For the umpteenth time, I bring an incident precedent to the 2010 elections in the United Kingdom to the attention of Nigerians.
During a door-to-door campaign by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown towards the May 6, 2010 general elections, he encountered a 65-year-old widow, Gillian Duffy.
Duffy, a longstanding Labour Party supporter and resident of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, took on the PM over his administration’s policies on national debt, education and his party’s immigration policy.
While speaking with the retired grandmother, Brown took all her points in his stride, trying to play the responsible and responsive politician obligated to the lowliest voter. He even complimented her by acknowledging that she was from a wonderful family and ended the conversation with: “It’s very nice to see you. Take care.”
But the Prime Minister had another thing coming. On getting back into his car, Brown engaged in the following exchange with his communications director, Justin Forsyth:
Brown: That was a disaster. Sue should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?
Forsyth: I don’t know; I didn’t see her.
Brown: Sue’s, I think. Just ridiculous…
Forsyth: What did she say?
Brown: Everything. She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour. I mean, it’s just ridiculous…”
Unfortunately for Mr Brown, he did not realise that the microphone of a television channel on his lapel amplified his “private conversation.” His vituperation against the woman became the talk of the world within minutes.
While it may be hyperbolic to attribute the eventual loss of the general elections by Brown’s Labour Party to this event, the PM’s disrespect took its own toll. This was regardless of repeated apologies, including “an extraordinary address to a live television audience from the grandmother’s driveway where he described himself as “a penitent sinner” and an eventual email to supporters of the party where he expressed “profound regret” for his behaviour.
In an article written the same day, The Telegraph quoted Lance Price, a former adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair as saying: “To sustain its share of the vote and maximise the number of MPs it returns, Labour needs the votes of millions of traditional supporters like Mrs Duffy. The party has lost not just hers but potentially thousands of others who will listen to what she said and find that they agree. Does Brown think they are all bigots too?”
I shared this long story to draw the good people of Nigeria’s attention to the power they wield in a democracy and how they allow politicians to take them for a ride. People can argue that wilful submission to the shenanigans of politicians is a democratic right of the citizen and that would be true, but only as long as it does not detract from the country’s development. The problem with the situation in Nigeria is that it does!
As commendable as the democratic system of government is, it functions optimally when citizens are an active part of governance. While every citizen cannot get into office, he is the one who puts people in office but that is not where it ends. In fact, the job of the electorate only starts after elections have been done with. Then, he should wear his cap as a development partner and put fire on the feet of elected leaders until they deliver on their promises and make society better.
And as we see with UK Citizen Duffy in 2010, it should not matter whether the person occupying the political office is a member of your party or not. If the interest of the country is at the top of our minds and we consider the future of our children, the actions and inactions of the government would receive dispassionate attention from all Nigerians.
Politicians are the same all over the world. Again, I’ll refer to a favourite quote from French leader, Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle, himself a politician, suggested that politics is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of politicians. Politicians make lofty vows of impending Eldorado when they need our votes but priorities change once they settle into office. They pick their own agenda, which is usually orchestrated towards winning the next election for themselves or the candidate of their party.
I have argued now and again that this is not peculiar to Nigerian politicians; it is a tendency that you will find in those who ply the trade in Lagos, Johannesburg, London, Washington, Canberra, or Ottawa. The redemption of any politician is in an alert citizenry, a populace conscious of, and constantly ready to activate, their citizenship rights. The drive for politicians to perform is in the electorate’s capacity to discern and interject, even disrupt (mis)governance, whenever that ugly head manifests.
A society must have irreducible minimum requirements for the attainment of leadership. Everyone must understand that anyone without these competencies and qualifications cannot attain office, no matter who they are! If we had that, people would not argue that their preferred candidate could tender a NEPA certificate or shout down questions about candidates’ pedigrees and business dealings. This is the only way we can show seriousness about our country’s development.
Nigerians bury their heads in the sand by arguing that things are this way because Nigeria is a fledgling democracy. While we cannot dismiss the fact that democracy is still young in Nigeria, things only change in societies that learn lessons. So, the question to ask the average Nigerian is: what have we learnt from the six electoral cycles?
For instance, the vitriolic and sometimes violent engagements between supporters of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressive Congress and Mr Peter Obi of the Labour Party are reminiscent of 2014 when the loyalists of Candidate Muhammadu Buhari (a retired Major General) took on those of former President Goodluck Jonathan. People with decades of friendship took merciless and disconcerting swipes at one another and ruined their relationships. Stories abound about people who have become permanent enemies. Imagine how ridiculous that is when Buhari and Jonathan are now so chummy, grinning at each other every other day after 2015!
Yes, politics, especially electioneering, is emotional and perhaps combative almost everywhere. But when national interest is concerned, citizens should think straight and forget partisanship.
Of course, there is the peculiar reality that politics is a means of livelihood for many Nigerians, but the average citizen must hold the leaders accountable. Nigerians cannot continue to get star-struck by elected politicians. You elected to serve the people and that must do.
So, as citizens push the agendas of their respective candidates towards the 2023 elections, they should be conscious of two things.
One, every Nigerian has a right to support and campaign for the candidate of their choice. No matter what the differences are, we must respect the other person’s choice and allow them space to express their opinions. The ferocious attacks on opposing views are not just undemocratic but are also ultimately to the disadvantage of the country. If Nigeria, and not selfish gains, is the reason we do these things, we must be ready to hear each other out and vote for the people of our choice.
Two, after the elections, everyone, regardless of whom you voted for, should be ready to support the new leaders. In the same breath, every citizen should understand that elections are over and that politicians should leave politics behind and govern to the benefit of every Nigerian. Those who love Nigeria, even when they supported the victorious candidate, should demand performance from those they brought into power. Failing to hold the government accountable, even if we supported them, is a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of children that Nigerians bring forth every year. It is a luxury this country can longer afford.