What began as a promising campaign season is about to end up as a roving circus ofpolitical emperors and their minions. As the campaigns for next month’s elections wind down, we probably now have a convenient summation of the surreal experience. We might as well call it ‘the Lost Campaign’. The over six months window which INEC allowed us for campaigns was greeted as time enough for exhaustive issues- related campaigns by the political parties. It was expected that the campaign would depart from the usual parade of superficiality to yield a a national engagement in a rigorous debate about how we are , how we got here and how we can dig ourselves out of this ditch. It was expected that our political parties would for a change rise to the occasion of leading the national conversation.
Alas, the time and opportunity seems to have been squandered. The campaigns are winding down and yet the issues have hardly been addressed. Rather predictably and unfortunately, the two dominant parties have instead elevated their presidential candidates into the centres of attention. Their personal lives and foibles have become the central issues of the campaign. Attention has shifted from the nation to the two imperial candidates. The campaign teams of the two big parties have degenerated into opposing squads of howling pirates and quarrelsome co-wives. All manner of unprintable personal insults, accusations and counter accusations are flying around the two presidential candidates.
A former aide to Mr. Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has gone rogue with tales of trafficking in ugly money linked to the former Vice President . The disclosures of the errant former aide include a laughable ‘revelation’ that Mr. Atiku has 31 children all of whom he plans to enrich by stealing from the national till when and if he becomes president. Atiku is also alleged to have floated special purpose vehicle companies that were deployed into money laundering schemes to finance political projects many years ago. There is a lingering undertone in these murky revelations that Mr. Atiku may not have been such an honest deputy in his private financial dealings with Mr. Obasanjo during their tenure, hence the unrelenting bitterness of the Owu chief towards his erstwhile deputy.
On the Tinubu side, it is repeatedly alleged that Mr. Tinubu may have, earlier in his opaque career, been involved in trade in bad products including narcotics between the US and Nigeria. Repeated references are made to court papers from far away United States that showed clearly that Mr. Tinubu’s bank accounts may have hosted funds that were proceeds of questionable narcotics related transactions. It is an open secret that Mr. Tinubu paid a legally agreed reparation to the US government in a plea bargain settlement on one such questionable transaction.
Nearer home and more recently, other hazy accusations against Mr. Tinubu include countless unsubstantiated charges that he may have fleeced the Lagos treasury during and after his tenure as governor through sweet heart contracts, consultancies and commissions. We have heard all these repeatedly before. Nothing has been conclusively proven or legally sustained neither has much been convincingly repudiated. There remains a certain lingering smell of bad things hanging around the man in matters as diverse as real estate, toll gates and revenue collection consultancies in Lagos etc.
In the process of choreographing the nasty exchanges between the two presidential candidates, a whole genre of Nigeria’s thriving comedy industry has sprouted. There are now endless adolescent skits from both sides on the foibles and fumblings of both principals. Drama and comedy are thriving. The most entertaining pieces are perhaps the musical renditions of Mr. Tinubu’s ill health induced recent linguistic resourcefulness and creativity. The famous indecipherable ‘Ba ba blu…’ gibberish series has yielded danceable raps accompanied by endless gyrations of young female waists backed by instant street-side musical ensembles. While we ponder the meaning of the gibberish, we cannot but savor the captivating melody of these instant hit compositions. No one can deny the infinite creativity of Nigeria’s restless young generation.
The Atiku side has repeatedly resorted to making political capital out of Mr. Tinubu’s much orchestrated health issues. It is of course crassly indecent and demeaning to convert people’s health issues into political capital. We are Africans. Ill health and death remain areas beyond public ridicule. But our modern pretensions demand that those who are playing in the public sphere must come clean with their health records because they cease to be private patients once they have stepped out onto the arena of public service. Therefore, the public is entitled to full disclosure on Mr. Tinubu’s health status as well as those of the other presidential candidates for as long as they insist on vying for public office.
The contending accusdations and exchangeof insults between both sides remains childish in content and adolescent in mode of expression. But both campaigns have deployed all the communication tools at their disposal to make these high school exchanges look serious. For instance, in a desperate bid to confer legal respectability on Atiku’s supposed past financial indiscretion, Mr. Festus Keyamo, spokesman of the Tinubu APC campaign, has headed to court to give a legalistic appearance to an otherwise laughable matter.
