If you ask me, I would say there are three critical stages of elections in Nigeria — and each is potentially explosive. The first is pre-election, where campaign rhetoric is usually a major trigger for tension. There could be episodes of violence, although they are not usually widespread. The second is the election day. It could be peaceful in the main, but we hardly avoid the skirmishes, voter intimidation and ballot-snatching. And there is the third stage: the post-election. That is usually where all hell is let loose by the losers. We have now navigated the first two stages and anxiously await the third. We can, at least, breathe a bit until the final results are announced.
How well did we do in the first two? There was too much bile pre-election, a lot of bad blood generated by dangerous rhetoric, and the most disturbing was the amount of fake news on the social media. I thought I had seen everything in 2015 but it definitely got multiplied this year. The good thing, though, is that we seemed to be better prepared this time around. We had websites doing fact checks round the clock, and there were many good-natured people on the social media who took it upon themselves to counter the influx of fake news. I received many of such. I once confronted one of the fake news senders and he replied me: “All is fair in war.”
I was a bit shocked that despite the fact that the two leading candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, are of the same ethnic origin and religious affiliation, people still found a way of whipping up ethno-religious sentiments. That means I celebrated too early in my article, The Good Thing about Buhari vs Atiku (October 14, 2018). I did argue then that because of their similarities, the oft-divisive electioneering would be altered. I was partially wrong. There were still whispers and murmurs about Biafra and jihad. But, compared to the 2011 and 2015 elections, I would say the purveyors of sectionalism did not make much success of it this time around.
The election day, unfortunately, reproduced similar results from the past — death and destruction. I somewhat expected ballot hijack, voter intimidation, late arrival of voting materials, non-arrival of materials, excesses on the part of security agencies, violence and killings, to be honest, but I projected that they would be minimal and would not impact on the overall health of the elections. I cannot make a definitive statement on that for now because things are still unfolding, but the videos and pictures I saw yesterday from Rivers and Lagos were quite disheartening. There were cases in other states. I would still say it was not a disaster overall, but certainly we can do much better.
From today, we enter the most critical stage. The bloodiest cases of electoral violence in Nigeria have always occurred post-election. The “Operation Wetie” of the first republic was post-election. In 1983, the old Ondo and Oyo states went up in flames post-election, leading to death and destruction. Western Nigeria earned the notorious tag, “Wild Wild West”, because of its history of electoral violence. The 2011 post-election violence might be the worst in our history with nearly a thousand people killed, including youth corps members. Violence usually breaks out when people think their candidates have not been fairly defeated, although it is often instigated.
The post-electoral stage can be further divided into two. There is the danger of violence over the final results, and even if we overcome this, there is still the carry-over when people behave like sore losers for years. President Goodluck Jonathan lost the 2015 elections and conceded, but for four years his supporters were yet to concede. Many of them immediately turned President Muhammadu Buhari into an enemy and started wishing him failure even before he was sworn in. They came up with different devices, including creating and sustaining vile propaganda against him. I am not saying Buhari is blameless, but I think some people went overboard.
This post-election bitterness is something we have to learn to handle well in Nigeria. This is always my philosophy: no matter whom we supported or voted for in an election, the moment a winner has emerged, we just have to move on. Any candidate that is aggrieved should go to court to seek justice. That is a more decent way of addressing grievances than inciting violence and turning the country upside down. We all will suffer the consequences. If Nigeria is not at peace, the citizens can never be at peace. If we make life unbearable for a sitting president because he was not our choice at the ballot, we make life unbearable for ourselves as well. That is the truth.
After elections, we have to begin to think about the progress of Nigeria first and foremost. We must perish the notion of “my way or the highway”. It is not in the best interest of our country. While the winner must adopt a philosophy of “no victor, no vanquished” and become leader of all — including those who didn’t vote for him — the loser must also accept that there is nothing to be gained by seeking to pull down the winner in order to extract a pound of flesh. Whether or not we like it, if the president fails, we will all face the consequences. I wish we can allow this truism to sink in properly. I repeat: if the president fails, we will all face the consequences.
This election was a straight fight between Buhari and Atiku. No matter who wins, the next item on our agenda as Nigerians should be how to engage with him constructively in the interest of national peace, unity and progress. Pulling the winner down will only pull Nigeria down. I have a fundamental belief and this guides my attitude to human beings: there is nobody who is completely good or totally bad. Every human created by God has good and bad sides. Buhari is not perfect. Atiku is not. In that case, I would rather tell myself that whoever wins between them will become my president and it is my duty to make sure he succeeds.
I would like to conclude by making two points. One, we don’t have to like the decision of the majority of Nigerians at the polls but we have to respect it. Democracy, stripped of decorative definitions, does not guarantee that the best and the brightest, or saints and popes, would win. You win because you have the majority of votes. You have the majority of votes because the majority of voters chose you for one reason or the other. Therefore, the moment you do not have enough votes to defeat your opponent, you have to accept the result in good faith (or challenge it if you think something untoward happened). All of us need to respect the outcome.
Two, a lot of bad words have been exchanged between the supporters of Buhari and Atiku in the last few months, but we have to accept that most of us wish Nigeria well. We want our country to be one we can be proud of. We have competing visions for the country. We may not see eye to eye, we may not be able to come to a consensus on our visions for Nigeria, but we generally mean well. However, we can only actualise these visions if we have a Nigeria that is standing. If we burn down the country, if we turn the country upside down, how will these visions find expression? Common sense says we need a country first before we can actualise our visions.
My overall argument is that no matter who wins between Buhari and Atiku, we have to move on. We shouldn’t spend the next four years at each other’s throat. Both men have strengths and weaknesses. Neither of them is perfect. As a Nigerian citizen, all I care about is how my country can become a better place. How can we tackle unemployment and poverty? How can we have transparency and accountability in government? How can Nigeria become a land of delight? I will never relax until we have a better country. It is not about my ethnic group or political preference. It is about Nigeria. We can all be winners in this game.
Simon Kolawole is the Founder/CEO
Thecable Online Newspaper