By Waziri Adio
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it – Karl Marx
Many political analysts and observers seemed agreed on one point: the inevitability of widespread violence during and after the February 2015 elections. To be sure, the generalised state of insecurity in the land, the unceasing sabre-rattling by unrepentant and reverse bigots, and the fear and loathing fuelled by desperate politicians provide the basis for this strange consensus. Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept the high probability of election-related violence next year. The question that should agitate our minds is: how do we prevent this from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
While not dismissing the darkening clouds, I am not a big fan of the now fashionable doomsday forecasts. And I am not, for a number of reasons. One, I do not think anyone can, without customary caveats, be this ex-cathedra in predicting human behaviour. Two, I think the assumption that this election will be fought along the combustible regional and religious fault-lines needs to be revised based on emerging realities. New patterns of cross-regional and inter-faith alliances are emerging in a way that, I think, will limit the value of region and religion as tools for mobilisation, contestation and violence in this election.
Three, I think the repetition of the Armageddon thesis might actually embolden, if it is not being actively promoted by, those inclined to use violence to force the argument, knowing fully well that the world has been prepared to accept its inevitability. Four, the thesis that people will definitely go on rampage if their preferred candidate loses, even in an openly free and fair election, infantilises Nigerians. And five, the hand-wringing about the certitude of violence denies the agency of individuals.
In sum, I do not believe in the inevitability of violence next year. However, I might well be wrong. I do not boast of the certainty of the doomsday forecasters. Given the agreement that electoral violence is a possibility (whether unavoidable or preventable), our challenge, to paraphrase Karl Marx, is to prevent it, not just out of love for country but more out of enlightened self-interest. Building on Simon Kolawole’s brilliant article on this page yesterday, I think it is more productive to shift from reconciling ourselves to the inevitability of violence to actively checkmating Doomsday.
It is therefore heartening and noteworthy that not everyone is content with just doing predictable analyses or throwing up their hands in the air. Some Nigerians have decided to move from projection to action. A raft of initiatives is already abroad, though there is need for more of such and even a greater need for better coordination.
One of such efforts is the well-publicised open letter by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, to the two leading presidential candidates to meet and to promise a commitment to threat-free campaigns and to preach to and control their supporters. He also appealed to prominent religious, traditional, civic and political leaders to form a ‘Council of Wise-men’ that will wring commitment to violence-free elections out of the candidates.
While I do not subscribe to Professor Akinyemi’s conclusion about the inevitability of violence, I think his intervention is laudable. His approach focuses on the agency of the politicians and how they can model desirable behaviour, and on the utility of and the need for third-party interventions. But the media splash needs active follow-up, especially with the enlistment of individuals that will be seen as honest brokers by the leading candidates.
A slightly different approach is the one that appeals to the agency of the voters, rather than the better angels of politicians and the purchase and willingness of authority figures. Of note here are three initiatives: the campaign against hate-language by the Kukah Centre, the entertainment and social media-driven campaign by Enough is Enough Nigeria Coalition to get young people to actively participate in elections and shun violence, and the campaign for credible and violence-free elections by Rally for a United Nigeria (#RUN2015).
In various ways, all three initiatives focus on the relationship between words and action, particularly between hate-speech/threats and electoral violence and on how to minimise one to prevent the other. Even when some communication theories argue that there is no automatic linkage between words and action, well-documented realities within our own country and in places like Rwanda and Kenya indicate that the focus of these groups is well advised. Equally commendable is the belief in the positive agency of the youth and the need to reach them ahead of the manipulative politicians. It is however important to expand the scope of these initiatives beyond the symbolic and in ways that will directly target and persuade those amenable for mobilisation for political violence.
The most comprehensive of all these doomsday-averting initiatives, in my view, is the one by the Professor Ibrahim Gambari-led Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD). Professor Gambari has decided to leverage his skill-set and convening power in an admirable way. With support from the MacArthur Foundation, his centre has rolled out a series of activities that will involve engagements with the two leading candidates, with major traditional and religious leaders, with media and civil society actors, with the general public through an advocacy video, and with state institutions like the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the Office of the National Security Adviser and the Nigerian Police Force.
This engagement will be carried out by a ‘Council of the Wise,’ headed by Justice Mohammadu Uwais, the highly respected former Chief Justice of Nigeria. Other members include: Sheik Abubakar Lemu, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Ms. Joke Silva, Ambassador Brownson Dede, Ambassador Usman Gaitamari, and Professor George Obiozor. According to Professor Gambari, the council will serve as interlocutors and mediators for peaceful and acceptable election in 2015.
While I fully agree with those who reckon that the council needs more diversity in terms of gender and demography and I am not sure the emphasis should be on only the ‘wise,’ I think the centre should be lauded and supported for two reasons. One, it has convened a credible and apolitical council that can reasonably gain access to the candidates, not just appealing for a council to be formed. Two, it has adopted an all-of-society approach by including engagements with critical stakeholders with influence in different spheres that can shape outcomes. Given that we have barely 45 days to the next elections, the council needs to hit the ground running and also interface with others with similar objectives.
In all of these, I think it is very important not to lose sight of the critical roles of INEC and the security forces in the conduct of credible and violence-free elections. When INEC officals arrive polling centres on time and with adequate materials, conduct elections in open and transparent manner and tally results accurately (as it did commendably in Ekiti and Osun states this year), it is easier for losers to come to terms with, and accept, their loss. And when security agents provide the enabling environment for transparent and peaceful polls, rather than acting as partisans, this strengthens the perception of fairness and reduces the room for bad losers, and when they are positioned to act swiftly when violence breaks out, the situation can be contained. For me, averting Armageddon rests mostly on the conduct of INEC and the armed forces. And please, let’s stop parroting the line that violence is inevitable in 2015.