February 14th is a day known around the world as a day of celebrating love. Its origin is a subject of controversy, but according to one legend, it is a holiday with roots in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalis/Lupercalia, a festival of fertility once observed annually on February 15. Why Pope Gelasius renamed Lupercalia, changed its day of observance to a day earlier and dedicated it to a Roman martyr called Saint Valentine in 496 AD is something we will never know, but that is not the purpose of this article.
This year, like every other year before it, the world will celebrate another Valentine’s Day. In some countries, business savvy entrepreneurs will make a killing from hordes of doe eyed lovers willing to shell big bucks in commemoration of the holiday. In culturally conservative countries, the law will prosecute recalcitrant capitalists and ensure that red hearts and roses are banished to windowless backrooms. In Nigeria, things will be different. Instead of love, there will be politics. In the place of romantic lunches, there will be an election. Armed with the plastic card testifying their eligibility to vote, Nigerians will choose the man who will steer the affairs of their country for the next four years.
As Nigerians get ready for this historic day, it is important to note that the political atmosphere has become so charged in a way reminiscent of first and second republic politics. Only this time, we are not held spellbound by the ideological fecundity of the Awolowo led A.G and U.P.N or Ahmadu Bello’s NPC or the Shagari led N.P.N. In the nascent and autistic democracy of this present time, we are left to choose between the ruling P.D.P and the opposition party, the A.P.C who have both fielded the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and a onetime head of state as their presidential candidates.
February 14th is just a week away, yet conspiracy theories and an appalling lack of preparedness on the part of the Nigerian electoral body INEC is threatening to cast a pall on the much anticipated elections. In some parts of the country, many Nigerians claim the existence of a plot by INEC to disenfranchise them by denying them their permanent voters card. Only yesterday, protestors numbering about 100 stormed the agency’s office in Maitama, Abuja demanding a postponement of the elections. This protest has however been dismissed by some members of the public as part of the political intrigue surrounding the elections.
Apart from the purported lapses by INEC in the build up to the election, the growing trend among Nigerians to heat up the polity with violent rhetoric is another source of worry. Almost everyone is involved. From the politically naïve and easily impressionable youth who spend the bulk of their time on social media, to religious leaders who exploit the freedom handed to them by the religion intoxicated populace, Nigerians struggle to outdo themselves at every turn. The focus has shifted from the qualifications of the candidates to more mundane issues like religion and ethnicity. The political discourse has been tainted by hate mongering and name calling. Adding to this tense atmosphere are the propaganda machines who leverage on the power of social media to advance the parochial interests of the sinister characters lurking in the shadows of the Nigerian political configuration. Their influence is powerful. Across social media, youths lacking intellectual independence regurgitate their mantra of division.
It is a deplorable situation, one every right thinking Nigerian must reject. It not only stymies the growth of our democracy, it deepens the divide between Nigerians and has a propensity to trigger a political crises if left unchecked. As I write this article, there are reports of a mass exodus of the Igbos from Northern Nigeria. This exodus is linked to the possibility of a post-election violence, a possibility heightened by the violent rhetoric of those who should know better. To avoid a catastrophic turn of events which will swallow us up, it is important for those active in the political arena to tone down their rhetoric. If they must canvass support for their candidates, they must do so without appealing to ethnic or religious emotions of the people. The repercussions of such types of campaigns are many, and they are disastrous. Nigerians must cultivate a habit of healthy politicking as is obtainable in advanced democracies.
In the light of the above, there is an urgent need by citizens and stakeholders of our democracy to embark on an enlightenment campaign to build a class of Nigerians who will concern themselves with more cogent issues like the mental and intellectual capabilities of political candidates to govern. We must demand more than peace pacts from our leaders. We must also close ranks against those who seek to exploit our difference to score cheap political points. Only when we are able to overcome petty divisions can we truly attain greatness. As Greek author Aesop says, “In union there is strength”. See you at the polls.