Chester James Carville, an American political consultant, is said to have strategized for politicians in America and in not less than 23 countries in the world.
In 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for the White House, Carville worked as Clinton’s political consultant and strategist. The story of Clinton’s victory in the race for the White House would be incomplete and less comprehensible without any mention of the name Carville, and the decisive role he played as Clinton’s strategist.
When the race began incumbent President George Bush, Sr had just scored a resounding military victory in the Gulf. In a war which Bush described as “quick, massive and decisive”, Americans and their allies sent Saddam Hussein’s invading and later degraded army into disarray when the Saddam invaded Kuwait. In the summer of 1991, consequent to that victory, Bush’s approval rating was so high it nearly touched the sky.
I remember arriving the Port Authority Station in New York City on June 10, 1991, the day American troops returned from the Gulf. Every banner on the streets of New York bore patriotic words of welcome. But, by the time of electioneering campaign a few months later, the American economy was in turmoil. And, as far as American voters were concerned, military victory in the Gulf, without a strong economy, was far less than satisfactory. What was the point of degrading Saddam’s army in the Gulf if the buying power of the American at home was degraded?
Bush campaigned for reelection on the basis of his famed military and foreign policy triumph. But Carville, strategizing for Clinton, and realizing that the economy as at that time was more important for voters than foreign policy, coined a phrase with which Clinton’s campaign workers were to operate. “It’s the economy, stupid.” That phrase greeted anyone who ventured into the Clinton campaign headquarters.
If, like Carville, I was asked to coin a campaign phrase during this season of electioneering campaign in Nigeria, it would be: “It’s the constitution, stupid”. For, we are in an election season at a time Nigeria bears clearly visible and undeniable traits of a failed state. A failed state is one whose vital organs of governance—executive, legislature, judiciary, law enforcement agencies—are either unwilling or unable to function in the interest of the people. A failed state can neither secure the people nor secure the environment they need to actualise their potential. And a polity in which citizens are disabled from actualizing their potential is an undeveloped polity.
Nigeria perfectly fits into the description of a failed state. But this failure of state is itself a symptom. It is symptomatic of a degenerate constitutional arrangement. It is sad and worrisome to note, however, that not even the word “constitution” has been heard on the lips of any of the political contestants running for Aso Presidential Villa next year. Our problem is the constitution. But about it they maintain a deafening silence. Discussing it is not just about promising to have state police. It is about telling Nigerians what you, as a candidate think of this constitution, and what legislative agenda you will deploy to ensure that Nigeria attain far-reaching constitutional amendments, or a return, or a recourse to the constitution suspended by the military on January 15, 1966, using it as template for a thoroughly federal constitution capable of managing our diversity.
The 1999 constitution is dangerously deficient. It has installed a government that is too big and too powerful to the point of disempowering and crushing the citizen. Instead of a federal system, it established a central government, not a federal government. This central government crushes state governments, and state governments, in their turn, have decimated local governments, the tier of government that ought to have been used as engine room of rural development.
This constitution has established a government that is by far too big, lethargic yet expensive. It has ensured that government is itself at the service of the elite, not at the service of the average Nigerian. The only good thing about this constitution is that it prescribes a formula for the political elite on how to share the national cake among themselves to the detriment of the peoples of Nigeria who have to make do with crumbs. To continue to govern Nigeria by using this constitution is to continue to enrich the elite by impoverishing the people. That is a recipe for corruption, separatist and secessionist discontent, and insecurity
This campaign, like others before it, is being run in a diversionary manner. The real issue, the issue of the constitution, is being avoided most probably because it might be politically costly at the polls to talk about it. It certainly will offend the surviving military authors of the 1979/99 Constitution—the class of July 29, 1966—and their civilian political offspring.
In an irony of ironies, a lot is happening yet not much is happening. Instead of facing the real issue, we witness a campaign devoid of ideas about how best to run the affairs of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity called Nigeria so that national integration, a prerequisite for development, will be attained. Instead of exchanging ideas, we witness exchange of insults in a macabre competition over who has the balance of terror on the campaign trail. Deep into the heat of electioneering campaign, the political psychology of Nigeria’s political elite gives nothing to cheer.
As politicians, their supporters and their rented crowds crisscross our vast country, manifest is the misconduct of the past. To talk of past misconduct is to talk of how those who seek or pretend to seek our votes take us for granted. In arrogant self-confidence, they are certain of “victory” at the polls even without our votes. The electoral system, put in place by the same political elite, runs in such a way that the outcome does not reflect the will of the people but the will of the section of the political elite that gains the upper hand in a particular season of elections. Campaigns are not run to engage the people but to deceive them.
In previous elections, we have had candidates who dodged televised debates. It happened in 1999 just as it happened in 2003, it happened in 2007 and in 2011, in 2015 and in 2019. It has happened again in 2022. It is an indication that some candidates for public office take the electorate for granted, an indication that the votes of Nigerians don’t count after all said and done. The outcome of elections is very rarely decided by the people. Politicians carry on as if they owned Nigeria. They feel so confident in their ability to “win” the election without the humility of applicants who apply for a job. They carry on with a sense of entitlement.
A televised debate or town hall meeting of political aspirants is a job interview. Candidates ought to explain to us why we are, by our votes, to give them the job. But if they believe they already have the job, because they believe they can get “elected” without our votes, they will snub those who await them at such town hall meetings.
A citizen who asks for our votes is an applicant for the office to which he aspires. If you apply for a job, do you fail to attend the job interview as some of our aspirants to public office do? Why should you be given a job if, instead of going for the interview, you send someone to represent you? And, if you attend but cannot provide adequate answers to questions, why should you be given the job? The last question is asked because it is one thing to attend an interview, it is another to provide adequate answers to questions thrown at you at the interview.
There is an aversion for reasoned discourse in Nigeria. It is not only found among our politicians, it is found among the rest of us, among we the voters. That is why, as any careful observer can see, in this campaign season, we are not discussing ideas. We are not discussing how best to run the affairs of Nigeria. We are, instead, marching and dancing, sharing money and aso ebi, garri, oil, salt and insult.
Political aspirants misbehave in public and resort to sophistry and subterfuge to justify their patent misconduct. Is this how we want to build a future for our country? Is this the land we want to bequeath to our children and to generations yet unborn? For how long shall we continue with this ambiguous adventure of politics without morality?
Lest we forget. Politics, rightly understood, is an ethical project. For the sake of the common good, before you cast your vote for any candidate, ask the candidate three fundamental questions: Going by your antecedents, what values do you stand for? What is motivating you to run for public office? Why should the voter believe you are the most suitable for the job?
© Father (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, OP, was pioneer Vice-Chancellor of Dominican University, Ibadan, Nigeria