A couple of weeks ago, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, was angry with our politicians. Its source of anger was the rather unrestrained inclination by these blessed and important men and women in our dear country to observe the laws entirely in the breach in their own interests. The commission saw red because it was forced to watch politicians campaigning for the 2015 elections in clear violation of the extant law.
The commission was, of course, right to be angry. It was right too to remind the politicians that what they are doing is clearly wrong under the law. Section 101 (1) of the 2006 Electoral Act and preserved in the 2010 amendment, unequivocally states: “For the purpose of this Act, the period of campaigning in public by every political party shall commence 90 days before polling day and end 24 hours prior to the day.”
INEC has not even set the date for the 2015 general elections. This means, in case you are still wondering, that the count down to 2015 has not begun. Yet, what do we see so early in the day? 2015 has practically coloured and disfigured every national discourse. There are, quite frankly, comical attempts at new political alignments and the oiling of existing alignments. Political alignments do have an unsettling habit of unraveling new and urgent personal, sectional and tribal interests demand to be taken into account in the build up towards an election. What the politicians are doing that irks INEC, in politicspeak, is called oiling the gun. You do that well ahead of the hunting expedition. All good hunters, including politicians, know that only too well.
You can see that heads are already rolling, as witness what the presidency is doing to Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, signaling the disturbing possibility of our seeing the highway to 2015 paved with blood, real or metaphorical. It shall not be our portion in the name of Jesus. Do I hear someone say amen? Thank you.
I believe, and I can even add the word sincerely to that, that laws must be obeyed by everyone, including the rich, the powerful and the influential. I believe in a country and government of laws, not of big men and women who do as they like. I would like to think that we have put a safe distance between the jungle and us where the law is what the strong says it is – and the weak merely obeys. I do realize, of course, that in all human societies, whatever may be the pretence to the contrary, and given the raw animal instinct that influences our behaviour, there is the jungle in all of us.
Democracy promotes the ideals of the government of laws. The laws protect democracy. The flip side is that perhaps without meaning to, the laws that protect democracy also tends to shackle it. This particular piece of legislation under reference is a good case in point. By purporting to determine the appropriate time for political campaigns, private or public, this law promotes the unintended consequence of democracy sans politics. Democracy is about politics and politicking. It is not possible to separate politics and politicking from political campaigns.
Political campaigns are not just about elections. They are about politicians and political parties marketing themselves to the electorate. In all democracies, the campaign for new elections begins the day after a government takes office – newly elected or re-elected. Every time a president gives his report card by himself or through his ministers, he is campaigning either for his re-election or marketing his political party. Every time a billboard goes up detailing the roads and houses and hospitals and schools built by an action governor, it is the governor marketing himself and his political party.
These are overt political campaigns three or more years to the next elections. No one frowns at this. So, where do we draw the line? And what, indeed, do we define as political campaigns that violate the law? The days of Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Aminu Kano, Zik and other colourful characters when political rallies, complete with helicopters that rained leaflets from the sky, are gone. There are no political rallies any more and, therefore, no campaigns as such. Campaigns are conducted with posters that disfigure our towns and cities. The godfathers choose and invariably elect the candidates and thus impose them on us. This is patchy-patchy democracy, not the real thing.
The Americans run a form of democracy that is the envy of the world. Their next presidential election is nearly four years away – 2016. But can anyone miss the high wire political campaigns by the Republican Party in the Congress? The party is preparing for 2016. It is doing so legitimately by trying to prevent President Barack Obama from doing anything that will ensure the return of the Democratic Party to the White House.
I can see where this law came from and what it is intended to prevent. It came from the military. It is a residue of the guided democracy in which the civilians were supposed to learn the essential ropes of democracy in the hands of an institution whose vertical command structure has no room for the more all-inclusive horizontal nature of democracy. Restricting the period of political campaigns to 90 days before an election is intended, in their wisdom, to prevent the politicians, as indeed INEC said, from heating up the polity. Nigeria is not butter that melts in heat. How is it possible for 160 million argumentative citizens not to realize enough hot gas to threaten the ozone layer?
Anyone who has lived in a democracy, even one as jumbled as ours, can testify to the fact that the critical freedoms guaranteed by democracy – freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of association (political and non-political) and freedom of religion – are sources of heat in all democracies. It is true, of course, that during campaigns for elections, the mercury necessarily climbs up but remember that the kitchen gets hotter too when your wife prepares your breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you take the heat from the polity, you have the cold but soul-destroying joylessness of the graveyard.
The politicians are right to violate this law. The law should be expunged or failing that, ignored, to give politicians and their political parties sufficient time to market themselves to the electorate. The right of the electorate to elect their representatives shall be forever circumscribed unless and until they know who wants their vote and why. A long drawn out political campaigns heats up the polity less than concentrated campaigns within the 90-day period.
I do recognize that Nigeria is a fragile democracy but the fear that anything, even attempts by politicians and their parties to market themselves, can tip it over the precipice is unduly exaggerated. The fragility of our democracy is not a function of the heat in the polity generated by political parties hitting the road before the officially sanctioned campaign period. It is a consequence of the duplicity that has prevented us from building a just, fair and egalitarian nation. The polarization of our country into tribal enclaves with tribal chieftains waving the soiled banners of tribal interests in the name of one nation hobbles the transmutation of our country into a nation. But let us not persist in the folly that politics sans politicking is the soul of our democracy.