The race is officially on. It is the race we have been waiting. It is a race for Aso Rock, the ultimate race for those who want to lead or rule country. Several men are in the race, eaching convinced in his own way that he is what the country needs as a leader who knows what to do to lift the country from the morass of its avoidable mistakes. The fate of our country hangs on this very important race. The fate of the gladiators is in the hands of the electorate whose decision through the ballot paper translates into the choice made by the majority of the people.
INEC chairman, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, has hastened to assure us that the elections will be free, fair, credible and pack a punch of indisputable integrity. We have every reason to trust him. He has done more than anyone else in that office to make our elections credible and respectable.
At the end of his tenure. I am confident he will be leave a legacy of a sanitised electoral system in which a) rigging is an exception, not the rule in the conduct of our elections b) every vote counts and the right of the people to choose their leaders through the ballot box is fully respected rather than cynically abbreviated by wealth and connections and c) victory does not go to the highest bidder in a system that elevates money above the expression and the exercise of constitutional rights inherent in our form of government.
To be sure, Yakubu has not cleared all the cobwebs in our electoral system. It is legally beyond him. He has had to contend with impunity that has become the hallmark of those who trust in their right and capacity to capture power rather than win it. INEC has not become the strong institution that I have always advocated in this column but under Yakubu’s watch it has become stronger and thus able to assert itself and stand its ground against the politicians, the wreckers of our democracy and its ethos.
Our electoral system still faces a few fundamental problems. The first is the refusal by both the executive and the legislative arms to vest INEC with full powers as the primary custodian of our electoral system whose neutral decisions will neutralise the rascally impunity of the political parties. Under the electoral act, that power is more or less vested in the political parties that have consequently assumed the right to cynically abbreviate the electoral process to suit their unholy purposes.
An election is a process beginning with party primaries and the nomination of candidates for elective offices. If that process is either scuttled or abbreviated through the mago-mago manipulation by the party leaders to favour particular candidates, it puts a huge question mark on the integrity of the entire process and the election itself.
Sadly, that is what is happening now as in Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Senator Godswill Akpabio contesting presidential and senatorial nominations. Each lost both but their party insists they are its right candidates arising from the senatorial primaries. In the case of Akpabio, the court has sided with the party but in the case of Lawan, the court decided against the right of the party to bend the law and offer a man who did not contest, let alone win the primaries, as its candidate.
The right of the political parties to determine their candidates outside the electoral process is a major part of what afflicts our democracy. That right ought to be vested in and exercised by INEC. And that brings us to the second problem: a judicial system that speaks from both sides of the month and frequently pulls the rug from under the feet of the electoral umpire. When the power of the commission is neutralised by a judicial pronouncement that serves the ends of political interests and not the ends of justice, wahala dey.
Our democracy would be in a worse shape than it is without the judiciary being the final arbiter in pre- and post-election matters. This has, indeed, saved our democracy from blue murder. My problem is with the arc of the liberal interpretation of the provisions of the electoral act that clearly bends towards injustice. When this happens, it undermines the moral authority of INEC.
When the judiciary sides with the commission against the clear and dangerous egregious abuse of the system by the political parties, it throws the mud in the face of the rule of law. There is need to clean the act in the judiciary and save this vital institution, arguably the refuge of the common man, from the tendency towards cash-and-carry justice in which the ends of cheaters rather than of justice are served.
Thirdly, the forthcoming general elections confront us with a new political menace: the social media with their immense capacity for what is much more serious than mere mischief. They peddle misinformation, disinformation, falsehood and mama mia, fake news. This election season may prove to be most trying for the country, the political parties, candidates for elective offices and the electoral commission. Sensationalism has always been an unwanted side chick for the mainstream media. It has been blossoming with the online media flying journalistic banners stained with rumours and manufactured facts. And like the big masquerade it will take its rightful place in the market square where the war for the soul of our country will be waged, beginning from September 18.
I see this as a major problem because given the tendency of our politicians to tell it like it is not, coupled with the inclination of the online and social media to amplify whatever issues forth from the mouths of our politicians, facts will become scarce in the electioneering campaigns. The electorate will be forced to consume lies that will make their rational choice of candidates difficult.
This is not, of course, a new thing in our national politics. Elections usually bring out the worst in politicians. There is no rule stipulating how far a politician can go in lying about his political rivals. Competitions have the tendency to be fierce; the competition for political advantages and power even more so.
I draw attention to the possible unholy role of the online and social media in this campaign season up to and including the conduct of the various elections because they have assumed a pronounced place in information dissemination. More and more members of the public rely on them and take whatever they put out, no matter how far it stretches credulity, as the gospel truth. Every minor disagreement in the political parties is presented to the public as a major upheaval. It heats up the polity and continues to exaggerate the impression that our elections are wars, not mere civilised competitions for political power as in other countries.
As the race begins, let us encourage the candidates to talk about those issues that agitate us as a nation and have retarded our national development, held our human capital development hostage. There is a lot riding on the forthcoming elections. Let us remember that ultimately the fate of our country will be our collective decision. If we sell out for a plate of eba served with ethnic, religious and other primordial interests, it will be our collective cross to bear – and groan.