Sunday, April 14, 2024

(BACKPAGE) Tinubu and the urgent challenge of national healing


In a swift response to his victory at the Supreme Court on Thursday, President Bola Tinubu expressed, among others, a renewed commitment to serve all Nigerians irrespective of their political persuasions and electoral preferences. These are necessary and reassuring words. But the taste of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Tinubu’s words and expressed commitments will be severely tested in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Given the peculiar temper of the 2023 presidential election, it can safely be projected that the unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court will not be enough for the political class and the electorate to unanimously draw the curtain on the fiercely and bitterly contested poll.

Some of the voters are likely to continue to contest Tinubu’s victory, his legitimacy and his qualification for the office. For various reasons, including early and consistent positioning for the next election, some of his main opponents will probably ramp up their campaign against him, and with their ardent supporters in tow, heckle and taunt him at every turn, and even make inflammatory statements.

If Tinubu expects a respite after the Supreme Court verdict, he is not likely to get any. Here’s where the test sneaks in.

Tinubu may be tempted to respond in two ways: one, lapse into a triumphalist mode; and two, return the favour, not just with words, but with the full weight of the state. He should strongly resist both temptations.

Succumbing to these temptations will put the country in a perpetual campaign mode, generate needless heat and distractions, deepen bitterness, undermine freedoms, and lead to work avoidance.

There is work to do. Plenty. And there is little or no time.

And the main work of the moment is that of national healing. Tinubu needs to consciously pursue a programme of genuine national reconciliation. It should be said upfront that no matter what he does, he will not necessarily win everyone over. He should come to terms with the fact that some people will never accept him as their president and some can never stand his person and politics. But this should not stop him from trying, and trying with all sincerity.

Today’s Nigeria is a country crying for healing. Our country is at present more divided than probably at any other point of its history, save for possibly the civil war and the June 12 eras. The principal task of reconciling the country with itself lies with the man at the helm.

One oft-quoted indicator of the growing division in the country is that almost two-thirds of those who voted in the 2023 presidential election did not vote for President Tinubu or any of his two main opponents. But while this level of competition is alien to the Fourth Republic, it is not entirely unprecedented in our experiment with presidentialism.

The 1979 presidential poll, our first, was actually more competitive, with the winning candidate securing only 33.77% of the votes cast and the other four candidates who participated in the election garnering 29.18%, 16.75%, 10.28% and 10.01% respectively. However, the major difference between 1979 and 2023 was the extent to which regions, ethnicity, religion and individual/group entitlements were crudely, openly and dangerously mobilised by the leading candidates for political gain during the 2023 election cycle.

For the sake of clarity, I want to underscore that ethnicity, religion and regions featured in the 1979 presidential election too. The three leading candidates represented the three of the four regions of the 1960s and the three major ethnic groups of the country (Alhaji Shehu Shagari, old Northern Region/Hausa-Fulani; Chief Obafemi Awolowo, old Western Region/Yoruba; and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, old Eastern Region/Igbo).

Two of the leading parties in 1979 presented same-faith tickets (Azikiwe/Professor Ishaya Audu for NPP and Awolowo/Chief Philip Umeadi for UPN) and one party actually presented a same faith and same-section combo (Awo and Umeadi were both Christians and both from the southern part of the country).

“He needs to proactively reach out and provide credible reassurance, not just with comforting words but through concrete deeds”

But these ordinarily combustible identity markers didn’t generate as much political heat or produce as much resonance with significant segments of the electorate in 1979 as they did with some voters 44 years later.

To be sure, Awo and Zik enjoyed comprehensive home support in 1979 but Shagari of NPN was able to nick the presidency largely on the basis of the political spread of his party, even when he had to share sizeable portion of the north with two other strong northern candidates (Mallam Aminu Kano of PRP and Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of GNPP who, respectively, polled 10.28% and 10.01% of the total votes across the country).