From the Atiku side, there have been more colourful displays spearheaded by Dino Melaye, the familiar Senator of colour, bombast and a gifted performing artist. On the campaign trail, Dino Melaye has occasionally mimicked Tinubu’s infirm swoons by deliberately and foolishly falling off the campaign podium to audience applause.
In all this, the public has been relegated to the status of spectators. In place of debate and serious conversation, we are left with no other option than to laugh at the foibles of our political actors and their rented jesters. Instead of participating in lively debates about our future , we are relegated to the status of a circus audience, helplessly diverted from the serious existential issues of nation and people. It all amounts to a grand scheme of political distraction. Our attention is shifted away from issues to antics and spurious allegations.
Unfortunately, the allegations and charges over which the PDP and APC are squabbling are all too familiar to our public. Every Nigerian out there knows that both Mr. Atiku and Mr. Tinubu are stupendously wealthy men. But if beer parlor you ask how they came by their wealth, you are likely to meet a wall of silence as people find their way out of the bar!. Whether they are founded allegations or glorified beer parlor rumours, there is nothing new that we have been told about the wealth of either Mr. Atiku or his friend Bola Tinubu in recent times that is new. They know each other well. We the people also know quite a bit about them. For their campaigns to elevate their known identities and circumstances into matters of urgent public attention is unnecessary political drama and at best a grand scheme of political diversion. The campaigns are merely dodging serious political debate about their programmes if indeed they have any.
Their handlers, having run out ideas, are merely watching the clock as the days roll by and the campaign season draws to a close. When the curtain falls on the eve of the election, they will have both artfully side- stepped the serious issues that beset our nation and left us to queue up at the polling booths to anoint one of them our emperor for the next four years. That is the state of the scheme.
These diversionary antics are not accidental. They are generic in the tradition of politics that has produced both Mr. Atiku and Mr. Tinubu. They are playing typical African ‘Big Man’ and ‘African Chief’ politics. This politics is not about the people or the nation. It is about the political gladiators as totems of power. This is a dying but nonetheless still potent political tradition.
This ancient politics is not an orphan either. It has an ancestry. Nor is it exclusively Nigerian. It is in fact postcolonial African. It is the politics of ‘African Chiefs’ and ‘Big Men ‘. The Big man owns the state, its resources and controls its institutions. It is a crude unmitigated rehearsal of the medieval absolutism of le etat c’est moi. This is the politics of Mobutu Se Se Sekou, Theodore Obiang, Arap Moi, Paul Biya, Yoweri Museveni, Siad Barre, Hosni Mubarak and Robert Mugabe. It is a crude combination of Medieval cruelty and morbid insensitivity to the feelings of ordinary people. Corruption is merely an expression of the big Chief’s entitlement to the resources of his kingdom as a divine ancestral right of the king. The modern Nigerian state has only codified the travesty by imposing a veneer of some fancy things like an Electoral Law, an INEC and emplaced a judiciary of compliant judges.
There is therefore a sad imperial dimension to our ongoing political drama. Both Atiku and Tinubu behave, generally carry on and speak to Nigerians as emperors in waiting. They are not relating to fellow Nigerians as fellow citizens in a Republican democracy but as emperors from an Olympian height and distance. The collective ‘we’, the voice of a collective partisan leader in a democracy gives way to the all conquering ‘I’ of the imperial overlord.
The political obligations of the aspiring leader to the electorate are presented as generous concessions from a benevolent aspiring emperor to his future subjects. At a PDP rally in Abeokuta the other day, Mr. Atiku threatened to withhold contracts and political appointments from party members who do not ‘deliver’ their polling booths. As it were, the people as citizens in a democracy have no entitlements except they do the bidding of the emperor. The relationship between the presidential candidate and the electorate becomes a transactional one: votes for patronage. Votes for the rights and privileges of citizenship. Only the emperor’s devotees and minions qualify for patronage. Forget meritocracy and democratic entitlement.
