Nigeria is a frail, imperfect patchwork of disparate nations that is perpetually on the brink of implosion on account of political and identitarian stressors. The past presidential election dramatizes the abiding fragility of Nigeria and the imperative to tweak our democratic practices in response to this fact.
When most people vote, they don’t vote as individuals. They don’t even vote as people. They often vote as members of a collective identity. I am not saying that this is the case for every voter. There are certainly exceptions. But it is the case that voting behaviors are often patterned along notions of the interests of collective identities.
This isn’t, by any means, unique to Nigeria. It’s a feature of all modern representative democracies, including in the United States, which sees itself, and is seen by others, as the patron saint of democracy.
Here in the United States, political parties have devolved into more or less inflexible tribal groupings where merit is the last thing people consider when voting for political candidates. Identity is the most salient consideration in voting decisions.
In states where Republicans dominate, as I pointed out last week, literal dogs that run as Republicans have 100 percent higher chances of being elected to political positions than the smartest Democratic candidates. The reverse is also true of states dominated by Democrats. Exceptions can be found in so-called battle-ground states where Democratic and Republican candidates have equal chances of winning statewide electoral contests. Such states are just a handful of America’s 50 states, typically no more than 10 in a generation.
In Nigeria, the embeddedness of identity in electoral politics is complicated by the fact that our political divisions are formed around invariable attributes such as ethnicity and near invariable categories such as religion. A Democrat can change to a Republican, but an Ijaw man, for example, can’t change to a Berom man. Even if he does culturally, linguistically, and by reason of geographic presence, he will always be reminded of his “outsider” ancestral origins by people who consider themselves “indigenes.” We have seen examples of that this year even in ethnically homogenous states, particularly in the South where ethnic identity tends to be stronger than religious identity.
This fixity of our identity categories makes political rivalries built around them intensely emotional and prone to rhetorical and physical violence. In democracy, sadly, the end justifies the means. The end is to win elections and the means is often to mobilize the sentiments of collective identities in a certain direction.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu chose a northern Muslim running mate even though he is also a Muslim not because he hates Christians (his wife is a pastor, and all his children are Christians) but because it was the surest means to actualize his end. He had a choice between doing the “right” thing and “losing” and doing the “wrong” thing and “winning.” Like all politicians, he chose the option that came with “winning.”
In the Southwest, moreover, he galvanized the support of people, irrespective of religious affiliation, by appealing to the common ethnic origins he shares with the people there. Meanwhile, among northern Muslims, he played up his Muslim identity to achieve identification with that voting bloc.
Atiku Abubakar tried to blunt Tinubu’s northern Muslim appeal by calling attention to the common ethnic and regional identity he shares with northern voters. His electoral battle cry in the North was “naka sai naka,” which translates as “yours is yours.” That’s a direct challenge to Tinubu who, although a Muslim, isn’t a northerner. This is in spite of Atiku’s reputation as a tolerant, broadminded, cosmopolitan politician who isn’t beholden to narrow ethnic, regional, and religious loyalties.
In the South, meanwhile, Atiku sought to appeal to the emotions of the people of the Southeast by saying he has always been an unwavering friend of theirs and that he is the surest and shortest path to an Igbo presidency. Every single running mate he has had since he started running for president, he pointed out, has been an Igbo man, even if his latest running mate, Ifeanyichukwu Okowa, is a Midwestern Igbo whose people have historically disavowed affiliation with Southeastern Igbos.
Peter Obi, for his part, cashed in on the Muslim identities of Tinubu and Atiku to rally Nigerian Christians to vote for him. In perceptual terms, he started off as an Igbo candidate who took advantage of the justified sentiment that an Igbo person has never been elected president. He later expanded his electoral base to become the southern Christian candidate. He ultimately emerged and campaigned as the all-Nigerian Christian candidate and abandoned attempts to transcend this confine because he knew he didn’t stand a chance against Tinubu and Atiku outside this.
Right from the demographic profiles of the people who constituted his presidential campaign council to his hopping from church to church in search of votes (even going so far as to say to Taraba Christian leaders, “Please church, wake up, take back your country”), to isolating Christian communities in predominantly Muslim Northern states for targeted campaigns and even making his post-election legal team an all-Christian and mostly Igbo affair, he has left no one in doubt that he is riding on the crest of the wave of Christian resentment against the two major political parties, on one of whose platforms he was a running mate in 2019 and a short-lived presidential contender in 2022, for fielding Muslims as their candidates.
Yet, Obi may well be a secular person who isn’t wedded to religion, but he needed to mobilize the Christian vote because it was his only way to have a fighting chance.
This sort of divisiveness isn’t healthy or sustainable for a fractious, fissiparous country like Nigeria. That is why we need to constitutionalize power rotation between regions. We need to avoid a repeat of what happened this year where collective identities squared off against each other and raised the national emotional temperature to fever pitch. Its cost to national cohesion isn’t worth the trouble.
Given our peculiarities, systematizing power rotation between the regions at national, state, and local levels is the way to go. I know this will be resisted by politicians who will see this suggestion as the indefinite deferment of their political aspirations, but it’s the best way to ensure tranquil co-existence.
The constitution should draw up a schedule of power rotation so that every region and subregion of the country will have a chance to be president, vice president, governor, deputy governor, member of the House of Representatives, senator, house of assembly member, and local government chairman. All registered political parties should be required to nominate their candidates (and running mates in the case of presidential and governorship elections) from one region for eight years after which another region will have a shot.
This will eliminate ethnoreligious tension and promote merit in leadership selection. If all the presidential contenders in 2023 were, by law, from the Southeast and their running mates were from the Northeast, for instance, appeals to religious and ethnic solidarity would be pointless. Voters would focus on the pedigree and programs of candidates, and only the best from the regions that are scheduled to produce candidates would emerge since no one can mobilize the emotions of collective identities to win elections.