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2023 Elections: The Jonathan Example, Leadership And Electoral Violence

Austyn Ogannah Column
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In January 2014, as the political bigwigs were horse-trading and plotting their power play for the general election scheduled for the following year, the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, was inspired to publicly state that no Nigerian should kill or maim himself or herself because of what was at the time his presumed second term ambition for 2015.

Without mincing words, Jonathan said: “Any ambition I have at any time is not worth the blood of Nigerians.” He added that he would “never, ever expect a Nigerian to spill a drop of his blood because Goodluck Jonathan has some ambitions.”

To further drive home the point he was making, the President, who was speaking at a special church service to mark this year’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day, in the Abuja Diocese of the Methodist Church, said: “Nigerians should always preach peace and unity in all their engagements. This is the only way the country will achieve greatness. Sometimes I get worried and embarrassed when I hear provocative statements that come from very senior citizens; people that ordinarily will be perceived as senior citizens, who ordinarily should know that the unity of this country is more important than the interests of any individual or a group of individuals. And that the peace of Nigeria is more important than any interest of individuals or group of individuals. Some people even encourage young people to take arms and fight themselves.

“I always say as a politician that I pray all politicians should know that there will be no nation if we kill ourselves. If you want people to come out and vote, why do you threaten them? If you threaten people they will stay in their houses and how will you win election?

“In an occasion like this, we should also admonish ourselves that we should preach peace and unity in all our conversations. If we do that all our problems will be resolved, our security issues will be resolved. If all of us collectively talk about the unity of this country, about peace in this country, then our country will progress and move in the direction we want the country to move.”

Jonathan did not stop at admonishments, however. He put his words to practice when the results of the elections were announced. There was, at the time, heightened tensions founded on violent rhetoric from the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, who in a 2011 address, where he spoke in Hausa while addressing members of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) from Niger State, who paid him a courtesy visit in Kaduna, warned that the 2015 elections would be bloody if the elections were not transparent.

Without elaboration, Buhari had said what translated to: “God willing, by 2015, something will happen. They either conduct a free and fair election or they go a very disgraceful way. If what happened in 2011 should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood.’’

If anything, Jonathan wanted to avoid bloodshed. Therefore, while a mild drama was ensuring at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) election result collation centre in Abuja with the former Niger Delta Affairs Minister, Elder Godsday Orubebe, an agent of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), accusing INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega of compromise, Jonathan put a call through to Buhari to congratulate him, even before the results from Borno were announced.

Buhari was already leading with 14,932,385 votes to Jonathan’s 12,638,310 and Jonathan, against the feeling of most people in his own party, called to say congratulations at 5:15pm on March 31, 2015. That singular act saved lives that could have been lost, if the results were contested and violence broke out like wildfire across the country along tribal and religious lines. But, Jonathan had committed to peace and he was not going to walk back on his words.

This sense of responsibility appears to have been lost between 2015 and today and it has left me enervated and worried. As has been the recent practice, on September 29, under the auspices of the National Peace Committee (NPC) led by General Abdulsalami Abukakar and the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, the presidential candidates of all political parties and the chairmen of their parties signed a Peace Accord, committing themselves to a peaceful campaign for the 2023 elections.

In attendance were the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Bola Tinubu, who was represented by his running mate, Kashim Shettima, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of the Labour Party, and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). Others were Omoyele Sowore of African Action Congress, Hamzat Al-Mustapha of Action Alliance, Sunday Adenuga of Boot Party and the only female candidate in the race, Chichi Ojei of Allied People’s Movement (APM). Christopher Imumolen of the Accord Party; Yabagi Sani of Action Democratic Party, Dumebi Kachikwu of African Democratic Congress (ADC), and Dan Nwanyanwu of the Zenith Labour Party also signed the pact.

At that signing ceremony, which was attended by key figures in corporate Nigeria including Alhaji Aliko Dangote and Mr. Femi Otedola, and other leaders such as the Sultan of Sokoto, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Sam Amuka Pemu and retired Justice Roseline Ukeje, the chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Yabagi Sani, who is also the candidate of ADP, reiterated that the candidates are committed to peaceful, free, fair and credible elections.

Meanwhile, in his welcome remarks, the NPC chairman and former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, admonished the candidates to ensure civil and decent campaigns, saying: “I call on politicians to address issues that are fundamental to Nigerians. We want to promote respect and tolerance of difference. We want to ensure that there is civility and decency in public discourse. Therefore, on behalf of Nigerians, I am appealing to all political parties, party chairmen, candidates and their spokespersons, please, a campaign based on issues that are of significant concern to Nigerians. Please, avoid the spread of fake news and personal attacks. You must comply with the spirit of electoral laws.”

