Ségolène Royal, arguably the most famous female politician in France at the moment, would have loved to run against the unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy on the platform of the Socialist Party in this year’s presidential election. It would have been her second shot at the presidency of France after losing to the same Sarkozy five years ago. Alas, she didn’t make it. She lost the party primaries to her former lover and father of her children, François Hollande. However, Madame Royal is still very much in the news. And my daily foraging for global news usually starts with Le Monde, Le Figaro, and other French newspapers.
Thus it was that I recently read an interview in which Madame Royal talks about her painstaking preparations for the presidency in the last five years. She went back to the drawing board as soon as she lost the election in 2007. Five years of trying to sell your intellect to the French people; five years of criss-crossing France and retailing ideas to every strategic sector of the society; five years of strategic think-tanking; five years of University lectures, addressing students and their professors, taking their questions, debating them; five years of public intellection; five years of organising; five years of preparing strategic and visionary programs of action; five years of travelling to display her mettle on the world stage; five years of using your brain 24/7. All this before party primaries! Imagine what you then proceed to do after becoming your party’s official candidate.
You see, the highest office in the land, the most solemn expression of the sovereign will of the French people, is not what you wake up from an ogogoro-induced sleep to approach. That office is the sum total of the values and the worth of the people. It is who they are. It is the “we” in we, the people. It demands awe and absolute respect. Once the idea germinates in your head that you could be president or you’d love to be president, the first thing you need to understand – the system will eventually drive it into your head if you refuse to understand it – is that the manner and modes of actualisation, the quality of those who even dare to dream of becoming president, all go into the degree of respect that political actors have for the people in their indissoluble sovereignness.
This is why personal capital is the foundation of your ambition. Personal capital covers everything from your integrity, probity, moral and ethical soundness, record of accomplishment in service and leadership, personal discipline, cultivation, to vision and intellect. If your personal capital is not up to par, you have no business dreaming of janitorial work in the presidency. You would be insulting the people if you did that. Once you meet the fundamental benchmark of personal capital, you work your way through extant political structures and processes to convince the people.
That is what Ségolène Royal did. That is what those of us who witness elections in advance democracies see all the time. That is what is increasingly on display in more and more countries in Africa. In essence, a presidency acquires respect over time not just through the salience and pertinence of her vision or through the acuity of her performance but also, and perhaps most importantly, through the quality of the people who aspire to it and the quality of the electoral culture they must ford to the desired destination. Furthermore, you do not approach the White House or the Elysée just because you have a vision and it has been determined that your personal capital passes muster; you go there because you understand that the said office is one of the most, if not the most sacred institution in the land.
This is precisely where the tragedy of Nigeria lies. Our presidency may be the most powerful in the world – given the irrational concentration of powers in the hands of the president – it is also the most ridiculous and the most contemptible as far as institutions of state go. I have zilch regard for the Nigerian presidency. She does not command my respect. I see her as dominance without hegemony. The only value I have for her is that she serves as an endless inflatus for my satires. Sadly, I am not alone. Aso Rock is an institution without a people. Why is that?
We do not have to dwell on the most apparent reason: no occupant of the Nigerian presidency, including the present occupant, has ever passed muster in the personal capital department. Doubtless, the personal capital of successive occupants goes into the accumulation of respect over time for the institution that is the presidency. If we agree that those who, through our collective failures as a people and our generous dosage of tough luck, have always found themselves in the saddle of the Nigerian presidency would ordinarily not qualify to be janitors in saner and more respectable presidencies elsewhere in the world, we need to move beyond that and assess why the Nigerian presidency is so appallingly contemptible as an institution.
The road to that destination speaks of actors and processes that are not compelled at any point to respect the Nigerian people. In Nigeria, you could practically wake up on top of your concubine in a brothel and decide to be president. Next, the regular throng of criminals who have been around since 1960 gathers to anoint you as the latest protector-in-chief of their narrow interests as stakeholders, chieftains, and elder statesmen. Next, they mobilize funds, always the proceeds of corruption, to actualize your dream. Next, they kill a few people here and there to send a message that there is no vacancy in Aso Rock. Next, they mobilize all the necessary agencies of state – the police, INEC. Before you know it, you are in Aso Rock.
You need not be familiar with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In the unlikely event that your political party has a manifesto, you need not know how to spell the word manifesto. From the very moment you dreamt up your ambition till the usual suspects gather at the Eagle Square in Abuja to swear you in as president, you need not have expended a single minute seriously thinking about the Nigerian people. They do not matter. You need not have expended a single minute thinking seriously about the Nigerian presidency as a sacred, solemn institution that must be respected as an indication of your respect for the Nigerian people. After all, you are just there as a guarantor of the privileges of the 1 %; you are there as distributor-in-chief of prebends to the usual suspects.
