The nation heaved a sigh of great relief. We expected the worst in the Anambra State governorship election on November 6 but we received a most pleasant surprise. Heads were not broken with clubs and limbs were not shattered by bullets. The people were allowed to perform their civic duty, warts and all, and elected Professor Charles Soludo of APGA as their new governor. Ndigbo deserve our gratitude. Had the worst we feared happened, it would have cast a pall on the next election circle in 2023.
I congratulate Soludo, Ndigbo and INEC. Together, they have lifted our hope that perhaps, just perhaps, we are beginning to see politics and contests for elective offices differently. If the people decided to act in peace because they have seen the waste in mutual destruction, it is a lesson others cannot fail to imbibe. If they did it because they wanted to show the rest of us that they know when to patch up their differences and be one another’s keeper, they have shown the spirit of gamesmanship in a nation notorious for its fractious politics.
But I am usually the first to caution myself when the unexpected such as this happens in our country. I am not in a haste to jump out of my bath in my birth robe, waving my hands and shouting, Eureka! There is such a thing as an aberration. We may have travelled far but covered a pitifully short distance. Still, let us rejoice.
Still, there were sticky takeaway points from the election showing that the path to the full flowering of our democracy is still cluttered with old habits refusing to die. The election showed no real signs that there was a shift away from the conduct of our elections as a mini-war by another name.
Some of the sticky points are these: One, the turnout for the election was abysmally poor in a sophisticated state like Anambra. The state has 2,466,638 registered voters; 253,388 of them were accredited for the election. But Soludo won with a total of 112,229 votes to take home the ultimate political trophy in the state. You would think it was a village council election.
In the days ahead, pundits will analyse the turn out and offer us good reasons for what kept the majority of the registered voters away from the polls. They may blame it on voter apathy or the fear of violence promised by IPOB. But we know that voter apathy has become a defining characteristic of our elections. It is not induced by poor voter education because no Nigerian is that ignorant of what elections are all about; it is induced by the feeling that thanks to blatant election rigging, their votes don’t count. So, why should they bother? This is not a small problem for our country.
Two, the heavy presence of a plethora of armed security forces in the elections was a disturbing reminder that things are not about to change soon when we can conduct elections with minimal security presence; we are a long way from home where our elections will be rightly seen as civic duties willingly carried out by the people to elect men and women of their choice as political leaders and institute a government they can trust to bring changes they can believe in into their lives. It is still a huge challenge for our country and our leaders.
The police authorities deployed 34,587 officers and men, five of whom are assistant inspectors-general of police, to police the election. In addition, to them, the military authorities sent in a good number of soldiers; Civil Defence Corps chipped in with 20,000 men and DSS made its presence known too. That was a heavy security presence and it was in itself a source of fear among the people that the government expected trouble and they did not want to be part of it. Self-preservation advised them to keep away. That was an unintended consequence of the show of force. It became counter-productive.
The Nigeria Police boasts of between 370,000 and 375,000 officers, men and women. For a country of more than 200 million people, we are thus grossly under-policed. It can be reasonably argued that the paltry number should not stop the authorities from deploying whatever number of officers and men are necessary to police the conduct of a governorship election. However, the maths gets difficult if two or more states are conducting their governorship elections on the same day. Think of how many police officers and men would be withdrawn from their regular duties to election duties. The solution would not be not to deploy the police and the army for election duties; the solution would be the demilitarisation of our elections such that the heavy security presence at elections does not itself create a problem for the government and the people. But that is even beside the point of this discourse.
The point of this discourse is that we seem to get our maths wrong in the deployment of our police men and women as to where we need their presence most. In the last two or three years, our country has been at the mercy of sundry criminals – insurgents, bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers and ritual killers. At least 12 million children, our future political and economic leaders, are kept out of school for fear of being kidnapped and traumatised for ransom. Some of the children kidnapped in Katsina and Zamfara spent 40 days or more before they were ransomed by their poor, struggling peasant parents.
I do not recall a single case of a heavy deployment of police and other security personnel to rescue the children and re-unite them with their parents. Half or less of the heavy security presence in Anambra could have saved the children from being emotionally scarred for life by their ordeal in the hands of the bandits.
If the state can respond to the needs of politics and politicians the way it did in the Anambra and other state elections, why could not it do the same to save the lives of our children? The simple answer is that we have elevated political interest above the interest of the people. If we were to choose between deploying the police and other security agencies to election duties and deploying them to rescue our kidnapped children from bandits and others, we would not hesitate to choose the latter. The problem is not that we are under-policed and therefore handicapped in responding appropriately to the cocktail of security challenges; the problem is that we our priorities are wrong. I have twice raised the issue of our police men baby-sitting our big men in this column.
We have elevated the interest of politicians above the interest of the people. They have hijacked the judiciary. Their election cases, no matter how frivolous, must be heard before other cases. As their cases wind their weary way through the court dockets with repeated adjournments on flimsy grounds, justice is either held in abeyance or denied those who seek it in the courts. Is this the way to go for a country such as ours where the rights and the freedoms of the people are cynically trampled upon both by the state and the men and women of wealth, power and influence? Those who feel wronged by their fellow men and women wait, nurse their grievances and curse the state that appears allergic to pretences that we are equal before the law.
I am not naïve, even if I say so. I am aware that politics is the main business in every country. It is the oga at the ultimate top. Its place in our national priorities is duly respected. Our lives are all subordinate to the dictates of politics: the direction of our national development; our form of government. But politics is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end; that end being the weal, the welfare and the happiness of the people in a just and fair community of men and women by whatever name it is called – country or state or local government. This is not the chicken and egg conundrum. Politics is the means by which the people elect their representatives in government and institute their preferred form of government. The people make politicians.
We should have no problems with which comes first – political interests or the interests of the people. One cannot be satisfied after the other. What is required is a sense of proportion and a fair balance between those interests. The people must come first; their interest must come first; their security must come first. The conduct of our elections must not be policed at the expense of the people by leaving them at the mercy of criminals.
And when the people seek justice in the courts established by the constitution, their right to do so must not be denied them or narrowed by the politicians on permanent parade in the corridors of power and who have elevated themselves and their interest over and above those of their fellow country men and women. There should be a paradigm shift in our national priorities to place politics and politicians where they rightly belong – in the service of the people.
Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]