As someone who has always had a perpetual interest in politics of Nigeria and other lands near and far from a very early age, one of the main attractions for me has been the way politicians and commentators engage in debate over ideas and issues. As a matter of fact, it is the belief in a system of ideas and ideals that give rise to ideologies, which are the bedrock upon which parties and organizations are founded. The debate is either about what end result is being desired or how best to achieve an agreed end result? For example, do we maintain our structure of government in Nigeria or do we return to the regionalism of the First Republic? Do we keep the current level of subsidies in our tertiary institutions and increase government funding in order to increase the access and quality of our tertiary education or do we allow schools to increase tuition fees?
However, sadly, such debates are virtually absent in our politics. Our politicians and political parties prefer to, at worst, engage in banal, empty statements that either criticize each other without providing alternatives or in vituperation. At best, they make promises without providing an action plan for achieving the promises.
For example, less than nine months to the general elections, I am yet to hear any person intending to unseat the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan offer his or her alternative ideas to solving our current issues, such as the insurgency waged by the Boko Haram terrorist sect, or how to create jobs for our millions of unemployed young people. It is the same thing at the state levels and for the legislative races. One would have expected that robust debates would be ongoing on these issues so that Nigerians can compare and contrast and choose to back the candidate they feel offers the ideas.
For many Nigerians like myself that like to use the substance of political debates to know what candidate or party to cast our vote for, it leaves us lacking for a way to know which candidate we can take a chance on to perform well in office. We are left with using parameters such as their track record in their careers, their political associations, how articulate they are and how they comport themselves. But none of these, in my opinion, is as weighty a measure as knowing how the candidate will tackle certain issues.
But why is then that Nigerian politicians have not bothered to use intellectual arguments to sway votes towards themselves? It cannot be solely because that they themselves are lacking in ideas; after all, the intellectual quality of our politicians has risen from 1999 to date.
The main reason is that in the end, all these intellectual debates do not really count in winning votes. Simple. It does not really matter whether you propose the best ideas to solving problems because the impact of this factor in your winning elections is quite small. This will come especially as a rude shock to young Nigerians, particularly the ones that populate social networks such as Twitter and analyze politicians and candidates based on their smarts – they are a very small percentage of the entire voting population.
The truth is that Nigeria is still far from ready for a true issues-based campaign. Here are reasons why:
- Nigeria is still largely an illiterate nation: Literacy rate (the ability to read and write), which is the most basic parameter of measuring how educated an area is, is still low in Nigeria. Only 68% of Nigerians can read and write, and only 51.1% of adults in Nigeria, those eligible to vote, can read and write. This is not to make mention of the level and quality of education of the lucky ones who can read and write. Thus, more than half of the voting population will struggle to even understand the debates around issues by politicians. A snapshot of this can be viewed by listening to a group of average Nigerians debate – there is a tendency to lean on simplistic lines of thought, unsubstantiated arguments and unproven facts. This is because this is what their minds can grasp.
- The way to win a Nigerian’s heart and mind is by appealing to his sentiments: This is quite self-explanatory. Appealing to a Nigerian’s ethnicity, or religious faith or place of origin wins him over way faster than trying to explain how you will guarantee food security for him as his president or ensure his children attend better public schools as his governor. We are a much divided nation where there is not only mutual suspicion of each other between religious faiths, ethnic groups and people of different geographic zones, but also where one group is always trying to have a position of supremacy over another group. This mindset is also prevalent even among some of the most educated and widely-traveled people in our society, those one will expect to have risen above such sentiments. Our politicians, knowing this, are only too eager to exploit these fissures amongst us.
- The power to choose candidates is still with cabals: Nigerian politics is still far from the point where the “floor members” of a party elect a candidate to stand in an election. It is not like primaries season we see in, say, American politics, where the aspirants woo party members to pick them as the candidates by debating the best solutions to their contemporary issues within the ambit of the party ideology. In Nigeria, however, the candidates are picked by the party godfathers using parameters that are little known to us except the fact that they mostly desire loyalty (code word for “be their puppet”). Thus, aspirants are better served proving their loyalty to the powers-that-be than trying to woo the voters and party members in order to become the party candidates. In the end, Nigerians are stuck with the choices that these godfathers make. If the godfathers in one party pick a dog to be the candidate of party A and those in party B pick a monkey, those are exactly what our choices are: a dog and a monkey.
I might be missing some other obvious reasons. If you can think of more, please leave them in the comments section.
The bottomline is that we should not expect the kind of political campaigns that will be battlegrounds of ideas, the type we see on TV from more advanced democracies and long to see same here. We will have to contend with using our current insufficient formula to picking the candidate we believe will deliver the goods and exert all the pressure we can in making sure he does.