Unless the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the relevant security agencies stand firm in working towards credible elections next year, the exercise may be compromised even before the ballots. Last month on this Column, we had drawn attention to the discouraging signs trailing the elections. Part of our observation was that mudslinging and ethnic recriminations may dominate public engagements, in place of issue-based campaigns.
The signals are becoming more frightening and potent as the elections draw closer. Few days after the official flag-off of the campaigns, incidences of violence and intimidation of perceived opponents in some parts of the country, have confirmed our fears.
The latest in the series was the assault on the supporters of the Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi, in Lagos, last weekend. That particular incident points to the dangers ahead. Reports had it that two supporters (flag boys) of the Labour Party candidate were molested in Oshodi axis of the state for no reason other than promoting a party considered different from the All Progressives Congress (APC).
For daring to be different, the boys were allegedly beaten to a pulp and were about being set ablaze before they were rescued by a courageous soldier. The flag boys claimed that they were going about their normal duty with the Labour Party flag and insignia when they were accosted by the hoodlums who received order from their superiors to beat and torch them.
One of the victims was quoted to have said “When the touts who were ordered by their superior seized my friend, I took to my heels to the motor park and boarded a cab. While the cab was loading, the touts traced me to the cab, forced me out of it, and took me to where my friend was also kept.
Peter Obi’s supporters that were attacked in Oshodi, Lagos
“Their superior ordered that we should be beaten, killed and set ablaze. We were beaten like common criminals. They flogged us and were about to set us on fire before a soldier came to our rescue. We are having internal bleeding and pains all over our bodies. Our crime is that we are not supporting their candidate.”
Incidentally, the Lagos State Police, Spokesperson of the Command, SP Benjamin Hundeyin, reportedly knew about the incident but claimed that it was not officially reported to the Command.
Sponsored thugs had unleashed similar attacks on citizens queueing to register for the Permanent Voters Cards (PVC), at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ijeshatedo, area of the state, on the suspicion that they had sympathy for Obi.
Now, from whatever angle it is looked at and for whatever reasons, this is bad and despicable. It follows the same pattern of residents from other states and regions being blackmailed to queue behind a particular political party or candidate as a gesture of reciprocating their accommodation in Lagos. For a system that prides itself on freedom of movement, freedom of association and rights of residence to the citizens in any part of the country, this is absurd and dangerous.
Attacking any Nigerian or anybody for that matter because of differences in religious belief, political persuasion or any divergence of opinions, stands strongly condemned. Peaceful assembly, free association, unfettered campaigns as well as choice of place of residence, are constitutionally guaranteed rights in the country that must be respected. Democracy is at its best when it allows rooms for plurality of opinions.
If this level of intolerance could be manifested at this early stage of the campaigns, it tells much on what lies ahead. The elementary definition of democracy as the government of the people, for the people and by the people, has as its fulcrum, the people-content. It concedes to the people the rights and responsibilities of choosing and determining who governs or represents them in an atmosphere devoid of coercion and intimidation. The moment the people are denied that right of choice, anarchy sets in. Elections cannot be deemed free and fair when a certain group employs the tool of intimidation to ensure that the opposition is silenced, both at the campaigns and at the polls.
Over time, Nigeria’s politics has been tainted by such untoward activities as ballot snatching, falsification of results, alteration of voters’ register and outright violence. These ugly factors contributed extensively to the collapse of the first and second republics. As preparations for 2023 general elections gather steam, they are rearing their ugly heads.
You would then understand the point INEC was trying to make when it highlighted areas of concern in the conduct of free and fair polls in 2023. Among these are threats specific to geographical locations, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the issue of hard drugs, presence of insurgents and armed groups, intra and inter-party conflicts, violence and hate speech. The attack on Obi’s supporters in Lagos, falls into the fears by the Commission.
The relevant security agencies should not gloss over such infractions or allow them go unchallenged. There is no how a credible election can be attained next year without respecting one another’s viewpoints. That was the point by Harvard University Political Scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book, “How Democracies Die”, while arguing on mutual tolerance as a vital ingredient in safeguarding democracy. Mutual toleration, they say, refers to the idea that as long as “our rivals play by the constitutional rule, we accept that they have equal right to exist, compete for power and govern. We may disagree with, and even strongly dislike our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate. This means recognizing that our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens – that they love our country and respect the constitution just as we do….Put another way, mutual toleration is politicians’ collective willingness to agree to disagree”.
More than any other time in the present dispensation, Nigerians need tolerance and respect for contrary opinions for the 2023 political transition to succeed. The authorities must ensure that everyone is given a level playing field in the forthcoming elections and that no eligible Nigerian, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation, is disenfranchised, more so through violence and intimidation.
We had recently, submitted that the 2023 election is not about Peter Obi and/or any particular individual for that matter. It is not Igbo/Yoruba affair; Hausa/Idoma contest; Fulani/Urhobo engagement; Efik/Tiv encounter or between any other group and another. It is rather a defining moment for Nigeria, an exercise that will go a long way in determining how far Nigeria goes as a nation. This is why many say that the election is a watershed.
Hunger in the country does not have ethnic colouration or religious banner. The hardship is nationwide and the leadership failure, pervasive. Whether from the East, West, North or South, Nigerians are confronted by the common challenge of want amidst enormous resource endowments. Ordinary Nigerians are plagued by the burden of a rapacious leadership class that has been feeding fat on them in all the geo-political zones. It is left for them to rise with one accord and take back the country from the callous political elite or continue to serve its selfish interest.
Assaulting Peter Obi’s supporters, is cowardly and unintelligent. If you even look further, there is, no marked difference between the lots of the victims of the assault and their attackers. They are all victims of a mismanaged entity.