I had intended my post-primaries statement as the last word on my rude initiation (baptism of fire, if you like) into our country’s rough-and-ready politics. But the main aim of my statement — to congratulate my opponent on his victory and to thank my supporters — did not allow much room for critical reflection. The closest to a post-mortem was my closing remark: “In the final analysis, however, we must find an answer to the question why credible citizens who everyone agrees would be pillars of selfless service to country, who would be nation-builders and not nation-wreckers, continue to fail to make it into the corridors of power. The list is long, but just a few: Obafemi Awolowo (in the limited and obvious sense, of course), Balarabe Musa, Tunji Brathwaite, Pat Utomi, Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakoba, Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, etc.”
I have received numerous responses to my statement ranging from “I told you so,” “You can’t stop [and] we won’t stop,” congrats-for-a-courageous-start-and-better-luck-next-time, we-need-the-likes-of-you-in-our-politics, to inconsolable disappointment and outrage. In this column, however, I will focus on the two that stirred me towards further reflections on the meaning of my defeat. But before doing so, I must mention that some considered my statement hasty. The primaries election, they insist, couldn’t be as free and fair as I claimed. To them I say only that I very deliberately limited myself to what transpired in the voting hall. Whatever else happened outside the hall, days or weeks or a minute before voting, is irrelevant. The point is not whether the delegates made an informed choice but that they made a choice.
And now the two thought-provoking responses. The first was by Innocent Chukwuma, my good friend and former colleague at the Civil Liberties Organisation, now West Africa director of the Ford Foundation. He wrote as follows: “You gave it your best shot and ran a clean election! I am interested in following up on the issue you raised about the chances of good people winning elections in Nigeria. Any ideas on how to mainstream discourse around it as the phenomenon is becoming alarming and poses a great danger for our democracy, if you could call it that?”
The second comes from Ogbeni Aregbesola, still licking the financial wounds of his hard-won re-election victory in Osun State. He neatly summarises the dilemma of radical progressives in liberal politics: “Comrade, I must congratulate you for the zeal with which you pursued the objective of representing your constituency in the federal house of representatives. Your determination is commendable and expected. Your graceful acceptance of the outcome deserves praise. On the issue of resources for politics, it is a worthwhile debate. However, the entire process of liberal politics is against radical and progressive ethos. Decency, honour and integrity prevent access and accumulation of a huge wealth for such projects. The alternative is a long involvement, participation and engagement with the people either in a liberal progressive party or radical revolutionary party. Time and effective mobilization will compensate for the huge resources required for a short time work, unless there are sponsors. You have started very well. I can only wish you greater success in the future.”
I have already pledged not to quit. Given that a revolutionary party is not an option for now, the need to get progressives in effective numbers into government leaves us with the burning question of money. Thinking out loud, here is an idea worth considering. I believe that the time has come for a “liberal” think-tank or foundation, some organisation outside the shadow of the (progressive) political party, that would combine ideas for positive electioneering and governance with year-round fund-raising for political action towards electing “good people” into office at all levels — local, state and federal. Such a foundation, served by a visionary and unimpeachable governing board, would deploy funds to vulnerable but patriotic individuals right from the primaries stage.
While this cannot eliminate the basic problem of liberal politics that Aregbesola highlights, it would ameliorate substantially the perennial failure of progressives at the polling booth. But first, we as a people must change the default stance of alienation and cynicism towards government and the people who offer themselves for service. This attitude prevents many who are in a position to offer financial help to good candidates from doing so, some even saying without a sense of irony that they would help only after the aspirant has won the primary election. It is like pledging to underwrite an orphan’s university education but not offering a kobo to see him or her through primary school!
Moreover, the dilemma will not be fully dealt with if progressive parties do not insist on disciplined and credible leaders, especially at the state and local government levels. Or if they do not embark on massive re-orientation campaigns to change the poverty-induced consciousness of the masses who, conditioned to believe that serving and would-be politicians will only serve themselves, demand their “dividends of democracy” before voting. Which translates as no more than N500-N1000 in many instances. The Nigerian voter, in general (for there are exceptions), has become a pitiable victim of the cumulative dehumanising effects of our governments since independence. If we are to rescue the nation, we must first rescue the materially and mentally impoverished voter fast becoming his or her worst enemy. And as much a danger to democracy as the thieving politician.