If you are a Nigerian reading this, let me bring back the Ségolène Royal paragraph above in a modified form. Apply it to yourself and see what you get. Has it ever happened that a presidential aspirant spent: five years trying to sell his intellect to you; five years criss-crossing Nigeria and retailing ideas to every strategic sector of the society; five years doing strategic think-tanking; five years doing the lecture rounds in Nigerian Universities, addressing students and their professors, taking their questions, debating them; five years doing public intellection; five years organising; five years preparing strategic and visionary programs of action; five years travelling to display his mettle on the world stage; and five years using his brain 24/7?
Think about it: when was the last time a member of the Nigerian political elite considered you important enough in the scheme of things to go through this kind of rigour just to convince you that they are worthy to serve as your president? When was the last time you, the people, counted for anything in the scheme of things? Perhaps, I should reframe the question: has it ever happened? Has the value of your civic importance ever been recognised in the processes guiding accession to the presidency of your country? You and I know the answers to these questions.
This leads to a conundrum: those who find themselves in the Presidency do not care about us because they did not need us to get there. In turn, we despise them and are unable to respect the presidency because the folks who strut their stuff in Aso Rock lack personal capital and the strategies they employed to get there do not command respect. Furthermore, the Nigerian presidency is not respectable because those who find themselves there and who should be the first respecters of that office and institution offer no credible examples to the people. The people cannot respect an office that you, the occupant, do not respect.
Take the case of Goodluck Jonathan. Presidential debates are one of the most important modes of assessing the viability of candidates. They are also by far the most important avenue that candidates have to show respect for the people. You take debates extremely seriously because it is the people’s proscenium. You are selling yourself to them. You are telling them that they matter. Look at the gruelling intra-party debates in the US presidential system which are then followed by even more serious debates after the parties have their primaries. Once I saw the debate between Ségolène Royal and candidate Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election in France, I knew it was over for Madame Royal. The debate enabled me to make that assessment. That is how important debates are. You do not disrespect the people by shunning debates for whatever reason. That is the worst form of disrespect for the people.
Such was Goodluck Jonathan’s rudeness to and disrespect for the Nigerian people and the Nigerian presidency he was aspiring to that he found spurious reasons to dodge the debate and later preferred to debate himself in one of the most remarkable shows of shame in the annals of presidential elections in Nigeria. True, Goodluck Jonathan will never not look dull, lost, clueless, and uninspiring in his public sorties. There is just no way to improve that stage presence cos he ain’t got it. But those embarrassing weaknesses are not enough to make you run away from the debates. After all, you were aware of those weaknesses before you put yourself forward for service. Can you imagine a candidate displaying such rudeness to and disrespect for the people in a genuine democracy and still “winning”?
If you showed so much disrespect for the presidential process, one would be right to expect you to make amends once you got to office. One way of making amends is to respect the office. The constitution stipulates that one of the cardinal ways to respect that office is to declare your asset. Has Goodluck Jonathan done this? You know the answer. We have a president who disrespected the electoral process by dodging the debate and who now disrespects the office by refusing to declare his asset. With such an embarrassing penury of the personal example, how can the disrespecter-in-chief of the Nigerian presidency mobilize the people to respect that office and institution? Yet, his band of odoriferous and rebarbative aides adds to the insult by teaching us the difference between metaphors and reality.
It is within the dynamic of the contemptible modes of competition for and access to the Nigerian presidency that President Jonathan’s recent warning to those already campaigning for 2015 makes sense. If we had a presidency and a presidential process that looks anything like what I described in the case of genuine and sophisticated democracies, then everybody would understand that the time to start preparing for 2015 was May 29, 2011. That was the time to return to the drawing board. That was the time to create your think-tanks and have them critically and empirically reflect on every sector of the Nigerian polity. That was the time to hit the pavement, crisscrossing Nigeria. That was when to go to the Universities, etc. That was the time for the opposition to start constructive and organic preparations and for the incumbent to make their life difficult with overwhelming performance.
But President Jonathan knew that he was talking to his people. He is one of them. He understands what they are doing when they say they are already prepapring. He knows that they are not constructively selling themselves to the Nigerian people. He knows that they are holding nocturnal meetings, stealing huge sums of money, stockpiling arms, identifying future victims of political assassinations, deciding on how to better use Boko Haram, MEND, OPC, Massob, deciding on which prosperity Pentecostal pastors to recruit, activating agbaya stakeholders and elder statesmen who do not know when to quit. President Jonathan knows all these things because he is one of them. That is how he got to office. That is how he intends to remain in office. He just doesn’t want anyone to get a head start over him in launching a disrespectable campaign for a disrespectable office.