After taking account of some positive outliers like youth, elite and urban revolt against the establishment, the 2023 electoral map is largely a religious/ethnic one. The dark imprints of the following divisive tropes cannot be missed on the eventual outcome: ‘It is my turn’; ‘It is our turn’; ‘Your own is your own’; ‘Two Muslims are better than one’; ‘He is the candidate of the Church.’ Let’s be clear: these dangerous narratives did not create the growing cleavage in Nigeria. But they built on what already existed, amplifying and aggravating our national fault lines, and siring after-shocks that further threaten inter-group relations and put the projects of democracy and development in harm’s way.

Given how the election played out, whoever had emerged as the president out of the top three candidates would have had to deal, in different ways, with the negative legacies of the underhand campaigns of 2023.

Having been declared the president by the electoral commission and the courts, Tinubu (who, by the way, cannot successfully feign ignorance of or claim innocence in the deployment of divisive rhetoric and tactics to get to power) has the responsibility not only to fix this growing problem but also to prioritise it as the first order of business.

To be sure, there are other pressing challenges. For one, the economy has been south-bound, with negative implications for businesses, livelihoods, employment, productivity and poverty. It is not in doubt that Tinubu inherited an economy headed for a crash but was unsustainably propped up with high debts, artificial reserves, deceptive subsidies and unrealistic exchange rates.

However, Tinubu’s two signature interventions—petrol subsidy removal and floatation of the Naira—have introduced two devastating shocks in rapid succession. It is clear that he and his team didn’t get the memo about the imperative of pacing reforms.

A majority of Nigerians, especially the poor, are currently reeling not just from the impacts of high petrol prices but also from the constant yo-yoing of the Naira, and the corresponding and almost daily spikes in prices.

According to NBS figures, headline inflation and food inflation were 26.72% and 30.64% respectively in September 2023—and both are projected to rise even further.

The only upside so far is the increase in government revenue, which is more likely to go into funding the profligacy of tone-deaf officials across the arms and tiers of government than in providing immediate relief to the hurting populace. The two reforms are now at risk. More and more Nigerians get pushed into and locked in the tunnel of penury.

Equally important, terrorists and sundry criminals have not stopped robbing, kidnapping, maiming and killing Nigerians across the country. The frequency and the magnitude might have reduced, but insecurity is still a major national challenge. We are still dealing with generalised insecurity, as every zone of the country is wrestling with one form of insecurity or the other. And insecurity imposes a grave cost on prices of goods, especially food, and on the quality of life and on life itself.

Addressing the economic meltdown and taming insecurity deserve all of the attention of the Tinubu administration. But focusing intensely on these two should not be at the expense of the equally important task of national reconciliation. Nigeria cannot make much progress without meaningfully addressing its growing division. The good book tells us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This remains a truism. Pursuing good governance and advancing healing are not mutually exclusive. In actual fact, the latter reinforces the former.

It is important to look at both the immediate and remote causes of growing alienation in the country and to think about what should be done in terms of symbolism and substance within different timeframes, especially in the immediate.

In prioritising this stream of work, it will be necessary to acknowledge that diversity and difference are not the problem. The problem is at two levels: one, the mismanagement of diversity; and two, the twinning of identities with opportunities. It is the mismanagement and the twinning that fuel alienation, and make difference politically mobilizable and potentially destructive. We need to deepen a sense of inclusion in our country and we need to ensure that some of our citizens stop feeling that they cannot realise their potentials and aspirations merely because of where they hail from and the God they worship.

It is also important to expand our conception of exclusion beyond just the ethnic, regional and religious. We need to incorporate the generational and gender dimensions as well. And lastly, Tinubu needs to address how some of his actions and inactions in the last five months, especially his obviously lopsided appointments, have further reinforced the growing sense of alienation in some parts of the country and among some demographic groups.

He needs to make amends. He needs to proactively reach out and provide credible reassurance, not just with comforting words but through concrete deeds. He needs to make meaningful concessions. He needs to initiate reforms aimed at furthering the cause of national accommodation and healing.

He should not do these for political purposes or as a favour or to buy respite from his fiercest critics and implacable opponents. He should undertake this course of actions because they are the right things to do and the balm that Nigeria direly needs now. The commander-in-chief is also the healer-in-chief. This is where Tinubu’s expressed commitment to be the president of all Nigerians, irrespective of what they think of him or how they voted, will be critically tested. Will he pass the test?

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