At similar party campaign events in Owerri, Enugu and Onitsha respectively, an arrogant Atiku insisted that he will ensure that the much talked about Igbo president comes only after his reign as imperial president. He would make it happen by political fiat! It is only after his presidential tenure that he would graciously pay heed to the legitimate right of Igbos as citizens to vie for and expect to be elected president in a country they call theirs. The legitimate right of the Igbos as citizens to vie for Nigeria’s presidency becomes a quid pro quo proposition, something to be earned by voting for Mr. Atiku.
Similarly, Mr. Bola Tinubu prefaced his outing in the presidential contest with an unmistakable sense of personal entitlement. In his now famous Abeokuta first outburst, he defiantly stated that it was his ‘turn’ to be president. It was not about his party, zone or ethnicity. It was a statement of personal claim to power. He was vying for the presidency in 2023 to cash his personal political cheque in return for enthroning Buhari and facilitating the birth of the APC. “Emi l’okan” (it is my turn) is an unmistakable personal statement of entitlement to national power.
Throughout the campaign season, Tinubu has treated citizen rights and entitlements as personal imperial concessions which he alone can grant on being elected the next president. In his mindset, Lagos is his property and every citizen who dwells or transacts in Lagos must have his blessing. For instance, other Nigerians who live and work or trade in the South West, especially Lagos, should be grateful to him for being allowed to live and thrive in the region. Specifically, Mr. Tinubu says Mr. Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour party, who owns a home in Lagos as well as other Nigerians resident in Lagos should pay ‘rent’ to him, the imperial owner of Lagos for being allowed to live and contribute to the economy of Lagos.
In this imperial mindset, even wives and offspring of the imperial presidential candidates have crawled out of the wood work to blackmail and cajole a hapless citizenry to vote for their principals. Mr. Tinubu’s Senator Christian wife has added her voice to the aspiration of her Muslim husband. His daughter and son have also weighed in, with his son recently taking an Igbo chieftaincy title from his in laws in the south east to the bargain. Under our very eyes, all the trappings and symptoms of an impending imperial personality cult presidency are on full display here. Similarly, one of Mr. Atiku’s many wives has pleaded that Nigerians should elect her husband president in order to qualify for his generosity of spirit and kingly favours.
The elements of imperial personality cult politics are complete in the tone of the two campaigns. The language of both sides is predictably combative, arrogant and belligerent with frequent grandstanding as in warfare. Mr. Tinubu’s people have hectored the media as in their quarrel with Arise Television over his failed town hall appearances. Mr. Atiku visited Anambra state and had Governor Soludo summon traditional rulers, including the revered Obi of Onitsha, to congregate at the Government House in Awka to pay homage to him instead of him visiting their domains.
Conspicuously missing in the utterances of both sides is the candour of civil rhetoric and respect for both opponents and the public that we should expect from responsible people seeking to be hired to serve the public through a democratic contest.
In this campaign of comic blitzkrieg, nothing is sacrosanct. The institutions of state including the very pillars and guardrails of democratic order are purchased, conscripted, enlisted or roped into the nasty privatization of partisan contest. The Tinubu camp has enlisted the judiciary by having Mr. Keyamo go to court over a trivial old tale. They have invited the police and EFCC to come and arrest Mr. Atiku. The Atiku camp has in return invited the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the police to search underneath Tinubu’s bed for narcotics. Both sides have called on INEC to disqualify their opponents. Vicariously and variously, the key agencies of the state have been called into the nasty fights of these naked emperors.
The contest between the emperors is not a moral one by any stretch. It is instead a desperate stampede for vantage positioning occasioned by economic interests. It is a wrestling match between two naked emperors in the national market place.
It is the institutionalization of politics of ‘anyhow’. We are within a political culture where the public is invited to compare candidates for the highest office in terms of their levels of criminality and serial moral transgressions and social infractions. The effective code of behavior here becomes that of politics as an amoral game. In a contest among ‘bad guys’, who wins is not a triumph of virtue or merit but a glorification of the nastier man. Sadly, this is what the impending election for the Nigerian president has turned into.
Therefore, the tragedy of Nigeria is that the February election may present one of these untidy emperors as the president of Nigeria. In that sad eventuality, which seems clear and present, we are stuck with a tragedy foretold. Maybe it is true that democracy presents every society with a mirror image of itself as hero. We are the leader we choose!
These emperors have, however, stripped each other naked in the market place. What do we do with them in a season that offers us a choice?