Like many young Nigerians today, I mostly get my daily dose of newspapers via the internet. After reading an article, I always take the extra time to read comments by other readers, which range from vituperations to admonishments for prayers, but rarely do I see comments which seem to be well thought through, be it observations or suggestions about which course of action for the government (or any other party concerned) to take. As a matter of fact, days when I see an article loaded mostly with insightful comments and suggestions, it takes my mood that day to a high.
I have always wondered why it is we lack readers whose comments and opinions are based on a thorough understanding of the issue at hand and can form the bedrock of a sustainable solution to the problem. However, I have come to sadly note that this situation is even worse in our politics; among people whose profession it is to use the power of government to create a better life for our nation. Over the past few years, I have followed elections in advanced political cultures with admiration and awe at how politicians use their persuasive powers of argument in which they articulate their different approaches to solving the issues that bedevil their people.
Painfully enough, I cannot say the same about the Nigerian political culture. What we have at home are politicians who are pros at making banal statements without ever explaining how they intend to achieve them. It is commonplace to see a governorship candidate promise prospective voters that he will provide them with free education at all levels, without saying how he intends to do that while increasing the quality of education and also the number of schools or how he intends to fund it; or how a President promised to place an airport in each state, while ignoring the fact that not every state has the capacity to support an airport as low business activity and passenger rates would make those airports redundant, when that amount would have been better invested in some critical road transport infrastructure with greater impact.
Obviously, our politicians have mastered the art of appealing only to our emotions in their bid to earn our votes; that is, besides employing sentiments and personality attributes to get into office. What happened to those days in the First Republic when Chief Obafemi Awolowo not only promised the people of the Western Region free education, but also went ahead that this would not be possible unless he increased their taxes? These were the sort of ideas that made the politicians of those days stand out. Is it that today, we do not have enough people who will comprehend the ideas that politicians would have to sell in order to get elected? I beg to disagree. For one, literacy rates across Nigeria are way higher than they were in the First Republic. With a daily newspaper circulation of about 220,000 and with each newspaper having an average of 7 readers, we are looking at 1.5 million newspaper readers, absorbing not only news articles, but also commentaries, columnists’ work and op-ed articles which a lot of times, contain tons of ideas on how to tackle problems, they definitely would not find ideas of politicians go over their heads. This is not to add the thousands of people, who like me, read their news online, and also the people who we are likely to influence in discussions armed with the knowledge and information we have gleaned off the pages of these papers.
There are a couple of reasons I feel are responsible for this malaise in our political culture:
Firstly, at the start of our return to democracy, those who formed parties and became involved actively are those who had been politically involved right from the days of the military; where ideas were unimportant and rather, the most vital skills were guile, shrewdness and knowing the right butts to kiss. These are the same skills we see in display today, with the extra dose of politics of personality and sentiments.
Secondly, the middle class of our economy, to which intellectuals mostly belong to have become more preoccupied with their battle for survival. Hence, they have become to live and let live and not be involved with politics, or when they get involved, to just tag along and get their own share of ‘the national cake’.
I remember in 2003, during a presidential debate, the candidate of one of the little-known parties was asked how he intended clearing Nigeria’s external debt if he elected president. He responded by saying he would sue Britain for repatriation for their ‘crimes’ during colonization, and the money he would get would pay our debts with change left over. Funny as it may have been, this candidate seemed to really believe in his idea. If he had been elected president, we would have obviously been stuck with a man clueless about how to address our issues. It was just so too that the late President Umaru Yar’adua promised to declare a ‘state of emergency’ in our power sector in order to solve our perennial power crisis. However, he never bothered to explain what he meant by that statement neither did we bother to ask. Did it mean that the entire Nigerian bureaucracy would work on only power? Or would the entire budget be allocated to power? Sadly, even journalists and prominent columnists would write and lament that the president hadn’t fulfilled his promise of declaring the state of emergency, without also knowing the details of the idea.
We also saw how during the last elections, the debates held before it exposed a previously highly-rated presidential candidate as being out of touch with the problems of our country and lacking in depth in ideas for solving them. All his campaign had been running on was his personal character and achievements of at least, 15 years ago.
I have always believed that politics is a battle of ideas; elections are just a way to prove whose idea is superior. However, in Nigeria, politics is all about getting elected. Shikena! Nothing else seems to matter. We should not just be satisfied by statements by candidates and aspirants such as ‘I am going to make sure that there is enough food in this state or country’, but most importantly, we should ask how he intends to achieve that. It is the main reason that our political parties are devoid of ideologies, because the ideas and approach to solving problems out of which ideologies are borne is lacking. In all the existing parties, only the Action Congress of Nigeria stands out ideologically, at least with its insistence of fiscal federalism and having a good understanding of how our federalism is meant to work, as expressed by its leaders and politicians in numerous interviews I have come across.
Our problems today need creative solutions to solving them. We need men and women who would be innovative and articulate with the ideas they have in mind for solving them. No longer should we accept empty statements as campaign promises. We should ask how they intend to solve them. Unless we bring intellectualism and serious thought into our political culture, we are going to be left without a proper method of assessing who is fit for the role.