Ogbuagu Anikwe interrogates the dangers of planting the poison seed of democracy that Bola Tinubu has introduced into the polity.

I have often pondered on the remote and immediate causes of irresponsible uses of power by our elected officials. One conclusion that I have drawn, though without scientific proof, is that there appears to be a correlation between prior unorthodox electioneering and improper use of power by office holders. Thus, power abuse will represent an evil seed that the politician planted at the battlefield to win elections. It does not matter which type of seed this is – identity politics, election violence, or that of vote commercialization. Whichever seed enables electoral victory eventually removes humility from the victors. It transforms them from vote beggars to emperors whose word becomes law.

It is the evil seed of identity politics that I interrogate today. Most of us commoners who vote are keenly aware that we share existential challenges. We are vaguely aware that free and fair elections always release creative energy that promote peace and propel accelerated development. If you believe this, then you must know that the reverse is also true. An election won by foul means poisons the polity, triggers discontent, and slows the march of development. Take away brute force and commercialization of the vote. What remains as the most prominent feature of a fouled election is the resort to identity politics. The unorthodoxy employed may win the election, but the nation loses. This is as true of yesterday’s Donald Trump nation as it is of today’s Muhammadu Buhari nation.

We can liken the unorthodoxy deployed in the electoral battle to a party in a debate springing up from their corner to physically attack the opponent and terminate the discussion. Neither the aggressor nor the opponent that they physically halted will end up as winners. One may win the physical battle but the other wins the more important moral battle. Tragically, the big losers are the people who came to learn from the wisdom and mental preparedness of the contestants. The audience leaves the stage less stimulated because someone dropped his brain at a corner to charge at an opponent. The most insidious physical confrontation that define today’s politics is neither electoral violence nor vote buying. Instead, it is identity politics that desperate politicians introduce when they fear that they might lose the power of persuasion.

Identity Politics

Identity politics is deploying brute force to prosecute what should have been an ideas and solutions contest. They must unleash a mob to intimidate and inject vulnerable citizens with its poison. Politicians inject this poison into the electoral process either because they are insecure or to satisfy their greed. They are insecure in their ability to promote and successfully sell ideas and visions. There is no experience that make people trust their ability to execute. They know that they do not come with experiences that prove their pedigree. And they can neither motivate nor nspire citizens to aim at collaborating to transform Nigeria into an achieving nation. Still, they are willing to enter the battle despite this defect because of greed. A isole ambition to steal from the till. It is this common denominator of insecurity and greed that propel the ambitious to resort to identity politics.

This type of powerplay did not start today. It has persisted as a feature, from the pre-independence nationalist agitation to current struggles “to take back our country.” The ideologies that sustain it are nationalism, regionalism, and religion. Preeminent authors of precolonial literature on nationalism (Nnamdi Azikiwe) and regionalism (Bode Thomas) have brilliantly articulated its features and benefits. Nationalism has stood the test of time, but regionalism has mutated into ethnicity, zoning, microzoning and other divisive props that insecure and greedy politicians use today to fight for access to the treasury.

There have been four such mutations deployed to battle nationalism since the 1940s when Chief Bode Thomas brilliantly outlined the regionalist agenda. Chief Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) adopted wholesale and executed the Bode Thomas thesis on regionalism. The manifesto of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) founded in 1951 adopted much of the preachments as well. But to their credit, the independence agitators forged a common nationalist front to chase the British from Nigeria while setting the stage for their eventual ideological battle. In their first electoral clash (1954) the regionalist AG and NPC faced the nationalist NCNC. If you think about it, does it not appear as if we have gone full circle today with the PDP and APC banking on a regional agenda against the nationalist Labour Party?

Ideology battles

Interestingly, regionalists won federal and regional contests in the North in 1954 but lost in the South. Nationalists posted a comprehensive victory in both East and West. Although they won the highest number of seats at the regional level in the West, this was not enough to enable them to form a government. A last minute rally by the Action Group put paid to their expectations and NCNC became the official opposition party, even with more seats than any other in the parliament. How did NCNC, which today’s history has effectively cast as a regional party, win the Western regional elections of 1954, and repeat the feat in the federal elections of 1957 in the same region?

The NCNC won on a nationalist ideology. It was a party of workers, teachers, students, and traders not given to any divisive considerations of any sort. Its 13-member pioneer executive, for instance, had 11 Yoruba (including the President) and two Igbo as members. The Igbo members of the executive were Dr. Azikiwe (General Secretary) and Sir Louis Ojukwu (Treasurer). In other words, the Yoruba dominated the executive. This accounted for why it easily won federal elections in 1954 and 1957 in the West, despite the yeoman efforts of the revered Chief Awolowo and his Action Group. NCNC won because the battle for the West was ideological rather than sectional. However, although the nationalists triumphed in the South, it says much for his doggedness and persistence that Chief Awolowo eventually forced the West to listen to and adopt his regional agenda.

Nigeria trembled under the ripple effect of the Action Group powerplay. The Mid-West broke away because they interpreted regionalism as an ethnic agenda. The relationship between the Igbo and the Eastern minorities soured as Zik sought a foothold in his region. The battle between the Tiv and other minorities of the north against the Fulani intensified, aided by the AG, as it did in the East. Ironically, the West was the first to lose control and experience a state of emergency, a situation that rapidly imploded and engulfed the entire country. The rest, as they say, is history.

The breakups

From the Mid-West, the military further broke up the country to a 12-state structure on the eve of the Civil War. The idea was to rout the regionalists and ethnic warlords that were troubling Nigeria. The military action ensured that Nigeria began its Second Republic without a regional prop that politicians could hold on to. But the ethnic warriors gathered again to win elections by foul means. The weed of ethnicity that they planted while electioneering germinated and began to choke the polity once more.

The Second Republic lasted less than five years before the military disbanded the politicians once again. In their second and third interventions, the military further subdivided Nigeria into thirty-six states with a new federal capital that the constitution recognizes “as if it is a state.” Left to the likes of Dave Umahi (Ebonyi State), statism should supplant ethnicity and religion as the evil seed during elections. But somehow, the politics of today’s PDP, APC and the Labour Party appears to have returned Nigeria to the pre-independence era.

Tinubu and the poison seed

To summarize, Nigeria entered the First Republic with a veneer of nationalism that covered the deadly seed of regionalism sown in the regions. Ethnicity was the poison seed of the Second Republic. The Fourth Republic began with nationalism but thanks to the persistence and doggedness of Gen. Buhari, it ended on an ethnic agenda as well. And now Mr. Tinubu becomes the dominant voice in conversations about the last of the poison seeds – religion. He has begun planting this seed through his choice of running mate. To think that a General Buhari avoided prominentizing religion at the point of choosing  a running mate in 2015. He knew that this was a recipe for failure, as evidenced by three prior misadventures and so waited until he rode to power through regional cooperation. The Lagos strongman is nothing short of courageous in this attempt to push Nigeria once again to the limits of what she can accept or endure.

Poison seed of democracy

This leaves us with a final question. Will 2023 become the defining year that Nigeria eventually uproots and does away with the poison seeds? Or will the Nigerian people accept and grow the latest same-religion powerplay by the greedy and insecure? We appear to have gone full circle, returning to the pre-independence politics where an easterner pushes nationalist ideology but is silently opposed by regional sentiments from a westerner and the core northerner. The difference is that religion has become permanentized through the same-religion ticket by a frontrunner. And this at a time when citizens have become apprehensive about its potential to promote nepotism and corruption, in addition to fearless  violations of people rights.

Tinubu and the poison seed of democracy