Nigeria is on the verge of witnessing another round of general elections in a few months from now. As is typical of elections, party primaries and campaigns by aspirants and parties alike have been characterized by all sorts of intrigues, name-calling, mud-slinging etc. While this is not new or unique phenomenon or exclusive to Nigeria – remember the intense rivalry between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2008 then aspirants under the US Democratic Party which almost tore it apart – what is however different here, and becoming increasingly worrying is the trend of divisive politics in Nigeria today such that it has almost become an “us” versus “them” or “them” versus “us” kind of scenario. Again, while an “us” versus “them” scenario is characteristic of campaigns and politicking the worrying aspect of the contemporary version in Nigeria is based on a dangerous cocktail of Nigeria’s historic fault lines of ethnicity, regionalism and religion.
Nowhere has this been more evident than with President Jonathan’s decision to contest in the general elections against the so-called “zoning” or power-rotation agreement of his party has only served to resurrect and exacerbate the old demons of North and South in Nigerian politics which many had thought had been exorcised from Nigerian politics. It is so unfortunate that a sizeable percentage of those canvassing for President Jonathan’s candidacy in the elections are doing so not based on whether he has recorded some stellar achievements in office, or whether he inspires hope for a better tomorrow; it is not based on any charisma, superb oratorical or diplomatic skills found in a good leader or if he even has the slightest potential of tackling the myriad of problems hindering Nigeria’s progress and development like poverty, power failure, insecurity, decaying infrastructure and unemployment. Rather, it is simply because he is from the more-Christian-south and is therefore seen to represent a symbol of challenging the dominance of political power by the more-Muslim-North. For instance, several militant groups from the President’s south-south region have issued threats at various times, that there will be no peace in Nigeria if Jonathan does not succeed himself in office and continue as President.
In the same vein, the opposition to Jonathan’s candidacy by a good number of people particularly within his political party, the PDP and especially from the Northern part of the country simply feel incensed and short-changed over his decision to jettison the power-rotation agreement of the party– zoning principle meaning that in the event he wins, the “North” will to a considerable degree lose out on access to this “political power” – public offices and state resources in a zero-sum, winner-takes-all political equation. It is quite interesting that for the most part, this tug-of-war over the Jonathan presidency from both sides is actually about the narrow interests of a few hundred or maybe a few thousand people while the interests of the common Nigerian in all the six geo-political zones, the progress and development of the country and issues such as tackling poverty, corruption, unemployment, insecurity etc have been relegated to the back burner. What both sides appear to be clamoring for is access to political power, political appointments to lucrative public offices like Ministerial positions in big important ministries, ambassadorial slots, Heads of important parastatals, board membership and other spoils of office for their myopic interests of cronies, kinsmen, allies etc and not for the sake of millions of Nigerians.
You might wonder why this is now an issue, and what makes this situation now markedly different from Nigerian politics in the early post-independence era which has historically been characterized by this “us” versus “them” or to put it more candidly, a North versus South coloration. Well for starters, the politicians and public officials we had then were nationalists who despite their predilection to promote and project the interests of their regions, did so for the entire benefit of their regions – for the progress and development of the people there and not for the pursuit of personal or prebendal interests. For instance, the motto of one of the independence era political parties the NPC – Northern People’s Congress – was “one North, one people irrespective of tribe and religion”. This guiding principle was vehemently pursued by the then premier of the Northern region Sir Ahmadu Bello, along with Tafawa Balewa for the development of the region and its inhabitants. Same applied to the Eastern region and the Western region with the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC – National Council for Nigerian Citizens and Obafemi Awolowo of the AG – Action Group. Even though this era which was characterized by intense competition and rivalry between these regions and their respective leaders, an “us” versus “them” situation so to speak, this competition which of course manifested in the national politics of the day was based on the genuine passion and commitment these leaders had for the progress of their people as a whole and the fact that they wanted to see their regions develop and not get left behind in the scheme of things. Therefore the “us” versus “them” of this era was based on principles, with the interests of the people at heart, not for narrow interests. This is why were these regional leaders who at the same time were nationalists because collectively, they had the interests of not only their respective regions, but also of the country at heart.
What we have today however is a far-cry from what obtained in these yester-years. We have a situation where we have allowed every aspect of our national life to be permeated by ethnic, regional or primordial colorations. Nigerian politics as it is today has become so defined by these issues that it is hardly about how to move the country forward, it is rather based solely on the candidate’s identity in terms of religion and ethnic grouping and therefore the category of associates, friends, allies, and cronies who will share the spoils of office. I acknowledge that it would border on naivety and even ignorance to assume that in a nation-state composed of over 250 distinct ethnic groupings, we would all be one big happy family. Yes a Hausa man is different from an Igbo man, who in turn is quite different from an Efik, Nupe or Yoruba man and so on in so many ways, but we are united first of all by our humanity, our common historical experiences and our hope for a better future for ourselves, our country and generations unborn. Furthermore, the peculiar nature of our societies in not just Nigeria, but the whole of the Sub-Saharan region makes our ethnic, regional and religious identities powerful factors to be reckoned with having considerable influence over every aspect of our lives.
Thus Nigerians should realize that we need to re-orient our politics to focus less on primordial sentiments and more on content and delivery, and the need to utilize our diversity in ways which we can be united on common grounds to vote someone credible into office who has the zeal, capacity and potential to move Nigeria forward, who can undertake the tedious process of nation-building the country is in dire need of and who has the potential to tackle the myriad of problems bedeviling the Nigerian nation-state more than some primordial interests and loyalties at heart. Otherwise, if the US prediction that Nigeria would disintegrate by 2015 is anything to go by, (and trust those American state departments, they know what they are talking about) then divided we shall fall.