The 2011 general elections is a popular topic of conversation among Nigerians and all those interested in the country. These conversations are often more passionate (sometimes degenerating into scathing arguments) than discourse about past elections. 

But by emotionalizing the discussion, we risk losing our objectivity. The simple truth is: emotion clouds intellect. In other words, emotional debates lead us to say things we cannot justify and ignore things we need to consider.

For instance, by focusing on zoning, we sideline the real issues: bad leadership and corruption.  In my view, the zoning debate is simply a cheap political tactic designed to distract us from these important issues. We must remember that the real enemies are not Christians, Muslims, or any single ethnic group.  Our politicians do not cheat and steal because they are Northerners or Southerners.  Nor are they selective with their victims – every Nigerian is affected by graft and theft.  Politicians steal because they are corrupt, and because they think they can get away with it. And they may well continue to get away with it if they succeed in distracting us by mobilizing our ethnic and religious sentiments.   

To make progress, we must evaluate our own positions frankly.  We must ask ourselves what role we play in keeping the corrupt politicians in power.  Are we willing to make sacrifices to reclaim our country? Are we willing to confront corrupt leaders by supporting more qualified candidates?  We must take our destiny into our own hands.  That means carefully scrutinizing those who present themselves as potential leaders, and supporting competency over generosity.  

An average Nigerian in the village does not care who the leader is provided his basic needs are met. The discussion about zoning is an elite discourse that does not take us further or develop the country. It is a conversation that is mostly motivated by partisan sentiments and selfish interests. The politicians have nothing to show us after their disastrous failures, so they resort to distracting us with the zoning issue. Many of us have fallen for it.

Also important in overcoming some of our problems is to demand for more than just free and fair elections. Of course we need free and fair elections. But that is just the first step. What significance does a free and fair elections have when the choice is between the devil and the deep blue sea? In most cases our choices are limited to the bad and the worse. So let us encourage qualified people to join the race at all levels. It is not enough to have a good president. We need competent and qualified people who will work with him at all level of governance.

Party primaries are around the corner, yet we haven’t heard from most of the contestants regarding the specific solutions they have to our problems. They all talk in general terms without providing us with a clear vision and plan for how they want to make the country a better place. I believe it is time that we call for open, sincere, public debate among the candidates on what they want to do when elected into office. Let them face Nigerians and answer the public’s questions.

I have learned a lot from American citizens during my time here as a student.  Americans invest in their choice candidates – both financially and with their precious time.  The youth’s informed engagement with the political scene is impressive.  In Nigeria, we may not have the ability to invest financially in political campaigns, but we can certainly commit some time to motivate one or two persons to go out and vote – and do so wisely.

At this point you may say: this is Nigeria, voting does not work here.  I strongly disagree with that defeatist mentality.  Populations around the world have successfully overcome tyrannies and autocracies.  They did that by uniting against their common enemies.  We must do the same. 

So, instead of bitterly arguing over which ethnic group or part of the country should ‘go next,’ let us demand specific information on the candidates’ vision for Nigeria.  Let us call for public debate among the candidates on what they plan to do if elected. Let us commit to choosing candidates based on their concrete plans for the health sector, education, economy and security.  Then, if they are elected, we can hold them to any promises they make during the campaign.  Nigerians, let us unite and channel our anger towards the real culprits.  Yes we can!

Aminu Gamawa wrote from Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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