Halt!! Don’t run away with the headline. It is cast as such deliberately. I am not against independent candidature as an expansion of our political space and a deepening of gravitas in that same space, if that is what it amounts to eventually. Anything that will lead to our politics actually developing the people and this patch of earth called Nigeria is most welcome. I had even toyed with the idea of independent candidacy as one area that could help Nigeria in times past. As time went on, and given the reality of what Nigeria is, I reckoned that it has become a long shot.
Now I am writing to expand the scope of an article written in PREMIUM TIMES by no less than Samson Itodo, convener of YIAGA (Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement) and the Not-Too-Young-To-Run (NTYTR) initiative, which has gained much traction, and the attention of the powers that be. My opinion on the NTYTR Bill is well-documented:
- I am of the belief that the Nigerian youth should try not to fall into the same trap of mediocrity, just like their forebears;
- I believe that if the youth have the numbers they should not be begging for space but redefining the space themselves;
- I believe that it is suboptimal to reduce the eligible age for contesting political offices by five years across the board rather than just equate it with the eligible age for voting (18);
- I believe that the most important pursuit for the Nigerian youth (between the ages of 16 and 35) today should be fiscal responsibility and accountability on the part of our leaders, in a way that will open up the financial space for the them so that when they get the opportunity to contest political positions, they will not be crawling on hands and knees begging the same old corrupt politicians for finance;
- I also tried to redirect their focus from power for the sake of power, to service for the sake of humanity.
Then Samson Itodo came and looked for my trouble again.
I was sitting jejely at the recently-held Osasu Symposium when the dapper young man (yes, he’s such a power dresser) came and sat next to me. I anchored the afternoon shift of that programme, but Samson had long-departed, having been on the second panel. The next thing I saw from him was the article on independent candidature. Now, I love to explore issues and find out what really matters; a habit that has been further solidified by my exposure to the Freakonomics series. Most things are not as they seem. And in the pursuit of anything – just as we are pursuing restructuring or ‘true Federalism’ or NTYTR – we should shine our eyes and be sure that the quests do not land us in strange places. We have been disappointed too many times in the past not to care. My children taught me the idea of ‘trick questions’ years ago. Since then I’ve realised that most questions in the Nigerian life are trick questions.
I feel the same way about independent candidature, even though I believe it will be of lesser harm than some of the other issues we are pursuing. The biggest danger, for example, stemming from NTYTR is the high likelihood that those advocating for the idea – being mostly poor, struggling youth – may end up only working to push the candidacy of rich kids whose parents are in politics already and have ideas about creating a dynasty to be carried on by their children. That danger, and the danger of godfathers who will ensure that the culmination of the politics of these young ‘uns remain as prebendal as it is, if not worse. For whoever pays the piper dictates the tune. We have seen on WhatsApp different agreements struck by young people with top financiers and godfathers. Others are sealed at different shrines around the country.
So, whereas it is great to have independent candidature and Nigeria has toyed with the idea in the past, it is not sufficient to look at the aesthetic advantages of ‘opening up the political space’, or even the fact that independent candidacy allows qualified candidates to avoid the payment of high nomination fees or to avoid unnecessary party shenanigans, as espoused by Itodo. For me, the issue is not even about INEC having to print tonnes of materials if we pass independent candidature into law. Already INEC is understudying some African countries where they have more than 100 parties and candidates to see how they cope. They will have to cope. And as Samson noted, we cannot compare the cost of printing and logistics to the greater good that a reasonable political space can do for us.
I thought long and hard about independent candidacy, given where we are as a nation, and given my own short experience building a political party. These are the additional downsides worthy of engaging with:
- For one, it places emphasis on superstardom and individualism, and does not allow for the leadership skills of candidates to be tested beyond their personal convictions about their own prowesses. I have written on these pages before that what Nigeria really needs is a million leaders; a leadership revolution. This is because we have tried the superstar approach many times in the past and it has come to naught. Even our current superstar government has disappointed many. Yes, how many ‘Mai Gaskiyas’ do we have in the land? And what happens when a Mai Gaskiya comes and tells you he made no promises? I believe Nigeria occupies a strategic space in geopolitics and we must prepare for everything, every conspiracy, every rumour, every eventuality. And the best way to hedge against that is to ensure we groom millions of youth who have the vision for Nigeria and can pick up when someone falls by the wayside, in such a way as to neutralise the strategies of those who seek to destabilise us, from within or without. These millions of youth will be better groomed in groups and not as lone wolves. Anyone who hasn’t engaged with this has not started to plan for Nigeria.
