When Neutrality Helps The Victim

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel

The above statement by Elie Wiesel is the favourite quote of those that insist that everyone in Nigeria must be politically partisan. It is often used to denigrate those that refuse to be drawn into the current political milieu in Nigeria, and to paint them as unconscionable, irresponsible and unpatriotic. This unfair labelling is the action of oppressors and tormentors.

The politics that we practice in Nigeria is not based on ideology, principles or manifestos. Manifestos are often crafted by political strategists for the sole purpose of winning elections. The candidates have zero input into it and are not even aware of what has been promised on their behalf. Our politics is simply two or three cults fuelled by blind adoration and rabid personal hatred. For each cult, the loyalty to adore and to hate is the only membership criterion. It is rather than like membership of rival street gangs. The member of your gang is your “blood” and you will kill to protect them even if they commit rape, murder or genocide. Members of rival gangs are enemies who must die, even though you don’t know them personally and they have never done anything to offend you. Anybody that is not in one of the gangs is seen as a coward.

The political system in Nigeria is a fraud. It is designed to empower a few to oppress and torment the majority. First of all, it is parties that stand for elections, not individuals. If your party chooses not to present you to the electorate, your ambition is over. Of course, there are a number of mushroom parties registered by political jobbers that, for enough cash, will offer you a hopeless opportunity to run on their platform. You go from being a potentially viable candidate of one of the big parties to being a candidate of Obscure Party of Nigeria. Obscure Party of Nigeria has no structures in place on the ground. No ward offices, no party agents, not even a social media presence. Nothing. Your candidature is simply to make a statement that nobody is interested in listening to.

The political parties encourage everyone wishing to seek office to buy a form, often for millions of Naira. The higher the political office you seek, the more expensive it is and the richer the party becomes. The price of the nomination forms is set so high that it automatically excludes virtually all young persons and anybody that gets their money from honest sweat and endeavour. Once forms have been obtained, potential candidates must then go and do obeisance to a political “god” who will decide who and who will contest the primaries and whose nomination form money should be returned to them at this stage.

The primaries themselves are a complete farce. Only people currently in political office can produce delegates. In the days leading up to the convention, the country often experiences a shortage of N1,000 notes. The closer the convention gets, the scarcer Dollars become and the better business gets for people selling the nylon bags commonly called “Ghana-must-go.” The night before the convention, delegates are given their monies in advance (they no longer trust promises to sort them out afterwards) and are told who the political “god” has anointed as the “consensus candidate.”

Those that remain loyal to the political “god” and agree to step down, or agree to run just to create a semblance of a democratic contest, are promised rewards like ministerial appointments or chairmanship of “juicy” boards. Those that are likely to have any sort of political base are offered ambassadorial appointments to get them out of the way, send them to political exile and destroy their political base. Anybody that dares go against the wishes of the political “god” is ridiculed and humiliated. It is only a matter of time before they join a rival gang and the cycle rinses and repeats itself.

Because our Constitution does not allow independent candidature, we are victims of the oppressors. In 19 years of operating this Constitution, there has been no serious movement to ensure that independent candidature is allowed in elections. We are at the mercy of political “gods” and their “delegate system.”

Having gone through the farcical charade of so-called conventions, the parties then present candidates to the electorate. Quite often, the electorate is not enamoured of any of the candidates. It is forced to either choose between the devil and the deep blue sea or forgo the right to vote — a right that many people lost their lives to ensure that we get. Many young people would choose to play football or watch Zee World instead. You can’t really blame them.

The process of casting a vote is tortuously difficult. Movement is restricted. Voters often have to arrive very early in the morning and must plan to stay the whole day in the sun or rain. Postal ballots are not allowed. The prospect of electronic voting is a distant mirage. Of course, election materials will arrive late and voter identification machines will fail to work. Election officers will not arrive until well into the afternoon. It is almost as if we have four days to prepare for elections, not 4 years. Sometimes, you can’t help but wonder whether the chaos is deliberate, given that any project management novice can plan it better.

In other places, advance voting is allowed, in case you are likely to be unable to vote on election day. Postal voting is allowed. In our own system, anybody in a hospital on election day is automatically disenfranchised. Anybody living in the diaspora is automatically disenfranchised. Why people living abroad cannot go to vote in the Nigerian embassy in the country where they live is still a mystery to me.

