control that has now spanned over 50 years. The advent of election season is here: we would be foolish if we still do not understand this swindle.