- Again, the superstar idea is one of the flaws of our youth today. Gather them together and you find out that everyone wants to be boss and people find it hard to queue behind a single leader. Too often, our youth see nothing wrong in constantly heckling themselves and their leaders, and insults are taken for granted. Oftentimes, nothing gets done or achieved in their groups. They often form splinter groups in the bid to game one another and grab financial and political advantage. Cheating is seen as not a big deal. The role of experience, or even personal financial stability is seen to be of no consequence, and we find it almost impossible to build formidable structures that will get the RESPECT of our forebears without losing focus. This is the core reason why some are asking for independent candidature because rather than go through this process of building structures and groups, it seems easier to branch out and contest on the basis of one’s meteoric and mercurial personality. Look at our First Republic. Awo, Zik, Sardauna, Herbert Macaulay and co, came together and tested leadership skills as party leaders, even though they could all be independent candidates given their meteoric personalities. But today, as everything is run on money, I believe we even have a bigger responsibility to try and build institutions rather than be obsessed with our own singular prowess.
- This is where we find the third disadvantage of independent candidature. Can it scale? Can someone become the president of Nigeria as an independent candidate? How do you reach out to Nigerians in their nooks and crannies if you are not a Trillionaire? What kind of personality do you have to be to command that respect and attention from illiterates and literates alike? Won’t you have to be a Buhari-type or Obasanjo-type? Which youth has affected our people on a national level as to be able to dare? What time has such a youth spent on earth as to be able to build that good will and name recognition across the breadth of Nigeria? Or is independent candidature calibrated to get the smaller positions, so that at least we can achieve what some youth have achieved in Kenya? If so, no problem, but there are still disadvantages.
- I draw again from my experience in building what may become Nigeria’s most-serious political party given the commendations we have received from INEC, where they were pleasantly surprised that we put upfront and achieved what they are begging most, if not all, other political parties to achieve. I don’t need to mention our party here. Well, I believe a serious political party is driven by its ethos. And from its ethos – or some call it ideology – emanates its manifesto. Now a serious political party will be supreme to even its own candidates when they emerge as office-holders. Alas we haven’t seen much of this in Nigeria where a president or state government automatically becomes the party leader at the national and state levels respectively. This was not the case even here in the past, and it is highly unfortunate that our leaders have allowed their egos overshadow even the urgency of our situation as a nation.
Now if a party is properly run and has control over its members, it should be the structure that calls its electees into order and ensures that they achieve the stated agreements with the people, as enunciated in a manifesto. What we are seeing today is the exact opposite; whereby there is even no attempt to keep to manifesto promises. Now that is an aberration. But an independent candidate only comes forward on the strength of his/her own manifesto and is accountable to no one but him/herself. Whereas our politicians are now in the business of first emasculating their own parties and ensuring that the parties are worse than toothless bulldogs, I believe it still pays to strive towards party supremacy and the institutionalisation of internal party democracy. This is because our eyes should be on the future – a future where Nigeria is run like other proper countries and where our unborn children learn to conform with set global standards. It, therefore, becomes important for our youth today to commence learning about institution-building rather than veer out on the solo route of superstardom, where political offices are won based on someone’s personal looks, erudition and some usually-shady financial backing.
Please note that I am not taking this position because I am a budding party leader but generally from an intellectual perspective. Matter of fact, someone already registered an Independent Party which may end up confusing anyone who wants to vote for an independent candidate. I believe their idea in that party is to be the clearing-house to all independent candidates. I wish them all luck. But I pray we have our eyes on the larger picture, and the longer horizon. I also pray that our intentions – youth and old people alike – are noble, and for the urgent advancement of Nigeria.