Let’s now go one step back and talk about the process of registering to vote. That also is tortuously difficult. We run “Continuous Voter Registration” exercises that are certainly not continuous. Those that attempt to register to vote are confronted with the usual issues: no material, no electricity, capturing machine not working and staff not-on-seat. While elections are held on Saturdays, there is no facility to register to vote outside working hours, so those intending to register must take time off work to do so. Many can’t be bothered. You can’t really blame them.

In developed countries, registering to vote takes exactly 5 minutes and can be done completely online. You simply supply your name, address, date of birth and the number of a state-issued means of identification like a national identity number or a passport. That’s all. You get confirmation in the post that you are registered to vote. The voters register is also a public document, searchable by anybody, not the grand mystery that we make our voters register in Nigeria.

Of course, advanced countries are able to do this because they have a credible identity management system. The Netherlands no longer conducts censuses because they know who everyone is and where they are. In Nigeria, our level of discourse is “Name one infrastructure project have you started and commissioned?” versus “I am completing the infrastructure projects that your party abandoned.” There is no emphasis on non-infrastructure projects, like a credible national identification system. The National Identity Management Commission that is driving it is starved or funds and relegated in order of importance to other more “juicy” identification bodies like those of passports and drivers licensing. Their staff are paid basic civil service wages, not the enhanced wages and perks of parastatals and agencies. Nobody seems to care whether they succeed or not. After all, you can’t commission an identification number, can you? Hmmm. I better not put ideas in peoples’ heads.

The current political system we have does not care about harmonised national identification as a prerequisite for national development. The plethora of identification systems we have is simply because people must award contracts and get the attendant benefits therefrom, not because there is any technical reason why we cannot have a credible national identification system. Of course, elections are also easier to manipulate where there is no credible national identification system.

These are some of the reasons why some of us refuse to engage with Nigerian politics as currently designed. No credible national identification system, tortuous voter registration system, tortuous voting process, farcical candidate-emergence system, lack of independent candidature and a Constitution designed to ensure the oppression of the majority by a select minority. You can see that the issue is not about street-gang-like political parties. The issue is the system. It is the system we must fight to change, not trade insults and curses across malleable party-political divides.

So, how do we fight to change the system? We must use a multiplicity of channels. We must continue to fight for a major revision to the 1999 Constitution. Until that Constitution is changed to recognise independent candidature, give primacy to national identity and make it easier to vote, we are at the mercy of the current arrangements. Therefore, we are currently left with no option than to demand of all the current protagonists that they tackle these issues in exchange for our votes. It must be the same demand to the parties. If any party makes these promises, wins and doesn’t implement them, we will wait for them at the next elections. Four years fly past far more quickly for politicians than for citizens suffering the pain of a bad system.

At the best of times, politics is dirty worldwide. Nigerian politics is a filthy pig. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” I do not feel at all guilty for refusing to engage with it in a partisan party-political way. I prefer to go high. Of course, Elie Wiesel’s statement has been misappropriated to suit a particular erroneous and blinkered narrative. The rest of his quote is often never shown, so let me help us all out. He goes on to say: “Sometimes we must interfere”, and proceeds to set out such instances:

“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the centre of the universe.”

Therefore, what we must take sides and not be neutral about is the incessant killings going on between herdsmen and farmers in various parts of the country. The side we take should not be for or against herdsmen or farmers. The side we take must be the side that values the sanctity of human life above evil politics that places no premium on human life. We must take side against religious extremism and terrorism. We must take side against discrimination of any sort, including discrimination based on sex, age or disability. We must take side against corruption. We must take side against poor planning and weak project execution. We must take sides against a Constitution designed to oppress the majority. Believe it or not, we must also take sides against the suppression of political views, even in the current dysfunctional arrangement we operate. Those political views that must be protected include choosing, in good conscience, not to participate in partisan politics within the current political arrangements we have, without being crucified for it.

For the avoidance of doubt, one is not sitting on the fence. The fence we currently have has the sole function of keeping gang members in and keeping all non-members out. Instead, one is digging a trench under the fence to get to the foundation of the mansion that the fence is built to protect. Those of us that choose this path are not neutral. We have taken a side: the side that has chosen to fight the current system without being partisan. Those who have chosen to continue to perpetuate the current political system and to denigrate anybody who refuses to join their gang have also taken a side. The battle is not for the faint of heart. May the best side win.