Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica
The distance between political campaign promises and their fulfilment is an infinity. Between when these promises are made and the end of the tenure of those who usually promise paradise and deliver hell, people are often too dazed to remember. As it were, empty promises seem to be part of the language of political campaigning. At the root of this anomaly especially in Africa is the crooked assumption that politics is by its very nature an amoral undertaking. It has therefore come to be assumed in these parts, at least, that politicians are inherently a tribe of professional liars. Over time, this has led to what is now called a trust deficit with politicians. Simply put, most citizens no longer believe most of what politicians say either during campaigns or even while in office. Call it counter truth or Donald Trump’s ‘alternate truth’. Politicians seem to have redefined truth in their own image.
Election seasons are democracy’s season of reveries or mass delusion decorated in hysteria. The opening of Nigeria’s campaign season for 2023, is also the inauguration of our season of reverie and carnivals. It is carnival time, a great time to dream while wide awake. The electorate is taken on a sustained make belief roller coaster ride, entertained with endless vistas of paradise in the horizon. The worse the society and its conditions, the wider the market for decorated lies and unrealisable promises of paradise.
In a sense, every serious politician is a dream weaver of sorts. First, they spend fortunes on commissioned policy papers, manifestoes and action plans. In these days of PowerPoint presentations and digital wonders, political and public relations consultants come up with endless computer holograms, graphs, animations and virtual scenarios at the behest of their clients. Political marketing has assumed wild dimensions as major tech companies now help politicians to buy and sell followers and would be voters online. Nigerian politicians have joined the fray of digital scams. Recall how some of the presidential aspirants were sold holographs that indicated they had already won their party tickets until the morning after. Some aspirants went into instant depression while the consultants vanished into thin air with brief cases stuffed with dollars!
It is not only local politicians that are exploiting the power of information technology and the digital revolution. Even politicians in the most sophisticated of nations are in it. Preparatory to his very first visit with North Korea’s young autocratic leader, Kim Jung Un, the irrepressible President Donald Trump had his public relations gurus prepare him a digital wonderland of what North Korea would look like after it opens up to the West. The presentation was replete with shiny new cities with white sand beaches, chains of seaside luxury hotels and apartment high rises with sprawling malls and casinos. It was an undisguised marketing tool in aid of greater Westernization and all the creature comforts that have ensnared many societies to embrace the neon lure of western materialism and ostentatious consumption.
As it turned out, a faction of the CIA had fed President Trump the delusion that since the young dictator had received the best of western education and exposure, having studied in elite Swiss schools, he would be tempted to swallow the bait of Western investment and take the glory for opening up the hermit kingdom to the world. No dice. Trump had disastrously miscalculated. After Trump’s presentation, Kim Jung Un got even angrier with the West. He wrote fewer ‘love’ letters to Trump thereafter and instead fired more missiles with a capacity to hit fancy US cities if matters came to a head. Trump never returned in the direction of North Korea and nicely swallowed his promises. A similar gambit had also failed in his attempt to lure the Palestinian Authority to swallow a phantom peace deal with Israel in return for life more abundant.
At election time in today’s world, the best politicians now hire credible marketers and marketing corporations to bear the burden of their own famed credibility gaps. It is not only here. In most parts of the world, people have grown to habitually NOT believe politicians and the promises they make at election time. The so-called trust deficit about politicians has become a global pandemic.
The old tradition used to be that political spokes persons and marketers needed to be acclaimed talkatives and unserious men and women with unusual gifts of the gab. They need to be smooth- talking and savvy enough to deceive an undiscerning electorate into buying into their wagon of rotten apples. Since politicians cannot themselves step out to market dodgy used cars, they look within their party faithful for famed marketers of fake things.
Generally, the ground is most fertile in certain places for marketing fishy vistas of imminent heaven. A bad place with a tradition of ready belief is the birthplace of gods of salvation. When a society hits bottom, every miscreant bearing a basket of promises of better times is greeted as the harbinger of a messiah.
As in every prelude to the promised hour, this is Nigeria’s hour of promises, the hour of deliverance from the menace of bad leadership and the ogres of tragic governance. Nigeria in the countdown of the 2023 elections is a natural fertile ground for a basket of promises. And the major political parties have keyed into the fad of the hour. But unlike their counterparts in the advanced Western democracies, Nigerian politicians and their parties have done the predictable. Completely insensitive to the trust deficit, see whom the parties have chosen as their campaign spokespersons.
The ruling APC has chosen Mr. Femi Fani Kayode, a man for all seasons and all possibly parties in partnership with lawyer turned political town crier Festus Keyamo as the paired of duelling talkaholics. The duo seem to balance out the interests that will make or wound the APC’s chances in 2023: one for Mr. Tinubu and the other for the receding shadow of the Buhari lame duck. The opposition PDP has opted for the loquacious Dino Melaye while Mr. Obi’s Labour Party has predictably settled for doctor turned political attack hound, Mr. Doyin Okupe. These gentlemen are all , in their own right, illustrious Nigerian political animals of unmistakable pedigree and tested track records. But I doubt that any modern political agenda with the slightest regard for the prevailing trust deficit haunting our politicians will place any of these gentlemen in the forecourt of their used car shop! But the message of this campaign season goes beyond the pedigree and credibility of the party messengers per se.
