Ahead of the 2023 presidential election, something strange is developing in Nigeria’s political sphere. In that environment, the role of opposition political parties has been diluted, radically redefined, and restructured. Traditionally, opposition parties are expected to hold the government to account, and to check on abuses committed by state officials. The opposition serves as the watchdog of society, the conscience of the nation, and the defender of ordinary people. That is the way opposition parties operate in true democratic countries.
When impunity by government officials becomes prevalent and unbearable, citizens call on opposition parties to rise to prevent lawlessness. When national security collapses spectacularly as it has in Nigeria in recent years, when government abdicates its responsibility to provide for the welfare and security of citizens, when corruption becomes endemic as it has become in Nigeria, opposition politicians in collaboration with citizens are expected to stand up to act for the good of society. All these are what you would expect in a normal democratic country. Unfortunately, democracy is still a work-in-progress in Nigeria. We live in a country in which privileged people believe they have absolute power and are not accountable to citizens.
Current Governor of Sokoto State and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Aminu Waziri Tambuwal once said: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages are injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness, and public disaffection with the ruling elite.” These factors that trigger revolution are present in Nigeria.
Impunity and irresponsibility by senior public officials is widespread in Nigeria and have persisted because of a mix of factors such as grinding poverty among citizens, general lack of integrity in the society, and the existing but destructive culture of “oga” mentality in which impoverished people see members of the fortunate class as people who are above the law and could do no wrong. Rather than criticise unscrupulous high-profile officials, rather than hold politicians to account, ordinary citizens fawn the adulation of the so-called “big men” and “big women”.
Hunger, greed, acquisitiveness, and a voracious appetite have compelled many people to serve as sycophants always eager and ready to pick up the crumbs that fall off the dining tables of corrupt politicians. Through a combination of guile and duplicity, these politicians have kept ordinary people to live a perpetual life of penury.
In Nigeria, poverty and corruption have reduced many people to a condition in which they are satisfied with the pursuit of short-term interests rather than the search for their own long-term interests and those of their families and grandchildren. There is the general belief in Nigeria that if you cannot beat a corrupt system, the only option available to you is to join the depraved and duplicitous system. That is how corruption is elevated, accepted, justified, entrenched, and has become an approved way of doing business in Nigeria.
Civil society overlooks abuses that go on in Nigeria because everyone interprets vile conduct by state officials through the prism or lens of regional of origin, religious beliefs, and ethnicity. In this environment, corruption is given a different interpretation. A corrupt official is perceived as someone who is not from your ethnic group, someone who does not share the same religious beliefs with you, or someone who is not from your region of origin. This means your kith and kin are unblemished, immaculate, flawless, or spotless.
When people rise to demand their rights in other countries, we admire their courage, their ability to defy their presidents, prime ministers, and senior government officials. In those cultures, civil society challenges hot-headed, quarrelsome, and trigger-happy policemen and soldiers who guard corrupt politicians.
In an extraordinary display of unity, Sri Lankan citizens rose angrily last weekend to protest economic mismanagement that has seen their living standards plummet. They stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, mocked his lifestyle by diving into the Presidential swimming pool, and demanded the President must resign. In the end, the President accepted to step down as quickly as tomorrow, Wednesday, 13 July. That is what people power does.
In various countries, people power manifested in various ways, leading to social and political transformations. People power was evident in the Philippines in 1986 when civil society protested for weeks and finally forced corrupt President Ferdinand Marcos and his lavish wife Imelda to flee the country. On February 25, 1986, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife went into exile in Hawaii. In Romania, in 1989, President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were not so lucky. They were not only toppled but they were also executed publicly on December 25 of that year for abuse of power and corrupt enrichment. In both the Philippines and Romania, the sheer number of protesters overwhelmed the presidential guards.
Nigerians like to refer yearningly to the 2011 Arab uprisings that toppled former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and former Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi. In these countries, citizens rose to challenge the authorities of tyrants who were formerly dreaded. The authoritarians and their stupendous wealth were overthrown and humiliated.
Those who still believe that things will remain the same in Nigeria forever will discover now or after the 2023 election that Nigeria is on the move. The youth are campaigning vigorously on social and mainstream media for the team of Peter Obi and Datti Baba-Ahmed of the Labour Party because they view both men as candidates who are eminently qualified and capable of improving the socioeconomic conditions of Nigerian people. In Obi and Baba-Ahmed, the youth see a positive future for Nigeria, an end to corruption, a return to law and order, and enhancement of people’s lives. The youth campaigning for Obi and Baba-Ahmed are clearly not beholden to old breed politicians and their corrupt money.
In Nigeria, the closest the citizens came to taking control of their destiny was in October 2020 during mass demonstrations against the excesses of the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other state-sanctioned abuses by government officials. The #EndSARS protests were remarkable because they were engineered and led by citizens who were traumatised and abused by state officials. Everyone had hoped that the demonstrations would lead to restructuring of the country and the introduction of social and political changes. Unfortunately, the protests ended within days.
The spirit that energised the #EndSARS protests, the momentum that drove the street marches, the unity among the disparate groups, and the peaceful nature of the demonstrations were unique. Never had Nigerians united in a common cause to demand practical changes in the way the country was governed. In a country in which the police and the army are infamous for crushing dissent and trampling on the rights of citizens, no one expected the demonstrators to walk openly and defiantly on the streets.
The wind of political change is blowing across Nigeria. No one can stop it. It is a wind that respects no religious faith, ethnicity, political party affiliation, social status, or academic title. Politicians who dismiss the youth movement as “social media” hype will be taught a lesson in 2023. The events that occurred during the #EndSARS demonstrations and the ongoing massive quest by youth to secure their permanent voter’s card (PVC) across the country are indicative of what would happen in the 2023 general election.
More than ever before, Nigerian youth are determined to engineer social and political change in the country without being threatened by thugs, menaced by police and soldiers carrying guns menacingly, or without being bribed to stop their campaigns. Anyone who doubts the seriousness of what is happening in Nigeria now should reflect on all the revolutions that occurred around the world in the past decades.