Identitarian anxieties and the 2023 elections

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Rotimi Fasan

Critics of the 2023 general election have harped on the failure of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to transmit the results of the election in real time as one of its major challenges. There were also scattered incidences of ballot snatching, electoral violence and sundry malfeasance. But very significantly none of these monitors has to my knowledge said that the infractions committed which, it should be emphasized, were not limited to supporters or strongholds of any of the three leading parties were enough to have substantially altered the outcome of the election. This is particularly the case with the presidential election that has attracted far more attention and is presently the subject of litigation. Any fair-minded observer would agree that some aspects of the process that led to the election were indeed flawed. Which is not unique to the just concluded elections. This has been the case with previous elections.

The point to be added here is that these shortcomings were far less in evidence in sheer scale and severity in the 2023 elections that some have said is the worst in the electoral history of Nigeria. For those who have either witnessed or taken the trouble to learn a bit of Nigeria’s electoral history from the 1950s through the 1960s to 1979, the 1980s, especially 1983 to date, this claim is simply not supported by fact. Compared to all the elections conducted since 1999, the 2023 election still ranks best in terms of its potential for political growth and democratic reawakening.

Which of the 2003, 2007, 2011 and even 2015 elections can be compared to it in terms of electoral integrity and the upholding of the democratic will of the people? Beyond all of that, it is also debatable if there is any such thing as a general election that is completely without flaws anywhere. Are Black voters not routinely suppressed in America, the famed bastion of modern democracy? Are electoral districts in America not gerrymandered in order to produce particular outcomes? This is another way of saying that the notion of a flawless election which every society ideally aspires to is, perhaps, utopian. But flawed as the process that produced the 2023 elections was, it could not otherwise have produced a different outcome. In spite of claims to the contrary, I insist on this until adequate proof can be provided to compel a change of position on my part.

Another issue that has and should rightly command attention pertain to the atmosphere of increased ethnic consciousness that characterised the elections, especially the gubernatorial elections, in a place like Lagos. That kind of situation should not be tolerated for any reason. The danger it portends needs no elaboration or special pleading. We’ve seen it all in the Nigerian Civil War, the June 12 1993 election crisis and the many episodes of intra- and inter-ethnic and sectarian strife in different parts of Nigeria (Ife-Modakeke, Umuleri-Aguleri, Zangon-Kataf, are examples), Africa (Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, etc) and the rest of the world (Israeli-Palestinian, Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc).

But without going further backwards in history, the groundwork for this toxic atmosphere of ethnic baiting in the 2023 election had been laid right from around May 2022 after the presidential candidates of the parties emerged with three standing out as front runners. The candidacy of Bola Tinubu of the APC had been very problematic for supporters of the LP candidate, Peter Obi. Early observers of the political trends in the country had called attention to the attitude of followers of the LP candidate who collectively identified as “Obidients”. Their ways were intolerant in the extreme. They were everywhere on the internet hurling curses, insults, ethnic slurs that embodied vile bigotry on opponents of their candidate. Most of these curse-laced bigotry was reserved for Bola Tinubu especially and anyone who takes a position that shows just the slightest hint of understanding, not even support, for his position or candidacy.

The attacks only got more virulent as the election got closer and they grew parallel and inversely proportional to the often fulsome and exaggerated praises that were heaped on the LP candidate. The PDP candidate, Atiku Abubakar, took many abusive hits too. But he had to endure far less than Bola Tinubu. The hits at Tinubu were often also hits at his ethnic stock, not minding that many if not most of his most implacable critics are actually Yoruba like him. The misconduct and insensitivity of the Obidients lasted for the time it did largely because its membership was to some degree an alignment of Nigerian youth of diverse origins that sprang from the #EndSARS protest of 2020. It was, however, obvious to those intelligent enough to draw the connection and see through the veneer that a large chunk of this self-avowed Obidients are ethnic nationalists, probably hibernating members of IPOB who decided to temporarily suspend their agitations for an independent Biafran nation just to line behind an Igbo candidate with the potential to clinch a pan-Nigerian mandate. What else could account for the sudden drop in IPOB agitations following the emergence of Peter Obi? There is nothing wrong with such strategic silence but for the fact that the same people stylishly claimed Obi for themselves and alienated others while simultaneously promoting a Yoruba-born LP candidate in Lagos whose connections or commitment to the Yoruba is at best suspect. Yet, he went on peddling wild claims about the status of Lagos and the place of the Igbo vis-à-vis the Yoruba in it.

This was probably how a potential movement for national renewal was gradually derailed and defanged within the two weeks between the February 25 and March 18 elections. Those who blame specific actors from one side in this electoral tragedy and turn a blind eye to the other side are not only being disingenuous, they also spew half-truths that show them up as severely deluded. To point at MC Oluomo (a version of the IPOB elements masquerading as “detribalised” Obidients) or demand retraction from Bayo Onanuga, most of whose acquaintance see as urbane, to criticise these two but fail to see their reaction in the action of the many Obidients scattered all over the cyber and real world is to leave room for future ethnic strife. Words have consequences and those who choose to ignore the sensitivities of others open themselves to avoidable push-back. Which is not the same thing as supporting any type of physical or psychological attack on anyone, “indigenes” or “settlers”, except to say that there are no victims here except the unfortunate people that were assaulted, stopped from voting or killed during the elections. This does not include people like an over-excited actor who made herself the victim of her self-created electoral attacks two weeks apart. Attacks indeed!

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