If the candidates heard, events in the days that followed demonstrated that they may not have passed that message on to their parties and to their supporters. In the wake of that ceremony, the political space has been beset by reports of violence, intolerance, hate speech, foul language, vitriol, abuse, harassment and bad faith politicking.

Supporters of Peter Obi, a candidate for the Labour Party, were brutalised in Lagos in October. They were assaulted by thugs affiliated with an opposition political party after they were accused of carrying Peter Obi’s flags through Oshodi in Lagos. Despite an attempt to burn them alive, they managed to escape with their lives. Joshua Alamu, who took part in a campaign to raise awareness of Peter Obi’s cause in Nasarawa State, was also attacked. He wound up at the medical centre. The Labour Party was forced to make a statement in which they pleaded for their supporters’ safety.

At Enugwu-Ukwu in the Njikoka LGA of Anambra State, Senator Ifeanyi Ubah of the Young Progressives Party, who represents Anambra South in the National Assembly and is running for a second term, was also ambushed and attacked while some of his aides were killed. Also, at a recent rally in Kaduna, the PDP experienced its share of the violence when its supporters were beaten. According to reports, thugs broke into the rally’s location and began assaulting attendees. Atiku and Senator Bukola Saraki, a former Senate president, both denounced the violence, which witnessed the use of machetes.

Worried about the spate of violence, INEC chairman Prof. Mahmood Yakubu warned parties and their supporters to concentrate on the issues and avoid personal assaults on one another, calling the development alarming. In addition to being in violation of the Electoral Act of 2022, he pointed out that the violent acts also undermined the voluntary adherence of all political parties and candidates to the word and spirit of the Peace Accord.

It did little to change the status quo. The PDP candidate in Lagos State has had to cry out that agents of the ruling APC were out to get him. The convoy of PDP candidate for governor, Olajide Adediran and his running mate Funke Akindele was attacked recently in the Badagry Local Government area of Lagos State around the Ikoga Junction neighbourhood. Members of the entourage and some journalists sustained injuries in the attack.

After the PDP held its campaign in the state on November 9, thugs once more ambushed the presidential candidate’s convoy in Maiduguri. Although it is unclear which party the attackers represent, it was claimed that they were recruited by the opposing political party to cause disruptions.

These violent acts must not be allowed to continue before we create a monstrosity that will consume us all. The responsibility to rein in this thuggery lies with the leadership of the political parties and the candidates that will fly the flag of the party at next year’s elections.

We have seen the Labour Party presidential candidate tweet to his supporters to formally ask them to allow him respond to verbal attacks on his candidacy and person rather than engage in vitriol that can engender violence. That is an example of leading the push for a peaceful electioneering campaign.

In 2008, when Arizona senator John McCain was campaigning for the presidency of the US, he defended Barack Obama, his opponent, in the face of constituents spouting racist conspiracies about the then-senator from Illinois. At a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota, a woman said to McCain: “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” Without letting her go further, McCain grabbed the microphone from her and said, in very clear terms: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

Such an example is what politics should be about, a difference of perspective on the issues that concern the voters without any hatred for the opponent to the point of wishing them harm or talking about them in bad faith enough for supporters to believe they have a duty to their principals to visit violence on the opposition. We have seen that in many States of the Federation, opposition parties are not allowed to put up posters or billboards and when they do, the posters are destroyed. Such violation of decency is inimical to peace and a sane society. And, the buck stops on the table of political leaders and the leading candidates.

Violence before, during, and after elections is prohibited under national law and under the Electoral Act. Nigerian politicians and their proxies know they must refrain from engaging and promoting violence, but the reality is that they view politics as a life-or-death struggle. They have transformed politics into an enterprise of criminality where one must speak and act violently to get their objective.

The political profiteers and their agents believe that politics is a zero-sum game. The language of the politicians and the actions of their supporters, along with the fact that the police and other security forces are failing the populace, serve as further evidence, we have a duty to call to order all those who are actively or passively supporting violence.

It is yet another reason to campaign for the strengthening of our institutions. The daredevilry of many political jobbers, who perpetuate criminality and violence, is borne out of the confidence that they can get away with murder. Literally. Scarcely has anyone been brought to book for violent conduct or rhetoric around elections and political campaigns. There is therefore no deterrent to dissuade those who partake or promote electoral violence.

Without empowering the relevant agencies to deal properly with defaulters, there will be little to no difference in subsequent elections. The violence we have witnessed so far is disturbing enough. But, without strong institutions, from the police to the electoral bodies, carrying their duties accordingly with the backing of the law, and the political leaders working in tandem with the dictates of the Peace Accord, we might be in for a lot worse.