Nigeria is not new to the politics of campaign promises and the flourish of fancy rhetoric. The motor park grade exchange of insults has come to stay just as the abuse of logic and descent into personal name calling is to be expected. Politicians who themselves are mostly bereft of policy depth or a reasonable level of knowledge of the issues of the day can only be expected to relapse into mundane superficial inanities and the mouthing of lazy catch phrases and cliches.
We have been here before. President Obasanjo campaigned on the basis of consolidating Nigeria’s nationhood and restoring democratic freedoms after three decades of military rule about which he knows quite a bit. He gave it his best shot in all fairness. Mr. Yar’dua, though short lived, was not a man of promises and propaganda. He got on with the job with a clarity of thought and a surefootedness that impressed a sceptical nation. The only promise Yar’dua made was to uphold Obasanjo’s legacy and deepen his reform of the economy and end militant insurgency in the Niger Delta.
President Goodluck Jonathan, probably overwhelmed by the enormity of his responsibility, insisted that he did not want to make any promises so that no one would hold him responsible for any unfulfilled promises. Smart chap! He sauntered through his tenure before he was relieved by the electorate who chose Mr. Buhari to succeed him. Since he made no promises, his only legacy is that he peacefully handed us over to Mr. Buhari.
Both President Buhari and his marketers in the new coalition that became the APC were full of promises. Mr. Jonathan’s bumbling presidency had provided them with enough ammunition to shoot down whatever he thought would be his legacy. For insecurity, Buhari brandished his old soldier’s rusty credentials. For the economy, the man promised greater frugality since he was known for a spartan life and indifference to materialism. No one asked him what he had ever managed profitably. For national unity, he trumpeted his questionable role in the civil war. For discipline, he drummed up his record of indiscriminate detentions and flogging of innocent people during his two years of frowning military autocracy. Myths, promises, high hopes and expectations.
Now, almost eight years down the road, Nigerians can hardly recognise what strange animal has bitten them.
We are where we are. Irrespective of which party manifesto is in question, there is now a political consensus of national urgency. For the first time, Nigerian political parties and the electorate have a broad agreement. All parties agree that the Buhari administration is a watershed, a dividing line between hell and anything else. No honest party or candidate wants to re-enact the nightmare of the last seven and half years. But everyone agrees that the Buhari administration is not totally useless. Like poison, it has its uses: you can use it to cure or to kill. It has provided all the ingredients that any politician needs to make his campaign easy. All the themes and issues are complete. Check through Buhari’s legacy of serial infamy: Insecurity. Poverty. Economic chaos. National disunity. Rudderless governance. Corruption. Apathy to ideas. Nepotism. Unemployment…
It is therefore a classic irony when the incumbent president only last week admonished politicians and candidates to dwell on issues and avoid sensationalism and emotional subjects. Why not? He has created a long enough list of issues to fuel more than one campaign season. This could indeed be a lazy campaign season because the incumbent has defined all the issues and the parameters for fruitful electioneering. Candidates just need to plug in and play.
Yet there remains a lot of work to be done. There is an urgent need for specifics and precision in campaign promises. Mr. Peter Obi, easily the most exciting of the presidential candidates, has insisted that he wants to run a different agenda and inaugurate a different political tradition from the politics as usual represented by his opponents. But he remains scanty on details and specific directions.
For now, though, Mr. Obi who is yet to publish or publicise a manifesto or work plan continues to ride on his growing wave of popularity fed on the trust and hype of a populace glued to his difference. So far, there is no specific work plan either on the economy or basic governance strategies.
Mr. Tinubu who just returned from a vacation trip in the United Kingdom has joined the campaign fray. He remains for now stuck at the level of cliches and catch phrases. He has not yet presented any manifesto or policy document. Addressing his teeming devotees and campaign women on his return, he has reassured all that “your hope is back!”, “the future is bright!”
So far, only Mr. Atiku Abubakar has come forward with a sensible and fairly detailed policy document. His policy template is a condensed and updated postscript of the Obasanjo reform agenda. He wants to improve power, generate employment, improve security by training and recruiting more service personnel. Most importantly, he wants to restructure the federation into more economically viable federating units even if he stops shy of how he hopes to jump the constitutional hurdle on that one.
For now, it promises to be an avalanche of promises and programmes with at least 18 presidential candidates on the ballot. What no one can say for sure, however, is how soon after Mr. Buhari’s anxiously awaited exit to Daura Nigerians can expect to breathe an air of optimism with a foretaste of some sweetness. One thing is certain though, after the first 100 days of whoever becomes the next president, our minimum expectation is a swing in our national mood from the present gloom, anxiety and depression to one of possibility, optimism and some anticipation of hope in the horizon. By this time next year, perhaps we can see a ray of sunshine.