“Use people who have something to gain, not people who have nothing to lose”. African proverb.
I prefer to believe it was all made up, but it is difficult not to allow the possibility that it could be genuine. A few friends and I recently listened to a recorded phone conversation involving two known notorious bandits. One was articulate and bitter; the other less so, and excited. They were discussing the uproar that followed the release of election results, possibly around the end of March this year. The more somber party was lamenting the intense air bombardment his people had just suffered, and the injustice of it all. People who routinely steal entire elections and the entire country, he protested, are quarreling over the loot. The same people will be bombing bandits and chasing them all over the place in spite of the fact that bandits only sacrifice lives and limbs kidnapping and stealing for a few millions to settle scores against the state and communities. The more excited party, apparently well-informed about publicised protests and denunciations of results that was well captured by radio broadcasts, was more belligerent, affirming his resolve to relocate and intensify kidnappings in spite of setbacks. He actually referred to politicians and elected people as ‘our brothers in trade’.
Naturally, it left me and others who listened to the conversation very depressed. It would be less worrying if the conversation was made up with the motive of deepening the chorus of protest and rejection of the results, even if equating banditry and kidnapping with rigging elections or quarreling over results on a large scale was unfair to a democratic process that allows for protests and denunciations. On the other hand, a statement claiming moral equality between bandits and politicians, using contested results as justification, ought to be more worrying. Our circle that went into an intense debate over the import of the recording was sharply divided between the justification of equating massive corruption, including corruption of leadership selection processes, with large scale use of violence to terrorize, plunder and cow the population on a large scale by criminals. The issue was scale and impact, not the standards of morality by which the two should be measured. Which is worse: stealing political mandates to govern, or routinely stealing members of the public for ransom?
Alone and thinking through the experience, it appeared that at the bottom of it all was integrity, that much-maligned quality that suggests the presence of honesty, strong moral principles, quality of character and steadfastness. On the face of it, no matter how bad it gets, the politician should have more integrity and credibility than the criminal by virtue of his role in positively impacting on the lives of citizens. This is where the problem lies. The armed criminal operates outside the law, and the politician who breaks dozens of laws and moral codes to get close to, or acquire power does the same thing. When the bandit attacks a village and kidnaps people his crime is limited to his victims and the state. When politicians in large numbers say some of their fellow politicians have stolen mandates, and this can be proved, the entire population gets involved.
The right to live only under the authority of legitimately elected persons, and to be governed only by the demands and obligations of the rule of law are sacrosanct in a democratic system. Politicians and supporters paint opponents with such negative qualities, particularly of being thoroughly corrupt and committing other major crimes. Politicians approach elections dripping of abominable images, none of which stops them from coming inches to power. Large sections of the critical public, desperate for leaders with some integrity think all the people aspiring to lead them should be behind bars rather than at political rallies asking for their support, yet the system presents them as choices. The less critical segments resigns to the tragic conclusion that honest people do not aspire for leadership, and politics is defined by corruption, desperation and low moral standards. The criminal who takes advantage of a weak state and absence of political will of leaders takes the population as hostage, believing that they have comrades living it off in opulence paid for by public resources and operating above any law.
The easy recourse to inducing the electorate to vote for particular candidates can be explained by widespread perception that there is little to choose between candidates‘ levels of integrity or potentials as leaders, except the amount they spend to buy their ways to power. It is also informed by the widespread perception that elective public offices are virtually properties of their occupants to do as they wish. Under other circumstances, this transactional perception by the public is reinforced by manipulation of emotive values such as faith or ethnicity. The public then watches as all rules are targeted for subversion by people who want to govern, and all institutions designed to shield state institutions from subversion are discredited or corrupted by the politician.INEC, security agencies and the judiciary are specifically targeted for being corrupted. Those who lose out in this vicious competition for the soul of the nation then design campaigns which seek to strip them of any integrity. A public which has been prepared by experience and intense campaigns to believe that no state institution has any integrity, and certainly not the judiciary, is largely placed in a position to expect nothing other than the outcome of designs of corrupt politicians who want to transit as leaders.Still, the politician goes through the motion of squeezing some evidence of integrity out of institutions which have been discredited beyond what they did to themselves.
There is no way an honest leadership, or one that is committed to infusing honesty and integrity into the political process can emerge from our type of system. Tragically, the politician downplays the desperate need by ordinary voters for honest leadership. This is what explains Buhari’s eventual success in the 2015 election: the vast majority of voters were convinced that a man who was a General, Minister, Head of State and Chairman of a well-funded government agency could be as seemingly ‘poor’ as Buhari, unless he was honest and would fight corruption. Even more tragically, Buhari’s eight years have shown that it is not enough to seem to be honest. You must both be honest and possess the capacities to govern well.
When bandits compare what they do to citizens with what leaders and politicians do to popular will and the commonwealth, it could be dismissed as criminals’ talk. When millions of people believe that election petitions have pre-determined ends, it is the point where you ask what could salvage the political system. When you see fate of about 70% of our elected politicians routinely being decided by the judicial process, not the electoral process, you know that our politicians have no faith in the electoral process. It is worse when even politicians who have lost elections beyond any shred of doubt proceed to panels and superior courts because they think it is possible to overturn popular will by compromising a handful of judges.
This nation has never needed evident integrity in its leaders and institutions more than it does now. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of our political system, or even the nation, is substantially contingent on how we resolve current election disputes and run the next administrations in a manner that suggests that the struggle for power to govern was to install the rule of law and serve the public. The citizen must be able to distinguish the common criminal from the elected leader by their conduct and commitment to our laws and cherished values of honesty, service to the people and respect for public offices. It could begin by a recognition by those currently shaking the firmaments over positions of leadership in the National Assembly that the public knows it is all about personal advantages, not the need and capacity to serve Nigerians better.